Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Question from Nigel - More and the burial of the Princes in the Tower

This is a question about how Thomas More was able to say where the two bodies of the Princess in the Tower were located. It is a question out of curiousity as I have been watching "The White Queen" and have since been reading up on the history behind that period.

In his history of King Richard III, Thomas More said that the princes were smothered to death in their beds by two agents of James Tyrell — Miles Forrest and John Dighton — and were then buried "at the stayre foote, metely depe in the grounde vnder a great heape of stones". He then went on to say that they were later disinterred and buried in a secret place.

In 1674, some workmen remodelling the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The bones were found in the ground close to the White Tower, consistent with More's description of the original burial place of the princes (under the tower stairs), but not consistent with More's later claim that the bodies had been subsequently removed and buried elsewhere.

(The two paragraphs above have been compiled from information I have found from searching on Google and Wikipedia.)

I am a little confused as to where Thomas More got his information from as to the exact (and originally correct) location of the bodies as according to him he wrote that James Tyrell confessed to the murders and implicated the other two but that James Tyrell was unable to say where the where the bodies were.

Does this mean Thomas More had another source of information as to where the bodies were buried?


PhD Historian said...

Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III is a highly controversial document, and its place as a reliable historical document has been hotly debated by historians almost since it was written. It is critically important to read it with a keen awareness of the circumstances under which it was written and the classical models that it seeks to emulate.

It actually says very little about the burial of the Princes ... only what Nigel cites: they were buried under the stair foot, suitably deep in the ground and under a pile of stones. No other information whatsoever is provided by More regarding the burial location. The logical first question is *which* stair foot? There are, after all, dozens of sets of stairs within, into, and out of numerous “towers” in the “Tower of London”. More did not indicate, or even imply, the White Tower (or any other named tower), though the two sets of bones found in 1674 were indeed found under a staircase leading into the Chapel within the White Tower. In my opinion, it is pure coincidence that More was “correct” even in stating a stair foot. But since he did not state the “exact” location (the Chapel stairs within the White Tower), we can safely assume that More was simply guessing. Had he known *which* of dozens of stair foots, surely a large number of other officials of the Crown would also have known the precise location. And had many people known, it seems to me only logical that the bones would have been exhumed and properly re-interred, given that the Princes were seen by the Tudors as victim-martyrs of an “evil” and “usurping” Richard III. In other words, it would have been politically expedient and great propaganda to trot out the Princes’s bones as verification of the evil that Henry VII (and VIII) had stamped out by killing Richard III.

On a related note, I am hopeful that the apparent discovery and identification of the bones of Richard III will prompt the Crown to finally allow modern scientific testing on the bones discovered in the White Tower. Because they are now interred in Westminster Abbey, a royal peculiar, Crown permission is needed to open the vault. That was last done some 75 years ago, before modern forensic anthropology and DNA testing was available. I’d like to know that the bones at Westminster are actually those of the princes and not of some other unfortunate children.

Nigel said...

Thank you very much for taking time to reply and has answered my question.

It is an angle that I did not consider and I can agree that had Thomas More actually known the exact location of the bodies, then others would have too and it would have been used as another propaganda tool against Richard III.
It was still a lucky guess/statement to put down, but I suppose he could just as well have stated that they were "buried deep in dark woods a horse ride from the city walls" (or something along those lines) knowing that the bodies were probably lost forever especially after 30 years and if any were found they would have been impossible to identify after that length of time (until nowadays!).

Leanda de Lisle said...

I think actually there were very good propaganda reasons for Henry VII not to want to find the bodies. My book Tudor: The Family Story (which is not published until Aug 29 in the UK and October in the US) goes into this in some detail, but I also have an article coming out in BBC History magazine on precisely this subject. It will either be in their Sep (out mid Aug) or October (mid Sep) issue, and don't want to preempt that, but will try and remember to get back to you - and look forward to hearing what PHd historian makes of it! I hope he will like it!

Nigel said...

Thank you Leanda de Lisle - I will look out for your article in the magazine next month or month after.

vikkisf1 said...

Keep in mind that Thomas More was a small child at the time of Richard III, and his history was based entirely on hearsay, most from those who hated Richard. See Josephine Tey's excellent book, "The Daughter of Time," for a rational look at the mystery of the Princes, the lack of evidence to connect Richard to their deaths, and the unreliability of More's history.

Unknown said...

Remember also that Tey's book was a novel!

Leanda de Lisle said...

Nigel, the article is now out, but sadly you cannot access it for free - annoying!

Leanda de Lisle said...

I wanted to answer Nigel at least in brief since the BBC article is not free: here goes:
Richard III had a clear motive to bump off his nephews, the twelve year old Edward V and his little brother Richard Duke of York because they still attracted support after Richard became king and were a potential focus of opposition to his rule.

BUT previous usurpers had, under similar circumstances, always claimed their captive predecessors had died of natural causes and then laid out the bodies to prove they were dead. Why did Richard III not follow this modus operandi? The princes simply disappeared that summer of 1483 and this is the focus of all the conspiracy theories about what happened to them.

It is, however, explicable in the context of the culture of the times. Richard III was aware that after Edward IV had bumped off Henry VI the dead king had become the focus of a hugely popular religious cult. He did not want the same to happen to the princes. Disappearing them solved that.

In 1485 Henry VII accused Richard of spilling ‘innocents blood’ but Henry did nothing public to discover exactly what had happened to the princes, or where their bodies might lie. Why? The answer is because Henry too was fearful of a cult.

Henry’s blood claim to the throne was extremely weak, so he argued that he was king by divine providence, that is God’s intervention on earth. As evidence for this he claimed that the ‘saint’ Henry VI had prophesied his rule a few months before his death in the Tower. Henry VII was to greatly encourage the cult of Henry VI, and did not want a rival Yorkist cult.

For Henry, as for Richard, it was a case of out of sight being out out of mind - and as soon as the ‘pretenders’ began to appear Elizabeth Woodville was also disappeared, first to a convent, and then at her death to a very quiet funeral.

One thing I don’t explain in my book or the BBC article is the timing of the James Tryell’s ‘confession’ in May 1502 to involvement in the deaths of the princes on the orders of Richard III - but I think it is significant that this took place only a month after the death of Arthur Tudor.

The death of Henry’s eldest son suggested that he was not as blessed by God as he claimed and once again we see him pointing the finger at Richard III - yet never coming up with any bodies - just as in 1485.

Nigel said...

Hi Leanda,
Thank you for taking time to post your last comment.
(By chance I was offered a trial subscription to the BBC History magazine, which I have taken out so I have been able to read the whole article)
It’s a very interesting read and gives a good theory on why neither king wanted the cult status of the princes to gain popularity. Living in today’s society, you almost have to put a 13th Century hat on to properly understand the culture of the middle ages and how religion and beliefs played major parts in daily life.
The section about the lack of any record of prayers for the princes was interesting and could have meant that one or both of them were possibly alive.
As ‘PhD Historian’ said above, it would be nice if the Crown allowed scientific testing of the two bodies found to determine if they were the princes.
Thank you,