27. Aug, 2015

The Princes in the Tower by Josephine Wilkinson (Amberley, 2013)

I review books rarely – almost never – because being a professional writer myself, I have too great an appreciation of the depth of travail entailed in producing written work of a quality that satisfies my personal standards. To pick holes in the labours of others must be done with great sensitivity towards the author’s literary endeavours which, if he or she is anything like me, will have taken years to bring to fruition. 

In any case, how can I pick holes in a book such as Josephine Wilkinson’s The Princes in the Tower which so closely echoes my own analysis of the same subject five years previously? Indeed, I must reserve my harshest censure for the publisher’s dust-jacket blurb, which blares the promise of ‘a ground-breaking new theory about what really happened and why’. Of this promise – let us hope it was not penned by Wilkinson – the lack of fulfilment has been much criticized, not least by readers who have previously seen the book’s entire contents in my own Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press, first edition 2008).

Unlike Wilkinson’s Princes, none of my books has ever attempted to give an answer to the ambitious question in her sub-title, Did Richard III Murder His Nephews, Edward V & Richard of York? Sad to say, publishers are tediously predictable in employing the word ‘murder’ whenever publications discuss the fate of Edward IV’s sons (murder sells books and TV spin-offs) consequently I am again inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt over this piece of un-historian-like hucksterism. It irresistibly calls to mind another example of publisher’s chicanery from a few years ago, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower, a book title transparently designed to give the impression that it dealt with the topic of the disappearing princes.  (It didn’t.) 

As writers, researchers, historians and scholars, I hold it as our duty to resist simplistic and, ultimately, historically illiterate language of which ‘murder’ and ‘usurpation’ are common examples, used for effect but never precisely and adequately defined in their historical context. Especially when, as in Wilkinson’s case, the concept of murder in relation to Richard III’s possible disposal of the princes is never addressed within the book that bears the word on its cover (indeed, the words ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ are used interchangeably – e.g. see page 157). This is one of the reasons why I prefer nowadays to self-publish my books. If nothing else, I can make absolutely sure that what it says on the cover is consistent with what the reader finds inside. A book title is like a copywriter’s headline: you do your product a fundamental disservice if your advertising portrays it falsely.

And so to the book’s contents – 159 textual pages aside from front matter and end matter; no illustrations, no genealogical tables, no index. Still, what luxury to have 159 pages in which to set out in full those researches which I had perforce to confine to a single chapter of some 12,500 words! Yet, employing my practised publisher’s eye to compare The Maligned King with The Princes, I discern that the latter contains easily 100 words fewer per page than the former. And with each of eleven chapters having a title page, where some 60-odd words are lost to the title formatting, this  means we lose another estimated 650 from the total word count. Thus we are left with somewhere short of 33,000 words of textual argument. In case this is difficult to visualize, compare my paperback Richard III: A Small Guide to the Great Debate, also published in 2013, price £5. Although it has 28,500 words, 14 illustrations, two family trees and an index, I had always considered it rather a modest effort. Perhaps I should revise my assessment when setting it beside Josephine Wilkinson’s The Princes in the Tower at £18.99 hardback and £9.99 paperback. 

Still and all, you don’t judge a book by its word count, any more than you judge it by its cover. Which in this instance is probably a good thing, since I have never been a fan of Delaroche’s portrayal of the sons of Edward IV, two waxen faces set against funereal black. Curiously, Wilkinson’s Introduction tells us that she found discussion of them in her two-part biography of Richard III a dilemma: ‘I knew that everything that came after would be shaped by whatever conclusion I drew regarding their fate. ... I could not allow their story to swamp my biography of Richard’. As a writer I had found no such problem, but here we encounter the historian's self-imposed burden always to sit in judgement. A mystery demands a conclusion to be drawn. Hence the sub-title we discussed earlier, Did Richard III Murder His Nephews, Edward V & Richard of York? This particular mystery, says Wilkinson, can ‘hijack’ a biography.

I’m not so sure. I suspect her anxiety results from the subject having become an overworn trope in the popular (and ill-informed) consciousness, stoked up by third-rate TV documentaries fronted by celebrity-seeking pundits, resulting in an irritation-factor in academics out of all proportion to its historical importance. The laager mentality takes over, and they circle the wagons behind orthodoxy. In short, what Wilkinson was really worried about was that to take the matter of the sons of Edward IV seriously within her scholarly biography might invite ridicule and dismissal by her peers. One can scarcely blame her for such very real anxieties.

Of course, a review of the resultant book must evaluate it on its own merits. Wilkinson herself prepares us not to expect a running narrative, but rather a series of discrete essays drawn from earlier researches, adjusted and offered for publication with an extra essay added. It is certainly best judged with this in mind. As an avid reader and writer of essays (or articles), I am familiar with the form. Here they act as individual assessments, in the main, of candidates for the role of guilty party in a rather pedestrian whodunnit. A disappearance has been plucked out of five centuries of history and presented as an alleged homicide. Backgrounds of the supposed victims are supplied. An outline of the immediate circumstances of 1483 is sketched in, but with almost no explanation of the political and constitutional power-play so essential for an understanding of the tensions surrounding their disappearance. Most of the characters are presented in terms of estate holdings, family connections, inheritances and attainders. Humanity is so completely absent that I can only suppose this was a purposeful design, aimed at distancing the author from her subject-matter. Could it have been to avoid being tainted by the upsurge of heated emotions surrounding the discovery of the king’s body at the very moment her biography was in full flow? Again, one can scarcely blame her; but she must have realized that such an approach leaves huge gaps in any attempt to appreciate ‘what really happened and why’ as promised on the book-jacket. 

Another deficiency, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the lack of engagement with the vexed problem of sources. In a collection of essays, space could have been made for one more to address the dating, authorship and reliability (or unreliability) of the several chronicle and narrative sources quoted. Thomas More’s Richard III is the honourable exception from this cavil, as Wilkinson is courageous enough to nail her colours to the mast of literary drama as opposed to history penned by a saint. However, she offers very few connecting links between many of her quoted sources and the Tudor climate within which they were written. Her wholesale acceptance of Polydore Vergil is more than a little disconcerting, especially as Vergil supplies almost her entire grounds for considering Margaret Beaufort’s candidacy as perpetrator of the alleged ‘murder’. Wilkinson is also surprisingly approximate about the Crowland Chronicle, and seems unaware of the 1986 Pronay and Cox edition which is absent from her bibliography. The edition she cites is that of H.T. Riley (1854). This explains why, among other odd remarks, her assumption of its author (footnote 2, page 173) ‘as is usually thought, John Russell’ is out of step with current thinking. 

The lack of a narrative thread means that most of the essays discuss the princes’ death as a foregone conclusion requiring only the identification of its perpetrator, therefore the sudden appearance in the last four pages of a case for their possible survival comes as rather a shock. Obviously I am delighted to read Wilkinson’s comment on page 156 that, ‘Based on the rumours of survival, historians have speculated that the boys had been removed from the Tower and taken elsewhere.’ Footnote references to sources in Wilkinson’s final pages are thin on the ground, so the how and the why remain unexplained. Fortunately, anyone who has read my books will find this case, so superficially treated by Wilkinson, presented in depth in The Maligned King and more concisely in A Small Guide to the Great Debate. Cogent arguments will be found explaining exactly how its accomplishment could be reconciled with the known facts and the geography of the Tower of London, the latter point illustrated with a specially commissioned artist’s reconstruction.

Although I personally learned nothing new in the way of facts, sources, theories or arguments here presented – and nor will most well-read Ricardians – the book is certainly valuable as a dispassionate reiteration, by a historian unconnected with Ricardian circles, of material too often regarded as irrelevant by traditional thinkers. And a welcome change to find gossip and rumour treated as such rather than as fact. Wilkinson has made good use of the luxury of space available to examine a number of the items mentioned, although others which could benefit from elucidation are left in the air. Its principal weakness lies in the author’s lack of joined-up thinking, especially as to the practicalities of the theories she examines. On the whole, I’m guessing it will take a reader already well versed in the Yorkist era to find this book useful.