Much of Jonathan Swift’s seminal ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships’, or Gulliver’s Travels as it is more popularly known, is metaphor and allegory. Swift had lived through the troubles of James II’s dalliances with Catholicism, the Glorious Revolution and wrote his work during Queen Anne’s reign. He didn’t get on with Anne and was denied political and clerical advancement, spending time in Ireland where he took up the Irish cause, writing propaganda pamphlets for them.
When Gulliver extinguishes the fire in Lilliput by urinating on it, the intention may have been to refer to Tory policy, achieving a good result by bad means. The war that rages between Lilliput and Blefuscu revolves around which end of an egg should be cracked to eat it. Gulliver takes up the Lilliputian cause simply because he lands on their shores. This is surely a thinly veiled stab at the religious turmoil that still reared its head in Britain and Europe. The fighting between Catholics and Protestants over how to worship God is like arguing over which end of an egg to crack. It doesn’t matter – you still get egg. The same could apply to political feuding. The side most take is an accident of birth, simply a matter of which shore you wash up on.
Swift was drawing on a long history of allegory to make political statement indirectly. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written in 1678, almost 50 years before Gulliver’s Travels is a classic piece of allegory of the spiritual journey of man. In many classic pieces of literature commentators have seen allegory used to represent the politics of the writer’s day or to make a moral point within the vehicle of the story. The Oxford Dictionary defines allegory as ‘A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one’. It is an art that we have perhaps lost to more direct satire so that allegory passes us by as we impose our luxury of literal criticism of the establishment, political and religious, on those who wrote in a time without such indulgence.
Much of what has become the historiography of Richard III was most likely written as allegory but has been passed into culture as truth, as literal history. The moral tale is forgotten or ignored to read only what we would describe as a history, a narrative of the facts of a past that can be interpreted within the confines of their own limits. Thomas More wrote his History of King Richard III and Shakespeare his history plays at a time when written history was not what we would recognise it as today.
Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III was begun around 1513. More had first come to prominence in a parliament of Henry VII’s in 1504 when he had criticised the king’s policies. At the request of a tax of three fifteenths, More made so eloquent a speech in opposition that the tax was reduced by about two thirds. The victory for the idealistic and outspoken lawyer saw his father imprisoned in the Tower until he paid a hefty fine. Perhaps Thomas learned that he could not be so direct in his criticism of the monarch.
Amongst the first acts of Henry VIII on his accession in 1509 was the arrest and subsequent execution of Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, his father’s chief instruments of financial policy toward the end of his reign. They were unpopular and Henry thought that he would buy some instant acclaim with their blood. It was an early glimpse of a disregard for human life that suggested tyranny at the very outset of the eighteen-year-old’s rule and More perhaps envisaged his work as a piece of allegory for the king to show the dangers of tyranny and how it could cut a rule short. Richard III was an obvious personality to hang over this lesson. He had only reigned for a brief time and had been painted as something of an unpopular tyrant by the Tudor regime. More might have meant his work to be a lesson for the new king on the dangers of veering so close to tyranny so early in his rule. More’s work is littered with errors which, as I have suggested in a previous post here, may well point to its own deliberate inaccuracy.
William Shakespeare’s Richard III is similarly littered with errors, including switching the geographical locations of Stoney Stratford and Northampton in early version to have Richard ambushing Rivers rather than Rivers overshooting the meeting point and heading back without the king. Earlier in the history cycle of the Wars of the Roses, Richard is at the 1st Battle of St Albans committing dastardly murders even though he as under three years old at the time. Shakespeare may well have laid the foundations early for his masterpiece in the examination of Machiavellian plotting very early and had a very clear message for his audience that related not to the past, but to the present and very near future, as I have outlined in this previous post. Shakespeare was writing at a time of political upheaval when the succession was in doubt and the government controlled by the Cecils. Robert Cecil, son and successor to William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s lifelong councillor, was affected by kyphosis – in the unpleasant parlance if the time, he was a ‘hunchback’, just like Shakespeare’s villain.
The bones that currently rest in an urn in Westminster Abbey claiming to belong to the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York are perhaps another example of allegory. The remains were unearthed during building work at the Tower of London in 1674. An anonymous writer, published three years later but naming John Knight, Charles II’s surgeon as his source, recorded;
In order to the rebuilding of the several Offices in the Tower, and to clear the White Tower from all contiguous buildings, digging down the stairs which led from the King’s Lodgings, to the chapel in the said Tower, about ten foot in the ground were found the Bones of two striplings in (as it seemed) a wooden chest, upon which the survey which found proportionable to the ages of those two Brothers viz, about thirteen and eleven years. The skull of the one being entire, the other broken, as were indeed many of the other Bones, also the Chest, by the violence of the labourers, who cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish, and by that means preserved all the bones.
Charles II had returned the monarchy to Britain following the Civil War in 1660 and in 1674 Parliament was refusing to vote Charles funds for foreign war and religious policy so that the king was in danger of being forced to seek peace where he didn’t want it. It is worth noting that the bones were broken up and cast on a waste pile and had to be sifted out again later, meaning that they were open to contamination and no longer in the condition they were found in.
It is possible that talk of some bones thrown out of the pit had worked its way back to ears that saw an opportunity in their discovery in a location not dissimilar to that in which More had recorded them buried, though later moved from. Men were sent to pick them from the spoil and this might have been because a chance for an allegorical tale was spied. Reference to Richard III along the lines of that made by More and Shakespeare would surely serve to remind Parliament of what happened when a legitimate king was supplanted by a tyranny – for Edward V read Charles I, for Richard III see Oliver Cromwell. Charles II’s position was far from certain and as his relationship with Parliament rocked he might have feared a repeat of his father’s fate. The bones were perhaps an instrument with which he could bolster himself by reminding the country of the distant past, the far more raw and recent past and the threat he perceived to himself.
I devote the final chapter of The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy to the bones found within the Tower – not least that these are far from the only set found and not even the only set claimed to belong to the Princes. Their placement in Westminster Abbey may have served Charles II well but only cemented the reputation of King Richard III set in stone by More and Shakespeare. What if none of these pieces often used as evidence was ever meant to tell history as we would recognise it today, but only to help make a political, moral or religious point about the writer’s present? What if everything that is relied upon to condemn Richard III over centuries has been simply misunderstood and taken out of context? We have the luxury of criticising the establishment freely and openly and perhaps forget the time when to do so was to risk life and limb and allegory provided the shield with which to make those observations and complaints.
I’ve seen a fair bit of talk recently about what constitutes a Ricardian and who has the right to use that word. Examining and questioning the material to re-evaluate its meaning and stimulate a deeper investigation of the life, times and reputation of King Richard III makes a Ricardian and all should be welcome to use that name. As long as opinions are based solidly in fact, not fiction, irrespective of the conclusion each individual draws, Ricardianism should, in my opinion, be a welcoming forum for discussion.
Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions. A biography of Richard, Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III is due for release in April 2016.
I read a series of blog posts recently that sought to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Richard III ordered the deaths of his nephews. Whilst I don’t take issue with holding and arguing this viewpoint I found some of the uses of source material dubious, a few of the accusations questionable and some of the conclusions a stretch. There are several issues with the narrow selection of available sources that continually bug me. It is no secret that any conclusive evidence one way or another is utterly absent but I have issues with the ways the materials are frequently used.
There are four main sources that are often used, two contemporary and therefore primary sources and two near-contemporary which are habitually treated as primary. The farthest away in time from the events that it describes is also the one traditionally treated as the most complete and accurate account, which in itself should urge caution. Sir Thomas More is believed to have started writing his History of King Richard III around 1513 when he was an Undersheriff of London and the first thing to note is that he never actually published the work. It was completed and released in 1557 by More’s son-in-law William Rastell. It is unclear what parts of the History Rastell finished off but More’s account became the accepted version of the murder of the Princes in the Tower for centuries, heavily informing Shakespeare’s play on the monarch. More was just five years old during the summer of 1483 but may well have had access to people still alive who were better placed to know what had happened – or at least, crucially, what was rumoured to have happened, for much of the work reports rumour and opinion rather than fact and is quite open about that.
The next thing that screams out from the opening lines of More’s work is an error, unabashed and uncorrected. We are informed in the very first sentence that ‘King Edward of that name the Fourth, after he had lived fifty and three years, seven months, and six days, and thereof reigned two and twenty years, one month, and eight days, died at Westminster the ninth day of April’. Edward IV actually died nineteen days shorts of his forty-first birthday. This glaring error is frequently excused by the suggestion that More must have meant to fact check his work later but this proposition is usually made by the same readers who insist that More was a fastidious, trustworthy man who would not have lied nor scrimped on ensuring the veracity of what he wrote. These two arguments appear to me to be mutually exclusive. This is the first sentence of More’s work. Would he really have guessed, giving such a precise figure that he didn’t know was correct, as the first words of his work? Edward was king for twenty-two years, one month and five days (ignoring his brief sojourn in Burgundy), so More shows us that he can get these things right if he wants to (albeit still 3 days out). Why not insert a placeholder of ‘about fifty-three years’ or a gap to be filled in when the correct number could be found? The number of years is wrong, the number of months is wrong and the number of days is wrong. How could this have happened?
In a previous post I have investigated the idea that Shakespeare’s Richard III was never meant to be viewed literally and could have possessed a very different meaning to a contemporary audience. What if More was, in fact, signposting his work as factually inaccurate at its very opening? His other famous work, Utopia, deals with notions of political and sociological ideals. The Utopian society has many aspects More must have been at odds with – euthanasia, divorce, married clergy – yet he intended it to be the perfect society. His commentary suggests that a perfect society cannot exist while private property is held by citizens, but also that true communism is not achievable in the real world, his conclusion appearing to be that a perfect society is unattainable. Utopia was published in 1516, around the time More was also writing the History of King Richard III.
What if More’s work on Richard III was also intended to be allegory? Perhaps it was too unsubtle or proved unsatisfactory and was replaced by Utopia, or maybe they were meant to be read side by side. Like Shakespeare, was More using Richard III, a figure from the near past who could be vilified in any way that suited the writer because he had no connection to the throne any longer. Henry VIII had Yorkist blood from Edward IV but not Richard III, so he was fair game and so close in time that his story could be an almost tangible warning against tyranny and the murder of innocents. It is frequently overlooked that Henry VIII’s tyranny began at the very outset of his reign, not after a couple of decades. One of his first acts on succeeding his father was to arrest Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, two of his father’s closest advisors and most effective revenue generators. This had made them deeply detested and Henry grasped an opportunity to make a popular statement as soon as he became king. A tyrant will bypass justice for two main reasons; security and popularity, and Henry VIII executed these men ostensibly for doing as his father had instructed them, even though they had not broken any law, whilst still in his teens simply for the popularity it would bring him. What, then, if More began his History of King Richard III as a renaissance tract on the dangers of tyranny and the murder of innocents? Was he warning Henry VIII that killing men without the due process of law could only end badly? His failure to publish it might be explained by his promotion to the Privy Council in 1514. More was never afraid to criticise the Tudor establishment, opposing Henry VII in Parliament, and perhaps he felt he could now get close enough to deliver the message of his book in a more direct way.
On the death of Henry VI, More wrote of Richard III that ‘He slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower, as men constantly say, and that without commandment or knowledge of the King, who would, undoubtedly, if he had intended such a thing, have appointed that butcherly office to some other than his own born brother.’ Still More only reports rumour – ‘as men constantly say’ – and the claim that Edward IV was unaware that Henry VI was to be killed is ludicrous. It remains possible that Richard, as Constable of England, arranged the death and perhaps even that he carried it out himself, but Edward must have given the order. If he hadn’t, where was the punishment or censure for unauthorised regicide? Richard was the natural choice. Who but a brother of the king might be permitted to perform the deed? A commoner could not be allowed to kill a king, for he might chose to do it again and the majesty of the position would be dangerously undermined. Richard was not only Edward’s brother he was a man the king trusted implicitly. Is this another signpost that More was not writing the whole truth but something that needed to be looked at a little closer?
Returning to 1483, More wrote of the sermon on the illegitimacy of the Princes that ‘the chief thing, and the most weighty of all that invention, rested in this: they should allege bastardy, either in King Edward himself, or in his children, or both, so that he should seem unable to inherit the crown by the Duke of York, and the Prince by him. To lay bastardy in King Edward sounded openly to the rebuke of the Protector’s own mother, who was mother to them both; for in that point could be none other color, but to pretend that his own mother was one adulteress, which, not withstanding, to further his purpose he omitted not; but nevertheless, he would the point should be less and more favorably handled, not even fully plain and directly, but that the matter should be touched upon, craftily, as though men spared, in that point, to speak all the truth for fear of his displeasure. But the other point, concerning the bastardy that they devised to surmise in King Edward’s children, that would he be openly declared and enforced to the uttermost.’ More claims, then, that there was some subtle suggestion that Edward IV was a bastard but, to avoid offending his mother, Richard did not make this too plain nor did he rely upon it. The charge that the princes were illegitimate was the crux of his plan. More makes another error by naming the subject of the pre-contract as Dame Elizabeth Lucy rather than Lady Eleanor Butler. Another blatant error in an account we are supposed to rely upon completely by a man above reproach?
On the murder of the princes, More details Sir James Tyrell’s part in the deed on behalf of a king terrified for his own security (a man who becomes more and more like Henry VIII himself). This has long been the accepted and authoritative account, used to prove Richard’s guilt and that the human remains resting in Westminster Abbey are those of the Princes in the Tower, discovered precisely where More said they would be. Of course, that completely ignores what More actually said, which was ‘ he allowed not, as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying that he would have them buried in a better place because they were a king’s sons. Lo, the honourable nature of a king! Whereupon they say that a priest of Sir Robert Brakenbury took up the bodies again and secretly buried them in a place that only he knew and that, by the occasion of his death, could never since come to light.’ More categorically states that the bodies were not left beneath a staircase in the Tower of London. If he had this wrong, then how are we to rely on his other evidence (if we were ever meant to)?
Sir Thomas provides further detail to back up his story of the murder, claiming ‘Very truth is it, and well known, that at such time as Sir James Tyrell was in the Tower – for treason committed against the most famous prince, King Henry the Seventh – both Dighton and he were examined and confessed the murder in manner above written, but to where the bodies were removed, they could nothing tell.’ I was once told that anyone who begins a sentence with ‘To be honest’ is probably lying. There is no record other than More’s claim that Tyrell was ever even questioned about the murder of the boys, let alone that he confessed. The holes in the story are compounded when More writes of the killers ‘Miles Forest at Saint Martin’s piecemeal rotted away; Dighton, indeed, walks on alive in good possibility to be hanged before he die; but Sir James Tyrell died at Tower Hill, beheaded for treason’. Wait – Dighton walks the streets? The Dighton who confessed to murdering two young boys, two princes, with Sir James Tyrell? So, after his confession he was sent on his way? Surely that is beyond ridiculous. Perhaps it is more likely that this is some political comment on the state permitting killers to roam free. A story recently emerged suggesting that Elizabeth of York and Henry VII’s attendance at Tyrell’s trial at the Tower of London prove a connection with the princes. Henry and Elizabeth were at the Tower at the time of the trial. Why else but to find out the fate of her brothers? For this to stack up we would need to ignore the fact the Tyrell was tried at the Guildhall.
It is frequently claimed that More had inside knowledge as well as access to those alive during 1483. Thomas was, for a time, a member of the household of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and nemesis of Richard III. It has been suggested that More’s manuscript was actually the work of Morton or at least that Morton gave More vital information. To accept this is to believe that Morton deliberately withheld crucial information from Henry VII whilst allowing him to suffer constant threats from Warbeck and other pretenders. Not that I think Morton above such a manoeuvre.
The second near-contemporary source was written by Polydore Virgil. Its veracity is questionable because Virgil was commissioned by Henry VII to write it, but it is often given plenty of weight. His story differs from More’s in relation to the sermon delivered by Dr Ralph Shaa, of which Virgil wrote ‘Ralph Shaa, a learned man, taking occasion of set purpose to treat not of the divine but tragical discourse, began to instruct the people, by many reasons, how that the late king Edward was not begotten by Richard duke of York’, claiming only that the charge was of Edward IV’s illegitimacy and making no mention of the pre-contract. Why might he have claimed his patron’s father-in-law was a bastard? Probably because it was not a charge that was taken seriously, but the illegitimacy of the princes led to their removal from the line of succession and would have tainted Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth and their children too.
On the murder of the princes, Virgil claimed to know that Richard ‘took his journey to York, and first he went straight to Gloucester, where the while he tarried the heinous guilt of wicked conscience did so fright him every moment as that he lived in continual fear, for the expelling whereof by any kind of mean he determined by death to dispatch his nephews, because so long as they lived he could not be out of hazard; wherefore he sent warrant to Robert Brackenbury’. The story is similar to More’s account in that Brackenbury refuses to see it done. ‘Richard understood the lieutenant to make delay of that which he had commanded, he anon committed the charge of hastening that slaughter unto another, that is to say James Tyrell, who, being forced to do the king’s commandment, rode sorrowfully to London, and, to the worst example that hath been almost ever heard of, murdered those babes of the issue royal. This end had Prince Edward and Richard his brother; but with what kind of death these sely children were executed it is not certainly known’. Unlike More, Virgil could not uncover the method of the princes’ death and Tyrell is a sorrowful, unwilling killer. Writing earlier than More and with access to those who lived through 1483, Virgil could not obtain the detail More claims to provide. His patron also had a deeply vested interest in making sure everyone believed that the boys were truly dead.
The two contemporary sources are, in many ways, equally problematical. Dominic Mancini was an Italian visitor to London during the spring and early summer of 1483 and his evidence is usually considered of particular value because he was a foreign eye witness with no axe to grind on either side. This easy reliance ignores key aspects of Mancini’s work, not least its title. Usually given as ‘The Usurpation of Richard III’, the full Latin title is actually ‘Dominici Mancini, de Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium, ad Angelum Catonem Presulem Viennensium, Libellus Incipit’. Two things are significant here. ‘De Occupatione’ does not translate as The Usurpation but as The Occupation – The Occupation of the Throne of England by Richard the Third. Latin has words for usurpation, but none are used here and the title becomes a whole lot less sinister when the word Occupation is used.
The second significant item within the title is the identity of Mancini’s patron. Angelo Cato was Archbishop of Vienne and it was for him that Mancini’s report was penned. This is significant because Cato was a member of the French court, serving as personal physician to Louis XI for a time. This connection is crucial because Richard was a figure known to the French court and of interest to the cunning and wily Louis, who must have marked Richard as a man to watch after Edward IV’s campaign to invade France. Richard had disagreed with his brother’s decision to make peace and refused to attend the signing of the peace treaty. Louis had managed to secure a private meeting with Richard later, probably to size him up. Mancini was writing for a man close to Louis who would have had an image of Richard coloured by that relationship and this must impact both Mancini’s account and the reliance that we can place upon it. Mancini makes several errors that betray a lack of understanding of English society, politics and culture that lessen his reliability but the identity of his patron cannot be ignored too.
Mancini recorded the sermon given by Ralph Shaa by noting that Richard ‘so corrupted preachers of the divine word, that in their sermons to the people they did not blush to say, in the face of decency and all religion, that the progeny of King Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been a legitimate king, nor could his issue be so. Edward, said they, was conceived in adultery and in every way was unlike the late duke of York’. Like More, and unlike Virgil, Mancini records the dual accusation that Edward IV was a bastard and that his children were illegitimate too. It is highly significant that the stories of Edward IV’s illegitimacy are believed to have originated in France, at the court of Louis XI, where it was a standing joke. Mancini may have been aware of the story and included it for Cato’s benefit, or even, since Mancini tells us he is writing his memories later at Cato’s request, been fed the story by Cato to include. Having left England before events moved on, Mancini offers no evidence regarding the fate of Richard’s nephews.
Our other contemporary source is the redoubtable Croyland Chronicle. Although the author is anonymous he is understood to be very close to the Yorkist government and has been tentatively identified as Bishop John Russell, Richard III’s Chancellor. A trusted member of Edward IV’s government it is believed that Russell accepted the position of Chancellor only reluctantly after Bishop Rotherham was dismissed. Russell remained Chancellor until Richard III dismissed him in July 1485, shortly before Bosworth. The Croyland Chronicle continuation with which he is credited is believed to have been written shortly after Bosworth at the outset of Henry VIIs reign. Certainly the Croyland Chronicle is not favourable to Richard, criticising the vices of his court, particularly at Christmas, though this was the conventionally pious opinion of the Church.
On the subject of the sermon by Ralph Shaa, Croyland recorded that ‘It was set forth, by way of prayer, in an address in a certain roll of parchment, that the sons of king Edward were bastards, on the ground that he had contracted a marriage with one lady Eleanor Boteler, before his marriage to queen Elizabeth; and to which, the blood of his other brother, George, duke of Clarence, had been attainted; so that, at the present time, no certain and uncorrupted lineal blood could be found of Richard duke of York, except in the person of the said Richard, duke of Gloucester’. The coldly factual account makes no mention of an accusation laid against Edward IV, though this might be because Russell (if he was the author) would not give credence to such a claim against his former master. However, if that were the case, why record the allegation regarding his marriage and his sons? Why one and not the other when surely, if both were made, both or neither would have been recorded? Croyland’s evidence, when weighed with the other accounts available, would lead me to conclude that Ralph Shaa preached on the existence of a pre-contract and the illegitimacy of the princes but made no mention of Edward IV’s illegitimacy.
On the fate of the princes, Croyland offers the story that in late summer ‘public proclamation was made, that Henry, duke of Buckingham, who at this time was living at Brecknock in Wales, had repented of his former conduct, and would be the chief mover in this attempt, while a rumour was spread that the sons of king Edward before-named had died a violent death, but it was uncertain how’. Croyland seems to be explaining that a rumour that the boys were dead was deliberately created and spread as part of Buckingham’s Rebellion (which was, in fact, Henry Tudor’s Rebellion as discussed in a previous post). Nowhere does he, well-informed as he undoubtedly was, possibly at the very centre of Richard’s government, state that they were dead or that Richard ordered them killed. Writing under Henry Tudor, he would have nothing to fear from the accusation and everything to gain from a new king keen to know the fates of potential rivals. Why would such a well-informed man never once state that they were murdered? Perhaps because he knew a secret his new king would not like, that would only increase his insecurity. There is another source, uncovered amongst the College of Arms’ collection in the 1980’s that refers to a story that princes were murdered “be [by] the vise” of the Duke of Buckingham. Though there is discussion as to whether ‘vise’ should mean advice or device, there is nevertheless more evidence to relate Buckingham and his revolt to the death of the boys. Perhaps this ties in with Croyland’s tale but the rumour became confused, or perhaps it is the truth.
The conclusion of this brief tour of the sources available is that they offer no conclusive evidence. I doubt that Sir Thomas More meant to tell a factual history of King Richard III, but signposted the fact that he was writing in allegory and offering a moral tale. Virgil had his own agenda and his evidence contradicts that of a contemporary eye witness regarding Shaa’s sermon whilst he confesses to having no real knowledge of the fate of the princes beyond being certain that King Richard had them killed. Mancini’s evidence is brought into question when his patron and audience is considered. The allegation regarding Edward IV’s illegitimacy included by Virgil and More may have originated from Mancini’s account, created for a man at the centre of the origin of that story. Croyland, no fan of Richard’s, states that the pre-contract was the sole subject of the sermon and that the death of the princes was a deliberately concocted rumour to garner support for a rebellion. His evidence is dispassionate and devoid of agenda, making it the most reliable available to us.
Based upon what Croyland says, the pre-contract story was the reason the princes were declared illegitimate, was the only story given and must have been in circulation and widely believed enough to cause men of power to petition Richard III to take the throne. His silence on the matter of the fate of the princes is also frustrating but revealing. He claims that there was only ever a rumour of their deaths as part of a planned rebellion, never actually stating that they were dead, let alone that Richard ordered their murder.
Our only other guidance is the actions of those living through the spring and summer of 1483 in London. For example, Elizabeth Woodville’s eventual emergence from sanctuary in 1484 has always been problematical. If she knew that Richard had murdered her sons by Edward IV, why hand over her daughters like lambs to the slaughter? Richard promised to take care of them, but what does the word of a child murderer mean to their mother? The fact that Richard had, in fact, ordered the killing of one of Elizabeth Woodville’s sons is often cited and the question asked as to whether she would have valued a royal son more highly than a non-royal son, but this question is frequently asked by the same people who believe that Elizabeth Woodville emerged because she was so utterly ruthless that even knowing Richard had now killed three of her sons she could not bear to stay in sanctuary indefinitely even to keep her daughters safe. The executions of Richard Grey, along with Anthony her brother, were very different matters. They were not, as I have seen stated, illegal, since Richard was still Constable of England and within the law to order their executions. They were found guilty of treason and their deaths far more legal than those of Elizabeth’s father and another brother at Warwick’s hands. Richard had used the law to publically kill Richard Grey. If he had killed the princes it would have been utterly illegal and illicit. Elizabeth might have been able to stomach the loss on the former basis that had characterised her life, but surely not the second. She might feel comfortable giving herself and her daughters over to a man who would kill if the law allowed or required it, but surely not to a cold killer of children in secret. Her actions make far more sense if she had some concrete evidence that her sons by Edward IV had not been harmed in secret and outside the law. Only then could she be sure her daughters were in no danger. Girls were no threat, some say. That is to ignore the fact the Henry Tudor had sworn to use one of them to take Richard’s throne from him. They were every bit as much of a threat as their brothers.
Then there is the fact that Richard did not, by any measure, usurp the throne of England. He was petitioned to take it by a delegation nominally representing Parliament (though it is important to note that Parliament itself was not in session at the time). If these men had seen evidence of the pre-contract then they accepted it and asked Richard to be king because he was the only rightful candidate. I don’t buy the idea that they cowered in fear from an armed force that was on its way. Powerful men in the country and the City were never so easily cowed.
There is one more reason that Thomas More might have written such a condemnation of Richard III. What if it was a smokescreen, as suggested by Jack Leslau and detailed in a previous post?
Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.
We had a fairly regular replacement history teacher when I was at school. A retired teacher, his passion for the subject was plain and undiminished. There were two things he would frequently teach his class. He would walk into the classroom, wipe the floor with his finger and then stick it in his mouth, to choruses of (vaguely admiring, form the boys at least) shocked disgust. He would then loudly ask a random student ‘What did I just do!’, to which the stunned pupil blurted out ‘Wiped the floor with you finger and licked it, sir.’ ‘No I didn’t,’ he would reply, and slowly demonstrate that he used one one finger to wipe the mucky floor and then licked a different one. ‘Not everything is quite what you might think at first glance.’ This, obviously, only worked once per class, but it shouts of a need to interrogate what we see and hear.
His other great mantra was that there are only three things that you need to know about history. ‘Evidence, Evidence, Evidence’. It is a constant cry, too, of those who argue about elements of 1483, never more so than around the pre-contract story. There is no direct evidence of a pre-contract, but neither is there direct evidence to deny it. We must, instead, examine the limited circumstantial evidence that exists. Many write that the lack of direct evidence proves conclusively that there was no pre-contract, but that is to ignore the circumstantial evidence that remains.
There are three key elements to the spring of 1483 that cannot be decisively proven either way. The first is a Woodville plot against Richard, which would explain his arrest of Rivers, Grey and Vaughan, Elizabeth Woodville’s flight into sanctuary (making it an act of guilty fear), and Richard’s desire to drive them from government. What evidence is there that such a plot existed? Several sources state that Hastings called Richard to London because the Woodvilles were planning a coup in defiance of Edward IV’s last wishes. Thomas Grey, son of Elizabeth Woodville and half-brother to Edward V, is supposed to have told the Council that his family were powerful enough to rule without Richard and that they would not wait for his arrival to set a date for the coronation.
Dominic Mancini, notably one of the few contemporary, eye witness accounts to survive, wrote that on his arrival in London Richard provided evidence of the Woodville plot that he had thwarted. ‘For ahead of the procession they sent four wagons loaded with weapons bearing the devices of the queen’s brothers and sons, besides criers to make generally known throughout the crowded places by whatsoever way they passed, that these arms had been collected by the duke’s enemies and stored at convenient spots outside the capital, so as to attack and slay the duke of Gloucester coming from the country.’ Mancini continues to offer his opinion that the plot was not real, ‘Since many knew these charges to be false, because the arms in question had been placed there long before the late king’s death for an altogether different purpose, when war was being waged against the Scots, mistrust both of his accusation and designs upon the throne was exceedingly augmented.’ The veracity of the existence of a plot is different to a lack of evidence of one. This is documented evidence of a plot. You may believe Mancini in judging it a trick, but it is evidence nonetheless.
If the plot existed, it explains Richard’s subsequent actions. If not, and Mancini’s proposition that these were arms stockpiled for war against Scotland were true, it is an early sign of less than noble intentions on Richard’s part. War with Scotland had taken place the previous year. Richard had led it, which might mean he would know where weapons were stockpiled. This, though, is to assume Richard’s early evil intent. What if the weapons were being prepared for a Woodville bid for power? Stony Stratford, where Rivers had taken Edward V, was a Woodville manor, an ideal place for an ambush. Is it really impossible? I can’t say that the plot was real, but I can’t say that it wasn’t. Is it unreasonable to think Richard could have believed in a plot? Probably not. There is evidence of it. Four wagon loads of evidence.
The issue of Lord Hastings’ execution is another troublesome incident for the lack of decisive evidence. We know that Hastings was at a small Council meeting in the Tower when he was accused of plotting against Richard, hauled outside and beheaded. The discussion of Richard’s right to act in this matter is detailed in a previous post, but what about evidence? Polydore Virgil, writing around twenty years later for Henry VII and not an eye witness, claimed that ‘the Lord Hastings … called together unto Paul’s church such friends as he knew to be right careful for the life, dignity, and estate of prince Edward, and conferred with them what best was to be done.’ This seems to indicate that Hastings was, in fact, plotting against Richard even before he arrived in London. Virgil is certainly no apologist for Richard III, yet he offers evidence suggestive of a plot by Hastings. If news of this meeting reached Richard, perhaps via William Catesby, is it unreasonable that he might believe Hastings plotted to his own end, just as he had accused the Woodvilles of doing? Hastings perhaps fell foul of the paranoia he himself had sown in the Protector’s mind.
Sir Thomas More (who I am loath to classify as a provider of evidence) wrote, later than Virgil, that ‘for the further appeasing of the people’s mind, he sent immediately after dinner in all the haste, one herald of arms, with a proclamation to be made through the city in the King’s name, containing that the Lord Hastings with diverse others of his traitorous purpose had before conspired the same day to have slain the Lord Protector and the Duke if Buckingham while sitting in the Council’. This story is backed up by the eye witness Mancini, who reported that ‘to calm the multitude, the duke instantly sent a herald to proclaim that a plot had been detected in the citadel, and Hastings, the originator of the plot, had paid the penalty’. This proclamation is, in itself, evidence. No copy or note of the content survives, but following its circulation there was no widespread outrage or fallout over the execution of a man who was personally very popular in the City. This offers at least circumstantial evidence that the content of the proclamation provided enough to satisfy those listening that Hastings had been guilty of the plot he was accused of.
I have read much recently about the pre-contract story. Many pieces are quite insistent that the reader should demand evidence of the pre-contract (which is quite right) because there is none (which is quite wrong). I have read several times recently that it is foolish nonsense to believe in the pre-contract story. Once more, there is a complete lack of definitive evidence in either direction and what we have is circumstantial, but should not be completely ignored.
Thomas More mentions the pre-contract story, but has the name of the lady involved wrong, just one of many errors that mark his work as something other than a genuine retelling of history for the perpetuation of knowledge. Virgil noted the sermon given by Dr Ralph Shaa, writing that ‘there is a common report that king Edward’s children were in that sermon called bastards, and not king Edward, which is void of all truth; for Cecily, king Edward’s mother, as is before said, being falsely accused of adultery, complained afterward in sundry places to right many noble men, whereof some yet live, of that great injury which her son Richard had done her.’ Virgil insists that the pre-contract did not feature in Shaa’s sermon and was created later because the insinuation against Edward IV and Cecily Neville was not well received.
Here, Virgil is directly at odds with our eye witness, Mancini, who noted that when Shaa gave his sermon ‘He argued that it would be unjust to crown this lad, who was illegitimate, because his father King Edward on marrying Elizabeth was legally contracted to another wife to whom the [earl] of Warwick had joined him.’ Mancini, certainly no apologist of Richard’s, specifically tells us that the pre-contract was the basis of Shaa’s sermon, in direct opposition to Virgil’s version of the same sermon. Who should we offer greater weight to? Both writers were not friendly to Richard. Mancini was in London in 1483 and writing for a foreign audience. Virgil was not an eye witness and wrote twenty years later for the man who deposed Richard. My vote would go to Mancini’s version.
The Italian further writes that ‘On the following day all the lords forgathered at the house of Richard’s mother, whither he had purposely betaken himself, that these events might not take place in the Tower where the young king was confined. There the whole business was transacted, the oaths of allegiance given, and other indispensable acts duly performed. On the two following days the people of London and the higher clergy did likewise. All important matters are deliberated, and decrees made law by these three orders, whom they call the three estates. This being accomplished, a date was fixed for the coronation’. We may be able to confidently say that Parliament was not in fact in session at this time, but Mancini clearly intimates that deliberation took place before a decision was made, a decision upon which all of those gathered were agreed, for he does not note a single dissenting voice at this point. What was deliberated if not evidence of a pre-contract that proved Edward V’s illegitimacy?
On a side note, it strikes me as odd, too, that Mancini’s work, De Occupatione Regni Anglie Per Riccardum Tercium, is always referred to as ‘The Usurpation of Richard III’, when the title in fact translates as ‘The Occupation of England by Richard III’. Where did the word ‘usurpation’ spring from? In Latin that would be ‘usurpatione’, but that word does not appear in Mancini’s title.
The Parliament Rolls provide further evidence of the pre-contract’s existence. Titulus Regius, enrolled in the Parliament of 1484, is believed to hold the text of the petition asking Richard to take the throne in June 1483. On the subject of the pre-contract, it claims ‘that at the time of the contract of the same pretended marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the said King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony’. Here is a legal document, enacted by Parliament, stating that the pre-contract existed. It is a frequent criticism that this cannot be relied on because it was enacted by Richard’s Parliament. This is true, and has to be taken into consideration when weighing the evidence, but it should not be dismissed. It provides clear evidence that the story of a pre-contract was the reason that Edward V was declared illegitimate and Richard asked to take the throne.
The final piece of evidence comes from the pen of Philip de Commines, a man who served first the Dukes of Burgundy and then the Kings of France. In the 1490’s he wrote his memoirs, covering decades of political activity. He is the first to name the source of the information on the pre-contract that reached Richard as Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Commines recalled ‘This bishop affirmed, that King Edward being in love with a certain lady whom he named, and otherwise unable to have his desires of her, had promised her marriage; and caused the bishop to marry them’. He wrote that ‘His [Stillington’s] fortune depending upon the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained secret.’ This was why the story was not known until after Edward’s death, when Stillington told it to Richard.
Commines is frequently criticised as unreliable, never having visited England and writing a decade after the event. He was, however, politically active throughout the 1460’s, 1470’s and 1480’s. He met Edward IV, knew the Earl of Warwick and many of the other key figures in the Wars of the Roses. This is evidence from the pen of a man active in the political sphere at the time and certainly not partisan, at least not in Richard’s favour. If we must negate his evidence because he wrote a decade later, we must also utterly discount Virgil and More, upon whom many still base their views of these events unquestioningly. Commines gives evidence of a pre-contract story, told to Richard by a man involved in the proceedings, naming Stillington, yet this is not accepted as evidence of the pre-contract. If such compelling evidence cannot be offered for proper evaluation, then none will ever suffice.
It is worth asking another question at this stage. Where is the evidence that Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville? No banns were read, there is no record, legal or chronicle, of the ceremony. We don’t even know what date it is supposed to have happened on. It reportedly took place with two witnesses, one of them Elizabeth’s mother, and a priest. Edward supposedly announced its existence several months later in Council, probably to irritate Warwick. There is no decisive evidence that it actually happened other than Edward’s assertion that it did. How is it that this is unquestionably accepted as having taken place when the idea that a similar ceremony had taken place earlier with another lady, evidence of which emerged in 1483, strong enough evidence to convince those in London at the time that they should disinherit Edward’s son, is dismissed so completely?
Edward’s word is good.
The combined word of Richard, Buckingham, many lords spiritual and temporal, officials of London, Dominic Mancini, Philip de Commines and an Act of Parliament are dismissible, and dismissed.
Looking from the point of view of evidence, the marriage to Eleanor Butler is easier to prove than that to Elizabeth Woodville.
Of course, evidence is very different to proof.
Matthew Lewis’s latest book, The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing) is a detailed look at the key players in the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century.
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.