Book Review, History

Review: The Survival of the Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis

The fate of Princes in the Tower is one of the most intriguing mysteries in British history, steeped as it is in heavy emotive imagery. It immediately summons the visual of two small, fair haired boys, clinging together for comfort; lambs kept for the slaughter by their dastardly uncle. And of course, thanks to Shakespeare, our image of Richard III for years was similarly melodramatic – the scheming, malevolent hunchback.

Thanks to such sensationalised fiction, and the countless artistic interpretations of later painters, it’s become embroiled in the national consciousness as an open and shut case – with Richard determinedly accepted as the villain. The Richard III society naturally does much to combat this, but occasionally works at a disadvantage. There remains a common theme amongst a lot of the historical community that, whenever a remotely pro-Richard theory raises its head, the response is a rather condescending eye roll and a comment to the effect that “Those loony Ricardians are at it again!” , clutching at any available straw in an attempt to rehabilitate their hero.

Of course, historical study by its very nature is subjective; rarely is it possible to look back on a period and not have at least a little feeling about who is in the right and who is not. Consequently, we are either – to trivialise the matter – Team Richard or Team Henry; believing that one or the other is the mastermind behind the Princes’ untimely end.

Less common is the school of thought that the young Edward and Richard survived, and this is the subject of The Survival of the Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis. It has been an absolutely fantastic read! I’d hoped to get through it quicker but work has dictated otherwise. I was able to get properly into it this weekend though, and I really couldn’t put it down.

Princes book

I thoroughly recommend it for anyone with an interest in the period, whether you are Ricardian or otherwise. It is so well-written that if it doesn’t take your preconceptions and shake them up a little, I would be very much surprised!

Central to Lewis’s work is the fact that – although so many seem to take the murder of the Princes as a certainty – there is in fact no real factual contemporary evidence to suggest that this actually did happen. There is too much that doesn’t add up… and too much information that only appeared when it was convenient to the Tudor dynasty.

What I love most about this book is that every theory, every inference, every argument is based on logic; which very much appeals to my inner Spock. If solving a modern crime case, we would take it as read that the detectives/forensic scientists/criminologists would rely on much more than hearsay and emotive triggers; but this is an approach that is often abandoned when it comes to looking back on historical cases.

Lewis, however, has produced an absolute masterclass in objectivity, with every chapter written in a perfectly balanced style free of bias. He paints neither Richard nor Henry as saint or sinner. Every separate theory is weighed up for plausibility, and the factors working both for and against it are discussed at length.

He posits the idea that, far from perishing as children in the tower, the princes may actually have survived to adulthood, citing the lack of factual evidence in favour of their deaths. He discusses what he calls the Black Hole Effect of the princes; examining the behaviour of various contemporaries  in a way which suggests a gravitational pull around some unknown force – which could only be their survival.

The book discusses several key theories:

1. Richard III arranged for both princes to be taken from the tower and made provision for their safety.

 

Lewis addresses the major problems with the ‘mean old Uncle Richard’ theory very early in the book, though he does not dismiss outright he possibility that Richard may indeed have been the culprit.

He discusses the numerous problems with it: firstly, the fact that acting in this way would be a sudden departure from a lifetime of honourable behaviour for Richard III. He also raises the point that Richard had nothing to gain from carrying out the murder and keeping it secret; if he had done the deed, he could have found a convenient scapegoat in the Duke of Buckingham. Coupled with this is the fact that Elizabeth Woodville allowed her daughters to come out of sanctuary to attend Richard’s court – not particularly likely should she believe her sons to be dead at his hand!

The first part of the book identifies numerous pieces of evidence which suggest, although certainly do not confirm beyond doubt that Princes survived, certainly give the reader plenty to think about.

2. Edward V led the first rebellion in 1487 and may have died at the battle of Stoke.

 

Lewis picks apart the Lambert Simnel story with great insight, pointing out all the ways in which it fails to ring true. The jarring, unusual name may have been coined by Henry VII as a way of setting a pattern for future ‘pretenders’ and when considered impartially, this does make sense.

Lewis suggests that, far from being a peasant with delusions of grandeur, this invasion may have in fact been led by the young Edward V in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom. The points working in favour of this argument are: the support of Margaret of Burgundy, the Earl of Lincoln (who himself had a claim to the throne) and the Irish lords, as well as the involvement of Lord Lovell. He also points out that those same Irish lords failed to recognised Lambert Simnel when the same alleged boy served them wine a few years later, suggesting that this boy was a creation of Henry VII.

This was a really well constructed argument that I’d never studied in depth before, and certainly made me think. Of course, if Edward V really did die in battle, there goes any chance of ever finding his body!

3. Perkin Warbeck was indeed Richard Duke of York.

 

Here Lewis brings up the vast amount of logical evidence that work in favour of the second ‘pretender’ being a genuine son of Edward IV; his perfect English, intimate knowledge of Edward IV’s court, his insistence that he had three marks which could positively confirm his identity and his ability to charm the heads of several European states, some of whom supported him even when there was nothing to gain from doing so.

Henry VII is at his most Trump-like here; full of bluster and disingenuousness. If Warbeck was really an imposter, Lewis points out, then why not play his key card and have his wife, the boy’s sister, denounce him publicly? And why also the insistence on having him beaten so badly that his features could not be recognised in London?

This for me is one of the strongest and most convincing arguments in favour of the Princes’ survival.

4. The Princes were hidden in plain sight at the Tudor Court

 

I found this an absolutely fascinating chapter. I studied semiotics as part of my degree, so the deconstruction of the More family portrait by Holbein really appealed to me. It suggested that the painting was teeming with clues which announced that Edward V and his brother were in fact alive and well at the heart Tudor England all along, living under assumed names.

Although I’m not sure that I’m totally convinced by this argument, it did flag up some startling discrepancies about the lives of the two men who may have been the princes in disguise. If true, it would mean that in at least one case there was a clear line of descendants whose remains could possibly be used to establish DNA linkages.

This is only a very quick and superficial summary of the book’s contents, but I found it to be a series of extremely well-reasoned and well-written arguments. That every single one was presented with a total lack of bias, based wholly on logic, sets it apart from so many other works on this time period.

After reading it, coupled with a talk I went to from the Richard III Society last month about Perkin Warbeck, I’ve got to say I’m pretty convinced that the Princes in the Tower survived somehow. What Lewis terms the ‘Black Hole Effect’ is just too persuasive.

If you’re even remotely interested in the mystery, or in the time period in general , I urge you to go get hold of this book. It’s absolutely fantastic!

My rating 5/5.

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