When we buy a non-fiction book (in our case usually something to do with Richard III and the medieval period) we anticipate its arrival with some relish. This is how I felt when, after reading many praises for Peter Ackroyd’s History of England, I decided to buy Volume I online.
It arrived this morning, and I leafed eagerly through the pages, to get a feel of it before reading it properly…but when I came to Illustration 49 (of 51) it was an image of Richard III from the Rous Roll – just him, taken from the image above. Then I read the caption: “Richard III standing on a white boar; the white boar was his personal badge or ‘livery badge’. It may derive from the Latin name of York, Eboracum, since he was known as Richard of York.”
Um…oh no he wasn’t, Mr Ackroyd. His father was Richard of York, and so was his nephew, Richard of Shrewsbury, who was created Duke of York and became one of the boys in the Tower. Richard was always Richard of Gloucester, and then Richard III.
As you can imagine, my heart sank and my hackles began to rise as I sensed that I’d purchased a real turkey. I have indeed, because Peter Ackroyd goes on to relate in full the version of events according to the Sainted More, strawberries, withered arm and all. The murder of the boys in the Tower is taken for granted, but the possibility of Henry VII being responsible is “essentially a fancy”. Oh, right. Why, may I ask? Because his tricky, grasping, dishonest hands were suddenly lily-white? No, according to Ackroyd: “There can be little doubt that the two boys were murdered on the express or implicit order of Richard III.” Clearly this author has inside information that has been hidden from everyone else.
And there’s more: “There had been usurpers before, wading through gore, but Richard III was the first usurper who had not taken the precaution of winning a military victory; he claimed the crown through the clandestine killing of two boys rather than through might on the battlefield.” Really? Methinks Mr Ackroyd is too accustomed to composing eyecatching blurbs!
And Richard “set up a ‘council in the north’ to consolidate his power in that region. Excuse me? Richard was consolidating his own power? Um, where was Edward IV while all this was going on? Or was Richard now ‘king of the north’, and a law unto himself?
And Richard contemplated marrying Elizabeth of York…at least, he would have done if he’d been able to get away with it. No mention at all of the important Portuguese negotiation for both his own marriage and that of his niece. Indeed no, the only reason Richard didn’t rush her to the marriage bed was because he would not have been “able to marry the girl whose brothers he had destroyed”.
Polydore Vergil “states that Richard III was now ’vexed, wrested and tormented in mind with fear almost perpetually’.” In fact, Ackroyd is prepared to judge Richard solely on the traditional stories, which were (sorry to repeat it again) the work of the victor at Bosworth, in whose interest it was to blacken Richard’s name and memory as much as he possibly could. Henry VII was surely the best spreader of fake news in history!
Oh, and Richard was “buried without ceremony in a stone coffin. The coffin was later used as a horse trough and the bones scattered”. Really? No wonder Ackroyd thinks Henry VII was the best thing for England, they share a liking for telling stories!
The copyright for this abominable work of fiction is 2011. Oh, dear, a year later and Richard himself was able to refute claims of hideous deformity and being chucked in the Soar (Ackroyd missed that one, by the way.)
There are many other points in this book with which anyone of common sense will disagree. Those who have really studied Richard III, will know that he has indeed been cruelly maligned by history. He did not do all those things of which he was accused…and if he had Hastings executed without delay, you can bet your bottom dollar it was for a damned good reason. Richard didn’t execute people left, right and centre…there are quite a few he should have topped, but he was lenient! Which makes him a black-hearted, villainous monster, of course.
Anyway, I regret being swayed into buying this book. It is nothing but traditionalist garbage! I hardly dare turn its pages to my other favourite king, Richard II. No doubt Henry Bolingbroke gets the laurels and is patted on the head for having that other Richard murdered. Ah, but that’s different. It was OK to kill Richard II. So, in 1399 there was a Richard usurped by a Lancastrian Henry, and then another such thieving Lancastrian Henry happened along in 1485. Neither of the Richards (both married to Annes, by the way) usurped anything, but they both get the blame for everything.
I’ve decided to have a little go at some YouTube stuff. My first foray is a breakdown of my Top 10 problems with Sir Thomas More’s story of Richard III. It’s so full of problems that I’m left dismayed that academic historians I speak to still insist on relying on More’s evidence even today. There is a lingering insistence that More was a contemporary source, or at least had the chance to speak to witnesses so that he’s as good as primary material.
In truth, More was 7 during the events of 1485 and wrote 30 years later. He can’t possibly have remembered the complex political events of 1483 with clarity, or have been witness to any of the moments he describes in excruciating detail. Anyone he spoke to in Henry VIII’s England had reason to distance themselves from Richard III and his reign. Richard was already the monster from which the Tudors had rescued England. Who would have been brave enough to offer a different narrative?
I also think More, like Shakespeare, was never writing history in the way that we would recognise it – as a literal, factual retelling of events. He wrote allegory, a humanist exercise in moral tales veiled behind a convenient trope. More wrote about murderous tyranny and the dangers it posed, both to the kingdom and the king who indulged in it. In the years just after Henry VIII’s accession, when he had executed Empson and Dudley for following his father’s instructions, who might More have been really writing about? He could hardly name the king and risk his wrath. Richard offered a convenient front for what More had to say. Like Shakespeare, it has been wrongly accepted as the truth.
What else is wrong with More’s Richard III? Plenty. My top 10 problems are outlined here.
“….[executed in the Tower of London was] William Hastings, who tried to support the claims of Edward VI [sic] children to the throne in 1483….”
The above is a quote from this link – which contains boo-boos, as you can see from my quote. Well, was that why Hastings was executed? For trying to support the claims of Edward IV’s children, not those of the precocious Edward VI, who died at fifteen? Let’s be honest, no one really knows what Hastings did to warrant swift trial, sentence and execution, so such a broad statement is a little OTT, although the crime must have been pretty serious. Despite the history as claimed by traditionalists, Richard III was not a man to react in such a way lightly. His record of head-lopping was relatively small, unlike many other kings, who notched up quite a total in just as short a time. Nor was Richard the sort of man who would gladly murder his brother’s children, of that I feel certain. So why does he get all the opprobrium?
Forget the heartstring-plucking story of the boys in the Tower. No one knows what happened to them – certainly not that Richard had them exterminated in their beds.
There were may reasons why Hastings might plot against Richard, and one (in my opinion) was the realisation that in Richard’s reign he, Hastings, wouldn’t enjoy anywhere near the same position and influence as he had in Edward IV’s. The Hastings nose was out of joint, perchance?
He might also have known about Edward IV’s pre-contract with Lady Eleanor Talbot…which was what made Edward’s sons and daughter illegitimate and led to Richard ascending the throne. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be Richard who wanted him out of the way. Indeed, Richard would be one of the last people to sweep him into eternity. Step forward any number of Woodvilles, who wanted to be back in power and couldn’t be if someone could prove there’d been a pre-contract.
There’s also the possibility that supporters of Henry Tudor wouldn’t want Hastings around if he knew about the pre-contract. Very inconvenient when Henry pledged to marry Elizabeth of York and unite England’s warring Houses of York and Lancaster. Well, that was his noble claim, of course. In fact he resented having to marry her and just had a fancy to usurp the throne. He had to legitimise her and her siblings, and thus her missing brothers, giving them a much better claim to the throne than his own.
Hmm, Hastings was therefore an exceedingly inconvenient presence if he could somehow prove she was definitely illegitimate – um, not that Henry’s family history erred on the side of legitimacy, come to think of it. They may have been legitimised by Richard II and confirmed as such by Henry IV, but the latter also made a point of barring them from the throne. Henry VII’s blood claim was therefore very washy, and he relied upon conquest to justify his usurpation. Having to marry Elizabeth in order to satisfy the strong Yorkist element among his nobility must have stuck in his craw.
That’s not to say the ensuing marriage did not become a happy one, but I doubt very much if it started out that way. It wouldn’t have started out at all if Hastings had put his oar in and strengthened Richard’s case. With him vouching for the existence of a pre-contract, far more wavering Yorkists would have accepted in 1483 that Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward IV’s last remaining brother, was indeed the rightful occupant of England’s throne.
So, we have the Woodvilles and Henry VII as Hastings’ likely enemies. Who knows what “horrible plot” they may have cooked up and seen that Richard heard about it? That he believed Hastings was scheming against him is quite clear. He thought/accepted that his own life was in danger because of whatever it was Hastings was supposedly up to. Only a fool would do nothing about it, and stand idly by until the Grim Reaper struck. But contrary to traditionalist insistence, Hastings was not hauled out immediately and executed over a tree trunk or whatever. There was a trial, conviction and sentence.
No doubt many of you will not agree with my reasoning, but it’s what I genuinely think.
Yes, of course the Tudors dismissed the fact that Eleanor Talbot (Butler) was Edward IV’s first wife. Well, only wife, as it happens, because she was still alive when he “married” Elizabeth Woodville, whom he never did wed legally. In law, she was little more than a glorified mistress, and as a consequence, all the children she bore to Edward were illegitimate. So the usurper Henry VII pretended Eleanor had barely existed, let alone had married Edward IV.
It mattered to him because he wanted to marry Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. Ostensibly to unite the warring Houses of York and Lancaster; in reality to give himself some credibility. It was all very well to claim the throne through conquest, but knew his hold on the throne was very shaky. Elizabeth of York was rather necessary to him, and the sooner she could produce an heir, the better for Henry!
But he couldn’t marry a bastard. So he overturned Richard III’s legitimate right to the throne, declared Elizabeth trueborn, married her and gave us the delightful Henry VIII. Thank you very much. But, of course, by making her trueborn, he also did the same to her two brothers, whose claim to the throne immediately became far superior to his own. Oh, dear. Poor Henry. What a dilemma. The result was that he was hounded throughout his reign by the fear that one or other of these Plantagenet “princes” would come to take the crown from him. My heart breaks for him,. Natch.
If you go to this article you can read an explanation of what happened. It doesn’t do Richard III any favours, of course, but then that’s par for the course! Always the slight nudge into the rough or the bunker. Never the hole in one he so rightly merited. Here’s a sample:
“…. Eleanor never claimed a crown for herself but as the Wars of the Roses raged to their bloody end at Bosworth Field, she became a central figure in the path to the throne. She was actually already dead by the time her name was passed through parliament in the fight for the right to rule but the fact that she had ever lived at all was a vital part of the hold that Richard III had on the title of King of England following the death of his brother, Edward IV, in 1483…..”
Fight for the right to rule? Um, read the Woodvilles trying to seize power and get rid of Richard of Gloucester, Edward IV’s only surviving brother. A vital part of the hold Richard III had….? If Eleanor and Edward IV were married, which clearly they were because the Three Estates believed in it sufficiiently to beg him to become king, Richard was the rightful heir to the throne. It wasn’t a case of his having a “hold” on being King of England, he WAS the King of England. Rightfully. Lawfully. By blood. Even by invitation, because everyone wanted Richard to wear the crown, except the Woodvilles and some of Edward’s old buddies, who feared a loss of influence. If the traditionalists can’t swallow this fact, then they’re even more blinkered than I thought.
Oh, and BTW, the above illustration seems to be solely of Henry VIII and his offspring. There is no sign of Old Miseryguts VII, not even a portrait on the wall. What an oversight. After all, he was the Tudor who made sure Eleanor’s marriage to Edward IV was ignored. Henry VIII and his children owed their thrones to his sleight of hand and devious brain. And the treacherous support of the Stanleys at Bosworth.
This is a six-part series, first shown on “Yesterday” (a UKTV channel) in 2015 but is available to view on their website here. The producers used pathologists, coroners, historians, barristers and other writers to form their conclusions, some of which are more reliable than others.
The first episode, which surely misses the mediaeval timescale, is that of Christopher Marlowe, stabbed in a Deptford tavern in 1593: in self-defence, a brawl or a targeted assassination? Marlowe’s possible involvement with heresy or espionage, Raleigh or Cecil is investigated in depth. The riddle of Edward II‘s fate at Berkeley Castle is tackled next – could he really have died by poker or suffocation or could he have escaped? Their conclusion points in the latter direction, although the current Berkeley heir leans towards the ultra-traditional legend.
The third show is about Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey and nephew of John, who seems to have been disposed of in a particularly grisly manner in Brittany – blinding and castrating, either of which could have been fatal through shock. Several Byzantine Emperors, from 800 onwards, had been blinded, to prevent them from ruling effectively and castration would prevent him from reproducing, although death would not necessarily be intended. The fourth, again un-mediaeval, case covered Amy Robsart’s fall down a staircase at Cumnor, Oxfordshire after sending her servants away – accident, suicide, murder to free her husband Dudley to marry Elizabeth I, murder to stop him from ever marrying Elizabeth? Both suicide and murder are less probable, as the pathologist argued, because Amy might have survived as an invalid for a few years and remembered her assailant if there was one. There was no mention of the cancer I have heard, elsewhere, that she suffered from, although the staircase is the series emblem.
Inevitably, the “Princes” feature, in part five. Sadly, as with Edward II, many of the “experts” may understand their own professions well but seem not to appreciate the level of “Tudor” propaganda and have not approached the case with open minds, which skewed their conclusion against the high probability of one or both being sent to Burgundy. The final case was that of Juan (Giovanni) Borgia, the acknowledged son of a Pope (Alexander VI), who was definitely murdered and dumped in the Tiber – but as a random victim, by his brother Gioffre, the Orsini family or someone else? An Orsini had just died in a Papal prison.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I was never really that interested in Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III. In school I had avoided the Anglo-Saxons like the plague, and Richard, well, perhaps like a round of the flu. He wasn’t quite as intimidating, despite the double-murder allegation lodged, and I got away with not having to write about him once my father, who was big on essays, unearthed a book about the famous American swamp fox. Not that it was easy to outsmart my dad; there was just so much history to know and he loved imparting it. In fact, he adored learning of most kinds, and almost every time I saw him he had a book in one hand, cup of tea in the other. Every weekday morning before work he would sit at the dining room table for about two hours, enjoying his study in the quiet atmosphere between night and day. He read almost anything he could get his hands on, with the notable exception of Shakespeare, of whom he was not a huge fan, though he never said why.
By the time I reached university I’d managed to evade Richard a few more times (and those fearsome Anglo-Saxons!), despite his seeming determination to capture my attention. I had to capitulate a bit when Shakespeare (him again) showed up in his own required course. I quite liked his poetry and how he played with language, but frankly didn’t care about star-crossed lovers (everyone read that in high school), a brooding Danish prince (that one too) or evil kings who seemed to be a dime a dozen. And the evil king who repeatedly crossed my path was none other than – you guessed it, Richard III.
I had to read Richard III three times because the professor, who in my opinion was quite brilliant but mystifyingly static in his forward movement, could present it in his sleep. So we read it in two regular lit classes and then in Shakepeare, in which our fearless leader liked to occasionally take on the parts of people he was teaching about. He had a larger audience here, and the more sizable lecture area gave him the space to move around as he caricatured his way through Richard’s role and the frequent trivia he was fond of. At the end of the semester I was appalled to discover that not only did 75% of our grade rest on a ten-question quiz, but also the questions had little to do with, say, history, critical theory or literary devices. A representative sample’s answer was, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” I wasn’t a snobbish student, but did possess the expectation I be delivered the education I was paying for, not a bunch of trivia and phrases repeated so often, here and elsewhere, that they became cliché.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was in equal parts driven away from all talk of Richard III and hauled back to him by the frustration of knowing that even I considered the standard presentation tiresome. Students way more brilliant than myself repeated the stock phrases, though, and I felt like shaking them as I cried out, “Wake up, man! I want to read King Lear and Huntingdon won’t teach it!” My actual response consisted of acquiring a fish (the only pet I could get away with) and calling it Richard, as if that somehow revenged a king, allowing him to be something besides the pitiful stock bad man. I was irked, perhaps even irritated, but not yet inspired.
At the time I knew nothing of the Richard III Society and wouldn’t for some years, for after I graduated, my poor fish had been given last rites and I was just so relieved to have passed statistics and survived senior year burnout. But, as the universe seemed to want to have it, Richard came up in casual conversation, at this point two years before the discovery of his remains in a parking lot. I admitted I really knew very little of the man I’d previously complained kept coming, uninvited, into my life, and determined I’d remedy that. The universe, being as accommodating as it so often is, arranged for a car crash that left me immobile for an extended period, which in turn provided for quite a lot of reading time to fill.
I started with Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower. It had a fairly beckoning cover and I really had no idea of any given book on this topic to another. Mainly I was looking for details. My intention was, quite simply: read one and be done with it. And so it began. Here was an account that claimed to have studied the case of the missing princes, one heir to the throne, both rumored to have been murdered by their “usurper” uncle, King Richard III, the bodies of the two “pale, innocent, bewildered boys” never found.
It didn’t initially strike me as odd that Weir would contradict herself—on the same page of her preface, no less—with two opposing statements of direction: “The historian’s job is to weigh the evidence available, however slender and circumstantial” and “We are dealing here with facts, not just speculation or theories.” In all honesty, I was unaccustomed to reading like an historian; instead I read for elements such as repetition, privileged position, arcs and development. Still, my literary training had served me well—even including the aforementioned professor, who really did have good reason to be on staff; the pince-nez and dressing gown during office hours was an added bonus—and I began to wonder that perhaps historical writing really does have much in common with literary.
For example, Weir’s placement of Image 15 of the insert photos: One of, if not the most biased image in the insert collection, is a picture of two child-sized skeletons, discovered nearly two centuries after the princes’ disappearance. It is cleverly shadowed with near-opposing black and white shading that easily grabs the eye. Set in the page’s upper left corner, its positioning exploits our societal left-to-right reading direction as well as the “above-the-fold” tendency book browsers often engage when skimming though potential purchases. Its caption reads: “The remains found in 1674: ‘They were small bones of lads in their teens, fully recognised to be the bones of those two Princes’ (Eye-witness report, 1674; Archaeologia).”
Should the casual observer take the time to scan the rest of the page, the two remaining images—one of the urn in which the skeletal bones now rest, another of the exhumed skull of the princes’ eight-year-old relative Anne Mowbray—each play their role in telling the story the author wants readers to believe. Anne’s stark and startling skull, shown in a fairly large photo at bottom, plays on reader emotion with the mouth in its characteristic gaping position, not unlike a scream. It is included, positioned and designed to evoke pity, for both the untimely death of this little girl as well as the boys she was once close to. Of this Weir writes: “The skull of Anne Mowbray: York’s [the younger prince, Richard, Duke of York] child-bride and the Princes’ cousin, exhumed in 1964. Dental evidence indicates a familial relationship between her bones and those in the urn.”
The urn image is somewhat sympathetic, but rather generic and positioned to the right, closer to the book’s binding. Still, it has its role in this page-long tale, with its insinuation of finality. These bones are those of the boys, Anne’s remains prove it, end of story. Three statements, three images, we’re done here. A would-be consumer who saw even only the most privileged photo (the skeletons) before placing the book back on the shelf stands a high chance of walking away believing these were indeed the missing princes—a question not even entertained on the page discussed—and with Weir’s use of the word “murder” and the accusation against Richard in the jacket blurb, we’re a handshake away. Actually reading the story within all three captions and the deal is sealed. I am inclined to believe that readers have been lazy in every age, but also know that Weir and her publishers are very aware of how the demand for instant gratification and disintegration of critical reading skills in our era has further influenced the formation of opinions.
A quick disclaimer here: I personally don’t begrudge Weir her manipulation of privileged position or other literary techniques; these are what make books appealing, literature fascinating and history come alive. Human forms in photos engage our minds in a way an inanimate object doesn’t. We don’t relate to an urn, especially if we don’t know this is what that image is, but we do relate to images of people who were once alive, especially if they are children. However, I do take issue with the dishonest verbiage she carefully chooses to create the impression discussed above. For instance, the caption below Image 15 doesn’t say what year the princes died, presumed to have died, or disappeared (c. 1483). Yet an “Eye-witness report” from 1674 “recognised” the bones to be those of the missing princes? Did this eyewitness dabble in alchemy in his 200 + year lifespan? And where did he obtain his forensic expertise, with which he surely would be able to differentiate this set of remains from the twelve-year-old sons of Henry VIII’s cousins, whose families ended up in the Tower of London, where the Plantagenet brothers were last seen? Are there any signs of cause of death? The name dropping of Archaeologia lends some needed credibility, as does the dental evidence that “indicates” a familial relationship amongst all three deceased. These are only some of the questions Weir understands all too many consumers won’t ask; they’ll just take her word for it because they are in a hurry, don’t care enough or it doesn’t occur to them. There probably are other reasons as well, but the end result is that many will accept the information at face value.
Still, this was an awareness I came to later in my reading of The Princes in the Tower, or actually, even after I had finished and contemplated what I’d read. I had a niggling feeling about the perceptions I’d experienced. As I moved deeper into the book, Weir seemed to become more aggressive in her voice, and in previous remembrances I thought I even recalled a bit of name calling, which might have been the initial turnoff. (I could be wrong; stay tuned for another entry addressing this.)
As I sat with my casted leg propped up one evening, I realized with a grunt of dissatisfaction that I could not let it go until I read some more. My back was healing, but at this point pained easily after short periods, and my best friend was dispatched to collect a book or two from the university library. She returned with about fifteen, one of which was, by chance, Josephine Wilkinson’s Richard: The Young King to Be. She ignored my pointed stare.
It wasn’t long before I recognized a quote in Wilkinson’s book that Weir had utilized—in part. I suppose it was my naiveté with regard to historical reading that surprised me a little as I realized Weir had cherry picked what supported her agenda and left the rest. (Here also, stay tuned for more specifics.) At this point it really began to annoy me, and I was flummoxed as to how so many people could have gushed about what a fabulous book this was when I so easily picked out inconsistencies. Actually, I’ll have to revise that a bit: I read several reviews in which the authors did criticize Weir, but dismissed her liberties because “there’s no real way to tell” or “he probably did it anyway.” I’m pretty sure none of these people or any of us would want that standard upheld at our own trials.
Unknown to me, at roughly this time, the now-late historian John Ashdown-Hill published Eleanor: The Secret Queen: The Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne. An analysis of the life of Eleanor Talbot, the woman said to have been married to Edward IV, Richard’s elder brother, before making Elizabeth Wydville his queen, the work follows a number of pathways, including those secreted in forensic dentistry. Ashdown-Hill discusses Anne Mowbray’s line of descent, an important angle given Weir’s assertion regarding the similarities between the teeth of the young bride and those of the bodies discovered in 1674, and a condition of congenitally absent teeth. The author notes that Anne Mowbray was related to the princes via a number of lines of descent, some more distant than others.
If those who have claimed that Anne Mowbray’s congenitally missing teeth prove that she was related to TL1 and 2 (and that therefore these were Edward V and Richard, Duke of York [the princes]), are correct, Anne’s dental anomaly must almost certainly have descended to her via her Neville ancestry (184-5).
Ashdown-Hill goes on to relate information about the battlefield identification of Anne’s grandfather, John Talbot, in connection to an absent left molar. This provides some evidence of the congenital condition being a Talbot trait, further leading to the speculation that if Anne did indeed inherit her dentition from her grandfather, “then those same missing teeth cannot very well be cited as evidence that TL1 and TL2 are Edward V and his brother, since the relationship of these latter to [Anne’s grandfather] was extremely remote.” Of course, it is possible John Talbot lost the tooth in some other manner and Ashdown-Hill further advises that Talbot’s remains had been disturbed several times, thus making elucidation on this point difficult (184-5).
Weir, in contrast, utilizes very little more than coincidence and contradictory information when aiming to prove that the bodies discovered in 1674 are Richard’s nephews, including the discovery to begin with. This position continues with her insistence that, apparently, only Plantagenet royalty could possibly have worn velvet, a type of material present with the bones and, given its availability timeframe, unlikely to indicate the remains were Roman, as had been suggested. She even goes on quite at length about all the experts and authors who examined the 1933 reports of Wright and Tanner, who themselves examined only an urn full of bones picked apart from those of animals (!) centuries after their initial discovery and under questionable chain of custody. Nevertheless, on all of this Weir categorically pushes the conclusion that “the evidence that the bones in the urn are those of the Princes is as conclusive as could be desired” (by whom?)(255-6).
It is easy to deduce there is much more to what I have summarized here, let alone the captions under three pictures in the middle of a book on the Bestsellers! table. As mentioned earlier, this dental information I didn’t know about when I first read Weir’s book – and she counts on that as well as the likelihood that few readers will check up on her words. The truth is, she’s right: few do follow up. For how long had my professor posited the claim that Richard III died shouting the line about the horse? How many from my class still believe this today? And this is counting just the influence of one person. Multiplied by how many readers Weir (and others) has persuaded, most of whom have very little time and/or inclination to look into what she says—some of whom, frankly, are as willing to manipulate the truth—it’s no wonder there is such widespread belief that Richard did the deed.
Of course, many people simply don’t care. At one point I was one of them. I liked history but wanted it on my own lazy terms, not having to deal with dates or the same few recycled names. Others view eras such as the Middle Ages with an attitude of “life is cheap,” which perhaps explains their willingness to allow an anointed king to be so maligned, and when looking back I found it curious that it stirred something within my being. I am, after all, an American with not a single drop of royalist blood running through my veins.
This, however, may be the because rather than the despite, thanks to our Magna Carta-inspired Constitution, the law of the land guaranteeing our rights, including those of the accused, a topic on which Richard III also had something to say. The widespread reliance upon and acceptance of misinformation to convict someone from the past bothers me for the same reason similar attitudes light a fire in me today. It doesn’t matter if someone dislikes or even hates Richard or any other political figure: Anyone who claims to value justice should be alarmed when someone is prosecuted and convicted under such inconclusive evidence, especially for the sake of bragging rights to having solved a centuries-old puzzle. This king may have lived and died over 500 years ago, but thirst for power and willingness to tyrannize others to achieve it is alive and well. Why would any tyrant stop with politicians? As we have seen throughout history, they don’t.
I had the great benefit of a father who taught me how to look a bit deeper, and though I don’t have quite the historian’s mind he did, I believed fiercely in justice. I also loved a good yarn, so followed with rapture as my father related to me tales from a variety of eras.
I only vaguely recall him telling me of Richard’s ability to fight, even something favorable about Henry VII (I used to refer to him as “the Henry after Richard the last”). His narratives often changed direction and he occasionally refused to answer questions, and at some point I understood he was teaching me to think. This surely colored my perception of Weir’s ridiculous portrayal of modern writers of Richard III as those who (a) believe the monarch guilty but too timid to admit it or (b) believe he is basically a saint (1). I also question the word “revisionist” as applied to Ricardians. It seems to me the revisionism began full force August 22, 1485, with the backdating of Henry Tudor’s reign to the 21.
I also grew up with a Scottish mother who never let me forget the Stuarts; at some points my eyes simply glazed over, and it all probably contributed to my lazy childhood approach toward history, despite my love of its people. This laissez-faire attitude extended to Richard, and for most of my life I didn’t care enough about him to have an opinion on his culpability. Interestingly, it was his detractors who chipped away at this armor as they repeated ad nauseum their claims, much of which was rank hypocrisy or projection. This entry has focused on one who chose as her work’s epigraph a Shakespeare quote that illustrates both, which reads in part: “Insulting tyranny begins to jet” (Richard III, Act II, Scene IV). Here Elizabeth Wydville wigs out over fears for her family, Shakespeare conveniently ignoring her role in all of this, as does Weir. (Talk about revisionism!)
There have since been others, but Alison Weir ended up accomplishing, in my case, the opposite of her intention in that I found her scholarship to be suspect, so I looked into it; what I came to believe through further reading and discussion was that Richard III, while certainly no saint, cannot justly be convicted of a double murder on the evidence she presents. That she has to go into stealth mode and employ manipulation, insults and overreach says much more about her than it ever could about King Richard III.
Despite Weir’s preface statement that “it is unlikely the truth of the matter will ever be confirmed by better evidence than we already have,” since the 2012 discovery of the king’s remains in a parking lot, more of consequence has been learned. For example, the Shakespearean depiction of Richard as a hunchback is in fact the propaganda it has long been characterized as. Rather, the king suffered from scoliosis, resulting in a sideways, spiraling twist to his spine, as discussed in a 2014 press release from the University of Leicester, a deformity not immediately visible to those encountering him. The hunchback myth traces back to Thomas More, on information from John Morton, Bishop of Ely, instrumental in Henry Tudor’s seizure of the throne. (This alone makes their party line suspect.) Owing to this accomplishment, Tudor historians, and not Plantagenet, were the ones relating the history. As my father drilled into my mind many times, and we have all heard in history class, the winner writes the story.
Shakespeare strove to be part of that winning group, though doing it for Elizabeth I, Henry Tudor’s granddaughter, over one hundred years after the fact, illustrating the reality that low-information readers (playgoers) existed long before the rampant misinformation pushers of our own time. Granted, we are often over-saturated with details, but this also gives us advantage in having the ability to track down more than ever before, even from places far removed from a small corner of England, within which one king and his men fought within the loyalty to which they were bound, and so became we.
Ashdown-Hill, John. Eleanor, the Secret Queen: The Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne. Stroud: History Press, 2010.
Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. United States: Ballantine, 1992.
All images courtesy Wikimedia unless otherwise noted. Click any image for more details and, if any, annotations.
This Sun article, which originally confused Richard’s Leicester with Henry I’s Reading, lists what they consider to be Britain’s top burial sites, although there is no detail on the supposed “Princes” in that urn, especially now that there is evidence to test the remains.
Are there any others you might have included?
Here is the second in my series of Top 10’s. This one is focussing on Dominic Mancini’s account of the events of 1483. It’s a hugely problematical source, both in terms of Mancini himself, who spoke no English, had no grasp of English politics and very limited sources, and in terms of the current translation in use which often chooses weighted words to make Mancini’s account darker.
It’s a negative source, without a doubt, written for a French audience hostile to England and Richard III and gripped by their own minority succession crisis, but it’s also misused and misunderstood. Mancini explains that he has had his arm twisted by Angelo Cato to write the account, which he had not wished to commit to paper. Cato worked at the French court, so had his own agenda is seeking to make Richard and his England seem like a land of murderous monsters.
More than this, Mancini admits, when complaining about being brow beaten into writing his account, that he knows almost nothing for certain. He wrote ‘I indeed decided that I ought not to expatiate so freely in writing as in talking, for, although on your account I did not shrink from pains, yet I had not sufficiently ascertained the names of those to be described, the intervals of time, and the secret designs of men in this whole affair.’ He adds ‘Wherefore you should not expect from me the names of individual men and places, nor that this account should be complete in all details; rather shall it resemble the effigy of a man, which lacks some of the limbs, and yet a beholder delineates for himself a man’s form.’
If Mancini had visited Torquay in the 1970’s, he might have given Manuel a run for his money.
Austin Friars today. This section of road covers part of the perimeter of the Friary. With thanks to Eric, Londonist.
Austin Friars in London, was founded about 1260 by Humphrey de Bohun 2nd Earl of Hereford and Constable of England d.1275. It was rebuilt in 1354 by Humphrey de Bohun d.1361, Humphrey’s great great grandson (keep up folks!) 6th Earl of Hereford, and Lord High Constable. The friary covered a large area, about 5 acres and had a resident population at one time of about 60 friars. It stood on the site of two earlier churches, St Olave Broad Street and St Peter le Poer, the latter was incorporated in the new church and formed the south aisle of the choir. It must have been affluent being able to afford a new steeple in 1362 to replace the one badly damaged in a storm.
However it was not without its rather scary and unpleasant incidents. In 1381 during the Peasants Revolt 13 Lombards were dragged from out of the church where they had been sheltering and lynched. in 1386 a congregation of Lollards inflamed by a sermon, given in the nearby church of St Christopher le Stocks, on the practices and privileges of Augustinian friars descended on Austin Friary. The Friary was only saved in the nick of time by the intercession of the local sheriff from being totally destroyed by the mob.
The church stood in the centre of the friary precinct. Adjoining the precinct was land that was used for rented ‘tenements’. Some of these tenements must have been fairly grand as the tenants included notables such as Erasmus (who complained about the quality of the wine and left without paying his bill), Eustace Chapuys and none other than Thomas Cromwell. Oh the irony…Thomas living cheek by jowel with one of the religious orders he so despised. Anyway – as Cromwell rose to fame and fortune he acquired more land from the friary and built one of the largest private mansions in London. Sometimes his methods to gain more land were not entirely ethical. We know this because one of the people he rode roughshod over was none other than the father of John Stow who wrote ‘A Survey of London 1598’. We can still feel the rising of Stow’s hackles over the centuries as in writing his description of the Friary he added “on the south side and at the west end of this church many fair houses are built namely in Throgmorton Street, one very large and spacious built, in the place of old and small tenements by Thomas Cromwell. This house being finished and having some reasonable plot of ground left for a garden, he caused the pales of the gardens adjoining to the north part there off on a sudden to be taken down; twenty-two feet to be measured fourth right into the north of every man’s ground, a line there to be drawn, a trench to be cast, a foundation laid and a high brick wall to be built. My father had a garden there and a house standing close to his south pale; this house they loosed from the ground and bare upon rollers into my fathers garden twenty-two feet, ere my father herd thereof. No warning was given him, nor other answer when he spake to the surveyors of that work but that their master Sir Thomas commanded them to do so, no man durst go to argue the matter but each man lost his land and my father paid his whole rent which was six shillings and sixpence for the year for that half which was left. Thus much of my own knowledge have I thought good to note, that the sudden rising of some men causes them in some matters to forget themselves’. Really Sir Thomas! Stow born in 1525 and dying in 1605 at the grand age of 80 lived long enough to see the downfall of Cromwell. He was described as ‘ a merry old man’ and I wonder what his reaction was to the death of the man who had treated his dad so disgracefully
Austin Friars from the Copper Plate map c1550. 1. The Church. 2. Cloister. 3. Cromwell’s Mansion. 4. Gatehouse. With thanks to online Wikipedia article
Stow made a list of the illustrious people buried in the church. Among them were:
Humphrey de Bohun, rebuilder of the church in 1354 and buried there in 1361 in the quire.
Edward son of Edward the Black Prince and his wife, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent. Brother to Richard II.
Edward Stafford Duke of Buckingham executed 1521 – also in the quire
John de Vere 12 Earl of Oxford and thus son Aubrey; both executed in 1462 also in the quire
Sir William Tyrell, slain at Barnet; in the nave. Many of the notables slain at Barnet were buried here (1).
William Tyrell of Gipping executed 1462
William Collingbourne, author of the infamous doggerel, executed 1484; buried in the ‘west wing’?
Sir Roger Clifford executed 1484
Sir Thomas Cook, he who was persecuted by the Woodville. Died 1478.
Disappointingly Stow did not mention Perkin Warbeck. Perhaps he did not have a monument, Its difficult to see who would have come forward and paid for one to be made under the circumstances. W E Hampton suggests the burial site may have been in what Stow calls the ‘West Wing’ which was probably a transept. We can only speculate that if, after the many changes, upheaval, fires, bombs and rebuilding that the church has undergone, any of the remains of Warbeck and the other burials have somehow survived and remain hidden in vaults, yet to be discovered at some distant future time. Of course there always remains the miserable thought that he may have been buried outside the church in an unmarked grave. An archaeological dig was made in 1910 in the area of the cemetery but the expected human remains were never found. Had they been exhumed and disposed off long before?
John Stow author of A Survey of London Written in the year 1598. A great debt is owed to Stow in his labours of making the Survey which tells us so much about a long lost London.
In 1540 the bitch known as Karma finally caught up with Cromwell and he was executed, his great mansion seized by the crown – naturally – and sold off along with the friary precincts. Most of the precincts was demolished but Cromwell’s mansion became Drapers Hall. Drapers Hall was destroyed in the destruction that was the Great Fire of London. Rebuilt in 1667 it was once again badly damaged by fire in 1772. It was again rebuilt and later in the 19th century both the frontage and interior much altered twice.
Thomas Cromwell. Getty Images
In 1550 the nave of the church was given by Edward Vl to the local Dutch Protestant community to serve as their church, the remaining part used for ‘stowage of corn, coal and other such things’. The Marquis of Winchester, who had inherited it from his father ‘sold the monumnets of noblemen there buried in great number, the paving stones and whatsoever, which cost many thousands, for one hundred pounds, and thereof made fair stabling for horses. He caused the lead to be taken from the roofs and laid tile in place whereof, which exchange proved not so profitable as he looked for, but rather to his disadvantage’ ( 2)
A statue of St Augustine in Austin Friars. A poignant reminder of the long gone Austin Friars. T.Metcalfe 1989. Photo thanks to Patrick Comerford.
View of Throgmorton Street today with Drapers Hall built on the site of Thomas Cromwell’s great London mansion.
The Dutch church survived the Great Fire of London 1666 but was badly damaged by a fire in 1862 which seems to have destroyed the nave but left the exterior standing. The church was then rebuilt, once again, in 1863 but totally destroyed in an air raid in 1940. It was finally rebuilt yet again in 1950-56.
Undated photo of The Dutch Church Austin Friars..14th century. Taken from Broad Street. British History online.
The ruins of the Dutch Church Austin Friars after being bombed 1947. A service is being held to mark the first anniversary to the German invasion of Holland.
The Dutch Church newly built in the 1950s.
Plan of Austin Friars overlaid on modern street plan.
( 1) The Austin Friars article by W E Hampton, The Ricardian.
(2) A Survey of London Written in the year 1598 John Stow p163