Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  Hated though Richard III had been, every chronicler expresses outrage at what happened to his corpse. Croyland says that it 'was found among the slain and many insults were heaped on it, and it was removed to Leicester in an inhuman manner, a halter being put about the neck, as was the custom with condemned felons'. The Great Chronicle says that the King's body was 'despoiled to the skin and, nought being left about him so much as would cover his privy member, he was trussed behind a pursuivant' -- his own herald, Blanche Sanglier -- 'as an hog or other vile beast'. Vergil described the body's 'arms and legs hanging down both sides' of the horse. And so, recounts de Valera, 'all besprung with mire and filth', Richard was brought to Leicester when Henry VII entered the town in triumph that evening. The new King ordered the body to be taken to the conventual church of the Franciscan or Grey Friars, where, says de Valera, it was 'covered from the waist downward with a black rag of poor quality [and] exposed there three days to the universal gaze', for all men 'to wonder upon'. Croyland commented acidly that this usage of a human corpse was 'not exactly in accordance with the laws of humanity'.

  Two days later, says the Great Chronicle, Richard III was 'indifferently buried' in an unmarked grave in the choir of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, by the charity of the friars and without, says Vergil, 'any pomp or solemn funeral'. In 1496 Henry VII paid £10 .15 , a paltry sum, for a coloured marble tomb and alabaster effigy to be placed above his rival's grave. This bore a Latin inscription proclaiming that Richard had come to the throne by betraying the trust placed in him as Protector during his nephew's reign.

  During the Reformation of the 1530s the monastery of the Franciscan friars was dissolved and the church despoiled. Richard's tomb was destroyed and his bones disinterred and thrown into the River Soar. They were either lost at that point or recovered and reburied at Bow Bridge: the evidence is conflicting. Richard's coffin is said to have been used as a horse trough in Leicester but had been broken up by 1758 and its pieces used to build the cellar steps in the White Horse Inn. Some ruined walls and foundations are all that is left of the monastery; a car park now occupies most of its site. However, there is a modern memorial stone to Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, put up by the Richard III Society.

  The fall of the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty may be attributed directly to the fatal effects of Richard Ill's ambition: his usurpation and the murder of the Princes. Had these events not occurred there would have been no need for an opposition party to focus its hopes on Henry Tudor.

  The view of Richard's contemporaries was that God had delivered His judgement upon the King at Bosworth: Richard's death was seen as divine punishment for his crimes. 'In spite of being a powerful monarch,' wrote de Valera, 'Our Lord did not permit his evil deeds to remain unpunished.' 'Thus ended this man with dishonour as he that sought it,' commented the Great Chronicle, 'for had he continued still Protector and had suffered the children to have prospered according to his allegiance and fidelity, he should have been honourably lauded over all, whereas now his fame is darkened and dishonoured as far as he was known.' 'No killing was more charitable,' wrote the Welsh bard Dafydd Llywd. Rous was scathing: 'This King Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned in the way that antichrist is to reign. His days were ended with no lamentation from his groaning subjects.'

  Hall, writing over fifty years after Richard's death, acknowledged his qualities of courage and leadership and his early loyalty to Edward IV, but commented that his character was perverted by his overweening ambition. More's analysis was even more damning to Richard's reputation, for he held that his ambition had warped all his fundamentally decent feelings and turned him into the tyrannical monster of the 'Black Legend'.

  But for the murder of his nephews, Richard III might have been a successful king, despite his acts of tyranny and his ruthless seizure of the throne. It was the murder of the Princes that gave Henry Tudor his opportunity and which brought down the House of Plantagenet. Thus the murder may be viewed in its wider context as a single event that dramatically changed the course of history.

  18. A Dark Prince

  Henry VII made it clear from the first that he came to the throne with the intention of reconciling both Lancastrians and Yorkists and putting old quarrels behind him. His first act as king was to send Sir Robert Willoughby to Sheriff Hutton to pay his respects to Elizabeth of York and escort her to Westminster. Henry meant to keep his oath and marry her, thus bringing about the longed-for alliance between Lancaster and York. He was aware that Elizabeth was widely regarded as the rightful Queen of England and the legitimate heiress of the House of York, and he meant to turn this to his own advantage. Once 'Titulus Regius' was repealed and he was married to her, his title could not be disputed.

  Henry and Elizabeth, both descendants of Edward III, were within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity, however, and until a dispensation for the marriage could be granted, Henry was vulnerable to potential conspiracies on behalf of the Earl of Warwick, the last direct descendant in the male line from Edward III. Although there was no Salic Law in England, the concept of a female sovereign was repugnant to most people, and there were those who might look to the heir male of the House of York in preference to the man whom Richard III had aptly described as 'an unknown Welshman'. Henry VII knew he was by no means secure on the throne, and therefore entrusted Willoughby with a second mission, that of secretly escorting the ten-year-old Warwick to the Tower of London to forestall would-be abduction attempts. Deprived of the society of all save his gaolers the boy was to grow to manhood uneducated, isolated, and imprisoned so securely that rumours of his death abounded.

  Henry VII also had Bishop Stillington arrested for unspecified 'heinous offences imagined and done' by him. Henry may have held him responsible for concocting the precontract story that had led to the bastardising of Elizabeth of York. With Stillington in custody there was no danger of any contention when Parliament met to repeal 'Titulus Regius'. Significantly, it was only after that had been done that Stillington was pardoned and released. Henry would not allow anyone to impugn Elizabeth of York's title.

  Three days after Bosworth Henry had Catesby executed. He also took into custody Richard Ill's bastard, John of Gloucester. No-one who had adhered to Richard's cause was allowed to remain at large as a focus for opposition to the new regime. Henry entered London in triumph on 3rd September, receiving a warm welcome from the Mayor and citizens. He then gathered together his first Council, constituted in part from those who had shared his exile or supported him in England, notably the Stanleys, Bishop Morton and Reginald Bray.

  Henry VII was twenty-eight, tall, lean and fair, with thinning yellow hair, grey-blue eyes and bad teeth. He was, said the Venetian ambassador, 'a man of great ability'. He was ambitious, unscrupulous, devious, avaricious, astute, cautious and highly intelligent. Not violent by nature, he preferred to adopt a policy of reconciliation and pacification, but he could be ruthless when crossed. He loved money to excess, but, like Richard III, he possessed great qualities of leadership and was an able administrator. As king, his aims were to establish his dynasty firmly on the throne, amass wealth, promote law and order, preserve peace, and raise England to the status of a great European power. In order to consolidate the position of the monarchy, he intended to curb the power of the nobility, having seen what havoc it could wreak within the state: the age of the over-mighty subject was drawing to a close.

  All these things Henry VII achieved in time. He gave his realm strong government and peace and brought to it the political stability it had lacked during the Wars of the Roses. In fact, what Henry achieved during his reign was to lay the foundations of the modern state of Great Britain.

  Henry VII was formally crowned on 30th October, 1485, in Westminster Abbey with great pomp, while the Lady Margaret Beaufort wept with joy. Although she herself had a better claim to the throne than her son, she rejoiced in his triumph, and henceforth she would play no further part in politics, confining her cons
iderable influence to the domestic sphere and living a life filled with religious observances, benefactions and good works until her death in 1509.

  When the first Parliament of his reign met on nth November, Henry was hailed as the new Joshua, come to save his subjects from tyranny. When it came to the matter of his dubious title to the throne, therefore, Parliament was accommodating. Doubts had been expressed as to whether an attainted traitor could actually inherit the crown, but Henry's judges pronounced that his accession had automatically nullified his attainder. Henry ensured, however, that Parliament did not appear to bestow or confirm his sovereignty. A new Act of Settlement merely declared that the inheritance of the Crown had come as of right to Henry VII and the heirs of his body. After so many changes of monarchs, what really mattered was that the King of England should be able to hold on to his throne. Much was made by Henry and his supporters of the fact that God had endorsed his right to rule by granting him the victory at Bosworth, an argument that held great weight with their contemporaries. It also obscured Henry's shaky hereditary claim. Henry was de facto king.

  Croyland commented drily that 'the sovereignty was confirmed to our lord the King as being his due, not by one but by many titles, so that we are to believe that he rules most rightfully over the English people, and that not so much by right of blood as of conquest'. He tells us that Parliament next debated the King's proposed union with Elizabeth of York, 'in whom it appeared to all that every requisite might be supplied which was wanting to make good the title of the King himself. But Henry had no intention of being looked upon as Elizabeth's consort -- he would not, he said, be his wife's 'gentleman usher'. Nor did he apply for a papal dispensation for their marriage until after the Act of Settlement had become law, even though his councillors were strongly advising an early wedding.

  Of course, there were a number of people who had a better claim to the throne than Henry VII, a fact of which he was painfully aware. A few believed that Elizabeth of York should be Queen Regnant, yet while many were prepared to argue for her rights no-one envisaged her ruling alone. Richard III had designated the Earl of Lincoln as his heir but few regarded him as a serious contender, despite his pedigree and obvious aptitude for leadership. The Earl of Warwick was seen as the most obvious claimant and despite his youth and imprisonment he was the hope of a number of diehard Yorkists in 1485 and for many years after. Other male heirs of the House of York, such as Lincoln's younger brothers, were too young at that time to represent any serious threat. Henry VII brought Lincoln to court and looked after his family, intending thereby to win his loyalty, or at least keep a watchful eye on him. He also extended his protection to Buckingham's heir, who was restored to his father's dukedom by Parliament. But because he too was descended from Edward III the young Duke represented yet another potential threat to the new dynasty.

  Sir Francis Bacon describes Henry VII as 'a dark prince and infinitely suspicious, and his time full of secret conspiracies'. He also states that Henry's unwavering policy was 'the discountenancing of the House of York, which the general body of the realm still affected', and that he had 'a settled disposition to depress all eminent persons' of that house. This policy was in time carried on by his son Henry VIII, but what happened to the last of the Plantagenets during his reign is a tale beyond the scope of this book. It suffices to say that the Tudors, conscious of the frailty of their own dynastic title, were obsessed with security and seized any opportunity to eliminate or neutralise those whom they regarded as a threat. Since Henry VII was not a bloodthirsty man he counteracted the claims of Elizabeth of York's sisters by marrying them to men staunchly loyal to himself, and adopted a policy of conciliation towards Lincoln and young Buckingham. Only to Warwick was he merciless, an indication of how seriously people took Warwick's claim to the throne.

  As soon as the Act of Settlement was passed, 'Titulus Regius' was repealed. Parliament thereby recognised the validity of Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Wydville and the legitimacy of their children, including Henry VII's future queen. Thus it was acknowledged, not only that Edward V had been the rightful King of England, but also that he and his brother were dead. Perhaps significantly, Parliament made no reference to them: the Act was repealed with only the sketchiest of references to its sensitive contents. The King's judges regarded 'Titulus Regius' as so objectionable that they were reluctant to recite its contents in case they should become notorious, and both they and the King, after studying the contents of the Act, concluded that Bishop Stillington had been the inspiration behind it. The judges offered to question Stillington but Henry refused because he had resolved to pardon the Bishop and desired no adverse publicity about Elizabeth of York's title, being of the opinion that 'least said, soonest mended'.

  It might have been expected that, prior to his marriage, Henry would ask Parliament to consider the whole question of the precontract story and issue some statement refuting it, but he apparently considered it sufficient to have 'Titulus Regius' repealed and then suppressed. Whether he liked it or not, most people were of the view that his title to the throne would be greatly strengthened by marriage to Elizabeth of York, and the last thing Henry wanted was an enquiry into her legitimacy, in case it provided his enemies with grounds for denying her title and threatening his own future security. Nor did he wish to revive talk of the fact that earlier that year Elizabeth had been on the brink of marriage to Richard III and the affair between them had been the subject of furious court gossip. The least said about Elizabeth's status and her past the better, as far as Henry was concerned.

  In November 1485 Henry VII commanded that 'Titulus Regius' be deleted from the Statute Books in the interests of his policy of reconciliation. The Parliament Roll of 1484 was suppressed and all official documents referring to the Act destroyed. By royal command, anyone having in their possession a copy of it was required to relinquish it to the Lord Chancellor by Easter 1486 on pain of imprisonment and a fine, 'so that all things said and remembered in the said Act may be for ever out of remembrance and forgot'. The text of 'Titulus Regius' was, of course, incorporated into the Second Continuation of the Croyland Chronicle, which was completed in the spring of 1486. Several copies of the Chronicle were made but nearly all of these, and the original, were destroyed. Thus, when Tudor historians came to write their versions of recent events, they had no access to this valuable source. Neither Andre, Carmeliano, Rous, Vergil or More ever saw Croyland, although they often corroborate it. So effective had the suppression of 'Titulus Regius' been that very few people had any idea what it had contained.

  Vergil, Henry VII's official historian, may have known more than the rest, for he made special efforts to refute the idea that the legitimacy of Edward IV's children had ever been called into question, saying there was 'common report that in Shaa's sermon Edward's children were called bastards, and not King Edward himself, which is devoid of any truth'. According to Vergil, the precontract story was the product of rumour and Richard III had never used it to justify his usurpation.

  This re-writing of history meant that Eleanor Butler's name disappeared from the records for more than a century. More knew of the precontract story but he was under the impression that Edward IV's partner in it had been Elizabeth Lucy, his mistress for a time. But in 1533 the Spanish ambassador to England, Eustache Chapuys, told the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V: 'People here say you have a better title than the present king [Henry VIII], who only claims by his mother, who was declared, by sentence of the Bishop of Bath [sic], a bastard, because Edward IV had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York.' Chapuys may well have received his information from Yorkist families with long memories and a grudge against the Tudors.

  During the early seventeenth century the historian George Buck unearthed the only surviving copy of the Croyland Chronicle, and for the first time in over 130 years the contents of 'Titulus Regius' were revealed to the public in print. Buck's discovery brought to his attention the fact that certain details, such as the id
entity of Eleanor Butler, had been censored by Henry VII, and he mistakenly concluded that this was because the contents of the Act were the true record of the facts. He did not view his discovery in the context of Henry VII's tenuous hold on the throne in 1485 when it was first suppressed and when most people believed that marriage to Elizabeth of York would ensure Henry's security as king. Buck did not realise that it was hardly surprising that Henry should wish to destroy such sensitive material, given that he might not be able to disprove its veracity without raising a dangerous debate or providing his enemies with grounds for rebellion. Upon such misconceptions was the revisionist movement founded.

  Henry VII was resolved to have his predecessor attainted by Parliament even though it was not legally possible for an English monarch to be convicted of treason: to attaint Richard III would be to accuse him of committing a crime against himself. To circumvent this anomaly, Henry announced that he was dating his reign from the day before Bosworth. Eyebrows shot up and many members registered their opposition to such a move. 'Oh, God!' exclaimed Croyland, 'what security shall our kings have henceforth, that in the day of battle they may not be deserted by their subjects?' But Henry was adamant. Parliament calmed down and did as it was bid, then obligingly attainted 'Richard, late Duke of Gloucester, and 28 others', most of whom had died at Bosworth.

  The attainder against Richard was not specific when it came to detailing his crimes, which were listed as 'unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders in shedding of infants' blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations, against God and man'. The Princes in the Tower were not mentioned by name, nor was Richard directly accused of their murder.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]