Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

3. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Weir, my favorite popular historian, concludes that Richard III murdered the eponymous princes in the tower. Even to this day, the mystery has not been definitively solved, nor, Weir argues, will it likely ever be. But she bases her conclusions on the existing contemporary evidence, asserting that it is a historian's job to deal in probabilities. And so, while Richard III could not be convicted in a modern court, she feels comfortable pointing her finger.

Weir's evidence and reasoning are strong, but not overwhelmingly so. She bases her conclusions on contemporary or near-contemporary sources, relying most heavily on Italian monk Mancini, Henry VII's Italian biographer Polydore Vergil, the anonymous Croyland Chronicles, and Sir Thomas More's unfinished biography of Richard III. Weir makes strong arguments for the accuracy of these sources, not least of which that they corroborate each other in many places even though the authors were unlikely to be familiar with one another's work. Mancini was a foreigner who could be supposed reasonably impartial, and Vergil's writing does not always cast Henry VII in the best light, suggesting he was not sycophantic. More, of course, was writing likely after Henry VII's death, and personally knew many eyewitnesses and key players in events leading up to the princes' deaths, including a man, James Tyrell, who confessed to killing them. Unfortunately, though Weir thinks this strengthens More's account, his is the only source that claims the princes were smothered in their beds, a popular rumor of how they were killed. The other accounts she so trusts, however, either do not explicitly acknowledge the deaths, claim not to know how they were killed, or allege throat-slitting and poison.

Weir's strongest evidence is that the princes were not seen after Richard's coronation. This is corroborated by all contemporary sources, and why, she questions, would Richard not have produced them alive, if he wished to quell rumours? This is indeed damning, but what I really want to know is, why did he not produce them dead to prove that he was the strongest remaining York claimant to the throne? This is the only question that would make me seriously doubt Weir's conclusions.

I have no doubt that, as Weir claims, Richard was a man perfectly capable of killing his own nephews. Richard is indicated in the death of Henry VI, the king who threatened his older brother's claim to the throne. He would remember how his brother Edward IV had his other brother George executed as a traitor. And it is undisputed that he murdered several lords in cold blood, without trial, because they posed a threat to his usurpation of the throne. This included the brother and son of his sister-in-law the dowager queen, and his brother King Edward IV's best friend. It is not inconceivable that he would have murdered his brother's sons, seeing it as a necessary evil to holding the throne.

But when Henry VI was killed, it was put out that he had died of natural causes, and his body was publicly displayed. I wonder why a similar charade would not have been pulled with the princes. Perhaps he decided not to display the bodies because they would show evidence of the murder, as Henry VI's had done, but if they were smothered, that seems unlikely. Perhaps he thought it just too unlikely to claim that both boys had died at the same time of natural causes. But then again, childhood diseases were common and known to be contagious.

But, of course, Henry VII could not produce the bodies either, indicating that he could not find them. For if the bodies had displayed evidence of murder, it would have been easy to blame Richard. And if he had had them killed, wouldn't he have been informed of where to find the bodies? So I'm back to Richard. Weir successfully discredits accounts that Buckingham or others could have done it, since they were evidently kept so securely that none could enter but by the king's warrant.

The suggestion that the boys survived is discredited since bones that, by all known tests, are likely to be theirs, were discovered in 1674. The two skeletons were determined to be related, of approximately the correct ages, and discovered with velvet bits that dates their deaths between 1483 and 1674. And so, for lack of better evidence, I will have to agree with Weir that Richard III seems the likely culprit.

As always, Weir's history is tightly written in narrative form, strategically organized toward the big reveal, and then, every possible objection is taken down. I strongly recommend her work on historical mysteries in particular, her methodical work makes it easy to see her portrait of history.

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