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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Henry VII – The Merchant King

By Matthew Lewis

Henry VII, the first of a mighty, famous and infamous dynasty is oft forgotten and easily overlooked. Everyone knows the first Norman king, the Conqueror. The first Plantagenet, Henry II, is famed, not least for his troubles with his wife and children. James VI and I is a famous founder of the Stuart dynasty in England and the Hanovers had George I. Henry VII, though, remains a more shadowy figure, loomed over by the Wars of the Roses that gave him his crown and his larger than life son, Henry VIII. This is perhaps because he played his part so completely perfectly.

Born into a stormy Welsh night in 1457 to a thirteen year old mother at the outbreak of a civil war that would define his life, his childhood was a mess not of his own making. Born without a father on the wrong side of a war in which his only offence was to have the wrong name and the wrong blood in his veins, his fortunes were those of the House of Lancaster until he defined his own. In my novel, Honour, I describe Henry as the Merchant King and I think it is a fitting title.

When the tide of the Wars of the Roses turned against his house, Henry was taken into custody as a child, comfortably contained within the household of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a committed Yorkist who had been given Henry’s uncle Jasper’s title. Although he would later concede that Herbert had been kind to him and ensured that he was well educated and amply provided for, Henry was nevertheless a prisoner. Separated from his mother as a boy, it was the kind of painful detachment that he would have to get used to.

During the brief Lancastrian revival of 1470-1, Henry was suddenly on the right side. As a thirteen year old, he was presented to his father’s half-brother, the venerable but unstable King Henry VI. If his mother, Margaret Beaufort, hoped that her son’s fortunes had changed, it was a short lived delusion. With the thunderous return of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1471, Henry was bustled into exile with his uncle Jasper aged fourteen. He would spend another fourteen years with little hope of return to a country that did not want him.

Taken into the care of Duke Francis of Brittany, Henry’s comfortable imprisonment did not begin badly. Secluded within the duke’s own summer residence at Suscinio with Jasper, Henry was surrounded by woods and parkland and permitted to ride, hunt and train with his uncle. As a messy squabble erupted between Edward IV and Louis XI of France it became obvious to Francis that he had something valuable in his possession. Henry was, for the moment at least, a commodity and that would give the future merchant king a unique perspective.

Francis split his assets, separating uncle and nephew. He courted the overtures from both England and France, waiting until his prize possessions could bring him the richest reward possible. These years must have been comfortable but miserable for Henry. He was well provided for, educated and clothed, frequently in black. Francis sent gifts to his ward, but he remained isolated. The parting from his uncle was surely the most painful, probably even more distressing than the separation from his mother. Jasper was a father figure, a mentor, a protector and Henry’s only comfort in his teenage exile.

Henry would remain in a kind of comfortable isolation until 1483. Negotiations were progressing well to see Henry returned to England safely and perhaps even married to a daughter of Edward IV. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was by now married to her third (or fourth, depending on whether John de la Pole is included – which he never was by Margaret herself, who called Edmund Tudor her first husband in a will drawn up in 1472) husband Thomas Stanley and the couple were at the centre of Yorkist power. Margaret was trying to arrange her son’s return home and surviving records suggest that she was close to reaching a deal with the Yorkist king. I think it is unlikely that Henry’s intended bride was Elizabeth of York, simply because Edward would have had bigger plans for his oldest daughter.

The veracity of this arrangement is unclear. Edward may have been laying a trap for the last, straggling remnants of Lancastrian resistance in exile. Once back on home soil, his fate might have been less than certain. Alternatively, Lord Stanley’s influence might have convinced Edward that Henry could be reconciled safely and the final threat to Yorkist dominance brought within the fold. Either way, Henry’s fate was out of his hands and he was once more a commodity for others to weigh, value and barter over.

The death of Edward IV on 9 April 1483 brought these negotiations to an abrupt halt. If Edward IV had been willing to entertain the idea of a return for the Earl of Richmond because of his own established security, Richard III did not share that luxury and Henry’s future was once more that of a perishable good for the purveyance of others. This seems to have been the point at which Henry took the first step of any successful merchant – a risky venture.

Buckingham’s Rebellion was always, in truth, Henry Tudor’s rebellion. Quite how he sprung to the forefront and why the rebellion doesn’t bear his name, is a mystery open to interpretation, but Henry arrived at the south coast with one of the merchant’s necessities – a cautious eye. The story that he was beckoned ashore by men telling him Buckingham had been successful, only for Henry to narrow his shrewd, businessman’s eyes and decide something wasn’t right is entirely believable. The market was not yet ready and the order of business now was patience.

Henry became once more a desirable commodity. France still wanted him as a weapon against England, particularly now Richard III seemed far more likely than his brother to seek war across the Channel. Richard needed control of the last Lancastrian hope to help secure his own position. Duke Francis had sworn to protect Henry and was not particularly keen to hand him over to anyone, enjoying the influence his prisoner brought, but Francis was not a well man. Pierre Landlais, his chief minister, took control of Brittany, and Pierre was very interested in Richard III’s financial inducements. Agreement was reached and Henry was parcelled up and sent to the coast.

Fortunately for the anti-Ricardian cause, Henry had friends with ears to the ground. It was probably Bishop John Morton who warned Henry of what was happening and the fugitive slipped his guards and fled over the French border. It was here that Henry was to learn some of his most valuable lessons. It was the last piece of an unlikely apprenticeship that gave the merchant precisely what he needed.

In Paris, Henry was disingenuously welcomed as the true son of King Henry VI, the younger brother of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. The display was utterly magnificent. French kingship had always been wrapped in a royal majesty melded with a religious spirituality that had not reached the English crown. Henry learned, as he rode into Paris in splendour, that the truth could stand some adaptation if the need was real and that display could accomplish more than a sword, more than a threat. Give the impression that you are an unassailable monarch sent by God and the people will believe it.

When Henry landed at Milford Haven on 7 August 1485, it was as King of England. He summoned men to his cause as their ruler. He took the field of battle at Bosworth on 22 August as a reigning monarch seeking to drive out an imposter. This was what the merchant king had learned in France. The best way to create wealth is the illusion of wealth. The surest way to become king was to convince everyone that you already are king. Henry landed as a merchant with fabulous wares to offer – stability, certainty, salvation.

The first Tudor monarch ruled like a merchant king too. His control over his kingdom was based on money and the illusion of an inevitable, inexorable right to the throne that he had won. Henry VII did his own books. He knew every penny that came into and went out of his coffers. He developed a reputation as a miser, but that isn’t really the whole story. Henry’s accounts, which he diligently audited and signed personally, show an astounding willingness to spend money on his family and on the promotion of his image as king. He would initiate financial relationships with kingdoms all over Europe, selling them security in the form of his money and ensuring that they remained indebted to him. Trade was always a central plank of Henry’s efforts to increase his wealth, influence and security.

When Perkin Warbeck loomed large over the fledgling Tudor regime, Henry had his second son created Duke of York for no reason other than to demonstrate that he was in control. The old House of York was gone, absorbed into the bodies of his offspring and the new House of York was the future. The old one was dead. Warbeck could not be the heir to something that no longer existed.

Edmund de la Pole proved a serious thorn in Henry’s side when he claimed to be the heir of York and rightful king. Ever the pragmatic merchant, Henry made trade agreements to the detriment of English merchants in order to deprive the White Rose of support. He always had an eye for the bigger picture, the main deal. He could give with one hand if the other was taking far more in the long run. When Archduke Philip, son of Maximillian, the Holy Roman Emperor, was shipwrecked on the south coast in January 1506, Henry sprang into his finest bargaining mode. Philip was treated with the utmost respect, but Henry negotiated from a position of power now and he did so with ruthless brilliance. Edmund de la Pole was living under Maximillian’s protection and Henry made it clear that not only would the Emperor have to settle some outstanding trade disputes in England’s favour but he would also have to hand over Edmund before he would see his son again. It worked, and another threat was neutralised.

Henry VII built a hugely successful enterprise from nothing. He served a long apprenticeship and perhaps struck out on his own a little too early. He was wise enough to write off the early setback. What he learned in France showed that providence was on his side and he would apply all that he knew to the commencement of his greatest enterprise; the establishment of the family business. In 1509 he would hand over this business to his son, who lacked his father’s hard-earned experience but knew how to project magnificence even better than his mentor.

I think Henry VII was England’s first merchant king. He grew wealth from the illusion of wealth and power from the illusion on power. Why do we believe that the Wars of the Roses ended in 1485? We believe it because Henry VII told us it was so. In truth, it was nowhere near its end when Richard III was swiftly buried within the Grey Friars at Leicester. The period was neatly packaged and placed on a shelf for display like a family trophy, a memento that could not be bought but defined the origins of the family business. No-one really knows what is inside and the shopkeeper would swat the hands of nosy children who looked too closely because although it was on display, it was not to be opened. Ever.

The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy unwraps this mysterious box and lays out the contents to examine the real beginnings and obscure endings of a civil war that broke a nation and made a dynasty. Fortunes waxed and waned, but Henry Tudor was, eventually, the biggest winner from the manoeuvres of the second half of the fifteenth century because he played the game so well, finally making the rules himself. His security was hard won but in many ways it remained an illusion, an elusive ambition. The extent of his achievement can be found in the fact that at his death, he was the first king in eighty-seven years not to lose his throne.

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Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories, A Glimpse of King Richard III and A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses, and two historical fiction novels, Loyalty and Honour. Matthew was born in the West Midlands and has a degree in Law. He blogs regularly about the Wars of the Roses and operates two history podcasts. He lives in Shropshire.

His latest book is The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, published by Amberley. The Wars of the Roses were not a coherent period of continual warfare. There were distinct episodes of conflict, interspersed with long periods of peace. But the struggles never really ceased. Motives change, fortunes waxed and waned, the nature of kingship was weighed and measured and the mettle of some of England’s greatest families was put to the test. Matthew Lewis examines the people behind these events, exploring the personalities of the main players, their motives, successes and failures. He uncovers some of the lesser-known tales and personal stories often lost in the broad sweep of the Wars of the Roses, in a period of famously complex loyalties and shifting fortunes.

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Book Review – Loyalty by Matthew Lewis (Audio Book)

By Nathen Amin

I should start this review by pointing out that I do not enjoy audiobooks and can certainly not be considered sympathetic to Richard III or the theories of Ricardians. That being said, when I came across an audiobook on the subject of Richard III I couldn’t resist giving it a listen.

Loyalty by historian Matthew Lewis was first published in 2012 and has been well received amongst historical fiction aficionados, currently receiving on average in excess of a 4-star rating from over one hundred reviews on Amazon, an impressive statistic and indicative of its quality.

The book has been praised for its intriguing plotline that unusually takes place across two notorious reigns – that of Henry VIII and Richard III. The premise is that Tudor court artist Hans Holbein is summoned to the house of Sir Thomas More for a commission. Whilst in the presence of More the painter is exposed to the true story of Richard III by his prestigious host; Holbein is an attentive if surprised listener as More regales the life of England’s most controversial king, unveiling a king far removed from the evil monarch that the English had come to believe had briefly ruled over them half a century before. By the end of the book Holbein is entrusted with a startling piece of information that could conceivably bring about the demise of the Tudor dynasty.

Lewis’ portrayal of Richard III is sympathetic and favourable, although not to the extent as to be considered preposterous in its bias. Lewis is an unabashed Ricardian but draws his conclusions about Richard III, as a man and as a king, from historical evidence and rational analysis, a process which results in Loyalty being a step above typical Ricardian works of fiction.

His portrayal of the king depicts a pious man who was a loyal brother and a skilled soldier, albeit with character flaws such as a raging temper and innate stubbornness. It is a balanced portrayal that paints Richard exactly as he was – a man of his time with real hopes, fears, dreams and problems. He experiences the highs of battle and the lows of personal grief. He is not a saint or a villain, but merely a man who happens to be born into the upper echelons of English society. Interesting is Richard’s nervous confidence, a feeling of worry as he bravely cuts his through late-fifteenth century English politics, rendered complex by the family dynamic between the House of York. I particularly enjoyed his portrayal as a more rounded, scheming character than a mere one-dimensional fairytale prince. During his test of wills with his brother Clarence over the Neville inheritance, he boldly bluffs by announcing Clarence can have all if Richard is only allowed the hand of Anne Neville. In most Ricardian works of fiction this device is used solely to portray Richard as a swashbuckling man of love, a romantic lead with only Anne on his mind. Lewis expands this by having Richard mentally acknowledge that this is a bluff tactic and that he does not really wish to give away the lands but is rather manipulating the situation to win a favourable outcome whereby he wins both the lands and the hand. This seems far more likely to have been the real situation to me. The motivations of Richard III would have been far more complex than general historical fiction has given him credit for.

This is what makes Lewis’ book a book worth reading, or as of this year, listening to. Towards the end of the book we encounter Lewis’ talent for creating suspenseful and emotional narrative, notably in two separate chapters that deal with drastically different situations. His grief-stricken Richard after the death of his child Edward is harrowing whilst his version of the Battle of Bosworth from Richard’s viewpoint is brutal yet captivating through its descriptive recounting. You are almost able to picture the seen unfolding through your own eyes. Particularly interesting is his tough, influential portrayal of Anne Neville, pushing Richard towards his destiny before falling apart after the death of her only child.

Loyalty has been released in audio book for 2015 and has truly enhanced the book for anyone interested in this period of history. The book has been made available via Audible and is narrated by the dulcet tones of Nigel Carrington, his interpretation of Lewis’ characters nothing other than sublime. Stretching to over 14hrs in length, there is enough content here to keep the listener occupied during long journeys or short breaks. It is certainly fascinating hearing the well-written prose spoken aloud and enables one to paint a picture of the characters as they wade through Lewis’ interpretation of the events of the late fifteenth century. A bonus is the author notes which occupy the last chapter, a historical recounting of the period which served as the basis of the story. It is always gratifying to note the research that has gone into creating historical fiction, amid glaring errors and inaccuracies that exist in the genre today. Lewis does not shy away from justifying his theories and this helps his work stand on its own two feet as a book worth buying, both in paper and audio form.

As I stated at the beginning, I generally do not enjoy the topic of Richard III as told by Ricardians or listening to audio books. My only complaint after listening to this particular Richard III audiobook is that 14 hours went too quickly.

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