Before I begin, I have two words of warning. The first is that a huge spoiler for my novels Loyalty and the sequel Honour unavoidably follows. Just so that you know!
Secondly, the following is my telling of the theory researched and expounded by Jack Leslau, an amateur art enthusiast who believed that he stumbled across the answer to the riddle of the Princes in the Tower hidden in Hans Holbein’s stunning portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family. I am not seeking any credit for the facts and ideas below and am relying upon Jack Leslau’s work entirely. Since he passed away, his theory seems to have sat somewhat unattended. I have tried to make contact using the details on the website (that still exists, but is extremely hard to read) to no avail. I am not aware that this work is for sale anywhere and do not intend to breach any copyright. If I do so inadvertently, I am sorry and will remove this as soon as I am made aware of such an infringement.
My reason for writing this is threefold. Firstly, I was fascinated a long time ago by the compelling nature and originality of Jack Leslau’s work. Secondly, in no small part it inspired my novel, Loyalty, for which I owe the late Mr Leslau a debt. Finally, this work is becoming less and less accessible and I find this a great shame.
I do not say that what follows is an indisputable truth. Much of Leslau’s theory can be, and frequently is, contended. Perhaps you will find it interesting, even compelling. In the absence of other evidence, it certainly bears some consideration. Richard III is so frequently condemned on hearsay and supposition, I think this might offer an alternate reading of events worthy of contemplation. I hope that you will join me for this fight of fancy. There is no quick way to impart this detail, I’m afraid, so strap in, and if you are sitting comfortably…..
Sir Thomas More was one of the most influential men in Henry VIII’s England in the 1520’s. A close friend to the king, this lawyer’s star was on the ascendant when artist Hans Holbein arrived in England. Probably in 1527, Holbein was commissioned to execute a group family portrait for Sir Thomas. He made a sketch, which he probably took back to the Continent with him to translate into the final painting. The painting includes Sir Thomas, his son, his daughters, including his adopted daughter, his second wife and his late father. There are also a few other figures who may not attract the eye, but it is upon one of these figures that Jack Leslau built his fascinating theory.
The figure toward the right at the back marked as ‘Johanes heresius Thomae Mori famul: Anno 27‘ has long been believed to represent John Harris, Sir Thomas More’s long standing secretary. Leslau, however, uncovered several interesting anomalies that he believed pointed to a different occupant for this position, and the unravelling of England’s greatest mystery. Leslau believed that this figure was, in fact, Dr John Clement, the husband of Margaret Giggs, Sir Thomas More’s adopted daughter, and, more controversially, that Dr John Clement was the assumed identity of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower.
Let us begin with what is known of Dr John Clement. His date of birth is uncertain and a matter of debate. He is widely believed to be the ‘puer meus’ of Sir Thomas More’s seminal political tract Utopia. This led many to believe that he had been born around 1500, which would be consistent with the age offered for ‘Johanes heresius’ of 27. It is believed that Clement attended St Paul’s School under the tutelage of William Lily, though Leslau was unable to find evidence of this. Clement is first recorded in More’s household in 1514 and he may have gone with More on his 1515 embassy to Bruges and Antwerp. It was in More’s household that Clement met his future wife, Margaret Giggs, Sir Thomas’s adopted daughter. She was born around 1508 and they married in 1530.
At some time between 1518 and 1519, Clement was appointed as Cardinal Wolsey’s reader of rhetoric at Corpus Christi College, the foundation of Bishop Richard Foxe that was dedicated to humanist study. Clement later became a reader of Greek at Oxford before leaving there during the 1520’s to study medicine in Italy. It is known that Clement travelled via Louvain and Basel, where he met Erasmus, and that he delivered a copy of Utopia to Leonico at Padua in 1524.
By March 1525 he had received his MD from Siena. On his subsequent return to England, Clement aided his successor at Oxford, Lupset, in completing the Aldine edition of Galen and later in 1525 he appears in the royal accounts as a Sewer (Server) of the Chamber in the Royal Household, as he did again in 1526. On 1st February 1527 or 1528, Clement was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and in 1529 was sent, along with two other physicians, under Dr Butts to treat the ailing Cardinal Wolsey following his fall from grace.
In 1535, Dr Clement was consulted on the treatment of John Fisher’s liver during his imprisonment in the Tower. 1538 saw him granted a semi-annual income of £10.00 from the royal household, though this appears to have been cancelled in 1539. In 1544, Clement was made President of the College of Physicians and Leslau discovered, and confirmed, that Clement is unique amongst the long history of Presidents of the College of Physicians in that no copy of his signature exists in the possession of the College, nor any record of his origin or background. Every single other President has a preserved copy of their signature. This may, of course, be coincidence, but it set Jack Leslau along an interesting road.
There is more of Clement’s story to come, but perhaps we should return our attention now to the painting and some of the anomalies that Leslau uncovered, along with the meaning that he attributed to them.
Jack Leslau became fascinated by Sir Thomas More’s involvement in the story of King Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Why, he asked, would a man as learned and respected as More, a lawyer and theologian, lend his name and reputation to the collection of inaccuracies and rumours that comprise his Historie of King Richard III? If the Princes were murdered, why did no-one, including even their own mother, ever raise hue and cry or point the finger at King Richard after his death? Leslau believed that Holbein’s portrait unlocked this mystery.
Jack Leslau compared Holbein’s preparatory sketch, made around 1527, with the post-1532 portrait and found 1 major and 80 minor changes, each of which was relevant to the ‘hidden secret’ he believed was contained in the painting.
The major change was the addition of the controversial figure in the doorway, who was omitted from the sketch. There are several interesting and compelling anomalies that revolve around this figure. The first thing to consider is the writing above his head that identifies the man, which is more cryptic than at first appears. It reads ‘Johanes heresius Thomae Mori famul: Anno 27“. ‘Johanes heresius‘ is usually assumed to refer to John Harris, yet if ‘heresius‘ is intended to equate to ‘Harris’ then it is the only surname in the painting that is not designated by a capital letter. The word ‘famul‘ has been assumed to be an abbreviation of famulus, meaning secretary, but these two words have possible other meanings.
In the Latin vocative, heresius can be translates as heres – heir, ius – right or rightful, so that heresius could translate as rightful heir. Suddenly, we are presented with John, the rightful heir.
Secondly, John stands, literally, head and shoulders above the More family. Leslau contends that it was traditional in portraits of this era for the person of highest status in a painting to be placed in the highest position. Infrared photography has been used to prove that the top of John’s hat is the highest of any in the picture.
Add to this the fact that above John’s head is a row of fleur-de-lys, the traditional symbol of French royalty. One of Holbein’s famous optical illusions also means that the structure is simply part of the door frame when seen from the right, yet from the left it appears to be a half open door. John therefore stands before a vanishing door, or an impossible door.
The figure attracts further intrigue when considering that he is dressed in an Italian style, unlike the English dress of the other sitters, pointing to Clement’s Italian medical training. Not only does he hold a roll of parchment, but he also sports a sword and buckler, extremely odd for a secretary, but the traditional trappings of a warrior, which fits neither secretary nor doctor. One oddly bent finger touches the pommel of his sword and the buckler has a polished rim and spokes.
To these anomalies, Leslau applied the principles of French courtly language that Holbein apparently frequently used. The French for optical illusion, as used on the vanishing door, is porte-a-faux, which literally translates as false door, pointing to tricks or hidden falsehoods within the scene. ‘He holds a parchment‘ in French is ‘il tient le parchemin’, which, in courtly French, can mean ‘he holds the right and title of nobility‘. The spoke of a wheel, as seen on the buckler, is ‘rai‘ and the rim is ‘jante‘, which Leslau identified as a split homophone of ‘rejente‘, which translate to regent.
Furthermore, Leslau points to the fact that the ceiling timbers are out of alignment at the top of the painting. Applying the same principles to this anomaly, a line fault becomes a faute de ligne or fault de linage, which equates to a fault in the lineage.
The sideboard in the background of the picture is covered by a carpet. ‘To hide the sideboard under the carpet‘ in French is ‘cacher la credence sous le tapis‘, with Leslau pointing to the word ‘credence‘ being used in French courtly language to mean ‘confidential matters‘. Are confidential matters being hidden from view in the painting, swept under the carpet?
If all of this were true, it points toward the figure named John being of importance; he is marked by fleur-de-lys and occupies the highest station in the painting. Some French courtly language tricks could be used to further mark him as someone demanding closer attention. No secretary would carry a sword and buckler and he is potentially named as a rightful heir.
At the centre of the picture, at the top, is a beautiful clock, a symbol of wealth and status at this time. Yet even this clock holds hidden meaning to Leslau. The pendulum is missing, an important factor relating the ceasing of the passing of time which we will revisit later. The clock’s door is open, which suggests that the time has been altered too. This might also have importance to the person of John. The dial has only one hand, which points to the number eleven, perhaps denoting the eleventh hour and also the one remaining prince, a matter we shall also return to in a while. Above the clock face, a solar eclipse is shown. Given that the Sunne in Splendour was the emblem of the Princes’ father, Edward IV, its eclipse is perhaps relevant. Leslau identified that John is perpendicular to the arc of the sun’s corona, a symbol that forms part of the Duke of York’s arms, and suggests that this points to John’s identity as Richard, Duke of York.
Jack Leslau also believed that code within the painting identified the recent death of the elder of the Princes in the Tower, Edward V. The curtain at the back is drawn, there is a black eclipse and More appears unshaven, all of which are symbols of death and mourning. At a point in the painting higher than John stands an arrangement of purple and gold flag iris. The colours of these flowers do not exist in nature and are well known symbols of royalty. Leslau even points to the fact that More’s chain of S’s sits off centre, over his heart, and that this forms a perfect right angle from the flowers at the end of the weight on the clock. This left angle is used by Leslau to suggest that the recently deceased royal is ‘left quartered’ in the heart of Thomas More and the royal Duchy of Lancaster.
Sir Thomas More wears the Duchy of Lancaster chain around his neck. Close examination shows that the ‘SS’ symbols of the chain are reversed on More’s right, but correct on his left. Once more applying the principles of French courtly language, Leslau contended that the following statement could be created;
“D’un cote, est-ce (esses) gauche?
De l’autre cote, reflection faire,
Est-ce (esses) adroit (a droite).”
This can be translated thus;
“On the one hand is it gauche (clumsy, or left)?
On the other hand, upon reflection,
Is it adroit (clever, or right)?
Is this a cunningly constructed reference to More’s attempts to hide the continued existence of the Princes in his outrageously inaccurate story of Richard III? The artist is uncertain whether it was clumsy or clever, suggesting perhaps that only time will tell. Interestingly, Thomas More shows only three fingers, perhaps also a reference to Richard III.
Other figures in the portrait also contribute further to Leslau’s theory. The two women sitting toward the front on the right of the picture are identified as Margaret Roper (on the right) and Cecily Heron (on the left), More’s daughters. The book that is open on Margaret Roper’s lap show two pages from Seneca’s Oedipus. Margaret points at the word Oedipus, suggesting a tragedy relating to a king, while beside her, Cecily counts on her fingers. Does she count tragedies? Or kings? Or both?
The lines on the opposing page of Oedipus show a speech by Seneca’s Chorus from Act 2, which begins “Fata, si liceat mihi fingere arbito meo“, which translates as “If it were permitted to me to change Fate according to my will…” and the speech continues that he would have things other than they currently are if it were within his power. Does this point to More’s desire to see the House of York restored as the rightful kings?
The top of the page on Margaret Roper’s left shows “L. AN. Seneca”, which may refer to Lucius Annaeus Seneca. However, ‘L. AN’ in French is 50 years, More’s age in 1527 and the age shown above his head in the painting. Leslau believed that this suggested the fact that the portrait was not actually painted in 1527 but pointed to events in the More family and household in that year, that this was when the clock was stopped.
Two dogs sit on the floor before the family. Sir Thomas More has central placement in the picture. Above him, the clock is central, perhaps marking the importance of its hidden message, and the odd looking dog at More’s feet is also on that central line, marking it as also of some import. Leslau notes that the German for ‘fetch the bone’ is ‘hol bein’, a homophone for Holbein, perhaps marking the strange little dog as a devise representing the artist. If this is the case, then the dog’s cocked left ear suggests that some news has reached Holbein’s ear, perhaps even that he is like a dog with as bone.
The lady at the far left of the portrait also requires our attention. She is Margaret Clement, nee Giggs, wife of Dr John Clement. I would point out the since John and Margaret apparently did not marry until 1530 yet the portrait is ‘set’ in 1527, marking her as Mrs Clement at this point seems significant. Margaret is placed on the far left, on the outskirts of the family, left on the fringe, and wears a cheap rabbit skin hat, whereas the other ladies wear expensive headdresses. She is also painted unflatteringly, which Leslau suggests points to the artist taking a dislike to her for some reason. Her finger is pushed into the spine of a book – in French, ‘le doigt dans l’epine‘ can also mean ‘she keeps going on at him’, suggesting disharmony between John and Margaret. This is further supported by the lute behind her, pointing to her back, since ‘lutte‘ is French for ‘to fight’. The vase behind her, ‘vase d’election‘ (‘the chosen one’), is covered – ‘la vase est covert’ in courtly French means ‘the Chosen One is justified’, perhaps suggesting that Holbein believed John Clement to be in the right in whatever arguments they engaged in. Margaret’s book is blank, perhaps suggesting that they argue over nothing, or even that she is unaware of the secret of the painting, that she does not know who her husband really is. The placement of an untidy flower arrangement behind Margaret points to an untidy arrangement – perhaps her marriage to Clement – and includes purple peony, a flower with double significance which will be further examined shortly.
Although Leslau describes several other anomalies, some do not relate directly to the identity of John Clement and I am already conscious of the length of this blog. With much still to say, I am skipping some of these items. I will just point out the man at the far rear of the painting, apparently outside on a balcony. He is reading and has the short hair of a monk, though he is missing the tonsure, the shaved bald spot. ‘Hair is there‘, Leslau suggests, is a homophone for ‘Harris there‘. John Harris, More’s secretary, is included for good measure.
We may return now to the life of Dr John Clement and his age, which seems to offer some controversy and even support for Leslau’s theory. Clement’s identification as the ‘puer meus’ of Utopia led many to believe he was born around 1500. However, Leslau uncovered an entry in the register of enrolment at Louvain University from 13 January 1489 for ‘Johannes Clement’, marked ‘non juravit’ (‘not sworn’). Another entry in the Louvain register from January 1551 read ‘Joannes Clemens, medicine doctor, anglis, noblis (non juravit ex rationabili quandom et occulta sed tamen promisit se servaturum consueta)’. This could be translated as ‘The Lord John Clement, doctor of medicine, English, of noble birth (has not sworn the oath for a reasonable hidden cause, but has nevertheless promised to keep the customary oaths).’
These entries are 62 years apart. Could they refer to the same person? If so, Clement was clearly born before 1500. Interestingly, Richard, Duke of York was born in 1473, so would have been approaching his 16th birthday at the time of the first entry in 1489. This age would be consistent with the correct age for university enrolment at this time.
The second entry records John Clement as both a ‘Lord’ and as ‘of noble birth’. No noble Clement family existed in England at this time, so the entry is either wildly inaccurate or was made in the knowledge that John Clement was the assumed identity of an English nobleman. The bracketed note after the entry is also interesting. John Clement had not ‘sworn the oath’, as he had not in the 1489 entry, though this time a reason is offered; ‘for a reasonable hidden cause’. Leslau’s research discovered that such an explanation is unique between the periods 31st August 1485 and February 1569, a period during which 49,246 entries were made. If Clement was, indeed, using an assumed identity, then swearing the oath under a false name would have been perjury. The fact that the University may have lost its right to the privilegium tractus in such an event might explain the acceptance of the failure to swear, whilst simultaneously implying that the University was aware that Clement was living under an assumed identity, and doing so for an acceptable reason – at least implying no fraud.
Further weight is given to the theory that Clement was older than a birth date in 1500 would allow by an entry in the Letter and Papers of Henry VIII, 1, Part 2, Appendix, page 1550. This note refers to a set of challenges and answers for a feat of arms planned for Wednesday 1st June 1510. The list runs thus;
King – Lord Howard
King – John Clement
Knyvet – Earl of Essex
Knevet – Wm Courtenay
Howard – Sir John Audeley
Howard – Arthur Plantagenet
Brandon – Ralph Eggerton
Brandon – Chr Garneys
Of the ten participants (beside the king, Henry VIII), five (Lord Howard, Thomas Knyvet/Knevet, Henry Bourchier Earl of Essex, William Courtenay Earl of Devonshire and Arthur Plantagenet) were close relatives to the king either by blood or marriage. Additionally, Charles Brandon was probably Henry’s closest friend and would later become his brother in law and Duke of Suffolk. Leslau points to this as evidence that Clement could not possibly have been born in 1500, since he would only have been 10 years of age at the time. I would also add that it creates the significant possibility, if this set of challenges was filled with Henry’s closest friends and family, that Clement was amongst that elite set and that he held his position there because Henry knew who he really was. Was Clement’s true identity an open secret amongst Tudor England’s ruling class? At least in Henry VIII’s youth, while he brimmed with confidence.
In 1534, Clement appears to have imprisoned in Fleet Prison at the same time that More was incarcerated in the Tower. Perhaps not unusual for a family member who may have shared More’s views, but we can find John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, writing on 11th October 1534 to Thomas Cromwell commenting on Clement’s case. He writes;
“farthermore as towchyng maistr Clements mattr I beseche your maistership not to gyve to much credens to some great men who peraventure wyll be intercessours of the matter and to make the best of it for Mr Clement by cause peraventure they theym selves be the greatest berers of it as by that tyme I have shewed you how whotly the sendying of Mr Clement to the flete was taken, by some that may chawnce you thinke to be your frende you wyll not a little marvayle”
Dudley’s intercession is of interest because Leslau contends that Edward V survived as Sir Edward Guildford, who happens to be John Dudley’s father in law. Dudley is also clearly under the impression that “some great men” will take interest in Clement’s case.
Clement’s later life is also interesting, and some portions are relevant to this discussion. In 1549, as Edward VI’s Protestant rule became established, Clement and his wife quit England for Louvain. Although he returned during Queen Mary’s reign, Clement was unable to regain the extensive 180 book library he had lost when he left. The motive for this departure and return is not hard to discern. The Public Record Office in Chancery Lane holds an inventory of Clement’s Marshfoot house, showing property seized by Sir Anthony Wingfield with the approval of Sir William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. The Chapel Chamber contained many Catholic artefacts, including “an awlter, a picture of our Lady, a picture of the V woundes” (the sign of the five wounds featured prominently as the badge of the popular uprising against Henry VIII, the Pilgrimage of Grace).
On the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, Clement left England for the last time in 1558. In March 1562, an entry appears in the Louvain register for “Dominus Joannes Clemens, nobilis, Anglus” and he appears for a final time in the register in 1568: “Dominus Joannes Clement in theologia“. In total, these entries span an incredible 79 years.
John Clement died on 1st July 1572, two years after his wife of some 40 years. In a final significant act, he was laid to rest near the high altar of St Rombout’s Cathedral in Mechelen, a spot traditionally reserved for members of the House of Burgundy, Margaret of York’s family by marriage. If he was Richard, Duke of York, he lived to the ripe, improbable, but not impossible age of 98.
So, we have a man who, by circumstantial evidence, appears to have been a nobleman living under the assumed identity of Dr John Clement and who may appear in a family portrait as a rightful heir of some kind. There is more that this painting can tell us yet.
When compared to the figure beside him, John appears to have very waxy, pale skin, whereas Henry Patterson (More’s fool) has a more natural tone. Leslau tells us that on two well known, well documented occasions, Holbein used the technique of waxy skin to show people at half their true age. This fits with the clock’s suggestion that time has been not only stopped, but also altered. John is marked as ‘Anno 27’. If this is in fact half his true age, he would be 54. Richard, Duke of York’s date of birth in 1473 would make him 54 in 1527, the year to which the portrait appears to refer.
I would add as my own observation that the figure of Henry Patterson, More’s fool, bears a striking resemblance to Henry VIII. He also appears to sport a red and white rose, separated, on the top of his hat. Henry also stands just below John in terms of height in the portrait. If the height is used to mark precedence, then the order would appear to be: A missing royal who has just died (Edward V), John (Richard, Duke of York), Henry (Henry VIII). This appears startlingly blatant to me, dangerous for both Holbein and More, particularly if Henry VIII knew who John Clement was, yet perhaps Henry was in on the joke?
Level with John’s head is a purple peony, a colour of this flower which apparently does not exist in nature. Purple is a colour denoting royalty, and Paion was the physician to the Greek gods in myth, and a nickname applied to doctors at this time. Hence, the purple peony, an impossible flower, marks a royal doctor. Clement was not made President of the College of Physicians until much later, so perhaps this refers instead to a doctor who is royal?
So, Leslau’s conclusions seem to run thus. The painting tells us that there are secrets hidden within it (the sideboard under the carpet). The figure of John represents Dr John Clement, a member of More’s household, husband to his adopted daughter and a person of significance. The household is in mourning for the recent (in 1527, at least) death of a royal. This death entitles John Clement to be addressed as the ‘rightful heir’. The flower selections within the painting are impossible, attracting attention, and point toward royalty, by using purple and gold and fleur-de-lys, and to medicine in the use of the peony. The clock tells us that time has been stopped, even altered, and that this is important, whilst also referencing the House of York. John is shown at half his real age, making him 54 in 1527, the precise age of Richard, Duke of York.
Though long, this is a pared down version of Leslau’s complete research.
Put simply, Leslau’s conclusion is that the painting contains code that tells us very clearly that Dr John Clement is the assumed identity of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, younger of the Princes in the Tower, and that both boys lived long into the reign of Henry VIII, the younger surviving until 1572 in the rule of Elizabeth I. It would also appear that the younger lived within the household and under the protection of Sir Thomas More and it is perhaps clear that Henry VIII knew of this fact.
Did this contribute to Henry’s growing paranoia and panic as he failed to produce a male heir, then seemed set to die when his only son was a young boy? Was knowledge of this secret the reason Henry could not allow More to live as a private citizen following his resignation as Lord Chancellor?
Or is all of this a mere flight of fancy, seeing things because one is looking for them rather than because they are really there? Could a prince live to be 98 years old keeping his existence a secret, even though plenty seemed to know?
I don’t know, but given that Richard III is frequently convicted of murder based upon no evidence at all, surely some potential positive evidence in this elusive case must be given due consideration. Of course, that the Princes survived cannot tell us by whose hand this was achieved. Richard III may have laid the foundations that became the arrangements for their incognito existences. It may have been a reaction to Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth. They may also still have been rescued from a plan by Richard to murder them. Some questions cannot be answered by this theory, but perhaps some can.
Do you see an answer here?
Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.
Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.
The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
Jack Leslau’s old website can still be accessed at http://www.holbeinartworks.org/