Review of Wilkinson, The Princes in the Tower.

Posted: January 21, 2014 in Review, Uncategorised

The Princes in the Tower, Josephine Wilkinson, Amberley.

Before I go on with this review, there are two quotes I think worthy of highlighting.

“When texts refuse to conform to the theory, it is time to change the theory, not the text.” (p112)


“The question, therefore, should not be ‘Who killed the Princes in the Tower?’, but ‘What happened to the Princes after they disappeared?” (p156)

The first is spot on and a good many writers and commentators on the life and times of Richard III could benefit from applying this principle. The second, I think, could do with a little tweaking. “The question, therefore, should not be ‘Who killed the Princes in the Tower?, but ‘What happened to the Princes… [to cause them to]… disappear?” With that one tiny adjustment, I’d be wholeheartedly agreeing with this as well.

The Princes in the Tower is a slim book, a collection of essays based on a reading, collating and analysis of available sources. Wilkinson gives a brief life of Edward V, up to the likely point of his disappearance, then deals with the usual suspects, one at a time. All, including Richard III himself, are declared innocent. On the available evidence, that’s a fairly sensible conclusion to reach. Or at least, the conclusion that it’s difficult to declare, beyond reasonable doubt, any of them actually guilty, is sensible. Oh, and she dismisses the current favourite suspect, Margaret Beaufort, in a few deft sentences.

The ultimate conclusion Wilkinson reaches is that no-one murdered the Princes, that they (or one of them, at least) was, by person or persons unknown, removed to Flanders where he lived in silence and obscurity until (possibly) he re-emerged as Perkin Warbeck. I’m not entirely convinced by this, as the living in silence and obscurity bit leaves way too many unanswered questions. While ‘he became Perkin Warbeck’ might answer the question ‘What happened to Richard duke of York?” it says nothing about his brother, Edward V. A thorough investigation, so far as possible, into Warbeck’s background and, as Wilkinson suggests, records in Flanders, would be welcome. It might go some way to confirming Warbeck’s royal pretensions, or it might put the story to bed, once and for all. Either way, it would add to the little we know.

As The Princes in the Tower is most decidedly not a book of speculation searching for an answer to the question quoted above, but an examination and interpretation of available sources, Wilkinson’s conclusions are, of necessity, going to reflect those interpretations. It raised more questions than it answered for me, but as some of those questions hadn’t occurred to me before, I see this as a very good thing.

All in all, this is a good book, clearly organised and written. While there may be alternative interpretations to some of the passages quoted, Wilkinson backs up her views and doesn’t, so far as I could see, resort to cherrypicking or convenient source-blindness. I’d recommend this book to anyone trying to make sense of some of the events of 1483 and 1484.

  1. Esther says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I wish that the royal family would let the bones be re-examined … we could learn so much more from them now, other than whether they really are the princes. (for example, I’ve wondered why someone pretended to be Edward V’s cousin or Edward V’s younger brother, but no one ever pretended to be Edward V … maybe there was something about his health or appearance that forced pretenders into different roles) Thank you for the review.


  2. Richard Clark says:

    No way do I believe that the young Duke Richard was the pretender “Perkin Warbeck.”

  3. Dianne Penn says:

    Shouldn’t that be ”No way do I believe that the young Perkin Warbeck was Duke Richard” – why would Richard want to impersonate Perkin? Nit picking aside, why not?

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Dianne. I’d say those who aren’t convinced by Perkin don’t believe either. If Perkin impersonated duke Richard, then duke Richard (at least in the early stages, when he was a child being grown up in Flanders in silence and obscurity) impersonated Perkin.
      My reasoning can be found in my review of Anne Wroe’s biography of Perkin.

  4. Celia Parker says:

    ‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is for a court of law, not for history. It will probably never be possible to know what happened to the two boys (and something certainly happened to Edward V and was known, if only in a very small Yorkist circle to have happened, else why was he never impersonated?).However, it’s a reasonable inference that they met their end in Richard’s reign. He had means and opportunity in that he had custody of and access to them, which no-one else did. He had motive- as the uprisings of summer and autumn 1483 showed, they were a threat to him and having Parliament pass an Act setting out his title (can you imagine Parliament refusing?) made no difference to that.
    He would not, of course, have committed anything to writing, so definitive evidence is not likely to be found. It would, though, be interesting to have the Westminster Abbey bones examined properly, to at least establish whether they are from around the right period. Sadly, the Church of England, is very squeamish about even centuries-old remains and won’t normally allow investigation. Not so abroad. When a relic of the 13th century Franciscan saint, Anthony of Padua, was brought to Britain last year, I sat through a fascinating ‘sermon’ by the escorting friar on the disinterment of his bones in 1981, the subsequent laboratory examination, what was found out about him, the removal of a few bits to make portable relics, then back in the shrine with him, no problem. Catholics are more robust, Italian ones at least.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Celia. Yes, I’m aware of the legal definition of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, but wasn’t using it in a strictly legal sense. We cannot get anywhere close to this, as you point out. I cannot agree with Wilkinson’s conclusion that at least the duke of York was smuggled abroad. People keep pointing out to me that Richard III wasn’t a stupid man and therefore wouldn’t have murdered the princes, as this would have been a ‘stupid’ act. Exactly the same argument can be made for leaving them alive and can certainly be made for moving one, or both, abroad, out of his direct control.
      Means, motive and opportunity (also legal terms) can be argued very strongly in Richard’s case. None of these, however, can be argued in the case of any of the other usual suspects.

  5. Anerje says:

    Thanks for this review – will definitely cross it off my list of books to buy/read. I’m always suspicious of any books published by Amberley press, and I’ve not been impressed by Josephine Wilkinson’s books on Anne Boleyn. Unless there’s any new evidence, I don’t think there’s anything new to add to any existing theory. The Queen won’t allow the bones of the princes to be disturbed as she thinks it may set a precedent for disturbing royal graves. I actually wonder what would happen if they were re-examined. I’m convinced they are the bones of the princes – who else would have been given a secret burial in the Tower? Plus, scraps of fabric found with them date from the period they disappeared. I don’t think it would change much – Ricardians would undoubtedly challenge any compromising evidence and still exonerate Richard if they were found to be the bones of the princes and they had died unnatural deaths. Perhaps Charles III will allow it.

    • James Harris says:

      The scraps of fabric allegedly found with the 1674 bones may not be as reliable as is sometimes assumed. Only one anonymous source from 1674 mentions these “scraps of velvet” at all, and several other details of this anonymous account conflict with other reports from that year as to the circumstances of the bones being found. Additionally, when the bones are first found the workmen don’t initially attach any significance to them and they end up on the Tower rubbish tip, from which they are only retrieved several hours later. When the urn with the bones was re-opened in 1933, it was found that a whole lot of extraneous material, including animal bones (presumably from the Tower rubbish from 1674) had been mixed in with the human remains. It is possible that the scraps of fabric, if indeed there were any, could have come from the same source. Certainly the chain of evidence was rather seriously compromised when the bones were first found. If the velvet fragments are set aside, we otherwise have no evidence to date the burials, and given the remarkable depth at which the bones were found we can’t even be sure that the burials don’t pre-date the Tower’s construction.
      As to other secret burials in the Tower, there may have been more than you realise. To cite just two examples, Richard III’s illegitimate son John of Pontefract is arrested in 1491 and incarcerated in the Tower, and is never heard from again. Admittedly John is an adult when arrested, so the bones from 1674 aren’t his, but it does demonstrate that secret burials in the Tower are not a rare event – there is a reason for the Tower’s sinister reputation! More pertinently still, in 1541 Henry VIII has George of Clarence’s 14-year-old great-grandson Henry Pole incarcerated in the Tower, and Henry Pole then disappears rather suspiciously from all records too. Apparently the unexplained disappearance of child prisoners from the Tower only qualifies as the crime of the century when it happens in pre-Tudor reigns – most histories of Henry VIII’s reign don’t even mention Henry Pole as a footnote! I should be surprised if over the course of the Tower’s 600 years of history pre-1674 there were not a few other such cases.
      None of this, of course, means that Richard couldn’t have ordered his nephews murdered in 1483, but I’d hesitate to rely too much on the 1674 bones as evidence.

  6. khel t says:

    I’ve always found the “mystery” of their fate boring and the least mysterious thing of the entire period. that the boys would have been “disappeared” is what is to ve expected; had they lived to a ripe old age outside of the intrigues of the game of throwns is what would have been remarkable, regaudless of who wielded the candlestick.

    why richard, duke of york left sandal castle, now that’s a mystery I’d like solved…

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