New evidence: Was Richard III guilty of murdering the Princes in the Tower?

Records in Canterbury could hold a clue to the king’s role in his nephews’ demise.

The recent discovery of Richard III’s bones has reignited the debate over the fates of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. An urn in Westminster Abbey contains the mixed bones that were discovered buried under a flight of steps in the White Tower, in 1674, and may hold the final key to their identities. However, even if royal permission were granted for the extensive DNA testing required, this would only prove the fact of their deaths, rather than the names of the perpetrators. The true story of the unfortunate boys’ murder(s) when they were aged twelve and nine will probably never be known. However, while undertaking research for my biography of Richard III’s wife, I discovered information that could imply their uncle’s guilt.

Last seen in early July 1483, the boys vanished from sight after being declared illegitimate in a sermon preached by Dr Shaa at St Paul’s Cross, just days before Richard became king. Their father, Edward IV had died at the age of forty, fully expecting his eldest son to inherit his throne. But on his way to London from Ludlow, the Prince was intercepted by his uncle, removed from his mother’s relatives and lodged in the Tower. Hidden away deep behind its age-old walls, the princes’ royal blood made them dangerous claimants to the throne, to whom many of their father’s former staff would prove unfailingly loyal. With their parents’ marriage called into question, as well as rumours regarding the circumstances of their father’s conception, Richard may have hoped that the problem of the two little boys may simply have disappeared. They did, but the problem didn’t. It is still raging, over five centuries later.

Now new evidence has come to light, suggesting a possible solution that is resonant of another English king, the sort of indirect murder through wish-fulfilment that had seen Henry II’s knights dispatch his archbishop, Thomas Becket in the 12th century. Undertaking research on Richard’s reign, I unearthed records of his activities in Canterbury, six months after the boys’ disappearance, which may offer evidence that the King had something weighty on his conscience.

Richard was in the north during the summer and early autumn of 1483 when the deaths of the Princes are thought to have occurred. While it is generally accepted that he did not wield the knife in person, popular theories – and Shakespeare’s famous depiction – have his agents stealing into the Tower at dead of night and smothering the boys in their sleep. Richard’s servant, James Tyrrell, who confessed to the murders during the reign of Henry VII, was in London early in September 1483, collecting clothing from the Tower for the investiture at York of Richard’s son, Edward, as Prince of Wales. He had the opportunity to commit the crimes in the King’s absence, but did he have royal permission?

Following the Becket theory, Tyrrell may have understood his King’s secret wish that the inconvenient boys be dealt with. In an unguarded moment, Richard may even have wished out loud that they would vanish into thin air, which a loyal but unscrupulous servant could have taken as an indirect order. Perhaps it was even intended as such. Tyrrell or another may have carried out the deed without royal sanction, in anticipation of rich rewards. He was appointed as High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1484 but then went to France, returning only after Bosworth; his confession was “extracted” following his support of Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole in 1501. Whether or not Tyrrell was responsible, at some point in the autumn, the murderer found a way to communicate their deed to the King, whose reaction can only be wondered at. It was a political godsend for Richard, but in terms of his immortal soul, it was disastrous.

A statue of King Richard III stands in Castle Gardens near Leicester Cathedral, close to where the body of Richard III was discovered. Photograph: Getty Images

This is where my research comes into play. Back in the 1980s, Anne F Sutton identified that a visit Richard made to Canterbury soon after his reign must have taken place early in 1484. Until then, he was busy dealing with Buckingham’s rebellion, establishing his new royal household and preparing for his first parliament. Under the aegis of visiting the port of Sandwich, Richard stayed in the city, being offered £33 6s 8d in gold, contributed by the mayor, councillors and “the better sort of persons of the city,” although he did not accept it. The mayoral accounts indicate how he was catered for, through payments made to a local supplier: John Burton received £4 for “four great fattened beefs” and 66s 8d for “twenty fattened rams.” Payments were also made for carpentry work and for the carriage of furniture and hangings to the royal lodgings.

Traditionally, visiting monarchs would reside in the well-appointed, central Archbishop’s Palace or at St.Augustine’s Abbey, as Henry VIII frequently did and Elizabeth would do in 1573. However, I uncovered a reference in the city accounts to Blene Le Hale, outside the walls, suggests Richard did not stay within the city itself. He may have lodged at Hall Place, which from 1484, was owned by a Thomas Lovell, a possible relative of Richard’s childhood friend Francis. It is more likely, though, that he stayed in “large temporary buildings around a great tent called le Hale” on the edge of Blean forest, elsewhere called the Pavilion on the Blean. This was on the top of the hill still known as “Palmer’s (or pilgrim’s) Cross,” where the modern village of Blean overlaps Upper Harbledown. As a local resident, who studied the history of the area whilst doing my MA, I was aware of the significance of this location along the Canterbury pilgrimage route. Just as the devout did in Walsingham, many pilgrims removed their shoes in Harbledown, or “hobble-down” for the final mile and walked, penitent and barefoot, down the hill to Becket’s shrine.

In Chaucer’s late 14th century work, The Canterbury Tales, the village was also known as “Bobbe-up-and-down,” due to the poor condition of its roads. In the 1483-4 city accounts, payments were listed for repairs to the road in advance of Richard’s visit. If the King undertook the barefoot walk to make offerings at the shrine, he would have been walking in the footsteps of another notorious monarch. Three hundred years earlier, Henry II had taken that route as penance for his role in the death of Thomas Becket. Did Richard make an offering at the sainted Archbishop’s tomb? Did he, like Henry, have a burden on his conscience that he sought to alleviate?

There is no question that Richard made any sort of public penance. He did not moan or flagellate himself in public as the former King had. He was however, a devout man, even by the standards of the time, whose religious conviction is one of the aspects agreed upon by many of those who debate his motives and reputation. Of course he could not have openly bewailed their deaths in public, as this would necessitate confessing his guilt by association. Instead, he may have visited Canterbury Cathedral in order to make his peace with God. No court of law would convict Richard of the boys’ death on the surviving evidence alone; a Channel 4 televised court drama of 1984 put Ricardian and pro-Tudor experts into the witness box but after much discussion, the jury were forced to conceded that the case was not strong enough to convict him.

The truth of the Prince’s fate will probably never be known, even if the bones in the Westminster urn one day confirm that they suffered a violent death. If one of Richard’s servants had carried out the boys’ murders in his name, as I suggest, this may have represented a struggle between the nature of his succession and his religious conviction. He may have benefited, so he thought, from the boy’s deaths but gone on to undertake this atonement for the sake of his own soul. In actuality, though, it was their disappearance that underpinned his downfall and blackened his reputation for centuries after.

Amy Licence’s biography “Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen” (Amberley Publishing) is due out this April, containing information about the recent excavations at Leicester.

 

A painting of King Richard III by an unknown artist is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times