Some thoughts on disappeared documents…

Posted: June 22, 2015 in Uncategorised

One of the things that’s often puzzled me is the claim that Henry VII did away with loads and loads of documents from the reign of Richard III. You come across stuff like ‘it’s documented fact that documents were destroyed…’ without anyone ever actually linking to either the document or the fact. The one document that was disappeared, the disappearance of which is documented fact, is Titulus Regius. We know all copies were destroyed (except the odd one that survived) because we know there was an order for it to be destroyed. Even if one of those hidden/forgotten/mislaid copies hadn’t emerged we’d know the document once existed because it’s destruction is mandated. And there was good reason for it to be destroyed, at least from Henry VII’s point of view. TR rendered his Queen illegitimate. Removing that libel, destroying all copies of a document that promulgated that libel would, under those circumstances, be at the top of any sensible King’s to do list.

So why does the (known and documented) disappearance of Document A (Titulus Regius) lead people to the belief that Documents B through Z were also destroyed? People will claim all kinds of things happened that we have no record of. When asked for a source, we are told ‘Oh, the documentary evidence of that was destroyed by Henry VII’, which might seem convenient and helpful but is, in effect, a waste of breath. There’s only one way of deducing the one time existence of a document we no longer have, and that’s through finding traces of its ghost. Like TR. It’s ghost is right there in the order for all copies of it to be destroyed. As a counter-example, the (supposed) record of Hastings’ trial, which we are repeatedly assured once existed but now does not, has left no ghost. Another set of documents that have disappeared, most likely deliberately destroyed, is the record of Henry VI’s Readeption parliament. We know one took place. We know such things were meticulously recorded. We even know a tiny bit about it. (Who was and wasn’t attainted, for example. Who was and wasn’t restored to their titles, for another example.) So, by the existence of its ghost(s), we know there was once a record of that parliament. Given the events of 1471, we can assume that record was destroyed.

Sometimes we are told that there ‘must have been’ some obscure and complicated reason for destroying TR, beyond the libel against the Queen. (Occam’s razor really is the way to go with this one.) It’s often something to do with the disappeared (most likely deceased) Princes. Some conspiracy to do with Henry VII’s claim to or hold on the throne often comes up, rather than the much more sensible, and likely, explanation: No King who wants his Queen to like him is going to allow a document that declares her illegitimate to be allowed to float around the kingdom. What Richard III didn’t consider libellous became so in the reign of Henry VII. The destruction of TR, from this perspective, is completely understandable. Just as the destruction of the record of the Readeption parliament, from Edward IV’s perspective, is completely understandable.

The leap from ‘TR was destroyed’ to ‘that must mean loads of other documents were destroyed’ is huge and unsustainable. Unless and until we find the ghosts of (say) the record of Hastings’ trial, we have to work from a point where no such trial took place. We know so very little about the events of that day but nowhere (so far) have we found even the tiniest, most obscure reference to a trial. We can’t possibly claim a trial took place using the destruction of TR as proof. ‘Well, TR was destroyed, so the record of Hastings’ trial must have been as well’ ignores one important point:

We knew TR existed before anyone ever clapped eyes on it because we know there was an order for its destruction.

So, until we find some ghostly trace of the documents Henry VII is said to have disappeared, or until we find a source that talks about the destruction of documents other than TR, we can’t sensibly conclude Henry VII ordered the wholesale destruction of documents, however embarrassing they might have been to him or however useful they might be in exonerating Richard III.

  1. Esther says:

    Interesting post, but I am not sure that destroying TR is the first thing that a king would do. After all, Mary I didn’t destroy all record of the decrees calling her a bastard; she just repealed them. Also, Henry VII’s actions are exhibit “A” for the idea that there was some truth to the pre-contract, which makes his action a little weird.

    Also, I can understand where the accusation comes from. Henry VII hired Polydore Vergil to write a history of England, and he was frequently accused of destroying documents (at least according to Wikipedia) which states (cite notes deleted):

    “This charge of burning manuscripts was widely reported. John Caius in 1574, for example, asserted that Vergil had `committed as many of our ancient and manuscript historians to the flames as would have filled a waggon, that the faults of his own work might pass undiscovered’. Henry Peacham in 1622 similarly accused him of having `burned and embezeled the best and most ancient Records and Monuments of our Abbeies, Priories, and Cathedrall Churches, under colour … of making search for all such monuments, manusc. records, Legier bookes, &c. as might make for his purpose’.”

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi Esther. I’d have thought it a little difficult to use the actions of someone who came later in the story as a precedent. I’ve heard the idea that the destruction of TR somehow ‘proves the truth’ of the precontract before, but I’ve never understood quite how. It’s a simple thought experiment, really: What’s more likely? That a man would destroy a document that declares his wife illegitimate? Or that a man would destroy a document that declares his probably deceased brothers-in-law illegitimate? And, again, the *why* of it is far easier to reach if it’s “living wife” rather than “probably deceased brothers-in-law”. Once he’d got the crown through conquest, what on earth did Henry Tudor have to fear from the illegitimacy of two (probably deceased) princes?
      None of the accusations against PV cited on wikipedia link the source destruction to an order by Henry VII, and they do seem a little less focussed than might otherwise be the case – lots of documents, ancient documents, and the reason given – so no-one could check his sources. And you forgot to include the counter-view: “However, one of Peacham’s contemporaries, the Leicestershire antiquary William Burton, cast Vergil in a more positive light, describing him as “a man of singular invention, good judgement, and good reading, and a true lover of antiquities”.
      I’d have thought, if documents destroyed by PV were destroyed on orders from the King, they’d be less ‘ancient’ and more ‘recent’. I suspect these accusations have been bent a little out of shape to fit the ‘Henry Tudor, Destroyer of Ricardian Documents’ myth.

  2. Esther says:

    Destruction of evidence is still used in modern court cases to show consciousness of guilt, so I can follow James Gairdner’s reasoning, (He was the Victorian era expert, and no Ricardian, but a self-prroclaimed “traditionalist”) This is especially true since destruction wasn’t necessary (even absent Mary’s example, Henry could have proclaimed it a falsehood). The idea that Vergil destroyed documents does lend itself to the accusation against Henry, just because employers are frequently held responsible for the actions of their employees/agents — again, this is still a modern legal rule. Since we have no idea as to whether or not he did, in fact do so (I was merely pointing out that the accusation he did so was not a modern Ricardian invention) and if he did so, we have no idea what documents if any were destroyed, there is going to be a great deal of speculation.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I’m still curious, Esther, how Henry VII’s open and well published destruction of a document declaring Elizabeth of York and her deceased brothers illegitimate could be a sign of guilt. (Guilt over what?) We might as well endorse the view that the forensic evidence that Richard III ground his teeth proves he murdered the princes simply because, in some cases, teeth grinding is a sign of stress and ‘guilt’ can be a cause of that stress. And, sure, Henry could just have said ‘Ignore TR, people, it’s a bunch of lies!’ But (to speculate just a little) perhaps the woman he married, or was about to marry, said: “I’d be delighted if you could get rid of that bunch of lies that call me a bastard!”
      The quotes re Vergil (one is quite disconnected in time and smells a little of historical gossip) are exactly that – they’re accusations against Vergil, emanating, at least in part, from a disgruntled rival. There’s no trail back to Henry VII, and no hint as to what documents he is supposed to have destroyed. Usually, the vaguer the claim the less likely it is to be true.
      What I’m suggesting here is that ‘a document was destroyed, and we know it was’ and ‘someone said Vergil destroyed documents’ is being used to conclude ‘it’s well documented that Henry VII ordered lots and lots of documents relating to Richard III’s reign to be destroyed’. Which is both a wild and unsustainable leap.

      • Esther says:

        First, it is an old legal principle that a showing that a litigant suppressed evidence supports an inference that the evidence destroyed/suppressed would harm the destroyer’s case. (California even has a provision — section 413 of our Evidence Code — codifying this rule). Therefore, the fact that Henry suppressed TR justifies an inference that TR would harm Henry’s case (his claim to the throne). TR would harm Henry’s claim if true because it shows that Richard was a lawful king, making Henry a usurper, as well as by establishing that marriage to Elizabeth of York provided no claim to the throne.

        I’m afraid I just don’t see how TR harms Henry’s claim if false. It would be unpleasant to have the document calling his wife a bastard in the record, but this is different from claiming that TR’s existence would harm Henry’s claim. Admittedly, this fact (that false proclamations of illegitimacy didn’t harm a ruler) was not proven until the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth long after Henry VII was dead. However, the delay in proving this fact does not mean that Henry had any reason to believe that TR’s existence would harm his claim if it was false.

        I do agree that it is a wild leap to go from one document being destroyed at Henry’s orders combined with accusations against Vergil to conclude that Henry ordered a lot of destruction. My point was simply that there was some evidence to show that a lot of documents were destroyed in Henry’s reign.

      • anevillfeast says:

        I don’t see how TR harms Henry’s claim at all, whether true or false, considering he won the crown through combat. What I see is a document that declares the woman he married illegitimate and that is sufficient reason (for him) to have it destroyed.

  3. white lily says:

    I can agree that the tendency to exaggerate on this subject (loss of original documents) may lead people to cast broad judgments on motives, and in particular, the loss of certain narratives. However, I think it might be important to note that Coldharbor (where the Royal College of Arms had its archives under R3) did suffer something of a loss of archival material when H7 gave that building to his mother. Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs noted this, in particular, in their book “The Yorkist Burials at Windsor” by commenting on the odd gaps in the heralds’ narratives, in fact, there appear to be notations where the herald says “I’m going to report on this event”… and then there is nothing. Perhaps the herald never filed his report. But perhaps the herald’s report was lost during the transition of materials out of Coldharbor.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi white lily, There are gaps throughout the historical record, things we know once existed, things we think must have once existed and things we can’t possibly know existed or not. The kind of documents you’re talking about have ghosts, or Sutton and Visser-Fuches would not (presumably) have been able to establish they had, at one time, existed. The ghost of TR leads directly to Henry VII, in the form of the order to destroy all copies. Unless the ghosts of the missing RCA archive also lead directly back to Henry VII, we cannot possibly claim he had them destroyed. That works even more with ghostless documents that exist only in the minds of those who (eg) desperately want Hastings to have been guilty of *something*.
      This is what we know: all copies of TR were ordered destroyed; there are unspecific claims Vergil destroyed documents ‘wholesale’ in order to make himself look better and prevent others from accessing his sources; and some material from the RCA archive went missing at some point; we have no paper record of some pivotal events. None of this, in a rational mind, adds up to ‘Henry VII carefully and methodically destroyed specific documents from the reign of Richard III in order to protect himself”.

      As reluctant as I am to link this blog to the mixture of bile and disinformation that is murreyandblue, I have approved this comment in the interests of the discussion.

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