Polydore Vergil’s destruction of evidence.

The claim that Polydore Vergil destroyed a large amount of evidence while compiling his history is often derided. Indeed, in certain circles it is the basis of running jokes – I rather think these people think it is an allegation invented by the Richard III Society, or perhaps by ‘romantic lady novelists.’

In Jeremy Potter’s book, Good King Richard? the source of this story is identified. ‘The most serious charge was made as early as 1574 by John Caius of Cambridge, who vouched for the fact – which he boldly claimed to be a matter of certain truth – that Polydore Vergil had committed to the flames as many ancient manuscripts as would have filled a wagon, in order that the faults in his history might not be discovered.’ (Good King Richard? p.101).

Who was John Caius? Born in Norwich in 1510, he was an eminent physician who served three English monarchs in that capacity. (Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.) He is considered a founder of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, as he paid for the college to be extensively restored. He remained a Catholic all his life, but there is no evidence to show that he was either a member of the Richard III Society or a romantic lady novelist.

Although Potter does not footnote his source, from the context it appears that this information came via the Victorian editor of Vergil’s work, published in 1844.


  1. Vergil wouldn’t be the first, and certainly wasn’t the last to censor things that didn’t suit. Of course he did this, otherwise there would be far more evidence of the true Richard. And if by some chance it wasn’t Vergil, then if was someone else with an equally selfish incentive.(One likes to imagine HT himself, sitting in a turret room at night, slowly holding each document to a candle flame.) But it is surely beyond doubt that someone wicked that way went! Richard was framed. Diabolically. Well, his rescue is in full flow now, and the sheer numbers of his supporters, and their ardour, will soon undo all the chicanery and sleight of hand of his foes, past and present.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The detractors will claim he was born after the fact and as such should be dismissed, which is hilarious as you could say the same thing about Thomas More.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He was not necessarily born after the fact. There is no mention of when Vergil was supposed to have burned the documents, is it? He published the first edition of Anglica Historia in 1534, with the second edition in 1446, and he only finally left England in the early 1450s.


  3. The comments by John Caius (or Keys) appear to have made as part of a dispute over which English university – Oxford or Cambridge – was the most ancient. They come from 2nd edition of his work De Antiquitate Cantabrigiensis Academiae (History of the University of Cambridge), published posthumously one year after his death in 1573. (It was originally published under the pseudonym of Londiniensis in 1568.)

    [Alfred Hiatt, The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth Century England (Toronton, 2004), especially fn. 55 to Chapter 4. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kIy0ksybMp8C&lpg=PA98&ots=EC6gIJ0E8I&dq=john%20caius%201574&pg=PA98#v=onepage&q=john%20caius%201574&f=false ]

    John Caius, the Cambridge man, was arguing against the Oxford claim put by Thomas Caius (no relation): he believed, following the medieval writers John Lydgate (d. 1451) and Nicholas Cantelupe (d. 1441), that the legendary Duke Cantaber had founded the university of Cambridge in about 373BC (Lydgate) or 27 years earlier, in 400BC (Cantelupe). According to Graham Chainey, Caius displayed “both great erudition and, for someone who was a genuine historian of Cambridge, astonishing credulity”.

    [Graham Chainey, A Literary History of Cambridge (C.U.P., 1995), pp. 3-4. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=29E8AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA4&ots=4iemiuLhau&dq=polydore%20vergil%20john%20caius&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q=polydore%20vergil%20john%20caius&f=false ]

    Polydore Vergil supported a different, later candidate as founder of Cambridge: King Sigebert of East Anglia, in 630AD, as did the antiquarian John Leland. Vergil also seems to have been drawn into the argument by John Caius to excuse weaknesses in his case, through accusing Vergil of destroying necessary evidence. This seems to be a common compliant from 16th and 17th century writers, from Leland to Caius. But in all these cases the disputes centre on ideas about the ancient history of Britain and the Church in England, not about Richard III.


    1. “But in all these cases the disputes centre on ideas about the ancient history of Britain and the Church in England, not about Richard III.”

      I don’t think that anyone argues that the dispute was about Richard III. It’s not like such a dispute was remotely likely to arise in 1574, is it?

      I think the argument is that, if Vergil destroyed evidence, or was believed to have destroyed evidence, to cover up inaccuracies in his work, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could have also destroyed other evidence that were contrary to his other claims.

      Liked by 1 person

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