Your RDA of Irony

The Karl Roves of Tudor England

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Bosworth Field. In tribute to the fallen and vilified Richard III, please hunch your shoulder.

History indeed is written by the victors, and the usurping Tudors had some extraordinary flacks in their service. The first “official” biography of Richard III was written in 1518 by an ambitious lawyer named Thomas More. More’s history could have been a Wes Craven screenplay; Richard is depicted as a physical monster. In this portrait, a hunchback may be Richard’s most attractive feature. More grafts upon Richard a withered arm and a limp; furthermore, More’s caricature was born with a full–and threatening– set of teeth. The real Richard had none of these disabilities and distortions, and actually was more attractive than Henry VII–who looked like a constipated actuary.

In 1592 a young playwright named Shakespeare was eager to ingratiate himself to the public and rich patrons, so he wrote a gushingly Pro-Tudor dramatization of the War of the Roses. The four plays, the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, are a slapdash concoction of convoluted history and overripe melodrama. In “Henry VI, part III”, Richard is depicted as gleefully waging war when, in fact, he was only three years old.  However inaccurate the plays, the audience loved them.  (Indeed, Richard III is still popular–and today is considered much funnier than Shakespeare’s intentional comedies.) Shakespeare would have been gratified–if amazed–to know that his melodrama has become the common perception of King Richard.

Of course, Richard has his defenders. A number of historians and novelists have attempted heroic exonerations of the vilified king; but it remains an uneven match: their facts against St. More’s reputation and Shakespeare’s talent.   You may number me among the vicarious Yorkists. Let’s deal with the most notorious charge against Richard: the killing of the Little Princes.

I think that Richard is innocent of killing his nephews. They certainly were an inconvenience to him (don’t we all have nephews like that!) but he could have found better ways to remove them than an unexplained disappearance. He could even have blamed the Lancastrian/Tudor partisans for the princes’ deaths. In fact, he should have if they really were dead. However, their disposal was not urgent or even necessary. Parliament had already declared them illegitimate; and there was little political support for them. Their mother’s family, the Woodvilles, was hated by the old nobility.

However Henry VII would have had to kill them. His claims to royal lineage were tenuous and illegitimate. (The Lancastrians had proved obligingly sterile, allowing Tudor–a half-second cousin, once removed, from Wales–to represent the dynasty.) Any Yorkist prince or princess was a threat to him. Other than the Yorkist princess he coerced into marriage, Henry had his in-laws executed, imprisoned or cloistered.

Perhaps Richard had already done him the favor of killing the Princes. But Henry’s behavior was suspicious and incriminating.

It is interesting to note that when Henry VII ascended to the throne, he had Parliament issue a list of Richard’s crimes. The murder of the Princes was not cited, a rather surprising omission. Since Henry married their sister, you think that he have noticed their absence when they didn’t respond to the wedding invitations.

Didn’t anyone notice that the Princes were missing? Perhaps the Queen Mother did. For some reason, she was suddenly imprisoned in 1487 for being a supporter of Richard III. Would she really have supported the man who had murdered her sons? That may have been Henry’s reason for imprisoning her.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1495 and the attempted coup by Perkins Warbeck, a charlatan claiming to be one of the Little Princes, that Henry finally announced the deaths of his brothers-in-law. He also ordered the execution of Richard’s henchman Sir James Tyrrell. The one incongruity with that revelation was that Tyrrell had been a favorite of Henry’s and had enjoyed promotions under the Tudors.

Furthermore, although Henry seemed to know the details of the murders, he didn’t make any effort to exhume the bodies and give them a Christian burial. That gesture of decency didn’t occur until the reign of Charles II.

I am inclined to one theory that would explain Richard’s silence and Henry’s reticence. The crime might have been committed by the Duke of Buckingham, a proclaimed Yorkist partisan and a covert Tudor conspirator. The Duke was in charge of the Tower and had the opportunity to kill the princes. He could have committed the crime and then assured both sides he had done it as a favor to them. He may have been expecting rewards from both sides. However, Richard seemed anything but grateful. The King rebuffed his old ally, driving the Duke to rebellion. The Duke lost the battle and his head. However Richard may have felt too incriminated by his past association to announce the murder of the Princes.

Of course, this is just speculation.

Ironically, while I defend Richard’s innocence, I must admit that Henry VII was one of England’s greatest kings and the founder of a brilliant dynasty.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene –

    Your latest post reminds me of a young man who was once seen picketing a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” He carried a sign that read, “Shakespeare Was a Tudor Fink!”

    No doubt he was. But that doesn’t clear Richard III of the charge that he murdered his nephews.

    Richard’s apologists likewise discount Sir Thomas More’s biography of Richard as “Tudor propaganda” – despite the fact that More never finished it, and it was never published in his lifetime. Moreover, although More’s account admittedly contains some inaccuracies, More was both a brilliant lawyer and scholar and was later canonized by the Catholic church. So his assessment of Richard cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    You say that Richard had no need to dispose of his nephews because Parliament had already declared them illegitimate. That was a mere technicality, as Henry VIII demonstrated by the ease with which he legitimatized and de-legitimized his own offspring. While the princes in the Tower remained alive, they were a focus for opposition to Richard, and he knew it.

    What is indisputable is that the princes were confined to the Tower by Richard in 1483 and they were never seen alive again. Could the Duke of Buckingham have killed the princes on his own initiative as you suggest? It’s possible, but it’s unlikely that anyone but Richard himself would have dared to take such a step. Yes, it was a brutal age, but murdering innocent children shocked people’s sensibilities, even then. The Feast of the Holy Innocents (commemorating the innocent children slain by King Herod in an effort to kill the baby Jesus) was a popular devotion in medieval England.

    That the princes were dead when Henry Tudor landed in England in 1485 to claim the crown may be safely assumed. Had they been alive, all Richard had to do was to produce them in public, because either of them (“illegitimate” or not) had a better claim to the throne than did Henry. Henry’s campaign would have collapsed like a pricked balloon.

    You point out that when Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII, he had Parliament issue a list of Richard’s crimes, and that this list does not specifically mention the murder of the princes. That is true, although it does charge Richard with “the shedding of innocents’ blood” – which was perhaps an oblique reference to the boys in the Tower.

    Why didn’t Henry VII trumpet the murder of the princes as one of Richard’s blackest crimes? Well, as it happened, there was another young innocent in the Tower at the time: 10-year-old Edward, Earl of Warwick. Edward was also Richard’s nephew, the son of his older brother, the Duke of Clarence, who was famously drowned in the butt of malmsey. Richard III had named Edward as his heir after the death of his son in 1484. So Henry VII had good reason not to create public sympathy for poor little princes unjustly imprisoned in the Tower. Edward was reported to be too simple-minded to plot against Henry, but Henry had him beheaded in 1499 after Perkin Warbeck’s uprising, just to make sure.

    Then there’s the question as to why the Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV and mother of the murdered princes), should have been imprisoned in 1487 for being a supporter of Richard III. Remember that Queen Elizabeth had a daughter, also named Elizabeth. When Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, was dying, rumors circulated that Richard wanted to marry the younger Elizabeth in order to strengthen his claim to the throne. Some sources say that Queen Elizabeth was behind these rumors, notwithstanding that her daughter was Richard’s niece and the marriage would have been incestuous.

    Richard’s apologists have claimed that Queen Elizabeth’s purported connivance at this bizarre union “proves” that Richard was innocent of the murder of his nephews, because Queen Elizabeth would never have let the murderer of her sons marry her daughter. Unfortunately for that argument, Queen Elizabeth’s connivance can also taken as proof that the boys were dead. If the boys were alive, she would have had no interest in strengthening Richard’s grip on the throne. But if they were dead, then her only hope of holding on to even a scrap of power was by making her daughter queen. Eventually, she did just that by marrying the girl to Henry VII after he killed Richard at the Battle of Bosworth.

    Queen Elizabeth was probably imprisoned because she was a nasty mother-in-law and an incorrigible plotter to boot. The fact that she was widely believed to have dabbled in witchcraft suggests that she was very unpleasant to have around.

    For a useful antidote to pro-Richard propaganda, see “Richard III: England’s Black Legend” by Desmond Seward.



  2. Dear Hal,

    I had no idea that you Lancastrian supporters were so beleaguered. As long as Shakespeare remains the preeminent interpreter of Richard III, there is no need for an antidote to the pro-Richard propaganda.

    Thomas More is indeed a saint, but I doubt that it was for his Tudor polemics.

    Queen Elizabeth Woodville may have been the Arianna Huffington of her day (combined with the looks of a Michelle Pfeiffer!) but if she was plotting against Henry VIII, for whom was she plotting? Her sons apparently were dead, but her daughter was on the throne. What would she have to gain in a pointless, profitless plot? And Henry VII was not a capricious, mercurial man. (We can’t say that about Junior.) He would not have imprisoned his mother-in-law simply because she was obnoxious. (Prisons cost money and Henry was notoriously cheap.)

    And why did Henry not bury his murdered brothers-in-law. (Okay, because he was so notoriously cheap.) The gesture still would have further exonerated him from any hint of guilt.

    Finally, Hal, you and I seem to be in a role reversal here. I am a liberal upholding the divine rights of the Plantagenets and you are a conservative defending those liberal parvenu Tudors.


  3. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene —

    As you noted in your initial post, the bodies of the murdered princes were hastily concealed somewhere in the Tower, and did not come to light until the reign of Charles II. Henry VII had no bodies to bury, and probably thought it best to let sleeping Yorkists lie.


  4. Or let lying Tudors sleep.


  5. From Dave Traini, who is using me as his medium (His great beyond is North Carolina):

    Competing against someone on Jeopardy! forges bonds that transcend race, color, creed, political affiliation, and sometimes, good sense; therefore, I am compelled to side with Eugene. I say that Henry VII did it in the conservatory with the candlestick.

    Dave T

  6. Merritt Allen says:

    As a history dilettante, I’m not touching this argument with a ten-foot pole. But I do want to thank Eugene for writing such a kickass post on my birthday!

    I was afraid it was going to be abortion-and-suicidal-drinking humor in honor of Dorothy Parker.

    ….oh, wait…you covered that with Jenna Bush’s engagement.

    At any rate, it was a wonderful, if accidental, birthday gift.

    Cheers! Merritt

  7. Dear Merritt,

    Happy Birthday!

    To quote that Tudor flack:
    “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
    Her infinite variety”

    And I always show the greatest deference to Dorothy Parker. I think of myself as the child that she would have had with Leon Trotsky. (Even in my fantasies, I don’t have Gentile parents.)

  8. Peggles says:

    I still think Richard got a bum rap, the “sainted More” notwithstanding.

    Have you seen Pacino’s “Looking for Richard”? I enjoyed it and its insights.

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply