Book Review – The Survival of the Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis

By Nathen Amin

The Princes in the Tower is possibly the UK’s most enduring historical mystery, certainly up there with the disappearance of Lord Lucan and the Jack the Ripper murders, one which the author probably rightly believes is as hotly debated today through social media as it was in contemporary taverns during the 15th century. Thanks to the remarkable pen of Shakespeare and the many incarnations of his play on stage and silver screen, many people still hold the princes’ uncle Richard III responsible for the murder of the boys shortly after he placed them in the Tower of London. The dastardly, wicked uncle, consumed by ruthless ambition and all-encompassing evil, barely hesitating before murdering a pair of innocent souls. But what if the boys actually survived?

In Matthew Lewis’ latest offering, the author asks us to momentarily forget what we think we know about history’s greatest cold case, and open our minds to the intriguing possibility that we may have been led astray all along, initially as part of a concerted propaganda effort by supporters of the Tudor succession and thereafter by generations of scholars and historians who failed to interpret the source material without their innate bias. The result is a fascinating read that grips from start to finish, readable investigative history that engages the mind. Murder, Mystery and Myth is a most appropriate subheading.

Now, lets get the burning question out of the way – Lewis has not solved the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, nor, to his credit, does he claim to have done so. This book is about putting forward a different idea, to deconstruct the myth surrounding the case and to get the reader to reassess the sources that they may already be familiar with and ask the question – “what if the princes survived?”. Surprising, the evidence, or what is left of it, does not work against such a possibility as perhaps first thought. As he wittily notes, there is ‘no smoking gun, or longbow’, that satisfactorily solves the case.

Lewis opens his book with a fitting quote from the 17th Century French philosopher Pierre Bayle, stating ‘the antiquity and general acceptance of an opinion is not assurance of its truth’, and it is this very idea that the reader must consciously retain as they turn each pages of the book, to focus on interpreting primary and secondary sources without the learned bias each reader often brings to the table.

It is satisfying to note shortly into the book that Lewis states he has no intention of solving the mystery of the Princes’ fate, one which must remain unsolvable due to the lack of evidence which has survived. What the author intends to do in this work is put forward an alternative theory as to the eventual fate of those princes initially locked in the Tower in 1483, one that imagines their survival. His rationale is sound – if we have been able to speculate of the two boys’ death for 500 years, despite a palpable lack of evidence outside innuendo and rumour, why not flip matters on their head and entertain the idea they survived?

Now, one may be tempted to treat any book which seeks to answer the question “were the Princes in the Tower murdered at all?” as yet another tiresome attempt to restore the reputation of Richard III, ​but Lewis’ book doesn’t fall into the trap of extolling the virtues of ‘good king Richard’ and shouldn’t be written of as such by sceptical readers. As early as page 22, after all, Lewis accepts Richard had the means, motive and opportunity to slay the princes, something often denied by his most ardent supporters. Lewis’ argument, of course, not only absolves Richard of the blame, but also by extension Henry VII, and it is also satisfying to note the author not ascribe to the frankly preposterous belief that Margaret Beaufort was either a religious zealot or had plotted for the crown throughout the life of her only child. This is not a book just for Ricardians.

Lewis works systematically through contemporary sources such as Polydore Vergil, Croyland Chronicle, Dominic Mancini and Bernard Andre, providing historical context to their production and revealing much of the bias behind their writing. He is not wrong to believe that when we focus our mind on accepting for one moment that the princes survived, the sources themselves do not immediately contradict such a notion. We must also try and account for other facts such as how Thomas More, famous for much of the anti-Richard ideas that persist, ceased working on his ‘History of Richard III’ shortly after writing about the Princes in the Tower, with Lewis speculating this may have been because he found holes in the theory they had been killed (More’s worth was later continued by a different writer).

Other facets of the mystery Lewis discusses include the supposed discovery of the princes’ bones in the Tower of London during the 17th century, which the author notes have yet to be satisfactorily subjected to rigorous scientific testing, whilst prudently noting they were conveniently unearthed at a time when Charles II was keen to deflect his detractors by pointing to England’s past tyrants, in this king Richard III who ‘killed’ such innocent children. He also deals at length with the rebellions of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who he speculates may have been the princes, before ending with another thorough account of the life and times of Doctor John Clement, a member of Thomas More’s household who has been alleged to be one of the princes based on an analysis of a family painting that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dan Brown novel.

The Survival of the Princes is a book that will undoubtedly divide opinion, with some unfairly writing it off before even turning a page. The main issue Lewis faces is that the reader, including myself, will come to the subject with their own bias. Those who are convinced Richard III killed the princes will be looking for holes in his theory, whilst supported of that same king will be more emboldened by the work, all whilst reading the very same words. I can only reiterate that the author, to his commendable credit, does not himself feed into the biases and makes no grand claims either way. It is my personal opinion that Richard III was likely the cause of the princes’ disappearance, and subsequent death. However, I can’t prove this, and this is where Lewis’ book comes into its own – if death of the princes’ cannot be proven, then surely survival must also be considered.

This book is a much needed addition to the subject of the Princes of the Tower, putting forward an additional logical theory without becoming trapped in nonsensical arguments about ‘good king Richard’ or ‘evil Margaret Beaufort’.​ The best compliment I can pay Matthew Lewis is that whilst I can’t prove that the Princes survived, even after reading his carefully constructed and well-thought out argument, neither can I prove they were killed. And despite what you may read elsewhere, most vociferously online, neither can anyone else. The Survival of the Princes, therefore, is a worthy read, regardless of the side of the fence you sit on in matters of the 15th century. This is a book anyone with an interest in historical mystery must pick up.

Let the discussion commence…

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Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories and two historical fiction novels about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The medieval period is a particular passion of his, which he hopes to spread through his blog. He is dedicated to teaching and discussing this period, operating two history podcasts and providing bite-sized facts to his Twitter and Facebook following. Wars of the Roses, the Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, Medieval Britain in 100 Facts and Richard, Duke of York; King by Right are all available on Amberley Publishing, with Survival of the Princes in the Tower; Murder, Mystery and Myth from the History Press.

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