Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  The contents of this and other London chronicles are a genuine record of the events of their time. Here, therefore, is confirmation that in April 1484 Tyrell’s involvement in the murder was known or suspected in the City of London. This section of the Great Chronicle covers the period ending in 1496 and it was written between then and 1501–2 at the latest, certainly before Tyrell is said to have confessed to the murder and long before More wrote his history.

  The widespread rumours lost Richard III ‘the hearts of the people’ once and for all. The Great Chronicle says that ‘the more in number grudged so sore against the King for the death of the innocents that as gladly would they have been French as to be under his subjection’ – to be French was the worst fate imaginable to an Englishman at that time. The Milanese ambassador recorded in 1496 that Richard’s subjects ‘abandoned’ him, ‘taking the other side because he put to death his nephews, to whom the kingdom belonged’. Public feeling against Richard was not limited just to the lower and middle classes. Croyland says that the King ‘fell in great hatred of the more part of the nobles of his realm, insomuch as such as before loved and praised him and would have jeopardised life and goods with him if he had remained still Protector, now murmured and grudged against him. Few or none favoured his party, except it were for dread or the great gifts that they received of him.’ Many crossed to Henry Tudor in Brittany, increasingly a focus for the disaffected in England. Even now, though, Richard could have won back the loyalty of his people and pre-empted Henry Tudor’s designs on the throne had he been able to produce the Princes alive. It was the fact that he did not that, more than anything else, prompted an increasing number of his subjects to look to Henry Tudor for deliverance.

  In June 1484 Richard took advantage of the temporary mental illness of the Duke of Brittany and persuaded Pierre Landais, the Treasurer of Brittany who was acting for his master, to extradite Henry Tudor. Just in time, Henry received a warning from Bishop Morton and fled to France, where he was warmly welcomed by the Regent, Anne de Beaujeu, who was happy to add to Richard III’s many problems and thus prevent him from pursuing an aggressive policy towards her country.

  Thwarted of his prey, Richard, says Croyland, ‘took all necessary precautions for the defence of his party’. He strengthened England’s defences, issued a series of proclamations branding ‘Henry Tydder’ a traitor, put all his commissioners of array on special alert, and made friendly overtures to foreign princes, hoping to prevent them from giving aid to his enemy. The French, in turn, encouraged Henry Tudor to expedite plans for an invasion of England, realising that Richard might at any time marry off Elizabeth of York to someone else. If this happened, Henry’s cause would be irretrievably lost.

  With French backing Henry posed a dangerous threat to Richard’s future security, which was even less certain now that the King had no son to succeed him. Richard was much preoccupied with the problem of the succession. Rous states that ‘Not long after the death of the Prince, the young Earl of Warwick was proclaimed heir-apparent in the royal court, and in ceremonies at table and chamber he was served first after the King and Queen.’ Richard, however, made no move to have Clarence’s attainder reversed, not wishing perhaps to draw attention to the fact that Warwick’s claim to the throne was better than his own. Many writers have questioned Rous’s statement but, as mentioned before, he had close links with Middleham and the Warwick family and made it his business to record the deeds of its members. It has been said that Richard would hardly have named someone with a better right to be king than himself as his heir, but Warwick was a child of nine and no-one in that turbulent period was likely to revolt in favour of a child.

  Warwick was probably in Richard’s train when he travelled to Durham that May and thence to York in June, and the King had an opportunity to get to know him. In 1499 it was inferred by Vergil that Warwick was either mentally retarded or intellectually feeble. It may have been this that made Richard change his mind about naming the boy his successor. In July ordinances were drawn up for the regulation of the King’s Household in the North, to be established at Sheriff Hutton Castle under the rule of Richard’s nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. Sheriff Hutton was designated by the King to be the official residence of his northern representative and a nursery establishment for the younger members of the House of York. Rous hints that Warwick was ‘placed in custody’ there in the summer of 1484; here, too, came his sister Margaret, Richard’s bastard children and, later on, the daughters of Edward IV. Now a ruin, Sheriff Hutton was then a luxurious royal castle with excellent facilities and defences, set in a deer park. Its very impregnability was why the King, obsessed with security, had chosen it.

  Rous says that after Warwick was sent there Lincoln was designated Richard’s heir: certainly on 21st August Richard appointed Lincoln Lieutenant of Ireland, a post held by former heirs apparent of the House of York. It was a wise choice. Lincoln was the King’s nearest adult male heir, an energetic man of good intellect and ability who was admired for his knightly prowess and conduct. He had always been a loyal supporter of his uncle, and had in July been appointed President of the newly-established Council of the North. He also received lands, an annuity from Duchy of Cornwall revenues, and the reversion of Margaret Beaufort’s estates.

  On 9th November Richard returned to London. It was not a happy home-coming for the Queen was unwell, and there remained the ever-present problem of Henry Tudor. Against such a backdrop would be enacted the last scandal of Richard III’s reign.


  An Incestuous Passion

  IN 1484 ELIZABETH of York was eighteen. In looks she resembled her mother, but her long red-gold hair was inherited from her Plantagenet forebears. Of medium height, she had ‘large breasts’, according to one Portuguese ambassador, and extant portraits of her show that she must have been very comely in her youth: a Venetian envoy to the court of Henry VII called her ‘very handsome’. Vergil later described her as ‘a woman of such character’. She was intelligent, pious and literate, could speak French and a little Spanish, delighted in music, card games and gardens, and was renowned for her skill at embroidery. Of gentler nature than her mother, she had nevertheless inherited her father’s sensual and passionate nature, and at eighteen she was long past the age at which princesses were usually married. Commines records a rumour circulating in 1484 that Richard III had considered marrying Elizabeth to Bishop Stillington’s bastard son, but this almost certainly had no basis in fact, nor would such a marriage have complied with the terms of the King’s undertaking to Elizabeth Wydville.

  By the end of 1484 it was clear that Queen Anne was a sick woman, unlikely to have any more children, and probably not long for this world. Elizabeth Wydville, following her usual pragmatic instincts, and having now abandoned her hopes of Henry Tudor, saw some advantage for her daughter and herself in this situation, for if Anne died, as seemed likely, the King would be expected to marry again in the hope of providing for the succession. In such circumstances, who better to mate with him than the Lady Elizabeth, regarded by many as the rightful heiress of the House of York? Marriage to her would place Richard III in an unassailable position: as husband of the woman many people regarded as the lawful Queen of England he would enjoy the unchallenged right to wear the crown. Elizabeth would be accorded her rightful rank and dignity and, even more to the point, Elizabeth Wydville could expect to be restored to power and influence as the mother of the Queen Regnant. For all the former Queen’s ambition, it must have cost her dearly to contemplate marrying her daughter to the man who had murdered her sons, but with such advantages in view, scruples had to be suppressed.

  In December, says Croyland, ‘the lady Elizabeth was, with her four younger sisters, sent by her mother to attend the Queen at court at the Christmas festivals kept with great state in Westminster Hall. They were received with all honourable courtesy by Queen Anne, especially the Lady Elizabeth, who was ranked familiarly in the Queen’s favour, who treated her as a sister. B
ut neither the society that she loved, nor all the pomp and festivity of royalty, could heal the wound in the Queen’s breast for the loss of her son.’

  With Anne ill and preoccupied with her grief, Richard – himself in need of comfort – began to look to his attractive, buxom niece for solace. The sensual streak in his nature perhaps recognised something similar in hers, and it was only a matter of days before a passionate attraction was kindled between the two of them. Elizabeth may have initially approached her uncle with feelings of distaste: later chroniclers all assure us she had been devoted to her brothers. But she was also ambitious, like her mother, and she had recently been thwarted of her chance of a crown as the wife of Henry Tudor. Now the prospect of queenship was opening up once again. Not only was the Queen ailing but there was also talk of the King having their marriage annulled in order to remarry and beget more sons. He might soon be a free man. On a personal level, Richard had the charisma and appeal of one who enjoys and wields power, an older and experienced man who well knew how to charm a young girl. When courtiers observed how things stood between the King and his niece, the rumours of an impending royal annulment proliferated.

  Richard’s interest in Elizabeth of York was not purely sensual: he, too, had perceived the enormous advantages of a union with her. Henry Tudor’s determination to marry her and claim the crown through her, ignoring the provisions of ‘Titulus Regius’, could not have failed to bring these advantages to Richard’s notice. If Henry could strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth, so could he, Richard, even if it meant reversing his own Act of Settlement and legitimising her. The King’s determination to marry his niece is virtual proof, if any were needed, that the precontract story on which his title was based was pure invention. Had it been true, Richard would not now have been contemplating the marriage to strengthen his position. His pursuit of Elizabeth was not only a tacit acknowledgement of the widespread recognition of her as the rightful queen, but also amounted to confirmation that the Princes were dead. Marriage to her would crush Henry Tudor’s pretensions once and for all, and it would hopefully silence the ever-present rumours about her brothers. It would stabilise Richard’s tenure of the throne, enlist the Wydvilles on the side of the Crown, and in every way make sound political sense.

  It is clear from the evidence available that Elizabeth attracted the attentions of her uncle in a remarkably short time, and that by January 1485 this was apparent to observers at court. Croyland tells us that ‘the Feast of the Nativity was kept with due solemnity at the Palace of Westminster and the King appeared with his crown on the day of the Epiphany’ (6th January). Then a note of clerical disapproval creeps in:

  It must be mentioned that, during this Feast of the Nativity, immoderate and unseemly stress was laid upon dancing and festivity, vain changes of apparel of similar colour and shape being presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth, a thing that caused the people to murmur and the nobles and prelates greatly to wonder thereat. It was said by many that the King was bent, either on the anticipated death of the Queen taking place, or else by means of a divorce, for which he supposed he had quite sufficient grounds, on contracting a marriage with Elizabeth, whatever the cost, for it appeared that no other way could his kingly power be established or the hopes of his rival put an end to. There are also many other matters which are not in this book because it is shameful to speak of them.

  Croyland, writing in 1486, would not have committed to paper anything compromising about the new Queen of England, Elizabeth of York. Instead, he would represent Richard III as the villain of the piece and, ever discreet, was probably implying in this last sentence there was more to the relationship between uncle and niece than political advantage. With the passage worded as it is it appears that the chronicler is trying to convey that there was already a sexual relationship of some nature. Croyland’s reticence leads us to believe that there were more grounds for conjecture than just the similar gowns given by Richard to his wife and niece, for this by itself would hardly have provoked such disapproval. And Croyland’s statement that Richard supposed he had sufficient grounds for divorce is indicative that the matter had already been discussed, perhaps in Council.

  Whilst the King ‘was keeping this festival with remarkable splendour’ in Westminster Hall and the court hummed with speculation, ‘news was brought to him from his spies beyond the sea that, notwithstanding the potency and splendour of his royal estate, his adversaries would, without question, invade the kingdom during the following summer’. Richard answered that, ‘than this, there was nothing that could befall him more desirable’.

  News of the coming invasion made the idea of marriage with his niece not only desirable but urgent, and in the days after the Epiphany the King’s courtship became more ardent. Buck believed his desire was ‘feigned’, but most of the evidence is to the contrary and shows that he had every intention of making Elizabeth his wife as soon as he was free to do so. Croyland would later refer to Richard’s ‘incestuous passion’ for her and throughout strongly implies that the King was motivated by passion as much as ambition. Molinet even alleged that Elizabeth bore a child by him, though there is no evidence for this, but it may well have been at this time that Richard gave Elizabeth his copy of The Romance of Tristan (now in the British Library), which bears not only his name but her motto and signature also: ‘Sans removyr, Elizabeth’. The book cannot have come into her possession later on because when she was queen she always signed herself ‘Elizabeth ye Queen’, while her usual signature before 1486 was ‘Elizabeth Plantagenet’.

  Elizabeth was under considerable pressure from her mother and her half-brother Dorset to respond to the King’s advances, but there is good evidence that this pressure was unnecessary and that she had already become emotionally involved. How she reconciled this with the fact that Richard had murdered her brothers is not known; the simplest explanation must be that he somehow convinced her that he was innocent of the deed, a lie that a girl in the throes of infatuation would be only too willing to believe. The fact that she could contemplate such a marriage shows her to have been as much of a pragmatist as her mother and confirms that her ambition to wear a crown was greater than her grief for brothers who might never have been close to her.

  Croyland says that ‘the King’s determination to marry his niece reached the ears of his people, who wanted no such thing.’ Vergil states that when Henry Tudor, in France, learned what was afoot, the news ‘pinched him to the very stomach’, and he was even more downcast when he heard that Richard proposed to marry Elizabeth’s sister Cecily to an unknown knight so that Henry should be baulked of yet another Yorkist princess. The three youngest girls, Anne, Katherine and Bridget, were too young to be considered seriously as prospective brides, and while Elizabeth of York lived the dynastic claims of her sisters were secondary to hers anyway. Henry, in desperation, now made a bid to marry Maud Herbert, daughter of his former guardian, hoping thereby to enlist Welsh support for his cause, but Maud could not bring Henry a crown as her dowry and was therefore a poor substitute for the Yorkist heiress.

  Contrary to popular belief, at that time a marriage between uncle and niece was permitted by the church provided a dispensation was obtained beforehand. When Richard III’s contemporaries condemned his intended marriage as unlawful and incestuous, it became clear that the path to wedded bliss would be littered with obstacles, though people anticipated that Richard would sweep these aside and have what he wanted. But, says the chronicler Hall, ‘one thing withstood his desires. Anne, his queen, was still alive.’

  As the affair between Richard and Elizabeth progressed, so did Anne’s illness. Croyland writes that a few days after Epiphany ‘the Queen fell extremely sick, and her illness was supposed to have increased still more and more because the King entirely shunned her bed, claiming that it was by the advice of his physicians that he did so. Why enlarge?’

  The Queen’s illness was terminal and was probably caused by either tuberculosis or cancer
. It conveniently freed Richard from his marital obligations and left him with more opportunities to pursue Elizabeth. Hall says that Anne, ‘understanding that she was a burden to her husband, for grief soon became a burden to herself and wasted away’. Both Croyland and Hall agree that her condition was exacerbated by her husband’s neglect and callousness, for he made it quite plain that she was of no further use to him and that he was just waiting for her to die. Hall adds that, even when he knew she was dying, Richard ‘daily quarrelled’ with her ‘and complained of [her] for [being] barren’. Vergil says that, after abstaining from her bed, the King complained to Archbishop Rotherham about Anne’s ‘unfruitfulness’, showing himself most distressed about it, and probably paving the way for an annulment if death should not intervene quickly enough. Rotherham was sympathetic but he tactlessly spread the word about that the Queen ‘would suddenly depart from this world’. According to Vergil, Richard was also broadcasting the Queen’s imminent demise and spreading rumours deliberately calculated to reach Anne’s ears, so that she would, literally, be frightened to death.

  Sometime in February 1485, when the Queen was dressing one day, one of her ladies told her there was a rumour in the court that she had died. Desperately afraid, and ‘supposing that her days were at an end’, Anne went straight to her husband, with her hair still unbound, and in tears ‘demanded of him what cause there was why he should determine her death. He soothed her, saying, “Be of good cheer, for in sooth ye have no other cause.”’ Although Vergil recounted this story much later it is corroborated by Croyland who states that Richard used psychological means to hasten Anne’s death, and is in keeping with the other evidence. It also, interestingly, shows that the Queen believed her husband to be capable of murder.

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