Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


  The chief foreign source for the Yorkist period is the Mémoires of Philippe de Commines, a French politician and diplomat who moved in the highest circles of the courts of France and Burgundy. He compiled his memoirs after his retirement in 1490, and they cover the period 1464–98. After 1480, however, Commines no longer enjoyed the confidence of those who ruled France, although he had met Edward IV and later knew Henry Tudor during his exile. There are obvious flaws in his work, yet he did record the gossip then circulating on the Continent and may well have had access to more reliable sources of information for the later period.

  The so-called London Chronicles provide us with an observant and detailed record of events in the late fifteenth century. The first is that chronicle known as B.L. Cotton MS. Vitellius AXVI, written during the early years of Henry VII’s reign and published by C.L. Kingsford as Chronicles of London in 1905. Then there is a fragment from the commonplace books of a London merchant which was discovered in the College of Arms in 1980, and published as Historical Notes of a London Citizen, 1483–1488 in 1981. The other London Chronicles were written, at least in part, by Robert Fabyan (d.1513), a wealthy London clothier and alderman of the City of London. He made a compilation of several London chronicles (the originals of which are now lost) which is known as the Great Chronicle of London and is in the Guildhall Library. This is a major source for the period, for all its errors and confused chronology. It is an eyewitness account, clearly based on first-hand knowledge of some of the events described and reflecting the public opinion of its day. The section dealing with the period ending 1496 was written before 1501–2 and possibly earlier. Although the Great Chronicle is pro-Lancastrian in sympathy, it is unlikely that its author had access to the works of Rous, André and Carmeliano.

  Fabyan also wrote The Book of the Concordance of Histories, a history of England from the Conquest to his own time, which was printed in 1516 as The New Chronicles of England and France. It was based in part on Fabyan’s own diaries but is not as comprehensive as the Great Chronicle.

  One controversial source is the Song of the Lady Bessy, a colourful and proven to be mainly fanciful account in verse of the conspiracy that led to Richard III’s overthrow. It was probably written before 1504 by Humphrey Brereton, a squire to Lord Stanley, and while it grossly exaggerates the role played by Elizabeth of York in the plot, it contains some apparently authentic details.

  The chief narrative source dating from Henry VII’s time is the Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil. Vergil, a cleric from Urbino, Italy, came to England around 1501–2 and stayed. He was a renowned Renaissance scholar and humanist, and a friend of Erasmus and Thomas More. He quickly attracted the attention of Henry VII, who made use of his talents and rewarded him with benefices. After the accession of Henry VIII, however, he made an enemy of Cardinal Wolsey and fell from favour. He left England in 1551 and died in Italy in 1555.

  In 1507, Henry VII commissioned Vergil to write an official history of England. Vergil spent six years researching this project, and wrote the first draft in c. 1512–14. But it took him a further nineteen years to complete and revise all the twenty-six books in the Anglica Historia. The finished work, dedicated to Henry VIII, was published in 1534 in Basle. Vergil’s was therefore the first account of Richard III’s usurpation to appear in print: in fact, it is the most detailed extant account of his reign.

  Vergil followed the Renaissance tradition of using history to teach a moral lesson, whereby the reader might benefit from learning about the past. A skilful historian and writer, he used an innovative approach that had a profound influence on later Tudor writers. He could be maddeningly vague at times, and selective about what he wrote, yet he was no sycophant. He was criticial of Henry VII in places, and raised a storm by his rejection of the time-honoured notion that the Arthurian legends were based on fact. Thus he was no mere propagandist, but an objective writer who drew his own conclusions.

  Vergil seldom states who his sources were, but Henry VII gave him unrestricted access to official records and personally imparted details of his exile and early years as king. Vergil tells us that other contemporaries also passed on their recollections of previous reigns, some of which they may, of course, have deliberately falsified. He also says he consulted a great number of chronicles and other documents; in 1574 it was alleged by John Caius of Cambridge that Vergil had destroyed cartloads of ancient manuscripts so as to ensure that the flaws in his history would not be detected. This may well be the reason why so few sources for Richard III’s reign have come down to us – those that have survived were either hidden or abroad. However, Vergil himself says that he could find very few written sources for the period after 1450.

  There is no proof that he ever saw the Croyland Chronicle; it had been suppressed long before his time, but the two accounts do corroborate each other to a great extent. Vergil’s account of recent times also substantiates in many respects that of Sir Thomas More (see below), but is less detailed. Vergil never saw Mancini’s history, yet again the two accounts often agree.

  Vergil worked under constraints. He was capable of suppressing the truth where it was politic to do so, and was well aware that certain subjects were highly sensitive. He claimed he was presenting a truthful picture, yet he had to be tactful and avoid offending his royal patron and other powerful persons. He may well have been briefed to follow the ‘least said, soonest mended’ policy adopted by Henry VII himself. In the circumstances, therefore, he wrote, to his credit, a remarkably balanced work.

  The first – and the most controversial – biography of Richard III was written by Sir Thomas More. Entitled, The History of King Richard III, it was written around 1514–18 and revised in the late 1520s. More’s account is rich in compelling, authentic, eye-witness detail – which in itself argues its reliability – and shows familiarity with the workings of the royal household in Richard’s time. Approximately one-third of it contains eloquent speeches invented by More for his characters but based on authentic source material. This was an accepted practice in an age when history and literature were almost indivisible.

  More’s history has its obvious flaws: some names and dates are incorrect or missing, and some of its content may well be based on inaccurate sources or – as More admits – the result of ‘divining upon conjectures’. Nevertheless, it has been verified in so many respects, and by so many other sources – such as Mancini and Croyland, who were not known to More, and Vergil, who was – that there is little reason to doubt its overall authenticity.

  Sir Thomas More was a lawyer, a humanist scholar, and a politician, a man whose reputation for integrity was famous throughout Christendom. He served for a short time as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor before resigning because his conscience would not allow him to condone Henry’s break with Rome. He was executed for his defiance in 1535, and later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

  More brought to his history of Richard III the benefit of his fine legal mind, his truthfulness and his intellectual judgement, and there is little doubt that he went to great trouble to find out the truth about the Princes in the Tower, whose fate was the central theme of his book. Roger Ascham, the great Elizabethan scholar, described the book as a model of historical writing, and there is no evidence that he or his contemporaries ever considered it satirical, which it has been called by at least one modern writer.

  It was never More’s intention to write propaganda for the Tudors, although many have accused him of doing just that. In fact, he had good reason to hate Henry VII: in 1504 he had risked a charge of high treason when he opposed the King in Parliament. Henry VII realised that Thomas could not pay the fine his offence merited, so he imprisoned and fined his father, Judge Sir John More. Nor was More any sycophant to Henry VIII, who for many years valued his opinion because he knew it was an honest one. More also risked offending his powerful friend, the third Duke of Norfolk, by his brief portrayal of the roles played by the first and second dukes under Richard III. With More, the truth
came first.

  More’s work was never intended for publication but was written purely for private intellectual recreation. Nor was it finished. It may be that More was persuaded by someone influential to abandon it because of things in it that could have proved embarrassing to those of Richard’s contemporaries who were still alive, or their descendants. Or More may simply have lost interest in the project or lacked the time in which to complete it.

  More’s work has value, therefore, because it was relatively objective. He had no motive for lying. He used a wide variety of sources and obtained first-hand information from those courtiers and others who had been alive in Richard III’s time. These people are not named, but we may hazard a guess as to who they were.

  It has been asserted by numerous writers that More’s chief source of information was Cardinal Morton, Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor, who suffered imprisonment and exile under Richard III. More was in Morton’s household from the age of twelve to fourteen, but it is hardly likely that the great Cardinal would have favoured such a young boy with so many confidences. This is not to say that More did not pick up some information at that time from Morton; he greatly admired him, and must have had some personal contact with him. And Morton was the one man who could have known the truth about some of the events of which More writes: More speaks of his ‘deep insight into political worldly drifts’. However, the notion that More’s information came from Morton was not mooted until 1596, when Sir John Haryngton suggested in The Metamorphosis of Ajax that Morton might even have been the author of More’s book. This theory was later embellished by Richard III’s apologist, Sir George Buck, but both Buck and Haryngton incorrectly assumed that More was an adult when he was in Morton’s service. There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Morton had anything to do with the work, and no serious historian nowadays believes that anyone other than More wrote it. The style of the work alone argues strongly in favour of his authorship.

  There were many other sources that More could – and probably did – make use of. His own father, a judge of the King’s Bench, had been a keen political observer in Richard’s reign. Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, More’s ‘singular dear friend’ according to More’s son-in-law William Roper, could have told More about the involvement of his family in the events of the time. It is perhaps significant that More makes hardly any reference to these important persons in his book, even though they had been prominent at court: to have done so would have been to compromise both the Duke and More’s friendship with him. More may also have obtained information from Dr John Argentine, Robert Fabyan, Polydore Vergil (whose work he knew in manuscript form), Richard FitzJames, Bishop of London – Edward IV’s chaplain and friend – Sir Thomas Lovell, Speaker of the Commons under Henry VII and a friend of More, Sir John Cutte – Richard III’s receiver of crown lands in six counties and More’s predecessor as Under Treasurer – Sir John Roper, Richard’s commissioner of array for Kent, and Sir Reginald Bray and Christopher Urswick, both of whom were involved in the plot to depose Richard and set Henry Tudor on the throne; Urswick was another friend of More’s. As a lawyer and Under-Sheriff of London, More had access to the legal records of Richard III’s reign. He also used the Great Chronicle.

  More wrote both English and Latin versions of his history. A ‘corrupt and altered version’ was first printed by Richard Grafton in 1543 in Hardyng’s Chronicle; it appeared again in Hall’s Chronicle in 1548. The full Latin text was printed by More’s nephew William Rastell in 1557, with a note that it was taken from a holograph manuscript found by Rastell amongst More’s papers; the original text is in the College of Arms, London (MS. Arundel 43). More’s Richard III was widely read and became very popular, and it was the chief inspiration for Shakespeare’s Richard III, with which, of course, dramatic liberties were taken.

  Above all, More gives a credible and consistent portrayal of Richard that can hardly have been based on fiction; anyone reading his manuscript, which was privately circulated amongst his friends, some of whom had known Richard III, could have spotted any inconsistencies. And More himself had several means of checking his facts.

  Later Tudor chroniclers such as Hall and Holinshed all relied on Vergil and More. But in 1611 the antiquary John Speed discovered a draft of the suppressed Act ‘Titulus Regius’, which outlined the grounds on which Richard III had claimed the throne. This discovery shed what appeared to be new light on the fate of the Princes. Speed printed the original draft of the Act that year, and six years later Sir William Cornwallis published The Encomium of Richard III, the first of the revisionist works, which was in effect a defence of Richard against the charge that he had murdered the Princes.

  Cornwallis’s theme was taken up even more enthusiastically in 1619 by Sir George Buck, who was described by William Camden as ‘a man of distinguished learning’. Buck was of an old Yorkist family, the great-grandson of John Buck, a member of Richard III’s household who was executed after having supported Richard at Bosworth. The Howard family had later used their influence to prevent his family from losing everything, and more than a century later Sir George was still grateful to them. He had risen to prominence at the court of Elizabeth I, and became Master of the Revels to James I, licensing several of Shakespeare’s plays in this capacity. Tragically he went insane in 1621 and died the next year.

  Buck’s The History of King Richard III was written in 1619. It was a vast work, carefully researched from early manuscripts preserved in the Tower of London, Sir Robert Cotton’s library – which contained an original copy of the Croyland Chronicle – the College of Arms, and the private collection of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, to whom the work was dedicated. It is also possible that Buck used family information handed down from Richard III’s time.

  Buck’s aim in writing his book was to proclaim Richard III’s innocence of the crimes laid at his door by earlier writers. He was not entirely impartial – his family had supported Richard and he felt this needed justification. He claimed that More’s biography was too full of errors to be reliable. Many people found Buck’s portrayal attractive and credible, and it was at this point that the controversy over Richard III that persists to this day began in earnest.

  Buck’s holograph MS. (Cotton MS. Tiberius E.xf.238) – ‘corrected and amended on every page’ – was damaged in the Cottonian fire; only fragments remain in the British Library. Another version of the first two books of the manuscript is British Library Egerton MS. 2216–2220, but this is a copy. Buck’s nephew, another George Buck, printed an abridged and censored version of the work in 1646, the only version available until 1979, when A.N. Kincaid published his splendid edition of the original text, which revealed several convincing details and exposed the deficiencies in the 1646 edition.

  The last of the ‘original’ narrative sources was The History of Henry VII by Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), published in 1622. This excellent, erudite work by a lawyer, statesman and Lord Chancellor, was for centuries the standard biography of Henry; well-researched, objective, and advanced for its time. Even today it stands up well in the face of modern research. Placed as he was, Bacon had access to official records, some no longer extant, and his work has value for this alone.

  The sources discussed above are so integral to the subject of the Princes that, as will be seen in the following chapters, they are indeed part of the plot. All these writers have, in their various ways, influenced the controversy about the Princes, and so we need to know about them, and their loyalties and prejudices, before we can consider what weight to give to their evidence. This is a crucial factor, because in that evidence lie the vital clues to the fate of the Princes.

  2

  The Sanctuary Child

  IN THE FIFTEENTH century the succession to the English crown was never stable. The Plantagenets had ruled England since 1154, and until 1399 the succession had generally passed fairly peacefully from father to son. But Edward III, who died in 1377, had several sons whom he endowed with dukedoms, thus cal
ling into being a race of magnates or aristocrats related by blood to the King, some of whom ultimately became intent on claiming the throne. The first was Henry of Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth surviving son of Edward III. In 1399, Bolingbroke deposed, and later murdered, his childless cousin Richard II and usurped the throne himself as Henry IV, thus founding the royal House of Lancaster and overlooking the claim of Richard’s designated heir, his third cousin Edmund Mortimer, then a child of seven, who was descended from Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, second surviving son of Edward III.

  Henry IV’s title to the throne was therefore dubious, but what he had taken he held on to, and the reputation of his successor, Henry V, seemed to ensure that the House of Lancaster would continue to reign gloriously after his death. But Henry V died young unexpectedly in 1422, leaving as his heir a baby, Henry VI. Henry survived his minority, but he was, as Philippe de Commines tells us, ‘a very ignorant and almost simple man’, who cared little for the riches and show of this world. His reputation was saintly rather than regal, and as a ruler he was weak, possibly even mentally defective, being easily manipulated by his strong-minded queen, Margaret of Anjou, and his factious magnates.

  Prominent amongst these magnates were the Beauforts, dukes of Somerset, descendants of the children of John of Gaunt by his third wife, Katherine Swynford, but born before their marriage. Henry IV had in 1407 confirmed Richard II’s Act of Parliament legitimising the Beauforts, but had issued a royal patent barring them from the succession. Later on in the fifteenth century it would be argued that Letters Patent could not prevail against an Act of Parliament, and that the Beauforts did indeed have the right to inherit the Crown.

 
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