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Whaddyareckon? Richard III had a big hump on his back and smothered his nephews high up in a damp, dank room in the Tower of London? Or is he the most wrongly maligned figure in English history, blackguarded by the upstart Tudors so that the English people would accept them as rulers?
Ask any historian and they will tell you that their job is - for the most part - detection. History is all about finding clues. History is about piecing together tiny shreds of evidence. In this way, the historian hopes to interpret the past. We all like a good murder mystery, do we not? And so, what better subject for a writer of popular history than the most famous murder mystery of all; the story of the Princes in the Tower? This double murder has fascinated for over five hundred years. The disappearance – and we assume, death – of the erstwhile Prince of Wales and Duke of York has never, in the public imagination at least, been satisfactorily solved. Did the boys' uncle, Richard III really "do them in"? Or should we look elsewhere, to Henry VII perhaps, or perhaps even further afield? These are the questions Alison Weir hopes to answer in her book, The Princes in the Tower.
Alison Weir writes "straight history". Although her subjects are usually the famous, romantic figures from history – Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine and here, Richard III – hers is not the sensationalist style of other current best-selling historians. She is not a Simon Schama or a David Starkey. Neither does she attempt a political or philosophical analysis of her subjects. You will not find Hobsbawm-style Marxist theory here. Rather, you will find a straightforward examination of the available sources and an attempt to construct a plausible narrative. Weir writes a good story, too. Her style is sparse, direct and yet it is tremendously evocative. It is as readable as any novel. I find her characters are vivid in the same way that a good writer of historical fiction can breathe life into figures from the past. I am a great admirer of hers for she manages to produce intelligent, interesting books. They are accessible to the general reader with little background knowledge and yet they stand up perfectly well as basic academic works of use to student and historian alike.
The Princes in the Tower takes all the evidence available – from the writings of Sir Thomas More, and the Croyland Chronicles to the account of Dominic Mancini, and assesses it with shrewd and intelligent reasoning. There are two camps in the story of this murder: the pro-Tudor camp – and you can include Shakespeare in this! – which backs Richard III as prime suspect and the revisionist camp, which sprung up after the discovery of a copy of an act of parliament – Titulus Regius - suppressed by Henry VII. Titulus Regius was the act of parliament disinheriting the two princes and elevating Richard to the throne. It casts doubt on the validity of the marriage of the princes' father, Edward IV, and declares the two boys illegitimate. Weir's interpretation is highly persuasive and indeed, is probably the most plausible explanation of events. However, I feel that some of her justifications on the veracity of Thomas More are perhaps more her judgement than weight of evidence. I also wonder about her speculation on Henry's ruthless suppression of Titulus Regius. But then, that's half the fun with a mystery, isn't it? It would be dull if I didn't put my own pinch of salt in somewhere!
The Princes in the Tower is more than just the story of the two little boys. It is the story of Richard III and Henry VII, it is also the story of the close of the Wars of the Roses – that battle between York and Lancaster that had dominated the English political scene for almost a century. It is the story of the beginning of the reign of the Tudors. If those little boys had not died, it is possible that we would never have seen a King take six wives and found an established protestant faith in this country. It is possible that we would never have had a virgin queen. So much could perhaps have been so different. It is fascinating for this reason. But perhaps the real pull of this book is as contemporary as it is historical; perhaps it is timeless. The death of a child is such a sad thing. Life lost young diminishes us all for the young form our future. We need them. And I think we are never satisfied until we achieve closure on the deaths of children. We need, more than we need anything, to know why and how a child died. I doubt this story will ever go away.
Weir's book is a rattling good read, perhaps appealing most to those who enjoy historical fiction but are looking to move on to something a little more authoritative but that is still engaging and interesting. It is not a heavy book either in style or in length. Just a little more than two hundred pages long, it's noted well with good acknowledgement to sources, yet it is never dry. My copy is a jolly posh Folio Society edition with a super foreword by Ruth Rendell, but you can buy it from Amazon, published by Pimlico, for the princely (groan) sum of seven English pounds and nineteen English pence.
An excellent example of intelligent popular history. Recommended by me. To find out who Alison thinks dunnit, you will have to read it. So there.