A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The fifteenth century was not the best time for detailed records of children’s lives, so we not only don’t know about their deaths, we also don’t know much about their lives. What languages did they learn? What games did they play? Were they the sort of boys you’d let your child play with?
What did society owe them? That’s something else that’s just a little uncertain. We know who their father was, but there were some doubts about the marital status of their parents, which meant that their status as heirs to their father was arguable and indeed changed over time.
What we know about them for certain is that they have a modern fan following: these two little boys* were the “Princes in the Tower”. Just the thought of them makes the hearts of their fans sing and means that every year far too many otherwise sane people cry for their deaths.
I can tell you the story of what makes those otherwise sane people cry.
It started with a piece of historical writing written under Henry VII’s rule. This piece of historical writing was modified into another piece of historical writing (which to me reads rather satirically) written privately circa 1513-18. The second piece was by Thomas More, who is now a saint (and, just to make things clear, is also dead) and was published after More’s own tragic and famous execution. It was taken particularly seriously, not because of the tragic fate of the Princes, but because of the tragic fate of More.
Skipping a few centuries, the end result was a vast amount of whimpering over the dreadful and famous (unproven) fate of the two boys and the eventual painting of a glorious picture of them in velvet mourning by Millais in 1878. It also helped considerably that a guy called Shakespeare wrote a brilliant play – based on More’s account – where their uncle was depicted as ultimate evil and their murderer.
In our memories those beautiful children are fascinating, but our memories are created by satires and plays and paintings and other popular manifestations of sentiment. The truth is far more mundane.
The boys’ actual lives and real personalities don’t enter much into history. We know what might have happened to them and interpret their various possible fates using the imagination of great artists, but we don’t know them, as people. This is because who they were as people wasn’t that important.
If the boys weren’t important, then what was?
To my mind it’s that England had a pause in its Wars of the Roses thanks to the life and personality of Edward IV. The Wars of the Roses, though, had always been intermittent and one of Edward’s brothers had (more than once) tried to take the throne. Nothing was secure. The warring parties had simmered down because Edward was a solid presence and had a fine military mind. When he died, though, the simmering pot started to boil again.
Edward was the father of these two young lads. They were potential heirs to his throne. Only ‘potential’ heirs, though – without ability and support and enough maturity, it would be a fight for either of them to claim that throne.
We know the boys could not have commanded armies. It would have shown in chronicles and records of the day if they had any clear military experience. There were earlier potential kings who had such experience. Henry II, for instance, was famous for trying to claim his mother’s crown at age fourteen, He failed. These two little boys were not nearly fourteen. Henry II was an awesome general, but he didn’t gain sufficient maturity to win a war successfully until eighteen.
The military matter was desperately important. An heir had to be able to lead and to govern, and no proof of military skill meant that the boys’ leadership had never, ever been demonstrated, and neither had their maturity. Dealing with an unruly realm is hard, even with military strength.
There was no way they could argue for their inheritance – they didn’t have enough experience to show. Their lack of demonstrated skill was just a part of it.
Their mother and her allies could make the case for the oldest boy to inherit the throne, but that makes their mother and her allies important and the boys just leverage. Their father’s brother (the famous wicked uncle) could have made that argument, but that would have made things very difficult indeed.
In terms of practical politics and stopping the insane cycle of families killing for power, the boys were not the best option. They weren’t a good option at all, in fact, for anyone not a member of their mother’s family.
They had not only not demonstrated leadership potential, but they were young. Very young. Young rulers had not been a cause of recent happiness for England – the last one had, in fact, gone insane.
There was also the very real worry that the boys might be illegitimate – in fact, they were declared so in 1483. Their supporters read this as a blow against them, but it might have been the simple truth.
Even the suspicion of illegitimacy made them problematic heirs.
Worst of all, their mother’s family were hungry for rule. Even people who liked them personally might have been a bit worried that this one family would dominate England and ruin the ambitions of anyone outside that very close and very powerful family.
The only sensible option for England was stable rule and the supposedly evil uncle (who had the military chops and the support of the north) was capable at that moment, of doing the job. He was the best bet the Plantagenet family had and he was bright enough to see this. “The best bet” is never a sure thing and Richard died at Bosworth, in battle, less than three years later. He may have had the support of the north, but his other allies weren’t so loyal.
The winner at Bosworth might have been one of the least attractive men in the popular view of English history. Henry VII wasn’t particularly pretty and he was certainly careful with money (which, in the late fifteenth century was not how kings won popularity) but he managed to bring the country together.
He stayed on the throne long enough so that when he died his son ruled, and then his son’s son, and then his son’s daughter, and then his son’s other daughter. When his son’s other daughter died, everyone mourned the passing of England‘s Greatest Queen and told stories about the way the Spanish Armada was given its comeuppance. They didn’t say “Our lives would have been perfect if only Richard III had ceded the throne to one of his nephews.”
One of the chief reasons Richard was turned into the evilest uncle of all time was because Henry Tudor won at Bosworth. It was nothing to do with the Two Princes.
After Henry became king he staked his claim to the throne and he did it using any number of tactics. He encouraged the writing of histories that made him into the new King Arthur. He married into the family he had deposed. He got rid of a bunch of evidence that showed how his predecessor ran things. And he wasn’t that unhappy (nor were his heirs) when popular literature said nasty things about his predecessor.
Look how much those two boys came into Henry’s picture. They enter only in the name-blackening aspect. Sometimes they appear as true heirs to the English throne, but they never had been established as heirs – just as potential heirs. If they had been a threat to Henry, he would have done something about that, but he didn’t, so the likelihood is that they were either dead or unimportant. In fact, it’s possible that they were dead and unimportant. It’s also possible that one of the ‘false’ claimants to the throne such as Perkin Warbeck was actually one of the princes, in which case that particular prince suddenly becomes much more than a shadow in history’s eye.
One of the big issues about the Princes was the mystery of their death. Richard III has been described as the archetypal evil uncle because many assume him to have murdered the boys. There has been a great deal of argument about the subject. Their (possibly) tragic deaths were, after all, the reason for that famous painting.
The truth is, we know when the two princes were last publicly seen (probably) but we don’t know when they died.
This ‘seeing’ isn’t nearly as important as it looks. Neither of the boys led very public lives. They didn’t do things that put them on the historical record. They didn’t run their own households or sit in parliament or lead even the smallest part of the army.
Maybe we can establish when they died and even if their death was ordered by Richard or Henry. This isn’t impossible. It’s difficult, though, because of the other thing. The thing the sad supporters of these two lads just don’t want to admit: the reason there is a lack of records about them is because they weren’t that important while they were children. They could have been, given time and the right circumstances, but they weren’t.
The rumours about the boys’ deaths were important, I admit, but only as important as the equally strong rumours about them being in hiding for their safety.
After Henry VII gained the throne, the children were irrelevant, since Henry himself was from an entirely new line and besides, married the boys’ sister. Since he became king in 1485, that left the princes less than three years of fame-by-rumour.
So what fates might these two sad souls genuinely have suffered? Richard III might have murdered them. One of his adherents might also have done that deed. Henry VII might have killed them to give himself a stronger claim to the throne. One of his adherents might also have done that deed. Or the boys might have died natural deaths and they may or may not have made their claims to the throne clear in later life.
There are a great number of ‘might haves.’ The truth is, the evidence is scanty and it’s ambiguous and we just don’t know what happened.
Even though we have someone who confessed to murdering the boys (James Tyrrel, one of Richard’s supporters) that confession was extracted under torture. The reports about the rumours, too, come from sources with particular biases that mean they can’t be necessarily taken literally (mostly they were targeted at the French Court, which had its own politics) and don’t show any popular support of the Princes in England.
What’s interesting is that it’s so very important to find out. So very important for so very many people.
I find it passing curious that the memory of two dead children is so much larger than the boys themselves ever were. I find it sad. Who they were as individuals, what they did with their lives will always be obscured by the glamorous picture of black velvet, golden locks, and the looming shadow of that Evil Uncle.
As long as we’re besotted with the memory created for us after 1485, we’ll never know them. This is the irony. All the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth make the Princes in the Tower seem important, but it diminishes their reality. We’ve lost the princes to the propaganda.
Note: If you are fascinated by the fate of the princes, rather than their historical importance, start reading here and work your way through all the surviving evidence. You’ll end up discovering that the jury’s out, but you’ll have had a fine time in the process and learned a great deal about late fifteenth century politics and the interpretation of historical evidence. You’ll also have dinner party conversation topic that will last at least five years.
* A Rolf Harris reference was inevitable. I’m Australian.
Dr Gillian Polack is an historian and writer based in Canberra, Australia. She blogs at Food History (http://www.foodpast.com) and at Even in a Little Thing (http://gillpolack.livejournal.com). Her first novel, Illuminations, can be found at most online bookshops.
She is a Guest of Honour at Conflux (http://www.conflux.org.au), a science fiction convention in Canberra, 3-6 October. People are already preparing impossible historical questions for her to answer: you’re welcome to join them.
Gillian teaches mainly through the Australian National University and the ACT Writers’ Centre. Her next online course, however, is on 14 September at Eneit Press (http://www.eneitpress.com/courses.php) and is a workshop for writers who dream of Medieval settings and who don’t want to make basic errors.
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