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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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit