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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

“The Princes in the Tower”, by Alison Weir

287 pages, Ballantine Books, ISBN-13: 978-0345383723

What the Kennedy Assassination is to Americans, the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower is to the English: a never ending series of conspiracy theories and murky accusations in which the evidence can’t be trusted, or the sources have an axe to grind, or…or…well, you get the idea. But in The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir, what we get instead is an historical whodunit that uses the ambitious activities of Richard of Gloucester as a run up to the discussion of who committed the murders. By providing the reader with an understanding of the sociopolitical background to the disappearances of the two boys – Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the only sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville – she allows us to determine for ourselves the most likely suspect.

As the author herself points out, numerous writers have taken up the same evidence to both convict and exonerate Richard of the crimes (apparently there has even been a mock trial held on television in the late 1980s that failed to convict Gloucester for “lack of evidence”). Probably the most interesting fictional account occurred in the 1950s novel by Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time, in which Alan Grant, a modern-day homicide detective, bored by a prolonged hospitalization, “investigated” the crime as a mental game and came up with Henry VII as the most likely perpetrator (in fact, as Weir herself points out, the modern fad in history has been to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation by proving him innocent). I, myself, rather liked the idea of Henry VII’s guilt, as he seemed the most likely beneficiary of the murders – and it was a way to be historically contrarian. After reading the Weir’s work, however, I suspect that while Henry VII could and would have murdered the Princes, Richard of Gloucester got there first.

This follows from the author’s very thorough discussion of means, motive, and opportunity; it is very much a “manor house” type of murder mystery. Her discussion of the primary sources for the period of Richard’s brief reign, which she handles extensively and very logically, makes it almost certain that Richard ordered the murder of the two boys. She pays especial attention to the likely access of these sources to reliable witnesses, since none of them were likely to have been privy to the actual events themselves. Most interesting to me, because I’d not heard about them before, was the covey of Royal and Aristocratic ladies who had been close to the political action of Richard’s reign and who were residing in a convent at Aldgate, probably to stay out of the way of the violence and to abstain from politics during the era of the Tudors. As with so much of history, what women knew and how to get at what they knew is often left out of equations that attempt to recreate and interpret the events of the past. The author uses what these ladies probably knew of Richard’s activities to bolster the credibility of one of the sources she uses, the writings of Sir Thomas More who apparently knew and visited them in their self-imposed confinement (the only misstep in the logic seems to me that the credibility and motives of these sources are not themselves necessarily as carefully examined; More might have been misled by their accounts of what happened, and what he might have received was secondhand information provided by biased sources).

With all that said, the most convincing arguments, without going into any detail, are the facts at hand: rumors about the murder of the princes were widely circulating during the reign of Richard III and were very damaging to him, causing him to lose a considerable amount of support because of them – and yet he made no effort at all to deny the rumors, or to display the princes to the public, or to give an alternative explanation for their disappearance while in his custody; the general agreement of the independent accounts of Dominic Mancini, Thomas More, and Thomas Croyden, each of whom had different sources of information (additionally, Mancini’s account was an official report of the facts, written outside England for a foreign government); the close correspondence between the skeletons discovered in the Tower and More’s account of the burial of the princes.

Weir gives Richard III credit where it is due and praises some aspects of his character and his actions, and her conclusion that he murdered the princes seems to be a reasonable one and one that is held by the vast majority of professional historians today. If one reads anything at all about the Middle Ages in England from the period of Edward II to Richard III, the first thing that emerges is that it was a time of kill or be killed and trust no one, especially the near and dear.

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