Lord Protector and High Constable briefly summarized
I realize that my little book is rather a lot to take in at once, so I produced these summaries for a friend recently and he found them helpful. They're very very condensed, of course, and the offices are entirely different. By the 15th century the office of High Constable of England had already existed for centuries but there was very little in the way of a paper trail ... and then in the 16th century it became purely ceremonial. By contrast, the office of Lord Protector was invented in 1422 and was defined in precise detail by Parliament ... and then developed almost unrecognizably in later centuries. They converged with Richard Duke of Gloucester in 1483, and my talk 'Six Months in 1483' explores what happened when they did.
HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND. A Great Officer of State appointed by the king. Had a variety of duties, of which my concern is with his judicial role relating to offences against the crown. Presided over the Court of Chivalry which was a court of civil law with its own officers and legal paraphernalia. Had its own precedents, of which details little known because seldom recorded. In trying treason the Constable was empowered to act on simple inspection of the facts, without customary form of trial and without appeal. Where the term ‘crown’ appears here it means the ‘position’ or ‘office’ occupied by the king with its long-established prerogatives and responsibilities. A distinction was made and was well understood between the king’s office and the person(s) occupying that office and/or exercising its authorities and functions for the time being. Hence you could have a Regent or a Protector or a Council (etc.) taking over a variety of the king’s prerogatives and responsibilities, including authority over prerogative courts like that of the Constable, Steward, etc.
LORD PROTECTOR OF THE REALM. An office unique to England, invented during Henry VI’s infancy, with responsibility for homeland security: ‘the name of protector and defender, which implies a personal duty of attention to the actual defence of the realm, both against enemies overseas, if necessary, and against rebels within, if there are any, which God forbid’ [Rot. Parl. iv, 326b, item 26]. Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was so appointed by the King’s Council in 1422 and ratified by Parliament (with the Council reserving to itself all other royal functions) in order not to have a regency. Richard Duke of York was so appointed in 1454 and 1455. During these appointments certain precedents were set regarding the Protector’s powers and modus operandi. Having a personal responsibility for the actual defence of the realm against rebels meant that the Protector was personally empowered to take on the crown’s authority in dealing with rebellion (which God forbid), i.e. treason.
RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER was appointed Lord Protector in 1483. He had already been appointed High Constable for life in 1469 and had held the position for over 13 years. Thus he combined the power to identify and suppress rebellion (as Protector) with the power to take legal action against treason in his own court (as Constable).
'A New Mancini?'
In an article in the Richard III Society’s magazine (December 2015) I drew attention to some of the errors about England that can be found in seminal texts written by foreigners. Henry VII favoured the encouragement of recently-arrived foreigners to write up his version of history, knowing that they would accept his authorized version in the absence of any personal knowledge to the contrary. This conveniently laid the basis for the disparagement of Richard III that became orthodox in the Tudor era.
There is another foreign writer, not (so far as we know) associated with Henry, whose narrative about an important period in Richard III’s career has also survived. This is Dominic Mancini, an Italian who came to England in 1482, probably at the behest of Angelo Cato (a leading light of the French court and a diligent intelligence-gatherer) to whom Mancini addressed a report which was discovered in the 1930s. Its finder, Mr C.A.J. Armstrong, translated and published it with an introduction and footnotes.
Its context was as follows. In the final months of 1482 King Louis XI of France had broken a recently-renewed treaty with England, terminated the annual pension he was paying to King Edward IV, and insolently jilted the king’s daughter who was betrothed to marry the Dauphin. Mancini was sent to England around this time as (it seems evident to me) one of the French court’s providers of foreign intelligence tasked with reporting back on the reaction of the English and their appetite for reprisals. It was, of course, an act of extraordinary French belligerence and Edward IV in his ensuing Parliament vowed himself determined upon revenge.
By sheer coincidence Mancini then found himself still present during the early months of 1483, a period whose importance eclipsed that of his previous mission. Ill-equipped in terms of any familiarity with England’s monarchy, its officers of state, its constitutional affairs, and its legal and historical precedents – and, apparently, unfamiliar with the English language – nevertheless Mancini was the man who happened to be on the spot and a report was demanded of him.
It isn’t my intention here to enter into an analysis of Mancini’s work. It is, however, relevant to remember that he already had a reputation as an accomplished writer and felt it necessary to compose not merely a journal of events, but an argument setting out his perception of how the king’s uncle, fuelled by ruthless ambition, seized the throne from his hapless nephew.
The French governing classes already harboured a horror of the English habit of deposing kings they deemed unacceptable, and Mancini was writing for an audience eager to hear the worst of France’s ancient enemy across the Channel. The result is laced with gossip about royal scandals, and totally lacking in first-hand observation about Richard III (his readers are even denied a physical description). It is reasonable to deduce that little of Mancini’s time was spent gathering information from circles sympathetic to Richard’s cause.
In my latest book and in talks and articles about the offices of Protector and Constable I have explained at length how a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of England’s Lord Protector has taken hold, and how its earliest manifestations can be seen in the writings of foreigners like Dominic Mancini, Bernard André and Polydore Vergil. In Mancini I have noted that he not only misrepresented the history of England’s Protectors of the Realm, but claimed that Richard (who was concurrently Lord High Constable, Lord High Chamberlain, Lord High Admiral and had been appointed chief of the King’s Councillors) held no public office. He was clearly mistaken in his story about Richard supposedly demanding of the King’s Council that they exercise powers of conviction and condemnation they did not possess – though the French royal council had been given precisely those powers by Louis XI!
John Armstrong’s final edition of Mancini appeared in the 1980s, and the authorities he cites scarcely represent the range of expertise on Richard III that a modern scholar would call upon. Yet even with our current state of knowledge it is a source of continual surprise to me that those who write the history of Richard III’s period – even those who are critical of accepting Mancini wholesale – have allowed errors of fact in his text to pass without comment. If specialists appear to accept them without challenge, it is no wonder that they have become entrenched and generations of historians and commentators will continue to repeat them.
Fortunately there is new work on Polydore Vergil in progress, in which we must hope that his shortcomings and his misdirection by his masters will be fully noted (in a commentary comparable, one hopes, to Richard Sylvester’s exemplary edition of Thomas More’s Richard III). Mancini’s narrative is no less influential than Vergil’s in the study of Richard III; hence my suggestion, at the end of my article last December, for ‘a more critical edition with a more accurate translation’. This was seconded by readers’ letters in subsequent issues.
Imagine my astonishment to see a letter to the editor in the September 2016 issue, written by two officers of the Society (one being its President), rubbishing the idea of ‘a new Mancini’. This letter preposterously assumes that we are calling for ‘a counterweight translation [that] would need to give the interpretation most favourable to Richard in every case’ which would expose the Society to ‘academic ridicule’. I have not proposed anything remotely of this sort, nor do I have any recollection of seeing it called for. It is profoundly depressing to see the suggestion of a serious new work of scholarship dismissed so scathingly.
Yet there would be ‘no problem,’ the letter condescends, ‘with such a Ricardian translation (clearly labelled as such) being made available to members through the Papers Library’. Really? Who would actually want to see such a travesty? Is this what the Society’s élite imagine the rank-and-file are avid for – some conjuring trick that transforms Mancini’s original hostile narrative into something ‘Ricardian’ (by which they clearly mean ‘partisan’)? ‘There would be no problem’, they say. On the contrary, I see it as a VERY BIG problem if such a text were circulated, and it reflects an attitude the Society’s inner circle needs to grapple with.
As a personal postscript, having been informed of their refusal to contemplate a new edition, I had already been told by Marie Barnfield of someone who intended producing a new translation of Mancini’s Latin text and lodging it with the Papers Library (of which Marie is the custodian). I welcomed this and stepped forward with the suggestion that I might produce a published version so that it could be available to members in a reasonably professional printed and/or ebook format.
I hadn’t the least idea that this translator might have proposed something which the Society’s President and Papers Librarian might describe – even before it exists – as a Ricardian translation, clearly labelled as such, which if published by the Society would attract ridicule. Now, unfortunately, if this is their policy, then WHATEVER the nature of ANY new translation that is lodged with the Society, the fact is that it will start life overshadowed if not irredeemably tainted by this description, which the translator will have to embrace (‘clearly labelled as such’) or fight to live down. Will she wish to proceed, I wonder? I want no part of it, and have already retracted my former interest.
Princess Joanna and her Three Kings
Readers of Richard III: The Maligned King will remember the striking portrait of Joanna, the Holy Princess, sister of King John II of Portugal, which was featured in my colour section. It was partnered with an image of John’s successor, King Manuel I of Portugal. The reason being that a marriage treaty under negotiation in 1485 provided for Joanna to be Richard III’s second queen had he lived to wed again, and Manuel (the young Duke of Beja as he then was) to be Elizabeth of York’s royal husband.
These illustrations had huge relevance for me, because mine was the first book about Richard III (to the best of my knowledge) that illustrated and examined in depth the myriad implications of the proposed Portuguese marriage treaty. My interest was not merely that we were here looking at Richard’s potential future wife and England’s future queen: even more important were several other aspects.
1. Joanna, born in the same year as Richard, was a significant political figure as evidenced by her being given the role of regent in her father’s absence. From the death of her elder brother (by 1455) she was heiress presumptive and was given the title Princess of Portugal rather than the usual title Infanta. Later, thanks to her extreme piety, she became known as the Holy Princess. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that in the summer of 1485, before Henry Tudor deposed Richard III and set about blackening his name, the Portuguese royal family had no qualms about arranging his marriage to their revered princess, a fact ignored by mainstream historians including Charles Ross. Clearly she and her family were not taken in by rumours about multiple murders – and especially not by gossip being circulated in England to the effect that the king was a wife-killer.
2. This is particularly notable in view of the Holy Princess’s religious devotion, expressed in her desire from an early age to become a nun. While Joanna begged to be allowed to take the veil, her family unsuccessfully attempted to arrange a succession of dynastic marriages for her, putting forward two royal dukes and three kings (see below). Nothing came of these proposals and Joanna eventually was allowed to retire to the monastery of Aveiro where she died unmarried; she was later beatified (though not canonized), and the three crowns she was offered feature prominently in her iconography. The last of these crowns was that of England.
3. In 1963 Domingos Mauricio Gomes dos Santos published his work on O Mosteiro de Jesus de Aveiro; this included the 15th-century account of how Joanna, pressed for a response to the offer of Richard’s hand in marriage, retired for a night of prayer and meditation. During this a dream or vision of a beautiful young man appeared to her, saying that Richard ‘had gone from among the living’. Next morning she gave the firm answer that if Richard still lived, she would go to England and marry him. But this was August 1485, and the next news she received was that of Bosworth.
4. For me, an important aspect of this whole episode was the fact that the Portuguese treaty was clearly not the only possible marriage open to Richard. To ensure the succession, many options would have been under consideration by his council in the light of Queen Anne’s evidently terminal illness, and rumours even suggested that a marriage with his niece Elizabeth was one of them. Much has been made of Sir George Buck’s report of a letter written in February by Elizabeth of York to the Duke of Norfolk, asking him to promote a possible marriage for her, which commentators influenced by the aforementioned gossip have traditionally taken as an encouragement of Richard’s incestuous desires. I could not reconcile this assumption with the facts, even though Buck himself, having formed the opinion that Elizabeth wished to become Richard’s bride, considered that the letter supported his view. But the letter’s wording was ambiguous, and there were simply too many political and practical reasons militating against it. I have addressed them at length in The Maligned King so I will not examine them here. What struck me forcibly was that the obvious purpose of Elizabeth’s letter was to enlist Norfolk’s advocacy on some matter of mutual concern – clearly unnecessary if both she and her uncle already wanted to marry each other!
On investigation, in which I enlisted the help of my knowledgeable contact António S. Marques, a valued source of information on Portuguese history, I established that there were actually two possible Iberian marriages on the cards simultaneously, the other being with the Infanta of Spain. Alarm at this alternative was expressed in meetings of the Portuguese royal council and reported by Álvaro Lopes de Chaves, writing in the 1480s. Thus I formed my conclusion, published in 2008, which I still maintain and which has since gained support: that Elizabeth desired Norfolk to speak to Richard advocating the Portuguese marriage in preference to the Spanish one – for the simple reason that only Portugal offered a royal match for her. The young Duke of Beja was not only royal but also close to her own age, two qualities which were unlikely to present themselves in any other suitor.
This is why it was important for me to find images of Joanna and Manuel for my book, emphasizing and illustrating for the first time this future as envisaged by Richard III, which traditional historians had consistently overlooked. As with all my illustrations I took pains to find images that were as authentic as possible and closely depicted the reality of the period. In this I was once again assisted by António. The portrait of Joanna he was confident about; but of the number of paintings depicting Manuel there was none that António considered, hand on heart, reliable enough to recommend. Hence we decided upon the truly authentic statue that ornaments the portal of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon, which contains Manuel’s tomb.
I promised to return to the offers from three kings for the hand of Princess Joanna, and this allows me to add a little to her story. Last year I was contacted by António Marques with the news that a programme about the Holy Princess and the monastery of Aveiro had been broadcast on Portuguese television, and this is the link: http://www.rtp.pt/play/p1623/e179707/visita-guiada. It’s a feast for the eyes even if one is unable to follow the dialogue. From 23:00 onward it discusses the various marriage projects and the depiction of three crowns at Joanna’s feet, of which I have done my best to extract a detail below.
The three crowns were said to represent the Dauphin (or perhaps the King) of France; the King of the Romans and future Emperor Maximilian; and King Richard III of England. However, António agrees with D.M. Gomes dos Santos that the suggestion of the Dauphin or King of France seems to be untenable in both cases. The almost contemporary source Álvaro Lopes de Chaves names among Joanna’s suitors the Duke of Brittany (Francis II), the Duke of Burgundy (Charles the Bold) and the King of Sicily. According to António Marques, who applies exacting standards of research, this last is almost certainly the third of the three crowned heads. The circumstances of his marriage offer were recorded by Álvaro Lopes, who noted that the negotiations came to a halt when this suitor died ‘almost simultaneously’ with the death of Joanna’s own father. This points to Charles IV, titular King of Sicily (and of Naples), 5th Duke of Anjou, who succeeded King René of Anjou in 1480 and died in December 1481, four months after Joanna’s father Afonso V. The waters had been muddied by Álvaro Lopes who described him as grandson to King René, whereas he was actually René’s nephew.
António’s research has also recently taken him to the complete O Mosteiro de Jesus de Aveiro, now available online at http://memoria-africa.ua.pt/Library/ShowImage.aspx?q=/diamang/diamang-v65-II-2&p=60. Having reviewed for the first time the full transcription of the ‘Memorial’ of the Holy Princess attributed to Sister Margarida Pinheiro, he has discarded the idea that this was a second- or third-hand account, written by a nun who had not necessarily known the Princess Joanna. He now has little doubt that the author was indeed Sister Margarida who was there at the time and knew the Princess well: ‘she was at her bedside when she passed away, and is reporting on events she followed closely, some of which she probably witnessed first-hand’. Certain dates and events in the account are known and independently corroborated in other sources, and ‘the whole story narrated by Pinheiro, with or without the premonitory dream embellishment, is probably much nearer the actual events than I used to think.’
Why it HAD to be the Tower of London
To celebrate the new year, I’ve thrown caution to the winds and set my imagination free to recount a purely invented scenario. It concerns one of the most baffling incidents of the Richard III story: the plot that resulted in the execution of William, Lord Hastings.
First let me run through the factual circumstances of the incident itself. We’ve had far too much smoke and mirrors already. Forget Tudor stories of witchcraft and withered arms; forget the small-talk of strawberries suddenly transmogrified into murderous fury; forget convenient self-incrimination provided by go-betweens. Colourful as these devices are, any creative writer will recognize them as classic misdirection. They’re calculated to distract from the pretence at the heart of the Tudor fabrication: that a Protector of the Realm, a mere five weeks into his appointment, could get away with unprovoked daylight murder of a peer in the middle of London, in front of witnesses, and still retain the complete confidence of the King’s Council and the Three Estates of Parliament who then collectively elected him King of England.
By contrast, there is a credible, gold standard, on-the-spot report, written in 1483, and available to us since the 1930s. If only it had been known 400 years earlier, all that Tudor fiction might have been exposed (or maybe the document would have been destroyed along with so much else, who knows?). Anyway, we have it now and we ignore it at our peril. It was provided by the Italian cleric Dominic Mancini who was in London at the time, as an agent for the French court, and reporting within a few months of the event. Although not present himself, he would have gleaned information immediately. So, stripped of editorial opinion,* and translated from his original words, Mancini’s report provides the following information:
1. Hastings was executed for a treasonable attempt on Richard’s life, having brought hidden weapons into a meeting so that he could launch a surprise attack on his victim.
2. Two other influential ringleaders were arrested with him for the same offence, but being in holy orders they escaped with their lives thanks to Benefit of Clergy. One was Archbishop Rotherham, a man of authority and ability; the other was Bishop Morton, a man of great resource and daring, with a career in party intrigue dating back at least twenty years to the Lancastrian era of Henry VI (mark those words).
3. These men were reported to have been assembling together previously in each others’ houses.
The incident took place at about 10.00 a.m. at a meeting in the Tower of London, several other witnesses being present.
5. Men at arms, stationed nearby, were summoned by Richard upon his cry of 'ambush'.
6. A public proclamation to the above effect was issued right away.
7. Richard at the time had made no claim on the throne.
*I feel I need to add that in Mancini's opinion the charge of treason was a 'false pretext', but it should be noted that this visiting Italian was not qualified to pass judgement on the treason laws of England. By contrast it was Richard's special prerogative, as High Constable of England, to try the crime of treason in his own Constable's Court, to pronounce on guilt and to pass sentence without the possibility of appeal. The evidence for this appears in my recent book on the offices of Protector and Constable.
We have a couple of other facts provided by the Crowland Chronicle, written following Richard’s death some two years later. The author expostulates over the beheading and arrests, on which he spends many words of personal opinion and judgement. But it’s significant that he provides very little factual detail, especially compared to Mancini. From what he writes, it is clear that he was no more present in the Tower than the Italian was. Let us again strip away editorial opinion and look at the chronicle’s two relevant facts:
1. The meeting was a Council meeting called for 13 June.
2. Council attendance had been divided in advance (by the Protector) so that one group met at Westminster and another at the Tower. I shall examine this insinuation that it was Richard who laid the trap, which should be compared with Mancini’s comment that his cry of ‘ambush’ was prearranged.
To complete the preliminary scene-setting, it hardly needs re-stating that from early May 1483 the Protector and Council represented the legally constituted government of England during the king’s minority. We have no eyewitness account that contradicts the facts officially announced, and recorded by Mancini, i.e. that Hastings was the aggressor in a treasonable assassination attempt. Nevertheless it is glaringly obvious that this treasonous attack was early on parlayed into entrapment of blameless individuals by the wicked Lord Protector. Even when the aggression by the conspirators is admitted, it is sometimes claimed that the plot to assassinate Richard could not have been treason because they were acting ‘to protect Edward V’. Any such motive belongs purely in the realm of speculation, and against it must be set Mancini’s testimony that Richard at this time had made no move against the king or his crown.
Working with these background facts, I have my own ideas of what the conspirators had in mind. And it had everything to do with why they chose to attack Richard at the Tower of London. My imagined scenario starts with the question of motive. They may have had varied personal goals, but I see it as an attempted coup d’état by a disaffected group who agreed in that they saw themselves slighted, and their lucrative status sidelined, by the incoming Protector’s charmed circle. All had hitherto enjoyed influential roles within the court and the Prince of Wales’s council, and their collective strategy was a familiar one: to encircle the underage king and exert power through him. All it required was to eliminate the Protector.
A. Hastings had found himself yesterday’s man, losing his valuable royal influence while the young Duke of Buckingham, busily collecting offices and rewards, now had the ear of Richard in the same way that Hastings had once enjoyed the ear of Edward IV.
B. Archbishop Rotherham, a protégé of the Woodville queen’s family, had lost his office of Chancellor to Bishop John Russell, an extremely able candidate by all accounts. Like many others, Rotherham could no longer look for patronage to the Woodvilles, now absconded, disgraced and excluded from government after their failed attempt to oust Richard.
C. The demonstrated long game of Bishop John Morton, that supreme political operator, certainly centred on grasping any opportunity for subversion in the interests of his Lancastrian patron, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and her son Henry Tudor. Ambition is a far more credible motive than supposedly tender feelings for Edward IV’s heir, and it’s worth reflecting that Morton's preferred patrons created him both Archbishop of Canterbury and a cardinal.
Having learned that Hastings, Rotherham and Morton were meeting together, Richard was concerned enough to write to his northern supporters, a few days before the Hastings attack, requesting armed support. It would not have been a great tactic to suggest threats emanating from inner-circle councillors and clerics, especially if he didn’t know precisely who was involved, so he named his opponents as the usual suspects: the Woodvilles. In subsequent centuries suspects would have been picked off one by one with the knock on the door in the small hours of the morning, but we know of no arrests in the days leading up to 13 June. In order to submit them to the full force of justice, I conclude that Richard needed the conspirators to commit an overt act of aggression. So he and his aides would have been on full alert waiting for someone to show their hand. The key would then be to play along, ready to counteract any move when it came.
This is why Richard would not have been the one to split the Council into two groups. He wouldn’t want anything out of the ordinary to tip off his opponents that he was forewarned. By my calculation it was the Hastings group whose plan of attack, as recounted by Mancini, required them to have Richard attend a meeting that was smaller than usual, and peopled as far as possible by their own supporters. A small group in a small room, rather than a large council-chamber. We don’t know anything about the agendas or purposes of particular Council meetings, and we can safely ignore misinformation by Tudor writers. But we do know preparations were well in hand at this time for Edward V’s forthcoming coronation. Although the Crown Jewels were kept at Westminster Abbey, much of the State Regalia was held at the Tower of London; so an examination of long-disused regalia, preparatory to formal approval by the king, might well have provided the excuse for a high-ranking select committee meeting at the Tower. Meanwhile Chancellor Russell’s group could be making arrangements with Abbot Esteney to take an inventory of the priceless jewels at Westminster.
This is just a random idea – there could have been any number of excuses for a division of the Council. Richard would agree innocently and plan accordingly. As a tactician he would have sized up the likelihood that this was to be the chosen moment. He was a great believer in the pre-emptive strike. All he needed to do was wait until all were assembled, meanwhile having loyal men stationed nearby, armed and listening to respond to his call. Then he would enter the room and present himself as a target.
I’ve covered motive, means and opportunity, but the most difficult thing about history is to figure out what was intended compared to what actually panned out. For example: if we didn’t know it was true, we would surely disbelieve that Julius Caesar’s opponents assassinated him personally and publicly on the steps of the senate. What were they thinking?! In terms of politics (and it’s politics that particularly interest me) a decision depends not only on what to do, but what you can get away with: who is for you, who against, and who will support the winning side. Hastings and his co-conspirators would have made their judgements accordingly, and this brings me to the question of why two clerics had to be involved.
We know there were six or seven arrests – quite possibly more – and quite possibly others were never caught. But why would Hastings, the old war-horse, involve men of the cloth like Morton and Rotherham in an assassination attempt, and how were they recruited? This last question is answered in the person of Morton, whose skills as a life-long political operator were reported even by the foreigner Mancini (remember Morton’s later recruitment of Buckingham to the Tudor cause!). He was just the man to bring in an already disgruntled Rotherham. And why? The aim was to bolster the group’s credibility in the plan of action to be followed once Richard was despatched.
To be secret, sudden and swift was the key. Hastings would have stationed a number of retainers to back up his attack, unaware of course that Richard had quietly set his own men on the alert. The take-over must be instant, replacing the Protector’s leading position in the government. This meant gaining immediate control of the king. Which explains why the fatal encounter HAD to take place at the Tower. If they’d done it anywhere else (despite the misdirection of Tudor writers) they’d have had no access to the king, and how would they have managed the aftermath? So the scheme was to take swift action at the Tower, while the rest of the Council was elsewhere, leaving no one any chance to object. A group headed by the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Ely, moving swiftly and commandingly, had the authority to sweep all before them unchallenged as they proceeded to the royal apartments ... and likewise the presence of leading prelates would reassure Edward V right away that he need fear no plot against his own life. If any guards did ask questions, a plausible excuse was that they were hurrying to ensure the king’s person was still safe – something the Tower guards would accept and probably assist in.
The plan rested on a vacuum being left after Richard was removed, with little option but to accept the new regime – one that strongly resembled the state of play before the protectorate had been established. It might have worked; but, as with the Woodvilles’ earlier attempted coup, Richard was clever enough to prevent it. And because he escaped with his life while punishing the perpetrators, his enemies were able to twist the events to portray him as the guilty party.
‘After 500 years of controversy we may finally have solved the mystery of the Princes in the Tower!’
These remarkable words ended the final narration of the Oxford Films production ‘The Princes in the Tower’, aired on 21 March on the eve of Leicester’s events commemorating and reburying King Richard III.
This trumpeted ‘solution’ of the mystery relied on the closing revelation by that celebrated media personality Dr David Starkey, who claimed as a final flourish that he had found new evidence which provided proof of Thomas More’s story that James Tyrell confessed to killing the sons of Edward IV. This, it will be remembered, was a story unique to More until it later became the authorized version.
Despite sources including Fabyan postulating other varieties of demise and other perpetrators, Tyrell emerged as the favourite culprit purely because lazy historical writers adopted Thomas More’s writings, later used by Shakespeare, as literal fact (Dr Rosemary Horrox [ODNB] is more circumspect: ‘More’s elaborately circumstantial account which is, however, demonstrably inaccurate in detail’). Many of More’s fans put forward the argument that he was too saintly to have made it up. On the other hand, students of English literature (and those who have studied More’s other writings) are entirely familiar with his penchant for making things up, often in a manner too colourful to repeat in polite society. That More’s ‘Richard III’ is a work of creative literature is in fact a long-established and widely accepted tenet among experts in the genre.
It is worth mentioning, indeed, that Thomas More himself warned his readers that the Tyrell story was only one of the versions he had heard, and More made no claim to have ‘found’, ‘discovered’, and still less to have ‘verified’ that it was correct: merely that he had ‘heard by such men and by such means as me thinketh it were hard but it should be true’. Scarcely a ringing endorsement. Those who believe that More ‘knew’ the truth of the matter have yet to supply any convincing historical proof.
Returning to Dr Starkey’s revelation on TV, this seems to hinge on his claim to the effect that Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth were present at the Tower of London during the trial of Sir James Tyrell. I have attempted without success to discover whether Starkey has written of this great discovery in any learned journal.
Starkey's statement continues (in a transcription supplied to me): ‘They’d just lost their son, they'd just lost Prince Arthur, and yet both of them go to the Tower on the days of his [Tyrrel's] trial, and are there the day before he’s led off to execution. This simply has not been picked up. It’s in the Treasurer of the Chamber’s accounts and you can actually trace the movements of the king and queen. They’re there, he’s there, and something’s going on!’
Narrator: ‘For David Starkey, the presence of the king and queen at the trial vindicates Thomas More’s claim.’
Starkey: ‘It tells me that More is 99% right. There is some sort of “confession”. What we have there is as near as we can get to the truth.’
Narrator: ‘If Tyrell killed the princes, then it was his master Richard who was the real author of the crime. After 500 years of controversy we may finally have solved the mystery of the Princes in the Tower!’
Now, then, where shall I start?
** Yes, there was a fully reported trial of Sir James Tyrell and several alleged co-conspirators (‘a high-profile show trial’ is how Thomas Penn describes it in Winter King).
** This trial had no connection whosoever with the sons of Edward IV. The defendants were accused of aiding and abetting Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, whose aim was to overthrow Henry VII.
** Tyrell was detained for two months in the Tower. However the trial itself, and Tyrell’s conviction for treason, took place not at the Tower of London but at the Guildhall, on 2 May 1502. He was executed on 6 May. [See above extract from Ralph Agas plan of London, around 1560, showing Guildhall in the centre.]
** Why should Dr Starkey claim that the presence of the king and queen at theTower had any relevance to the mysterious disappearance of the sons of Edward IV nearly 20 years earlier? Easy: because history writers of Starkey’s ilk overlook that the Tower of London was London’s foremost royal residence. ‘Everybody's gotta be somewhere,’ as Spike Milligan’s character Eccles memorably remarked.
** More’s identification of Tyrell as killer of the princes ‘rests on a confession that Tyrell was said to have made between his condemnation and execution. No copy of the confession survives’ [ODNB again]. Not only does no ‘copy’ survive, there is not even any passing reference to any confession by any contemporary witness or writer. Nor is any statement on the scaffold recorded. To be accurate, therefore, the ODNB article ought to have stated ‘a confession that Tyrell was said BY THOMAS MORE to have made’, since it was More who uniquely generated the otherwise totally unsupported story that Tyrell confessed. Polydore Vergil, for example, makes no mention of any confession.
Why would Dr Starkey have us believe that the presence of the king and queen in the Tower of London in 1502 offers the remotest proof that More is ‘99% right’ in his story that Tyrell ‘confessed’?
If we are invited to suppose or deduce or speculate that a confession was wrung from Tyrell, why should it relate to anything other than the matter in hand: the Earl of Suffolk’s conspiracy?
This is not historical research, it is TV grandstanding, and ought to be roundly condemned as such. Back when I worked at Thames Television we had teams of researchers whose job was to check and verify what went into our programmes. Presumably proper research has now been junked in favour of Wikipedia and prating celebrities, who are believed because what they say, however ill-informed, makes for good viewing.
The representative of Oxford Films who asked me to appear in the programme, aghast that I refused, protested that their company had a good reputation for factual documentaries. ‘We will not be favouring one argument over another’, he told me in an email message, adding that they would be ‘allowing a range of opinions to be heard without any editorial judgement being made about which side (or sides) of the debate are right.’ Well, Ted White, perhaps you should have sent a copy of your email message to the scriptwriter who wrote, on the basis of Dr Starkey’s ridiculous statement, ‘we may finally have solved the mystery’.
The viewing public was ill served by allowing Starkey to air his delusions of grandeur; and I am also tempted to add that the individuals who were cast as visual portrayals of leading characters, like Richard III and Anthony Earl Rivers, clearly displayed where the ‘editorial judgement’ of Oxford Films lay.
Knowledge and Remembrance are Enough
To many people the knowledge that Richard III’s body has been found is enough. It’s enough to know that some of the casually cruel lies about him have been exposed for the falsehoods they are: the evil hunchback with the withered arm, twisted in mind and body; the supposed desecration of his grave and vindictive destruction of his remains; even the inference that nobody ever cared enough to search for his last resting place.
To many Ricardians it is enough, also, that from the exposure of such calumnies comes a degree of reassessment, small but growing. Perhaps not for the hidebound, but certainly for those who have open hearts and minds. We can all attest to evidence of this in our daily interactions, and in feedback at talks and book signings.
His official tomb, love it or hate it, may end up in the city where he was buried with scant respect in 1485. But his spirit, and the way we relate to it, does not wholly reside in his mortal remains. Leicester was never a Mecca for Ricardians, except to admire James Butler’s handsome statue, donated in the halcyon days of Jeremy Potter’s Richard III Society. No better tomb effigy could have been devised: and still it is there to be freely admired and photographed.
Even so, many of us may never be able to visit the city, or may not wish to. What is to be learned there that we do not know already? Certainly Leicester is investing in new tourist attractions (and the university is manufacturing lapel badges), but I hear of no great investment being made in disinterested Ricardian research.
Until recently I had never visited the tomb of George VI, but that is not a reflection of the immense affection and respect I have for our brave wartime king. I was happy to find that King George rests in a place of great beauty and sanctity, steeped in our island’s history and royal traditions. But the location and surroundings, and the nature of his memorial, are immaterial to the essence of our last king’s courage and quiet achievements. If he had been killed in action and buried at sea, his memory would still be cherished.
So it is with Richard III: knowledge and remembrance are enough. I have fond memories of the Society’s ledger stone in the little Victorian cathedral in Leicester. When I learned that the interior was to be ... shall we say, ‘redesigned’ ... I already had a suspicion in 2011, long before we found Richard’s grave, that I probably wouldn’t relish the visual experience its modernizers had in store. The latest redesign, making space for Richard’s extraordinary tomb, seems to confirm my apprehensions. But we are all free to go or stay away: there are many ways to celebrate and commemorate. Our sensibilities are personal to us, and we can’t expect – or insist – that the rest of the world should share them.
Yet as long as there has been a chance for Ricardians to maximize the honour and respect due upon the king’s reburial, there has always been a case for attempting to negotiate with the Leicester authorities while there is still time. Even though, having been a professional negotiator in my day, I would scarcely apply the word ‘negotiate’ to the tactic where one side announces a final decision seven days before a scheduled meeting. But I admit I am oldfashioned about these things.
I hope the Leicester authorities will find there’s a silent majority who support what is being planned, because they seem very committed to what they have in store for the king they’ve taken charge of. From occasional media releases, and occasional outbursts in response, onlookers gain little impression of what the planning has really entailed: the various stages it has gone through, or the improvements that have been secured already by the handful of people who have found ways to be heard. Not just in terms of modifications to the tomb and plinth, or the restoration of the James Butler statue, or the proposal which I personally put forward, that Richard’s 17th generation nephew, Michael Ibsen, should create his coffin. Some of us have also been involved in the content of the Visitor Centre, and I’ve lost count of the hours we’ve spent (and are still spending) to get the exhibition to reflect the unbiased truth.
The media have been adept at stoking comment into controversy, and the publicity juggernauts of the big institutions have cultivated the impression that they are swatting away flies. But it needs to be remembered that those ‘flies’ have spent years negotiating with the authorities in Leicester and know them extremely well by now. All those years they have been representing, as far as possible (and to some extent successfully), the views of moderate people who seek honour and respect for the king.
I think - and I am speaking purely for myself here - but I think a point is approaching where everything that can reasonably be said has been said. I have never advocated hostility towards the city of Leicester, whose good citizens are not, I believe, responsible for the cathedral and university that bear its name. Nor have I ever advocated any rival burial site ... although as feelings heightened I did become an advocate of public consultation, because acrimony was threatening to taint the joy of having at last found Richard’s body.
With the end of the legal argument, surely the acrimony for and against Leicester as Richard’s place of reburial should end with it. My hope now is that sooner rather than later we can agree to let the process of the reburial proceed with dignity and respect. And leave us to deal with our memories and sensibilities in our own private way.
Scoliosis - considerably modified
I’m pleased to say that we do now have the long-awaited report by Cambridge bioanthropologist Piers Mitchell, who has considerably modified his view of Richard III’s spinal condition since he referred to him as a hunchback in September 2012.
This brief article in The Lancet, 31 May 2014, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)60762-5/fulltext adopts a somewhat reconsidered approach, and is accompanied by a video in which Dr Mitchell opts for surprisingly understated language: ‘a slight spiral configuration’, ‘slightly asymmetric’, the right shoulder ‘a little higher’, making his trunk ‘a little bit shorter’.
Piers Mitchell’s welcome observations reflect my own (below), confirming that ‘the curve was well balanced, with cervical and lumbar spines reasonably well aligned’. Which is precisely how Richard’s spine appeared when his grave was excavated. This contrasts with the schematic arrangement of bones circulated to the media by the University of Leicester (pictured below), in which the line of the cervical (upper) vertebrae is displaced significantly to the left of the line of the lumbar (lower) vertebrae, creating the impression that the displacement is caused by the spinal curve rather than by the osteologist who laid it out.
The article’s opening statement by the team of writers, Dr Jo Appleby et al, continues to characterize the scoliosis as ‘severe’ (and misdates the battle of Bosworth). The famous Cobb angle is now described as 75° when the spine is supine but 70°–90° when standing. However, you will find the Cobb angle described by Dr Appleby as 65°–85° in the following article, dated 30 May 2014:
Best of all, see his spine for yourself in 3D here: http://www.le.ac.uk/plone-iframes/spine/.
Although all these different measurements may seem at odds, it is actually a relief to me to see this more tentative approach of setting out the tolerance ranges when talking about centuries-old evidence. I am always alarmed by the unwarranted certainty with which some scientists announce their conclusions, e.g. ‘We know Richard III would have been about 5ft 8in’. No, we don’t. The widely quoted estimate of 5ft 8in should actually be 5ft 8½in (1.74m) and is based on bone measurements. What they did was measure the long bones of his legs and compare them with tables of standard average height estimates. It was not possible to be precise about his height because of post-mortem damage: in particular, Victorian excavations had resulted in the loss of the bones of his feet. I enquired after the precise measurements and was told in August 2016 that the report from the osteologist has yet to appear. The most reliable measurement available in this instance was the left femur [or thighbone], and the precise calculation was 174±3.27 cm, which represents a tolerance of between 1.7073m and 1.7727m (a height range between 5ft 7in and 5ft 9¾in). Richard Buckley confirmed that this estimated median figure of 1.74m was ‘slightly above the average for a medieval man, which was 1.71m.’
I have been taken to task by an American osteologist for presuming to voice my opinions about how a schematic arrangement like the one given to the media may mislead observers. It was precisely this, however, that led to the diagnosis of an 85° Cobb angle by the writers of an article on scoliosis who had seen only photographs. Another osteologist, quoted below, described it as ‘a convenient curve’.
And despite the University of Leicester hanging on to Richard’s remains for the past 22 months, we still have no second opinions from any experts aside from those originally permitted access. Is it surprising that some people cast doubt on whether we really found Richard III at all?
Second Opinions - They Matter
For some time I’ve been receiving comments about the scoliosis of Richard III’s spine. Assessments about the nature and severity of scoliosis seem to revolve around measuring an angle drawn between those upper and lower vertebrae which show the most tilt. It’s called a Cobb angle. The assessments published in a 5-page article in the Ricardian Bulletin of March 2014 are based on a Cobb angle of 85 degrees measured on a photograph, and rely on whatever details the world has been told (and shown) by those who’ve been allowed a look-see at Leicester University. They say his scoliosis was severe.
Now this is my problem. His scoliosis is such a controversial aspect of Richard’s physique, and such a notable aspect of his recovered remains, that I have been wondering whether a scoliosis expert (as opposed to an osteologist) has examined it professionally. I have since been informed that Dr Piers Mitchell, a scoliosis expert and hospital consultant from Cambridge University, was brought in by the University of Leicester. Sadly I haven’t seen any written report by Dr Mitchell (has anyone?), but it doesn’t inspire confidence that this was the person who repeatedly used the term ‘hunchback’ to describe the remains in Philippa Langley’s hearing.
The official photograph of Richard’s remains laid out anatomically shows very little attempt to join them up normally. In fact every bone is so disarticulated from the next that it’s clear there was NO intention to lay them out in this photograph as they would be in life. [I trust nobody thinks otherwise!]
Two concerns have come through in the comments I’ve received.
* First, is 85 degrees an accurate measurement? The curvature in the photograph seems highly exaggerated (e.g. see where the vertebra suddenly juts out to the left at the base of the spine).
* Second, whereas the top and base of Richard’s spinal column were aligned vertically when he was found in his grave, when you look at the UoL photograph the upper vertebrae show a discrepancy of (I’d say) several inches vertical displacement to the left.
Consequently how much of what we see on the laboratory slab resembles what would have been seen in real life?
I don’t claim to be an anatomist or archaeologist, but I do have a fair amount of common sense, and the latter suggests to me that being crammed sideways into a grave of inadequate size, instead of having his body laid out straight and shrouded, would almost certainly distort the spine over five centuries.
As we all know, the spinal area I’m talking about consists of around 30 separate little vertebrae held in place by cartilage, which is material that decomposes rapidly. Put a structure like this in a skewed semi-reclining position, remove the cartilage, then heap 500 years of soil accumulation on top, and these little bones will, in my estimation, become compressed, i.e. any curvature will collapse into a more compressed curve, as would happen with the weakest point in any upright structure.
I should like to know whether any allowance was made for this factor – especially by the university’s young osteologist who I gather was a stand-in with rather limited experience. Sadly we have yet to read the UoL’s full report on all this, and by the time we do I expect Richard III will have been consigned to his permanent home. It is standard practice to get second opinions, especially in the medical world, and for 80 years we have been regretting that Tanner and Wright didn’t call in other experts to examine the bones in Westminster Abbey which have been assumed to be the sons of Edward IV. So how much confidence can we place on this diagnosis of an 85 degree Cobb angle and the consequent diagnosis of ‘severe scoliosis’?
I am not, by the way, attempting to dream up conspiracy theories, or challenge the fact that Richard III plainly did have scoliosis, nor indeed am I complaining that the disarticulated layout was in any sense wrong or disparaging or deliberately misleading. If I had meant any of those things I would have said so - I'm not one to mince words. What I AM saying is that looking at photographs of bones laid out in this 'schematic' fashion provides insufficient evidence, it seems to me, on which to base conclusions and write articles with any real confidence.
I have worked in the NHS myself and I can confirm there is good reason why the study and practice of medicine is divided into specialties. We are not short of scoliosis specialists. I believe that second opinions from such experts should have been taken and recorded. Were there any? If so, I should like to read what they said. (And if they say I'm wrong, that's fine, we all have the right to be wrong!)
The whole point is that the osteology of ancient bones is not an exact science, and nor is whatever may be concluded (or, more appropriately, interpreted) from measuring them. I have mentioned the scientific examination of the bones in the urn in Westminster Abbey, which illustrates how tragic it is that insufficient expert opinions were sought at the time when the bones were available to be seen. A number of experts in different fields have challenged the conclusions of Tanner, Wright and Northcroft ever since, and have come up with a variety of conflicting assessments based on each person's individual specialty (I have all the articles, and I've gathered them together in Maligned King, chapter 10). When a science is not exact, it seems to me preferable to reflect a range of views rather than to pick one and say 'this is the measurement, this is the answer'.
As a footnote to the above, I should like to quote part of a comment under someone else's blog. This is one of those people who don’t believe we found Richard III. What interested me was that this person says s/he is an osteologist:
"I still feel there is too much weight being given to the statement that this is Richard III. Yes, the remains might well belong to him, but I do not think enough of the genetic/genealogical evidence has been presented or explained to sufficiently justify a definite identification. Whilst the archaeological evidence supports the possibility of the remains belonging to Richard, it is surely circumstantial (as an osteologist, I would prefer to review the evidence for scoliosis firsthand, not rely on a photograph of disarticulated vertebrae laid out in a convenient curve)."
Depths of Burials
In a recent online interview, the historian/author Josephine Wilkinson discussed the remains of children discovered 10ft deep under a staircase at the Tower of London in 1674. She said
"That the remains were found at such a great depth need not preclude their burial during the mediaeval period. Over the centuries, land levels rise, so that what was ground level in Richard’s time is now several feet underground. If you recall, they had to dig over five feet down to reach Richard’s bones, and he lay in land that had remained largely untouched since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Tower, by contrast, had been subject to building works throughout its history, which brought shifts in land levels."
Actually this is erroneous in a few ways. The bottom of Richard III’s grave at Leicester was at a depth of 1.4m [4ft 7in], but of course after the Dissolution soil would have accumulated above floor level. This floor level is not precisely known but was not more than 0.8m [2ft 7½in] below modern ground level, perhaps a little less. The latest identified floor level at the Greyfriars is rather higher than this.
Even if we take that estimate of 0.8m, this would indicate surface accumulation of only c.0.3m [1ft] over the 415 years since the Dissolution until the laying of gravel/tarmac 60 years before excavation. Which is 3 inches per century, plus about 0.5m [1ft 7½in] since it became a parking area in the 1950s.
As this shows, surface soil accumulation varies hugely. So if you’re investigating the discovery of bones in 1674 you need to get figures that relate to the locality in question (the Tower of London) before the 17th century. Which I got from the Survey department of Historic Royal Palaces when I wrote my chapter on 'Bones of Contention' in Richard III: The Maligned King.
The information they gave me suggests that 10ft underground, at the foundation level of the White Tower, was an extremely unlikely level for a burial in the 1480s - not to mention a supposedly secret one! Read my book for a suggestion of the date when these children might have been originally buried ...