History’s Mystery.

Fresh off the presses in England: the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, has been finally found.

Pardon me, but I have to pick up my jaw from the ground. This is absolutely stupendous, in terms of the convoluted mess that was English history at the era of the Wars of the Roses. My English history buff is rejoicing, but now this opens up the door to a whole different can of worms: what exactly was going on before Bosworth?

History tells us what we know for a fact as to how Richard III got killed: Henry Tudor invaded from Brittany. Richard III went out to meet his rival at Bosworth Field, and lost. And he lost, primarily, because Henry Tudor’s stepfather, Lord Stanley, who was married to power mom extraordinaire Margaret Beaufort, switched sides at the very last second and his forces (chances are, Lord Stanley did this himself) ended up killing Richard on the field. But after that, things get muddled.

Per the link above, the skeleton shows extensive head wounds, and an arrow-puncture to the back. A good guess is that Richard has been brought down with the arrow first, and then maced or beaten to death.

The Wars of the Roses were a brutal affair, and if you consider that the Lancaster and York sides were both descended from King Edward III and were so intermarried to maintain power that calling it The Cousins’ War, as many English historians and hist-fic authors had taken to doing – yes, I have Philippa Gregory in mind here – you can call it the greatest family squabble known to man. If you consider the drama of the Plantagenet family in particular, especially Richard’s two brothers, Edward (Edward IV) and George (Duke of Clarence), then man, who needs to watch soap operas. History is enough in and of itself.

The one thing that isn’t clear, however, is exactly what sort of person Richard has been in his very short reign. He was king for only two years prior to his demise, and he found out the very hard way that having power is not what it’s cracked up to be. Shakespeare had taken serious liberties with his reputation, accusing him blatantly of killing the Princes in the Tower, his nephews, and considering the brutalities of battle of the day, having him be all, “A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is ridiculous. See above as far as his injuries. A horse would not at all have helped Richard if he got an arrow in the back. He would’ve slid out of the saddle, and if people were waiting for him to do so – chances are, they were – then he was doomed as soon as that arrow found its target.

The mystery of the Princes in the Tower is directly tied into Richard’s reign. The Princes were his two nephews, sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and upon the death of Edward IV, Edward V was due to come to the throne. Richard Plantagenet was appointed Lord Protector; in other words, he was regent while Edward was growing into adulthood. Richard had grown up watching his brother the king battle repeatedly to defend his throne, even against their middle brother, George. He knew how precious power was back then, and of course, he chose to grasp it for himself. So he held Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York, then twelve and eight (not certain) years old, in the Tower.

Don’t think of him as a horrible person automatically; the Tower was a palace as well as a prison. The boys were allowed to play outside, they received visitors, and likely were treated well. There’s just one small problem: they disappeared.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that they probably died there. Whether it was natural causes – remember, no modern medicine – or not is anyone’s guess, but the accepted theory is that they were killed.

Of course, immediately, the first person suspected was Richard III. Makes sense, though, wouldn’t it? He’s Lord Protector. The only thing standing between him and the throne was those two boys. But he was on the throne already. And atop that, he passed a law that removed them from the succession, alleging that Edward IV was already married at the time of his wedding to Elizabeth Woodville, which made the Princes illegitimate.

Whether or not that is true, anyone’s guess. The common practice for a nobleman to get laid at the time was to promise marriage. If someone were to do that in front of a priest, well, that was just as binding. Sounds ridiculous from today’s standards, but again, we’re talking about the 1400s. But one way or the next, with such a bombshell, the Princes could not inherit. Richard, thusly, had no reason whatsoever to kill them. Moreover, within the family squabbles, aka the multiple battles of the Wars of the Roses, Richard sided with…King Edward IV. He would’ve been quite fond of his nephews.

Let’s also consider that there were other factions jockeying for the throne. Primarily, again, Henry Tudor. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a mastermind plotter. She entered a loveless, purely political marriage with Lord Stanley for no reason other than banking on him supporting the Lancaster claim to the throne through her son. She managed to convince Elizabeth Woodville, who hid in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey at the time of Richard’s ascension, to betroth her oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Henry. And from all reports, Margaret was the power behind the throne after Henry VII took the crown; she signed all correspondence as Margaret Regina (even though her daughter-in-law had the title of queen), and exiled the Dowager Queen to a nunnery. But apart from that, at the time of Richard’s reign, guess who was Constable of the Tower.

Lord Stanley. Her husband.

If Richard wouldn’t authorize the death of two boys for no reason other than being born princes, then I can bet you good money that Lord Stanley and Margaret Beaufort would have no such qualms. The Lancaster faction had been decimated at Towton at the time of Edward IV’s ascension over Henry VI, and Margaret, being direct heiress after Edward of Lancaster (son of Henry VI and Margaret d’Anjou) died at Tewkesbury, would have never, not once, lost sight of the fact that she was of royal blood herself. Family ambition back then was everything, and has been the driving force behind the war to begin with. Margaret knew one thing all her life, and had grown up with it: her son had claim to be King of England. Her husband, Lord Stanley, had a reputation for switching sides for his own benefit. He would never have missed an opportunity to be stepfather to the King of England, even if it meant ordering the deaths of two boys.

Fortunes of war indeed.

But then there’s also a theory – I wouldn’t quite call it a conspiracy theory, but it’s definitely a hypothesis that carries some weight – that only one of the princes died in the Tower, and Elizabeth Woodville saw to it that her son Richard, Duke of York, survived, and another boy took his place when Richard III proposed that both princes should be in the Tower.

And you know what? I actually believe it. I’ll explain why.

Consider the position of Elizabeth Woodville after Edward IV died. She couldn’t rule in her own right, being female. She was terrified that someone would hurt her boys. She was terrified that Henry Tudor would invade and kill her as a bargain. So she went into sanctuary at Westminster, if only to buy time. Edward V, her son, one of the Princes in the Tower, would’ve been in the tower pending his coronation. But Richard, Duke of York, the younger one, was with her at Westminster. Considering that her position was precarious, I’d imagine that she would not trust Richard Plantagenet worth a damn. And Margaret Beaufort started her correspondence with the queen at roughly that time, and would’ve let her know that no plans have been made to crown Edward V. Dead giveaway that Richard Plantagenet was about to seize the crown in his own right. Her position, thusly, would be even more precarious.

And if you had two treasures and worried about thieves, the last thing you would do is keep them in the same box.

Elizabeth Woodville was no fool. As soon as she knew that Edward would not be crowned, boy king or not, she realized that her sons were in danger, Edward for sure because he was in the Tower. She would’ve realized that, eventually, Richard III would ask for her younger son too. Her best bet would’ve been to smuggle the young Richard, Duke of York, out of sanctuary and hide him abroad. Edward IV hid in Flanders at one point in the Wars of the Roses. To save her son’s life, I would imagine that Elizabeth Woodville would’ve taken advantage of any connection her husband may have made there.

And yet, Richard III was saddled with the blame for the Princes’ deaths, historically, and Shakespeare was way, way too happy to go with that. In truth, no one knows for a fact what exactly happened to those boys. There was, however, one impersonator of Richard, Duke of York who was believable enough to marry a Scottish princess, a one Perkin Warbeck. He actually got so far as to get imprisoned by Henry VII, got executed, yes…but no full record of his interrogation apart from one by the very young Thomas More exists, and this makes you wonder as to whether or not Elizabeth Woodville had the wherewithal to smuggle out one of her sons with the hope that he would reach adulthood and reclaim the throne in his own right. Likely, she did. But since we’re about 500 years past that time, unraveling this mystery would be a, pardon the pun, royal pain.

Richard III’s reputation is that of a usurper. Is he one? Yes. No question. Edward, Prince of Wales, was 12 years old, which at the time was the accepted age of adulthood. He should have, for all intents and purposes, been crowned; Henry VI of Lancaster was crowned as a boy too and ruled into adulthood and right up until the Battle of Towton handed the crown to Edward IV. Richard usurped the throne, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his wife, Anne Neville, had something to do with it, considering that her father, Earl of Warwick, was forever known as The Kingmaker. You marry the kingmaker’s daughter, you better believe she would expect you to become king. And if Richard loved his wife, which by all accounts he did, since childhood, then…

Ahhh, history. Who needs television, when you can unravel mysteries past and see what develops?

I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on England as they run with their discovery.

K.G.

ETA: oh, it just got a LOT better. Yes, it got a LOT better! Thanks to the wonderful bit of digital reconstruction, we know now what Richard Plantagenet likely looked like.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-21328380

Accepted portrait: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Richard_III_of_England.jpg

Holy DAMN. Not that I put much stock in medieval portraiture, but…wow. This is absolutely stoke-worthy on all levels. History’s alive and well in modern tech.

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2 thoughts on “History’s Mystery.

  1. What an excellent and very informative article! This has been all over the news here in the UK and been discussed on several radio programmes. It seems to have excited a lot people. Personally, I have been surprised to hear how many supporters Richard 111 has. It seems many think he has been seriously maligned but, as your article points out, we really don’t know enough about him to judge.I shall also be following this discovery. I daresay much more will be said.

    1. Thanks! I’m definitely one of the excited people, but no matter how excited I am as a history lover, the reality is that there’s no way to truly figure out what was going on in the Plantagenet clan unless we were to go back in time. Plus, the historic record of that time is generally sketchy, because a lot of people liked their heads attached to their bodies and Henry VIII – a half-Plantagenet by virtue of Elizabeth of York being his mother – was very particular about body part separation.
      But all joke aside, this will be absolutely fascinating to watch. The case of the Princes in the Tower has been unsolved for way, way too long, and I can bet that this will be the next great mystery of the era to unravel. After all, the monarch responsible for their keeping had just been discovered. :)

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