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Richard III Week: The Shadows in History’s Eye – by Dr Gillian Polack.

Once upon a time there were two little boys. They’re dead. We don’t know when they died.

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 ( and at Even in a Little Thing ( Her first novel, Illuminations, can be found at most online bookshops.

She is a Guest of Honour at Conflux (, 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 ( and is a workshop for writers who dream of Medieval settings and who don’t want to make basic errors.

35 comments on “Richard III Week: The Shadows in History’s Eye – by Dr Gillian Polack.

  1. Anne Brooke
    August 21, 2008

    Fabulous article – and utterly fascinating!


  2. Peta
    August 21, 2008

    A very interesting article that really highlights just how little we actually “know” about these two boys is fact rather than fiction.

  3. RosyB
    August 21, 2008

    I thought they found the skeletons in the tower…I seem to remember something being found when I was a kid and hearing about it on Newsround (!!!) You haven’t mentioned that at all – was that not right?

  4. fuzzyhistory
    August 21, 2008

    Skeletons were found, but the evidence as to who they belong to is inconclusive.

  5. Pingback: Do You Love/Hate Richard III? « Fuzzy History: Learning History through Fiction

  6. marygm
    August 21, 2008

    An excellent piece, Gillian. It gives a great overview to the ignorant (like me) of both the facts and the opinions about the whole issue and all in a very entertaining way! The amount of strong feeling about this is a revelation to me.

  7. Susan Higginbotham
    August 21, 2008

    If Edward IV’s oldest son was only a “potential heir” to the throne, why on July 3, 1471, did the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and a host of other VIP’s swear that that he was “very and undoubted heir to our said lord [Edward IV] as to the crowns and realms of England and France and lordship of Ireland” and agree that in the event of Edward IV’s death, they would “then take and accept you for the very true and rightwise king of England”? (Calendar of Close Rolls). Why did Richard, Duke of Gloucester himself, immediately after Edward IV’s death, go to York and pledge his loyalty to Edward V as king? Why did Richard, as protector, make preparations–whether or not in good faith–for Edward V’s coronation if he was only a “potential” heir to the throne?

    Previous heirs to the throne who were minors when their fathers died natural deaths–Henry III, Richard II, and Henry VI–were not expected to fight to claim the throne or to “demonstrate leadership potential”; indeed, it would have been impossible for any of these youngsters to do so, given their very young ages at the time. And while all of these kings had serious shortcomings as kings, most of the tumult associated with their reigns took place while they were grown men. (Incidentally, another boy king, Edward III, grew up to have a very successful reign.)

    To suggest that Edward V somehow deserved to be dethroned because he was a mere child is, quite simply, blaming the victim.

  8. Joanne
    August 21, 2008

    Why were the boys only ‘potential’ heirs??? They were the sons of the king of England, and by the laws of primogeniture, most certainly *were* Edward IV’s heirs. Age had nothing to do with it. Ability to command armies had nothing to do with it. ‘Leadership potential’ had nothing to do with it. Ability to ‘argue for their inheritance’ had nothing to do with it. They didn’t have to argue anything! Henry III succeeded his father King John at the age of 9 in 1216, and the country was deeply ‘unruly’ at the time – John had lost control of half his kingdom and the son of the king of France had invaded and been proclaimed king of England. Richard II succeeded his grandfather Edward III in 1377 at the age of 10, despite the fact that Edward III had 3 adult sons living. Henry VI succeeded his father in 1422 at the age of 9 months. Yes, his reign turned out disastrously, but there’s no way anyone could have known that at the time. His father Henry V had 2 adult brothers still alive – so what? It didn’t occur to anyone that either of them should be king instead. England was arguably as ‘unruly’ in 1216, 1377 and 1422 as in 1483, thanks to the French invasion (1216) and wars with France (1377 and 1422).

    What an utterly bizarre (and completely false) argument you present here. The boys had no reason to fight for their claim to their father’s throne. It belonged automatically and by right to Edward V, with his brother the duke of York next in the succession.

    “The only sensible option for England was stable rule” Agreed. Which is why there was a regency council to govern the country until Edward V – who was proclaimed king of England, though I notice that you never call him ‘Edward V’ here – until he came of age. The duke of Gloucester had NO right whatsoever to take the English throne.

  9. Nicola Slade
    August 21, 2008

    An interesting and balanced article.
    When I was thirteen I read ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey and, along with an awful lot of other people, fell in love with Richard III. I know her book was a novel but the most compelling argument she came up with was that Richard was a sensible, practical man of action and if he had wanted the boys dead, dead they would have been – and displayed as such with a suitable accompaniment of mourning and moralising about the dangers of plague/smallpox/whatever.
    But as Gillian says, we simply don’t know. And we probably never will, but tomorrow (22nd August) there will be a notice in the In Memoriam column of the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, mourning the death of King Richard – it’s inserted yearly by the Richard III society whose president is Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Living history, I love it!

  10. Susan Higginbotham
    August 21, 2008

    “the reason there is a lack of records about them is because they weren’t that important while they were children. ”

    Eh? There are records regarding the childhood of Edward V, albeit not extensive ones–but in that respect he’s little different from other children of English medieval kings. The fact that someone wasn’t lurking about, recording the age at which Edward V was potty-trained and when he bagged his first deer, doesn’t mean he was regarded as unimportant by his contemporaries or that he was not regarded as the heir to the throne.

  11. Marie Walsh
    August 21, 2008

    I agree that, so far as most people believed, Prince Edward was the heir of Edward IV and not the “potential heir”. But there are significant differences between the situation in 1483 and the situations of the other boy kings.

    The first issue has to do with the practicalities. The dynastic wars had led to a situation where only a strong leader could keep the country from descending into chaos. They had also weakened people’s innate sense that the succession was a cut-and-dried affair.

    Secondly, I take issue a bit with Gillian Polack over the idea that Edward IV had maintained peace and stability for 20 years. He further destabilised an already unstable political scene by a clandestine marriage to one of his own subjects, a lady with a large, hitherto Lancastrian, family who proceeded to cause resentment by gobbling up most of the available noble heirs and political appointments. Edward was constantly plagued by treason and plots against his throne, and indeed lost it altogether at one point, so that he actually has two separate reigns. During his second reign, he became so nervous of his nearest brother, Clarence, that he had him executed.
    Somehow, with all his gaffes and laziness, Edward survived through a combination of intelligence, good luck, charm and amazing military skills when he did get himself roused.

    But, having said all this, what made the deposition of the elder prince (Edward V) possible rather than just desirable were the serious doubts about his legitimacy. To start with, his father’s own legitimacy had been questioned since at least 1469; there were claims that his own mother had denounced him as a bastard, and it is certainly the case that his father was away on campaign 9 months before his birth. Whether there was any truth in the slur, it had fuelled Clarence’s scheming for the throne in 1469 and again in the 1470s.
    And the circumstantial evidence suggests that Edward IV may indeed have already been secretly married when he secretly married the Princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville. There was no protection in canon law for the innocent party to a bigamous marriage unless it was conducted with the proper issue of banns; IF the precontract story was true, there was no way the Princes could be legitimate.

    So in my view it was a combination of factors – the claims of illegitimacy, fear of complete takeover by his mother’s family, and fear of renewed civil war – that led to the deposition of Edward V and enabled his uncle to claim the throne. Very sad for the boys, but not proof that their uncle was a monster. Indeed, Richard may well have seen taking the throne as not only his right but as necessary for the survival of himself and his own family; the irony is, of course, that they were all dead in not much more than two years anyway.

    What became of the Princes? Everyone has their preferred theory, but we have no proof. The bones in the Tower are almost certainly not theirs as they were simply found too deep and appear to have been too young (and possibly bits & bobs from more than two people).

  12. Eventone
    August 21, 2008

    Yes, just as Marie Walsh states above regarding the fate of the princes, “we have no proof.” Just as we have no proof that Edward IV was an illegitimate bigamist and no proof his lawful heirs were thus illegitimate. Covenient argument to support Richard III’s usurpation, by no means irrefutable.

  13. Eventone
    August 21, 2008

    Aside from fictional and slanderous thumbnail sketches of Edward IV, please read what historians down the centuries have written about him and his reign. Balance you know.Thank you to the EdwardtheFifth website.

  14. Jackie
    August 21, 2008

    I wonder if people will be arguing 500 years from now about anything taking place in the present time? Maybe JFK’s assasination would provide a similar mystery? But it would lack the contrast of little kids=innocence. I think that’s a large part of what keeps folks debating this issue, the fact that it was children who disappeared. It feels so much worse than if it had been adults.
    This was a very stark post from Dr. Polack, very blunt and very brave.

  15. marygm
    August 21, 2008

    I am fascinated by this debate but, as a complete royalty-ignoramus, (I’m not British) is there anyone who could explain to me why any of this matters?

  16. Marie Walsh
    August 21, 2008


    Could Eventone let us know what she considers to be the fictional items in the posts on Edward IV?


  17. Genie Tyburski
    August 21, 2008

    marygm, I think that’s the post author’s point. Why does it matter? My answer would be because it changed the course of history. We’ll never know how Edward V would have had an impact on the future of his country, or if he would have had an impact. But the events that took place – those we know for certain and those we don’t – lead to the Tudor regime, for better or for worse.

  18. marygm
    August 21, 2008

    Genie Tyburski, Thank you for answering but I am still having trouble understanding. So many things over the past 500 years could have been different and could have changed the course of history but why the level of concern for this particular incident? And I wonder too about how big an impact one person can really have over the course of history, no matter how powerful – so many other external factors mould his decisions and actions.

  19. Eventone
    August 21, 2008

    As I stated, there is absolutely no authentic historical proof available that Edward IV was an illegitimate bigamist or that his sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were illegitimate. Rumors, speculation and personal belief is not history.If anyone can produce documented evidence supporting these slanders I would be anxious to read them.

  20. Margaret Donsbach
    August 21, 2008

    An amusing but very sound analysis from Dr. Polack. Perhaps a new document will turn up someday that will provide more evidence, one way or another, on what happened to these boys. The portrayal of this period in art and fiction seems to veer between one extreme and the other – Richard is either a monstrously ambitious child-killer or a near saint. Life is generally more ambiguous than that.

    As Dr. Polack says, children the age of the young princes are not capable of wielding power on their own or making the complex judgments involved in governing. Whatever happened to them, it was inevitable they would be the pawns of others until they grew old enough to make their own decisions. I think this period of history is so fascinating because, first, it’s easy to sympathize with children who are more important to their elders as vehicles to power than for their own sakes, and second, because the power struggles during the Wars of the Roses came to a head after Edward IV’s death, with several different factions vying for power in a variety of different ways, and power struggles are always interesting.

  21. Marie Walsh
    August 22, 2008

    I’m afraid that rumours and personal beliefs that people held at the time ARE part of history since they affected what people did.

    I was very careful not to say that Edward IV was illegitimate, but the rumour of his illegitimacy (to which the unfortunate timing of his birth lent some credence) did affect what happened. For instance, its first use in 1469 was by Warwick and Clarence when they rebelled against Edward IV. Repeating this rumour again during the 1470s was one of the things Clarence died for – and that is set down in the Act of Attainder against
    “And ouere this the said Duke, beyng in full purpose to exalte hym self’ and his heirez to the Regallye and Corone of Englande and clerely in opinion to putte aside from the same for euer the said corone from the kyng and his heirez vppon oon the falsest and moost vnnaturall coloure & pretense that man myght Imagyne, falsely and vntruely noysed, publisshed and saide that the kyng oure souereigne lorde was a bastard and not begotinne to reigne vppon vs. And, to contynue and procede ferther in this his moost malicious and traytorous purpose, after this lothely false and sedicious langage shewed and declared amonges the people, he enduced dyuerse of the kynges naturall subgettes to be sworne vppon the blessed Sacrament to be true to hym and his heires noon excepcion reserved of theire liegeaunce.” (PRO KB 8/1/1)

    Similarly, we have no proof that Edward IV’s marriage was bigamous, but it is recorded that evidences were submitted at the time, and enough people accepted the story to enable Edward V to be set aside. That is history.

    Absolute proof is something that we have for almost nothing in the fifteenth century, and if we make that our benchmark we might as well give up medieval studies altogether. We have no proof either that the precontract story was made up by Gloucester and his cronies. This has to be dealt with soberly, not dismissed as an unfit subject for discussion. Difficult questions like why Henry VII never managed to get Stillington (the priest who supposedly witnessed or performed the first marriage) to retract the story, and why he ended his days under house arrest, have to be tackled.
    As with the story of Edward IV’s own bastardy, however, the historical significance of the precontract allegation has to do with the uses to which it was put and not with its intrinsic truth or falsity.

  22. Hilary
    August 22, 2008

    Marie Walsh said:

    “Similarly, we have no proof that Edward IV’s marriage was bigamous, but it is recorded that evidences were submitted at the time, and enough people accepted the story to enable Edward V to be set aside.”

    Well, I think it wasn’t a question of enough people accepting it, so much as the right people, i.e. those who had the upper hand at the time.


    “As with the story of Edward IV’s own bastardy, however, the historical significance of the precontract allegation has to do with the uses to which it was put and not with its intrinsic truth or falsity.”

    That is indeed the point. As Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis say in their short, accessible and fascinating book ‘Royal Bastards of Medieval England’: “In fifteenth century English politics, an allegation of bastardy was never more than a make-weight. Political and military power were the factors which tipped the scales.”

    I do recommend this book – extremely informative on the nature of betrothal consent in marriage, consanguinity, pre-contract and divorce, and the significance of these ‘variables’ in marriage in medieval politics. Ricardians should make sure their blood-pressure medication is to hand, though … .

  23. Col
    August 22, 2008

    Good points about the Stillington house arrest. The evidences given at the time were believed and set down, and enacted in law. It holds with everything that happened to Eleanor Butler too. Until the Stillington situation arose, Richard of Gloucester seemed to be planning the coronation of Edward V with no indications to the contrary. Then this thing stopped it all in its tracks. He was prepared to be protector – not an ideal situation but the one left to him by Edward’s premature demise.

    I don’t believe Edward IV himself was illegitimate.

  24. Eventone
    August 22, 2008

    Rumors themselves obviously affect history, no argument there. Again, theunsubstantiated rumors are not historical fact,no matter what the outcome. Marie, would you agree that all recorded contemporary rumors naming Richard as the murderer of the Princes are credible? After all, enough of Edward IV and V’s servants accepted these rumors as truth to rebel against Richard and eventually join Henry Tudor.That is history as well.

    Perhaps a brave author could write a book titled Edward IV and his son Edward V, the Maligned Kings.Defense of them appears to be a topic distasteful to many Ricardians.One has only to peruse the Yahoo R3 message board to realize that. Blaggards and dem bones indeed.

  25. Pingback: Coming Attractions: Richard III Week. « Vulpes Libris

  26. Susan Higginbotham
    August 22, 2008

    Stillington was briefly held in captivity by Edward IV in 1478, and then spent the rest of Edward IV’s reign as a free man. Immediately after Bosworth, he was arrested by Henry VII, but then was pardoned in November 1485. Only in 1487 was he arrested again. He was kept in captivity at Windsor for a time, but, according to W.E. Hampton in an article for The Ricardian, was at one of his episcopal manors by 1489. As Marie mentions, he appears to have been under house arrest.

    I think that if Stillington was indeed a witness to the precontract, he wouldn’t have survived the reign of Edward IV, who could have easily arranged for an “accident” to befall the bishop if he believed that he possessed information that threatened the succession to the throne. And Henry VII’s release of him after his 1485 arrest, and even the fact that Stillington ended his days under house arrest than under strict captivity, suggests that Henry VII didn’t regard him as possessing dangerous information. It seems likely that his 1487 arrest was associated with the Lambert Simnel affair.

    It’s worth pointing out that as far as I’ve heard, only one source, Philippe de Commynes, names Stillington as having officiated at the supposed precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler. In the very next paragraph, Commynes states twice that Richard III had his nephews murdered. If Commynes was wrong about this, as most of Richard III’s supporters believe, it seems just as likely that he was wrong about Stillington, whom he also accuses of having a son whom he attempted to marry to one of Edward IV’s daughters.

  27. Marie
    August 22, 2008

    Hello to Eventone.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the unsubstantiated rumours are not historical fact”. It is an historical fact that there were rumours. It is also a fact that they cannot be proven to be either true or false.
    I am sure you are not suggesting that one cannot refer to rumours as factors in events unless one personally believes the rumours to be true; or unless one believes one can prove them to be true, so I’m not sure where we differ.
    I agree with you absolutely that the rumours that Richard murdered the Princes (and, later, that he poisoned his wife) had a large part to play in his downfall.
    I have no intention of being pigeonholed. There are those on both sides of the divide who will brook no dissent and no discussion of awkward topics. I’ve fallen foul of some over-zealous Ricardians in the past for a willingness to question various items of faith, so I can’t be going too far wrong.

    Stifling debate (which I’m sure you do not intend to do) would obviously not move our understanding on one jot.
    If you want my personal view, I am inclined to credit the precontract story because Stillington seems to have received no reward from Richard, because he was hounded by Henry VII, and because no attempt was ever made to refute the story. The Act setting out Richard’s claim was, as I’m sure you know, not repealed by Henry VII’s parliament in the normal way, but destroyed unread, and we only know the true identity of the alleged first wife because of a copy of the Act that survived and turned up over a century later.

    Do I believe the rumours that Richard murdered the Princes are credible? Credible to whom? To me? to Elizabeth Woodville? To old servants of Edward IV? To people who knew Richrd personally? The rumours were clearly credible to a number of people in the South, particularly early on, but there are signs (in my humble opinion) that certain folk close to the centre of events may have come to have their doubts, either that Richard was responsible, or that they were both definitely dead. Why did their mother send her daughters out of sanctuary to Richard, and why did she write to Dorset, her son by her first marriage, to leave Tudor and come home? And why did he try to do so? Why did Dorset spend time in the Tower during Henry’s reign? Why was Henry Tudor so keen to use the rumours of Richard’s desire to marry Elizabeth of York as a pretext to look elsewhere for his own bride? Why do Portuguese sources claim he first tried to marry Joanna of Portugal when he became king? Why did he not take steps to marry Elizabeth until Parliament got very shirty about it? I could go on.
    If Richard murdered them, why did he not let anyone know they were dead?

    As for needing to be brave to write a book that is pro Edward V – I don’t think you need worry since that is, after all, the line of virtually the entire academic establishment.

    Come on, take your courage in your hands and tell us what you think and why. You will not be eaten, I promise.

  28. marie
    August 22, 2008

    Susan Higginbotham is quite right that we only have Commines for Stillington being the source of the precontract story, and that isn’t very great. It’s a great example of just how far we are from being able to prove most accepted “facts” about this period.
    Since there are no competing claims about the source of the story from other chroniclers, and since we do have documentation (I’m sorry I can’t remember the source) showing that Stillington drafted Titulus Regius, the Act of Parliament setting out Richard’s claim to the throne, the main plank of which was the precontract, I’m prepared to accept it as a working hypothesis.
    Whether his various arrests constitute sufficient trouble for an elderly cleric with such knowledge, that really has to be a matter of opinion. Obviously Edward IV in 1478, and Henry VII in 1485, had something against him and it can’t then have been to do with Lambert Simnel. So if it was not the precontract, what else might it have been?
    His crime in 1478 was “uttering words prejudicial to the King and his state.”

    In 1485 he fled north immediately after Bosworth as though he were expecting trouble, and Henry’s men were hard on his heels, Robert Rawdon being issued the day after the battle with a warrant for the arrests of Stillington and Sir Richard Ratcliff (the ‘Rat’ out of the trio of Richard’s three right-hand men, who actually transpired to have died in the battle). The warrant merely says that Stillington and Ratcliff, “adherents and assistants to our great enemy, Richard, late duke of Gloucester, to his aid and assistance have in diverse ways offended against the crown to us of right appertaining. We will and charge you, and by this warrant commit and give you power, to attach the said bishop and knight and them personally bring unto us. . . .”
    Rawdon missed Stillington, who was probably hiding at his birrthplace, now his nephew Thomas’ manor, of Nether Acaster south of York. He was arrested on the 25th by a messenger of Henry’s heading for York, but apparently not before he had managed to secrete a number of unspecified “evidences” with nephew Thomas.

    In November Henry’s first parliament denounced Stillington “for horrible and heinous offences imagined and done . . . as well against your Highness as otherwise.”
    Ratcliff had been central to Richard’s regime, but the elderly Stillington had held no office under Richard III. Was all this really about nothing more than a clerical role in drafting Titulus Regius?

    Yes, he was pardoned at the end of November, but perhaps not rehabilitated as very the next day a document was issued referring to one Hugh Sugar as his Vicar-General, Stillington being “engaged in remote parts out of his diocese”; and the following summer (1486) he was bound to the King in £1,000 not to leave the country or attempt anything against the King. So his re-arrest in Oxford in the spring of 1487, after a frenzied and farcical exchange of correspondence between King Henry and the university, was the culmination of an existing trend.
    Stillington was an old man who’d not been well enough in the early 1470s to continue as Chancellor. When he was brought a prisoner into York after Bosworth he was so ill after what he’d been through he had to be allowed to stay in the city for a while to recuperate. Not the sort of candidate you’d expect to be heading the list of dangerous rebels and traitors.
    So, if not the precontract, then why?

  29. carol fripp
    August 22, 2008

    A modern play called “Dark Sovereign” goes a long way to
    explaining Richard III. The play’s author, my husband Robert
    Fripp, became so incensed with the continuing triumph of Tudor
    propaganda that he spent four years writing a better play than
    Shakespeare, doing it with minute precision in Shakespeare’s
    English the better to compete against the Bard. He contends
    that “Dark Sovereign” effectively challenges Shakespeare’s
    “Richard III.” You can read excepts from “Dark Sovereign”
    (dark as in ‘dark horse’ = an unknown quality) on Robert’s web
    page, Menu>”Dark Sovereign”. Robert
    read these excerpts, with help from local actors, in an
    appearance at the joint annual general meeting (R III
    Societies of Canada and the U.S.) a couple of years ago in

    He intends to publish the complete edition of Amazon next
    year. This is no lightweight project. At full length, “Dark
    Sovereign” runs longer than “Hamlet” making it the longest
    single-part play in Renaissance English which has come down to
    us. (That web page also gives you reviews of the text by
    people in positions to know.)

  30. Jennifer
    August 23, 2008

    Gillian, thanks for posting this interesting and erudite article. You’ve stimulated a number of comments. The princes may be long dead, but the debate continues. As a fellow Australian, I appreciated the Rolf Harris reference.

  31. Eventone
    August 23, 2008

    Hello Marie.Susan, your comment about Stillington having been named by Commynes as the precontract priest is exactly the kind of double standard cherry picking I am referring to.Many who believe the best of Richard accept info which appears to exonerate him, while often rejecting that which does not.

    Marie, you are reading much too much into my opinions regarding rumors. Nowhere did I suggest stifling mention of them and nowhere did I dismiss their importance.The repetition of rumors does not make them truth. Repetiton of rumors in scholarly or fictional publications is a historical fact, and it is truth that these rumors have oft been repeated,it does not make the content of the rumor truth.

    Edward’s bastardy?In her will, Cecily Neville declares Edward IV to have been the son of the Duke of York. I suppose this could be construed as another Tudor coercion. For my money I’ll take the last words of the Duchess of York to be truth.

    Stillington’s brief imprisonment in 1478 could just as easily have been for daring to make indiscrete remarks in defense of Clarence.At this point I suspect Edward would not be in the mood to ignore anything resembling dissent.

    Stillington’s arrest by H7 just after Bosworth? From Tudor’s point I’d be anxious to punish the purported author of Titulus Regius, the document declaring my future royal bride a bastard.The bride who was essential to cement initial acceptance of my right to rule. Certainly not evidence that TR was based on anything more than old rumor.

    Tudor’s destruction of TR, without Parliamentary approval? Perhaps Henry found it imprudent to publicly emphasize his shaky claim to the throne, just as Richard remained silent on the fate of the Princes.Pure speculation of course.

  32. marie
    August 23, 2008

    Hello “Eventone”,

    I think it’s rather unfair to refer to acceptance of Commines’ identification of Stillington as the source of the precontract story as “cherrypicking” since there is no other version. Admittedly we don’t accept everything Commines says because for a lot of his claims – like Richard killing the Princes – he was not in a position to know the truth. What gives the Stillington story some credibility is the coincidence that he did draft the bill, and the fact that his is not a name that would have been particularly familiar in France, so not a likely candidate for a baseless foreign yarn.
    It doesn’t really help or hinder the case for or against Richard so it is not cherrypicking in any partisan sense, and it has, for all practical purposes, been accepted by most writers of all persuasions.
    I on’t find the treatment of him by Edward and Henry VII as easy to dismiss as you do. So far as I know, people performing merely clerical tasks – even drafting attainders – were not usually punished after regime change.

    I was careful to state in my post that I was sure you personally were not trying to stifle debate.
    And nowhere did I suggest that rumours have to have been true to have historical significance. I am quite sorry to have to repeat this, now for the third time!

    have not in any of my posts given any personal opinion regarding Edward’s bastardy. I don’t have one in the sense that without DNA tests we will not have proof either way, and to plump firmly for either option in the current state of knowledge would be cherrypicking. But since you are so convinced one way,, I will put the case largely for the other to balance the books.
    It is certainly cherrypicking to completely dismiss the idea given the length and timing of the Duke of York’s absence at the siege of Pontoise. We don’t have to decide absoultely what we “believe” about anything. In this particular case it is more than usually irrelevant as no one but Cecily (and perhaps not even she) could have known the truth for sure. We merely have to analyse events and behaviour in the light of the allegation being “out there”.

    I am well aware of the contents of Cecily’s will (its entire contents). The evidence vis-a-vis Cecily, Clarence and Edward is ambivalent, and in the end doesn’t tell us very much except that Cecily did have Fotheringhay taken from her, almost certain forcibly, but was compensated a month later, and that she was party to the plans for Clarence and Isabel’s marriage and didn’t inform the King. But she was certainly on Edward’s side during the Re-adeption of Henry VI etc.
    Cecily usually referred to herself with a variant of “By the rightful inheritors, wife late of the Reign of England & of France of the lordship of Ireland, the King’s mother the Duchess of York”, or “King’s mother Cecill, duchess of York, late wife unto Richard, rightful king of England”. Only on two occasions is she referred to in such a way as to name York as Edward’s father: I think the first is her membership of the Holy Trinity Guild, Luton, and it may be relevant that this was just before Edward set off for France.
    Frustratingly, we only have the enregistered copy of her will, not the original, so we have no way of identifying later amendments. The sentences naming York as Edward’s father are a bit of a mouthful:-
    “I Cecill, wif vnto the right noble Prince Richard, Late duke of yorke, Fader vnto the most Cristen prince my Lord and son king Edward the iiiijthe, the furst day of Aprill . . . make and ordeigne my testament . . . . I bequeith . . . my body to be buried beside the body of my moost entierly bestbeloued Lord and housbond, Fader vnto my said Lorde and son, and in his tumbe within the Collegiate church of Fodringhay, if myn executours by the sufferaunce of the king finde good sufficient Therto. . . . ”
    There’s a bit of an extraneous ‘and’ there. It is worth bearing in mind that Cecily was a consummate political survivor, and that she needed the King’s support (possibly financial as well as practical) to get her body brought from Berkhamsted up to Fotheringhay.

    I don’t know what to think, but the rumour was – and this is fact – a big hot potato for Edward; modern disparagement of its importance at the time is quite misguided. I am personally convinced through my reading of events that Clarence (who was selfish but intelligent) genuinely believed the rumour, but whether that was because he had proof of it, or because it was in his own interest to believe it, we cannot know.


  33. Ruth Roberts
    July 5, 2009

    Hi! I happened upon this discussion through the Richard III Society website; I’ve been a member of the society for several years. I am a committed Ricardian but was also trained as an historian and am fully aware of the need for as much objectivity as possible. I have just spent a delightful afternoon reading all the comments and have enjoyed the wonderfully civil and literate discourse of all involved.
    I think the vast amount of historical novels written about this period have done more to shape most people’s positions than the actual historical scholarship. I speculate that if you like a character, you then identify with the person subconciously (or consciously) when doing serious scholarship and reading serious nonfiction. I read Anya Seton’s “Katherine” in grade school and was pro-early Lancastrian. I found “The Daughter of Time” in junior high and converted to “Yorkism.” Having admitted my biases, I would like to mention that the detective in “DoT” prides himself on his ability to detect character from faces. I spent several years as a fraud investigator and as an administrative law judge, and, from my experience, think he may be on to something. No hunch derived from examining faces would be legally acceptable but it is my experience that it sometimes shows on a person’s face when he or she is lying. When I look at the famous Portrait Gallery picture of Richard, I agree with the detective. I just don’t see a villain.
    I also think that being pro-Ricardian does not necessarily make one anti-Edward IV and the princes. Richard was loyal to Edward IV while EIV was alive and I don’t completely buy into the arguments for EIV’s illegitimacy. I do believe that the boys were. There is simply not enough categorical proof.
    By the way, there was a C-Span program a year or two ago in which the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist conducted a mock trial of Richard using modern legal standards and found him innocent.
    Anyway, I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion and, as a compulsive bookworm , am very pleased to have found this group. Thank you all for a lovely time!

  34. Pingback: Writer-a-Day: Gillian Polack reading from “Life Through Cellophane” « Varuna, The Writers House Blog

  35. Kate
    February 5, 2013

    I read The Daughter of Time and was converted to the primacy of historical evidence. Thank you (several years later) Gillian, for a really excellent post. And thank you to all the Ricardians who posted at length for a startling reminder of how deeply into this rather trivial episode some people get. Wow.

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