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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Book Review – Red Roses: Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort

By Nathen Amin

Amy Licence is arguably the most prolific historical writer in Britain at the moment, and I often marvel at how she constantly puts out numerous books concurrently without any depreciation in quality. Coming hot on the heels or her recent releases is Red Roses, the first book which focuses on the women of the House of Lancaster during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The story of the Wars is very much en vogue at the moment, which is great news for those of us enamoured with the struggle between York and Lancaster, a period often overlooked in favour of the later Tudor period. That being said, within a few years so many books have been released on the subject it seems difficult to find a book that takes a fresh look at the conflict. Licence has managed to do just that, concentrating on the females surrounding the various Lancastrian leaders. The men may have got the glory, but behind them were their women – the wives, daughters and mistresses whose lives and influences played a key role in how the Wars played out. Some, like Blanche of Lancaster and Joan Beaufort, were born Lancastrians whilst others like Katherine Valois and Margaret Anjou were married in. It is no surprise to see Licence, renowned for her women’s histories, note in her final chapter that the book is an attempt to provide an alternative narrative of English history and to ‘complement the dominant male version of events with one of female experience and influence’.

51kQmJqQr8LLicence’s book is chronologically split into five parts, allowing easy navigation between subjects and also breaking up the oft-times confusing nature of the period, which in this respect spans about 150 years. Part One focuses on the various wives of John of Gaunt, that father of the Lancastrian Dynasty and one of England’s most wealthy and influential magnates. Through his three wives, Gaunt’s descendants would reign over England, Portugal and Spain, spreading the Lancastrian connection across Europe. Part Two focuses on the struggle between Richard II and Henry IV with Part Three providing an overview of the early 15th century and the stories of Katherine Valois and Joan Beaufort, Queens of England and Scotland respectively. Part Four features the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, led in part by the domineering Margaret Anjou, queen to the beleaguered Lancastrian king Henry VI. The final part of the book finishes, perhaps fittingly, with arguably the greatest of all the Lancastrian women, Margaret Beaufort, a Lancastrian by descent and marriage.

We are treated to the author’s own reserved ideas on the period, putting forward her theories on events without leaping to sensational conclusions, as unfortunately often seems to be the case these days. The book runs through a number of primary sources, discussing contemporary opinions on the subject at hand with modern analysis. What is particularly appreciated is that the author does not attempt to enforce her developed opinion as fact, but rather puts forward the information and lets the reader decide. It’s a power I, as the reader, appreciates being given.

As is Licence’s wont, Red Roses is a thorough and detailed piece of work, well researched and different enough from other Wars of the Roses books to make it a worthwhile read. Although I would have preferred to see colour photographs, that this is the only real gripe I have with the book is indicative of the strength of the work presented. It’s a fascinating project documenting the lives of many intriguing women, connected through a shared Lancastrian affinity. An engaging and informative read.

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Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.

Book Review – Tudor Tales by Dave Tonge

By Nathen Amin

The Tudor Tales by Dave Tonge is a recent release by the History Press that is a welcome addition to an admittedly bulging sixteenth century genre. This however is a book with a twist – part-fact, part-fiction. Essentially Tudor Tales is a book of two halves, and that’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, it’s part of its charm.

Tonge is a notable storyteller and has been operating as such since 1999, utilising his degree in English History and a penchant for re-enactment by taking his show on the road and entertaining scores of adults and children across the country. His public speaking work has now been transferred to book format, and it crosses over well.

The book itself is a handy size, capable of being carried around with ease in a pocket. The cover is a wonderful red affair with gold typeface and is impeccably smooth. Physically, this is as beautiful a book as it’s possible to get. The blurb on the back of the book declares that ‘the common sort were no different from us’ whilst the book promises ‘a sometimes coarse but often comic telling of the everyday ups and downs in Tudor life’. This is exactly what we get.

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The book is separated into 8 chapters with a total of 33 tales; each chapter has a different theme covering such matters as silver-tongued tricksters, lusty knaves, naughty wives and horny monks. The overriding argument seems to be that the Tudors as a people weren’t that different from us – essentially different era but similar problems.

Tonge begins each tale with some academic background on the theme he is covering, introducing real-life scenarios from the sixteenth century supported by sourced information from court records and the cheap print. The research is detailed and produces some interesting insights into Tudor life amongst the general populace, particularly in matters of the male/female relationship.

For example a woman named Margaret Cock appeared in court charged with slander for accusing Lionel Wade of being an ‘old whoremasterly knave’ whilst the parson Robert Serton was brought before the church courts of Norwich accused of going to a lady’s house on daily basis under the premise of buying eggs but instead approaching her servants ‘to fetch a kiss from them and did by these lewd practices endeavour to abuse them’. There was also the accusation levelled at one Benjamin Wright by Martha Cambridge in a consistory court that he was ‘a saucy knave and a cunning knave who did come drunk or drunker into her house with his bobble hanging from his breeches like a horse’.

Where Tonge’s book differs from traditional work of the period is in the second part of each entry. After introducing the topic with some historical background Tonge recounts his ‘tale’, adapted from the spoken word tradition which he now embodies and used for the entertainment of the reader. Tonge notes in his introduction that many of the tales were printed as simple anecdotes and jests in the sixteenth century but once they were picked up by the storytellers, they were padded out for further entertainment. Here we are introduced to clever wives and devious monks, troublesome youths and shrewd villagers. Each tale ends with the protagonist or antagonist receiving their comeuppance with an underlining moral conveyed.

Tudor Tales is an entertaining read, part fact, part fiction, but all interesting. My only grievance about Tonge’s book, if in fact it can be considered a grievance, is that the tales themselves almost yearn to be read aloud and acted with enthusiasm. The words almost jump off the page and you can find yourself mentally picturing a storyteller recounting the tale to an enthused audience. I have yet to see Mr Tonge in action but if his book is anything to go by, I’m sure it would be an amusing and pleasurable experience.

The book is available directly from History Press by clicking HERE or Amazon by clicking HERE

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DAVE TONGE is a professional storyteller who travels the whole of England telling his entertaining versions of Medieval and Tudor folk tales. He works at schools, museums and heritage sites as well as literary, folk and story-telling festivals. The old tales allow him to draw on his historical knowledge and material gleaned from his MA and PhD research.

Prior to becoming a storyteller Dave studied sixteenth and seventeenth-century court records focusing on popular culture and social control, and he often uses the records alongside folk tales performances. He lives in Norwich and runs a very popular attracts an audience from all over East Anglia.

Book Review – Henry VIII; The Life and Times of England’s Nero by John Matusiak

The historical depiction of Nero, Roman Emperor in the early first century, is that of an extravagant and cultured ruler with a ruthless streak, often committing acts that bordered on tyranny. John Matusiak’s reference to Henry VIII as ‘England’s Nero’ in the title of his biography sets out from the start the author’s opinion of this much-debated sixteenth century king.
Matusiak opens his work Henry VIII; The Life and Times of England’s Nero, by History Press with the following quote, said to be Aristotle’s words to Alexander the Great and later quoted to the future Henry VIII by his tutor John Skelton;

“You have vanquished your enemies, you have gained many kingdoms, you have subdued many empires… but all the same you have neglected to control, or have been unable to govern, the small domain of your mind and body”

Once again, the conclusion of Matusiak on his subject is evident from the outset. Nonetheless his book’s claim to be a new look at an old topic certainly holds true once the content is ingested. This isn’t just another ‘by-number’s’ look at Henry VIII.
Matusiak’s explores the mind of Henry whilst attempting to explain the king’s disastrous decline from Renaissance prince to chaotic tyrant. In effect Matusiak’s work almost reads like a psychological evaluation of Henry without allowing his work to become tedious. This is evident from such passages as the following, discussing Henry’s disorganised reformation attempts throughout the latter part of his reign;

“…the King’s religious thinking in these years grew out of and epitomised his egocentricity and arbitrariness, as well as the ultimately unsystematic nature of his thinking”.

Matusiak maintains an intriguingly erudite and captivating narrative throughout the work, keeping the attention whilst accomplishing something which has become difficult in recent times – to make the subject of Henry VIII and his life and times appear fresh. One subject that Matusiak’s glosses over but doesn’t obsess on is the various wives of Henry. We learn what we need to know and how they affected Henry, but we do not become bogged down in needless narrative on Anne Boleyn et al.

It must be noted that the author does not paint a positive portrayal of the man throughout the work, exposing Henry’s flaws, weaknesses and fears in what is overall a cold and ruthless analysis. This, Matusiak argues, just supports the theory that Henry was a mere man, and not the mythical figure that has become a cliché in recent memory. Indeed it is to Matusiak’s credit that whilst he doesn’t seek to glorify Henry, he also ensures he doesn’t demonise him. This book is a portrait of a real man with real issues, worries and concerns and how these personal issues found themselves manifested in matters of state.

Matusiak’s overall conclusion on Henry seems to be that, for all the fluff that exists around the subject, Henry was simply a bad king, undeserving of mythological status. He was indecisive, he was egotistical and he was selfish. Was Henry ‘unfit for power’ as Matusiak puts it? After reading this work, it’s difficult to disagree. A recommended piece of work.

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