Squaring the Circle
Writing The Survival of the Princes in the Tower was an enormously enjoyable project. The book, due out in Autumn 2017, considers the evidence that one, or both, of the sons of Edward IV survived well beyond 1483, when they are traditionally considered to have been murdered by their uncle Richard III. My problem with this almost universally accepted view has always boiled down to one irreconcilable dichotomy. Richard, we are told by writers from Sir Thomas More onwards, killed his nephews to secure his throne and prevent them from being a threat. Then, he kept it secret, so that no one knew they were dead. The fatal flaw in this argument is that unless Richard publicised the deaths of his nephews, the threat did not go away, as Henry VII would find out. If Richard killed them, he did it to prevent them being used as a threat, but unless he made it widely known that they were dead, they did not cease being a potential source of opposition and so the murders were rendered utterly pointless.
If a leap of faith is taken and it is accepted for a moment that the boys were not killed, many otherwise incomprehensible events begin to make more sense. What if Elizabeth Woodville emerged from sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters in March 1484 because the Princes were not dead? Why else would she write to her oldest son Thomas and advise him to come home? Why, many will ask, is there no trace of them in the historical record? Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? It was in Richard’s and Henry VII’s interests to keep their location and maybe even their survival, particularly in Henry VII’s case, a secret, so why would records be left lying around that would point to them? What may be surprising is just how many snippets that just might hint at their survival do remain. There is nothing conclusive, of course, but the clues are there.
Part of the problem becomes the number of different version of the fates of one or both Princes that can be found. They can’t all be true. This is a particular problem in relation to the younger Prince, Richard, Duke of York. There are three theories amongst those relating to Richard that are, at least superficially, mutually exclusive. The career of the young man remembered as Perkin Warbeck is perhaps the most famous example of a pretender to Henry’s throne. It is an important distinction that a ‘pretender’ is very different from an ‘imposter’. A pretender, in this context, is a name derived from the French ‘pretendre’, ‘to claim’, whilst an imposter is a fraud claiming an identity that does not belong to them. In the same way, it is applied to James Stewart, son of James II, who is known as the Old Pretender, the term does not necessarily imply an imposture. There was never any doubt of James’ identity and the term does not infer that Perkin was an imposter either.
There are two other stories of Richard’s survival that are prominent. Jack Leslau’s theory has fascinated me for years. It is very detailed and the evidence is examined in the book, but essentially it asserts that Richard, Duke of York survived as Dr John Clement, a prominent physician and a member of Thomas More’s inner circle. If true, it means that his survival was an open secret at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII and alters More’s motives in his creation of the story of the Princes’ murder. David Baldwin’s The Lost Prince details a further theory that Richard may have survived at Colchester, where he trained as a bricklayer. A Moyle family legend tells of a bricklayer employed by Sir Thomas during the rebuilding of Eastwell Place who was caught reading a Latin book. After much cajoling, the elderly man identified himself as an illegitimate son of Richard III. He was given a plot of land on which to build a house and live out his retirement and on his death, his name was recorded in the parish register as Richard Plantagenet. Since Richard III recognised his two known illegitimate children, it has been suggested that Richard of Eastwell was, in fact, Richard, Duke of York.
These are just three of the theories, but it raises the question of how they can be reconciled to one another, even if one accepts any of them might be true. It is not impossible, though. There is intriguing evidence that Perkin might have been far more genuine than tradition allows, not least that the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella believed that he really was Richard, Duke of York. There are also contemporary suggestions that Perkin and his wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, had one child and possibly more.
What if Perkin really was Richard, Duke of York? What, then, if one of his sons was raised as Dr John Clement, an identity, based on University records, that might have been meant for his father and was simply transferred to the son? Could the bricklayer at Eastwell have been another son, who added to his age and secured a comfortable retirement with his version of the truth? This is just one possible explanation that allows three of the prominent stories of Prince Richard’s survival to exist alongside each other. There is more detail in the book, which I have no doubt will cause some waves.
One thing became clear as I was writing: All that is required to accept the survival of the Princes in the Tower is a belief that Richard III was not a reckless and disorganised enough monster to kill his nephews and then fail to see his motive realised by keeping it all a secret, that Henry VII was similarly averse to killing his brothers-in-law and possibly their young children for the love of his wife if for no other reason and that Henry VIII, at the beginning of his reign, was self-confident and assured enough to allow Plantagenet relatives to live in peace. None of these is hard to accept. Richard III did not harm Edward, Earl of Warwick or any of his other nieces and nephews. Henry VII did not execute Warwick until adulthood and only under pressure from the Spanish to complete the match between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. As for Henry VIII, the teenager was very different from the older man. He created Warwick’s sister Margaret Countess of Salisbury, paid for the education of at least one of her sons, Reginald Pole, and was close to his uncle Arthur Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Edward IV, until his paranoia ran wild.
I hope that the book will cause some to at least pause and consider the possibilities, to question why it is that there is a belief the Princes were killed at all and what it might mean if they did survive. The belief in their murders would be the ultimate propaganda victory of the Tudor era but might also have left them with a threat that lingered almost as long as the Tudors themselves did.