The Princes in the Tower: David Pilling on ‘The New Evidence’

The medieval historian is unconvinced by Philippa Langley and Rob Rinder's recent documentary.
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David Pilling, why does the story of the Princes in the Tower still fascinate and did you enjoy The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence?

I think it is the theme of the slaughter of innocents. Plenty of political figures in this era met with a nasty end, of course, but the princes were minors. The idea of children being murdered strikes most of us with horror, for obvious reasons. Even at the time, the story of the princes being done to death (whatever the truth of their fate) met with widespread disgust.

he Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by John Everett Millais

There is also the lingering mystery, which I doubt will ever be solved. It has proved very fertile ground for romantic fiction and any number of interpretations, some more rational than others. People love a good conspiracy, especially when it comes wrapped in historical trappings. They also love to argue this subject – ‘debate’ is probably the wrong word – especially online.

I thought the documentary was entertaining, but manipulative and dishonest, and deliberately led the viewer away from asking hard questions. The conclusion, in which Robert Rinder informed Philippa Langley that she had (quote) “potentially changed the course of British history”, was downright embarrassing. Even allowing for the sensationalist nature of TV, this was too much. There is nothing in the programme to justify such a statement. It has met with severe criticism, and rightly so.

There are 4 separate pieces of evidence. The receipt for an army & weapons for Edward V; the Austrian archive detailing marks on the body of Richard, Duke of York; the Gelders document of Richard’s biography; and finally in Dresden the 1493 document promising 30,000 florins for Richard. Were you convinced by these, and if not, why?

I was convinced that the receipts for weapons and money were documents of the time, and exactly what they purported to be. No more than that. It is absurd to wheel them out as evidence of Richard’s survival – no pretender, or his backers, was going to sign documents with his real name (‘AKA Perkin Warbeck’)! The whole object of the exercise was to convince the world that Richard (or his brother Edward) were still alive. Or at least, give an adequate impression. I doubt the German and Swiss mercenaries who fought for ‘Edward’ at Stoke gave two hoots, so long as they got paid.

Re the 30,000 florins, there was a strange emphasis on the sheer amount of money, as if that is proof of Richard’s survival. All it shows is that ‘Richard’ had some very wealthy supporters, such as Margaret of Burgundy and Maximilian I. We knew that already. It is an interesting example, in itself, of the costs of warfare and political alliances.

Re the ‘marks’ on Richard’s body, that is not evidence or proof of anything. The story of the marks could have been sheer invention – so far as I know, there are no original accounts of any marks on Prince Richard’s body, prior to his disappearance.

Of the four pieces of evidence, the Gelders document is the most interesting. Unfortunately I thought the programme threw away its own argument, by focusing on the dating to the exclusion of all else. Far too much time was spent on this, which struck me as deliberately misleading. The point is not when it was written, but why and by whom? Without further information on the provenance – and there seems to be none – little more can be said. But it is curious, and worth further investigation. It was the one piece of substance in the entire programme, and really no more than a curiosity.

There was much discussion in the documentary over whether Richard’s bio was a forgery. It was in fact dated by Andrew Dunning at Oxford as late 15th century and so viewed as legitimate, but would I be right in questioning whether a claimant to the throne, Perkin Warbeck for example, would have written such a narrative so as to persuade and back up his claims?

Of course you would be right; such forgeries were commonplace, especially in the medieval period. Kings and popes routinely tampered with documents to buttress their claims. There are any number of examples. I have no doubt the Gelders document is contemporary. As I said, that is not the issue. It proves nothing, beyond the fact that someone thought it worthwhile to sit down and draft a version of Richard’s life.

On the positive side, whoever wrote it had a vivid imagination: it would make for a cracking adventure novel, and no doubt will.

In Dresden we see a document promising 30K florins dated 1493 and supposedly signed by Richard (Duke of York) and the seal associated seems convincing. How difficult is it for us to know whether Emperor Maximilien I and Margaret of Burgundy were convinced by Perkin, and would that even have mattered?

In terms of medieval realpolitik – the real driver – I don’t think it mattered in the slightest. Just like all his peers, Maximilian would have done absolutely anything to increase his power and influence, and that included backing a false pretender to the throne of England. So long as there was profit in it for him, of course. I am no expert on Margaret, but my understanding is that she was driven by revenge on Henry Tudor, and the restoration of her dynasty in England. She would do anything to gain those ends. In my opinion the politics of the age were entirely cynical, without exception. This was a lethal environment: the rewards were very great, the consequences of failure invariably fatal. Anyone can forge a seal.

Philippa Langley and Rob Rinder believe they’ve uncovered ‘the truth’. Do you think we’re any closer?

No, in short, but I am perfectly open to persuasion. Unfortunately the subject of Richard III is becoming impossible. Too many of his admirers – and I think ‘admirers’ is not inappropriate – start out with a prejudice i.e. they believe he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and shape the evidence to fit.

It should hardly need saying, but that is not how the rules of evidence work. There is also a fundamental absurdity or contradiction here: if you take the view that Richard was the victim of a propaganda campaign (More, Shakespeare et al), then there is little excuse for doing the same thing in reverse. At that point it becomes partisanship, mere cheerleading for Team Richard or Team Tudor. This is childish, in my view, and achieves nothing.

If Lambert Simnel really was Edward V, why was he allowed to live and given the job of spit-turner? 

Once again, there are all kinds of interpretations. My own view is that whatever his real identity – and the evidence is very tangled – ‘Simnel’ was not Edward V. That would have meant Henry had two Yorkist princes in custody (Edward and his cousin Warwick).

It is sheer fantasy to suppose he would have taken such risks. Certain adjectives  describe his personality – crafty, prudent, cautious etc. There is nothing very prudent about keeping a rival prince, with a better claim to the throne, as a kitchen boy (later promoted to the dizzying heights of falconer)! If he lived, Edward was a danger. Whatever his father’s attitude, Henry VIII would have certainly done away with ‘Simnel’, yet he appears to have met a natural end.

The murder of the Princes in the Tower is an accusation levelled at Richard III and is dismissed as ‘Tudor propaganda’. Is that a fair description?

Richard was the victim of propaganda, no doubt of that. The Tudors deliberately caricatured him as a monster, because their own position was so fragile. This is what usurpers did; one obvious comparison would be the Bruce kings in Scotland, who deliberately blackened the reputation of their enemies, John Balliol and John Comyn of Badenoch. Like the Tudors, they were usurpers with an inferior claim to the throne, whose power rested almost entirely on force.

That is where the argument in Richard’s favour ends. He was just as much a hardened politico as anyone else, and dealt in his own propaganda. For instance, prior to the battle of Bosworth, he issued public statements describing Henry Tudor’s supporters as murderers and rapists (among other things) and his foreign mercenaries as thieves, robbers and so on. This is what rival politicians have done since the year dot. In such a febrile world as late 15th century England, where power rested on deceit and violence, we should expect no less.

As for the princes, I personally believe they were murdered in 1483, on Richard’s orders. None of the counter-arguments are remotely convincing, except we have no direct proof of the murders. Of course not. What kind of ‘proof’ does anyone imagine would be allowed to exist? Unless Richard was a complete fool – he was not – there will be no convenient paper-trail.

There are bones found in the reign of Charles II at the Tower, which were examined in the 1930s and found to be roughly the age of the princes when they were last seen. Are these remains a red herring?

Probably. My understanding is that the bones are mixed up with all kinds of other material – I believe they were discovered on a rubbish heap – so it might be very difficult to extract anything. It could be worth doing a DNA test anyway, just to put it to bed.

You have a book in the pipeline. When can we expect it?

My book Edward Longshanks’ Forgotten Conflict: The Anglo-French War 1294-1303 will be published in February 2024 by Amberley.

David Pilling is a historian and writer, and the author of The Rise & Fall of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales