Saturday, October 3, 2009

History's Mysteries



Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Did Oswald act alone? Why did the colony at Roanoke disappear? Did Lizzie Borden really kill her parents? These questions are now fodder for cable TV shows featuring amateur "experts" who've devoted their lives, for whatever (possibly pathological) reason, to uncovering the "truth" about matters for which no new evidence is available. One of the oldest of these mysteries is the fate of the so-called "Princes in the Tower"--Prince Edward and Richard, Duke of York. This question is at the center of the centuries-long debate about Richard III. Will's play has rendered a harsh judgment on the last Plantagenet king; many Americans, in particular, assume that the play is an historically accurate assessment of his deeds and character.

I'm obviously not going to add anything new to the argument, but it seemed only fair to (the historical) Richard to at least sketch out some of the issues before proceeding to his most diabolical dramatic deeds in Act 4. First, his physical deformity. By most accounts this is completely fictional, made up out of whole cloth by Thomas More in his 1513 History of King Richard the Thirde. Remember that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance one's physical appearance was said to reflect one's inner virtue, or lack thereof. Ugly, malformed people were thought to be evil, spiritually corrupted, while beautiful people were assumed to be good and virtuous.

Now, thanks to the tabloid press, we've been disabused of this fantasy. In fact, things may have swung the other way--if you ask the National Enquirer (and, in a post-Scriptural world, who does not turn to this venerable publication for moral guidance?) physical beauty hides a plethora of sins, not to mention surgical interventions.

But back to the sixteenth--or rather fifteenth--century. First, let's get some dates straightened out. Richard was crowned king in 1483, and died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He only reigned for two years, which is kind of astonishing when you think about how well-known he is, relative to much longer-lived English monarchs. Of course, that's Will's doing--but the very fact that he generated so much press (relatively) shortly after his death is also interesting. I'll get back to this point in a moment. He was the last English king to die in battle--at the relatively young age of 32. It's true that 32 then wasn't the same as 32 today--I mean, many 32 year-olds today are still living with their parents--but it's at least twenty younger than most of the actors who've played him. But then Hamlet is almost always played as if he's in the throes of a midlife crisis rather than an adolescent rebellion, so perhaps that's not so surprising.

So what about all that postmortem press? More's History appeared less than thirty years after Richard's death, followed by Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke in 1550 and then Will's primary source for most of the histories, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1577. Both of these later texts take their readings of Richard from More's History, which is the source of most of the nasty stuff that many people now take as fact. More was in the employ of Elizabeth I's dad, Henry VIII. Her grandfather, Henry VII (Richmond, in the play), was the father of the Tudor dynasty. Now if you look back at the royal genealogical tables (and don't you just love doing that, when you have free time?) you'll see that the Tudor claim to the throne rested on a pretty flimsy foundation--the matrilineal line goes back to John Beaufort, an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster. This was back in the late fourteenth century. It gets tricky because John of Gaunt later married Beaufort's mom, but anyway--the point is that Henry VII had at least as shaky a claim as our Richard. So, after Henry took the throne, he and his descendants had to make an argument for the legitimacy of the dynasty.

Enter Thomas More, eminent Renaissance humanist, utopian thinker, and political hatchet man. Oops, poor choice of words. Henry VIII beheaded More for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry the head of the Church of England--i.e., no longer subject to the Pope in Rome. Henry handled a lot of things with the axe--staff changes, marital dissatisfaction, indigestion (okay, I made that one up) which makes you wonder why Richard is the one we call "bloody." I mean, really--it hardly seems fair, does it?

I think even propagandists like More realized that beheading a few former friends wasn't going to put Richard in the villain column, despite all those fabricated birth defects. But he had an ace in the hole: the two Princes, who just up and disappeared from the Tower, conveniently, sometime between 1483 and 1485.

And even today, no one knows what really happened to them. (dramatic, sinister music, cut to commercial.)

Okay, that's not true. They were no doubt killed by someone. Or...maybe not. (more dramatic music).

I'm kidding. They were killed. I'm sure of it, and so are most historians. There were, however, various pretenders who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York later on (although apparently none claiming to be Edward). The most famous pretender was a man named Perkin Warbeck--the Anna Anderson of his day. Anna, in case you don't know or remember, claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II (see the great but entirely fictionalized movie Anastasia starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. Do not bother with the awful Disney cartoon thing). After the fall of the Soviet Union the remains of the Romanovs were subjected to DNA testing, as was some kind of tissue sample that Anna had left somewhere (this sounds shady to me, but never mind) and it was discovered that Anna was a Polish factory worker, and that all dead Romanovs were accounted for. This option wasn't available in Perkin's case, of course. So I guess we'll never know for sure, but I doubt very much anyone would have helped one or both of the princes escape. They were put in the Tower, and never came out.

In 1674, the remains of two children were found underneath the staircase leading to the Tower chapel. The bones were exhumed in 1933, but they've never been tested for DNA. Hard to imagine who they'd compare them with, unless they started exhuming the princes' relatives, too. Anyway. Most likely the bones were once Edward IV's two sons.

So, who did it? Here things get interesting. The princes were seen in the Tower courtyard soon after their imprisonment in 1483, but there are no records of anyone having seen them after the summer of that year. Richard had had them declared illegitimate by an Act of Parliament known as Titulus Regius (royal title, or "title of king"). Even after this decree they could have been a rallying point for rebels, so they still constituted a mild threat to Richard's reign. Rumors of their death were being circulated as early as 1483, and Richard never attempted to prove they were alive by having them paraded in public, so they were likely dead by that time.

Here's something funny: In 1997, three justices of the US Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer held a mock trial to try to determine if those accusing Richard of the murder had met the "burden of proof" by our legal standards. The answer was no. There was, the justices decided, "reasonable doubt" that Richard had been responsible. This gives you kind of an interesting window on what Supreme Court justices do for fun, doesn't it? It also demonstrates that Richard and his alleged crimes have had a remarkable and long-running hold on the public imagination, to say the least.

There are other possible culprits. Henry VII had at least as strong an interest in getting the princes out of the way--his claim to the throne was even weaker than Richard's. Some members of the Richard III Society (about which more presently) have posited that Buckingham did it on Henry's orders, then fled. On the other hand, there's a confession by James Tyrrell (same guy who killed them in the play). Under torture, he admitted to murdering the princes at Richard's behest. And we all know what a terrific legal tool torture is. Personally, my pain threshold is so low that all someone would have to do is pinch me hard and I'd confess to whacking Jimmy Hoffa, dissecting aliens in Area 51, and hiding behind the grassy knoll on that November day in Dallas.

Since the people doing the torturing were Henry's men, I doubt that Tyrrell had too many narrative options in any case. But it's true that Henry would not have had many opportunities to kill the princes until after his accession in 1485--by which time they hadn't been seen (at least according to the historical records) for two years. It's also true, however, that he ordered the Titulus Regius overturned and more or less thrown down the memory hole--it was expunged from the Parliamentary record, presumably because it called Henry's own claim into question.

So those are the basic facts. What's really interesting, however, are Richard's twentieth-century defenders, many of whom were/are famous in their own right. The Richard III Society was formed in 1924 under the original name of the Fellowship of the White Boar. Probably realizing that this name sounded a bit like the Elk's Club, they changed it in 1959. Some of the luminaries who belonged were John Gielgud, Salvador Dali, Helen Hayes, and James Thurber. Obviously these are celebrities of a bygone era, but their names testify to the fact that Richard's innocence was once a celebrity cause, along the lines of Darfur or global warming today. It's hard to imagine Angelina or Bono getting excited about the reputation of some long-dead monarch, isn't it? But that's the kind of thing we're talking about.

What really gave the whole Ricardian apologist movement traction was a mystery novel, however. In 1951 a woman pen-named Josephine Tey published a book called The Daughter of Time, in which a fictional detective, bedridden due to injury, decides to investigate Richard's putative role in the murder of the two princes. Through a combination of research and inference, he finds that Richard had been unjustly blamed for the crime. The book was enormously popular, the topic of unjust accusation and ruined reputation no doubt having special resonance during the era of the McCarthy blacklists.

Personally, I think that Richard was the likely culprit in the murders, but I also think that such things were fairly commonplace back in those nasty and brutish days. He certainly didn't do anything that others hadn't done and gotten away with, both before and after his time. That doesn't make it right, of course--but the sentimentalization of the princes (see the nineteenth-century painting, above) by Will and later authors/poets/painters worked to exaggerate the anomalous nature of the case, and, consequently, Richard's ontological evil. Or rather evilness.

Next: All the stuff I promised to write about at the end of the last post.

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