‘The Survival of the Princes in the Tower’ – a review

The Survival of the Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis offers a rational investigation of the contemporary and near-contemporary sources to discover the real story of what happened to the sons of Edward IV, reportedly last seen alive in the Tower of London in the summer or autumn of 1483.

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For more than 400 years ‘history’ has blithely accepted the Tudor version of this story – that the boys were murdered and that a monstrous villain, King Richard III, was behind the crime – without questioning how that version came about. That is the version of events that has most often been repeated in mainstream, general history books, yet it evolved only slowly over decades, finally coming fully into flower in a powerful (and powerfully influential) piece of dramatic fiction – Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III – more than a century after the murder was supposed to have taken place.

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But go back those hundred years before the play was first performed (in an England ruled by the granddaughter of the man who usurped the throne from the said King Richard III) and you find a very different story. Or, perhaps, individual, scattered pieces of very different stories. Snippets, rumours, asides, suppositions, incomplete notes, biased reports, destroyed records – all have a part to play in the history of this ‘history’. And, yet, many still believe the ‘truth’ of Shakespeare’s story without considering those individual elements that were drawn together into its (suspiciously coherent) whole in the 1590s.

In The Survival of the Princes in the Tower, Matthew Lewis draws together the disparate, often fragmentary and sometimes even contradictory records from the 1480s onwards that may shed light on the fates of the two sons of King Edward IV. (I say ‘fates’ because, although the boys are usually lumped together as ‘the Princes’, it becomes clear, once you consider the earliest sources, that their lives may well have had widely differing outcomes – much as the boys had very different upbringings.)

I have to admit that when I first saw the cover of the book, my heart sank. There are, to be fair, very few contemporary fifteenth-century depictions of the two boys, Edward and Richard, but I know I’m not the only person wearied by the continual use of a nineteenth-century painting of two blond-tressed angelic little boys cowering in fear at the prospect of being murdered by their evil uncle. However, it is one of the best-known depictions and when my hardback copy of the book arrived, I was struck by the way that yellow hair is echoed in the yellow lettering of the title on its black background – and the way it makes the pivotal word ‘Survival’ stand out.

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*Warning: possible spoilers!*

For that is what careful consideration of all the available early sources – and investigation of their manipulation in subsequent years – leads to: the conclusion that both boys survived – beyond that turbulent summer of 1483, beyond the failed rebellion in October of that year, beyond the dramatic events of August 1485. In my mind, and it seems that of Matthew Lewis, it is only after the death in battle of their Uncle Richard and the accession to the throne of the victor Henry Tudor that the boys’ survival is in question. Who was more likely to need them permanently out of the way? A King whose Parliament had declared the boys illegitimate and therefore possessing no claim to the throne – or a King whose own claim to the throne was so tenuous he had to shore it up through marriage to a daughter of Edward IV – whom he had to re-legitimize through an Act of Parliament, which then gave her two brothers (if still alive) a better claim than his own?

As Lewis states throughout, it’s what is not said or done that is often most telling in this tale. He dubs it the ‘black hole effect’ – while the boys themselves may not be obvious to our sight after 1483, perhaps their gravitational pull on the actions or inactions of other people may indicate their whereabouts or give rise to suspicions of their presence. Why did Henry Tudor not trumpet the guilt of his predecessor if it was so well known that King Richard had had the boys murdered? Why did Elizabeth Woodville never accuse her brother-in-law of her sons’ murder, even after his death when she was safe from any possible repercussions? Why didn’t her daughter, Elizabeth of York, deplore it either, even after her marriage to Henry? (The younger Elizabeth famously possessed a book that had belonged to Richard, inscribed with both her name and his motto – perhaps not something that would have been treasured by the sister of victims supposed to have been murdered at his hands.)

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Yet Lewis announces early on that his aim is not to concentrate on King Richard’s part in the story (or to clear him of any blame for a crime), but rather to focus on whether there is any evidence of any such crime occurring at all. And that is perhaps where this book particularly succeeds: it goes beyond the usual (and seemingly endless) ‘did he or didn’t he?’ debates that still swirl around Richard III to interrogate the sources of information that exist beyond 1485. What have the contemporary sources to say about the so-called ‘Lambert Simnel’ affair and the identity of the young man at its centre? (Surprisingly little, and what there is allows that the ‘pretender’ is as likely to have been called John as Lambert, and is more likely to have been a son of Edward IV called Edward than to have claimed to be the (imprisoned) Earl of Warwick.) What do the sources say about the so-called ‘Perkin Warbeck’ affair? If Henry Tudor knew that the boys had died in the Tower and had proof, even only credible oral evidence, why did these rebellions rattle him so much? Why did elaborate, frankly unbelievable stories have to be created to deflect from what both young men claimed?

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Lewis also explores theories of what may have happened to the boys based on art historical and other non-textual research – involving the work of Hans Holbein and the genealogies of several prominent Tudor-era families. While interesting, these represent for me something of a conceptual step too far and I prefer to focus on the discrepancies of the immediate post-Bosworth ‘history’ – of which there are many – certainly plenty to justify at the very least a healthy scepticism in relation to the ‘official’ Tudor version.

Perhaps we will never know exactly what happened to the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Or perhaps Philippa Langley’s ongoing ‘Missing Princes Project’ will bear fruit and discover so-far unknown or unrecognized evidence of their fates, in England or abroad (http://philippalangley.co.uk/missing-princes-project.php). But surely, meanwhile, it’s time to go beyond blind acceptance of an establishment-sponsored version of events that, when closely scrutinized, really doesn’t hang together. What evidence is there of any murder? What evidence is there of the boys’ survival? Matthew Lewis’s book finds far more of the latter than of the former.

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Bringing together, apparently for the first time in a single book, so many of the available sources of information on the possible outcomes for King Edward’s sons, Lewis may not have solved the centuries-old mystery, but he has provided a valuable resource for anyone fascinated by this complex and intriguing period of medieval/early modern English history. And hopefully it will open a few people’s eyes to an alternative interpretation from that to which Henry Tudor and his adherents would like to direct us.

The Survival of the Princes in the Tower is published by The History Press and is available from bookshops or in ebook and hardback from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Survival-Princes-Tower-Murder-Mystery/dp/0750970561

About alexmarchantblog

A Ricardian since a teenager, and following stints as an archaeologist and in publishing, Alex now lives and works in King Richard’s own country, not far from his beloved York and Middleham
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