Your RDA of Irony

The Karl Roves of Tudor England

August 22, 1485:  Henry VII Becomes King; Machiavelli and MBAs Get a Role Model

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 —

    You write entertainingly as usual, but I have a little trouble with the substance of your argument. Permit me to differ with you on a few points.

    First, the biography of Richard III by that “ambitious lawyer” Thomas More may have been begun in 1518, but was left unfinished when More died in 1535. It was, in fact, not published until 1557. If More’s aim had been to curry favor with the Tudors by writing propaganda for them, he would surely not have taken such pains over the book and would have had it on the stands as soon as possible.

    Second, you say that Richard’s nephews posed no threat to him because they had been declared bastards by Parliament. But this overlooks the fact that royal children were easily bastardized or legitimized in the interest of political convenience. For example, Henry the VIII bastardized his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, but later re-legitimized them and named them heirs in his will after their brother, Edward VI.

    Third, if the princes were alive in 1485 when Henry Tudor landed to claim the English throne, why didn’t Uncle Richard produce them in public? As you correctly point out, “any Yorkist prince or princess was a threat to [Henry]” because his own claims to royal lineage “were tenuous and illegitimate.” By producing his nephews, Richard would, at one stroke, have silenced the rumors — already circulating — that he had murdered them, and undercut Henry’s claim to the crown. That Richard did not do so strongly suggests that he could not produce the boys because they were dead.

    Fourth, it is true that when Henry VII became king, he had Parliament issue a list of Richard’s crimes, and the murder of the princes was not mentioned — at least not explicitly. The list does, however, charge Richard with “the shedding of innocents’ blood” — very likely an oblique reference to the murder of the princes.

    But if Richard had indeed murdered his nephews, why wasn’t that blackest of crimes at the very top of the list? Very simple. At the time, another of Richard’s nephews — Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of the Duke of Clarence who was drowned in the famous butt of malmsey) — was still alive and imprisoned in the Tower by order of Henry VII. So Henry had very good reasons for not working up public sentiment over the fate of poor little princes unjustly imprisoned in the Tower. Edward was reputedly feeble-minded, but Henry later had him beheaded on a trumped-up charge of treason just to be safe. By the way, not wanting to create publicity for the House of York might also be the reason why Henry VII never exhumed the bodies of the princes to give them a Christian burial.

    As for the Queen Mother, by some accounts she was willing to agree to the incestuous marriage of her daughter (who later married Henry VII) to the girl’s Uncle Richard if the pope would sanction such a union. Sentimental fans of Richard III have seized on this as “proof” that Richard never murdered his nephews, because their mother would never have agreed to marry her daughter to her sons’ murderer. Unfortunately for this argument, it can just as easily be used to argue that the princes were dead. Medieval queens were not sentimental — certainly not Elizabeth Woodville, who was rumored to dabble in witchcraft. If her sons were alive, she would have had no motive to strengthen Richard’s grip on the crown by marrying her daughter to him. But if they were dead, then her only bargaining chip was her daughter, and he only chance of holding on to even a scrap of power was by becoming mother-in-law to Richard III, and potential grandmother to a future king.

    Because it is possible to construct such strong cases for and against Richard, the argument is endlessly fascinating. It has already gone on for over 500 years, and it likely to be raging 500 years from now.

    Your turn,


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