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Fact and Fiction: The Princes in the Tower

10/12/2013 13:17 GMT | Updated 08/02/2014 10:59 GMT

The Princes in the Tower: Did Richard III Murder his Nephews, Edward V and Richard of York?

Josephine Wilkinson

Amberley, pp190, £18.99,

ISBN 9781445619743

The reign of Richard III provides the historian with an endless minefield of possibilities. From his loyal service to the house of York, through the dramatic events of 1483, which saw the executions of his family and allies, the removal of his nephew from the throne and his own coronation, events will continue to divide those who remain fascinated by this enigma of a man. There is little doubt that the BBC's White Queen series, coupled with the recent exhumation of Richard's bones in Leicester, is responsible for renewed interest in the field, but there is one chapter of his life that sticks out like a sore historical thumb. The pathos of it can still touch us today, across the divide of centuries. In a new book, released this October, Josephine Wilkinson bravely tackles the question head-on: what really happened to Richard's nephews, the Princes in the Tower?

In the spring of 1483, Edward IV died at the age of forty, leaving his twelve-year-old son as his heir. On his way to London for his coronation, the boy was intercepted by his uncle Richard, who imprisoned and executed the child's allies before postponing his coronation date. While the boy and his brother waited in the Tower, they were declared illegitimate by virtue of a pre-contract which alleged their parents' marriage had been invalid. Richard was crowned ten days later and over the summer, the boys were seen less and less until they vanished from sight entirely. That is where the facts end. Yet from these slender historical grains, a wealth of theories have flourished, which encompass the worst possible scenarios of violent murder, through to the fairy-tale possibility that they were spirited away and lives out their lives in bucolic seclusion. It is the unsolved nature of their fates, coupled with their youth, that keeps propelling this question back into the public eye.

Josephine Wilkinson is no stranger to Ricardian study. The author of the widely acclaimed Richard III, the Young King to Be (Amberley 2009) she is currently engaged in writing the second volume, which covers the events of 1483. As she acknowledges in the introduction of this new book on the Princes, the topic is such a huge one that channelling them into a separate book allowed her a degree of catharsis, preventing them from swamping her work on Richard. In this volume, she sheds her accumulated thoughts on the Princes, examines the sources, theories, potential candidates for their murder and possibilities for their survival. Several biographical chapters put the characters of the day into context and are particularly useful in bringing the second Prince, young Richard of York, out of the shadows.

Wilkinson acknowledges that the case doesn't look good for Richard. He "has always been the clear favourite," she establishes as her starting point and "it's easy to see why." Yet by the end of the book, she has travelled a long way from this premise, to reach quite different conclusions. Systematically, she examines the roles of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Henry VII and the Duke of Buckingham, considering their opportunities and motivation, then moves on to the reputed confession of Sir James Tyrell, dispensing with myth and rumour with a muscular analysis. Her chapter on Thomas More is particularly valuable. His text and motivations are complex ones, straddling history and literature, fact and fiction: Wilkinson deciphers the late medieval literary genre of the exemplum tale to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of his "history." Incidentally, she points out that More himself never referred to his work under that title, which has caused considerable debate among historians. Also of interest is her chapter on the rumours of the day, including a wealth of interesting information about the reputation of Richard during his lifetime and the beliefs of his contemporaries regarding the Princes' fates. Analysing all the usual primary sources, she also includes little-known references and details, such as the marginal records in a Bristol mayoral register and a Colchester oath book.

As Wilkinson writes, the reader's expectations build. What will she conclude, when the book's narrative arc forces her to nail her colours to the mast? After separating out evidence from theory and acknowledging the silence of many who knew the most, she firmly arrives at a particular theory. Presenting the notion that significant numbers of Richard's contemporaries believed the Princes had survived, her ideas are perfectly plausible but are still likely to divide Ricardians. Perhaps it is the unresolved nature of the boys' lives that leaves us wanting more; we can always be drawn in by a mystery and Wilkinson handles this well, being decisive in some areas and allowing for glimmers of hope in others. But we only get to glimpse her theory. The book does end abruptly and the reader turns the final page hoping to find greater elaboration; it is rather akin to pointing in the direction of a distant answer and expecting the reader to carry out the exploration for themselves. However, the writing is incisive, rigorous and academic whilst also being accessible and engaging. This new volume on one of the most controversial aspects of Richard's rule provides another step in the revisionist process, by which his reputation is being reassessed in line with the recent archaeological discoveries. Who did it? Was any actual "crime" committed? Wilkinson will certainly get you thinking.