If you enjoyed The White Queen TV series, based on Philippa Gregory’s book, your next step should be to read her follow-up novel The White Princess – the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.
Philippa’s extensive research appears to give her a peerless grasp of what life was like for a Tudor queen. Writing in the first person, Philippa gets well inside the skin of the Yorkist princess who was betrothed to Lancastrian Henry Vll in an effort to unite their warring houses. But this reviewer felt she spent too much time dwelling on Elizabeth’s tortured mind and endless fears, making the book too long and the reader impatient for the next development. Nevertheless, Philippa Gregory suggests a very interesting theory for the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
When Richard Duke of Gloucester seized young Edward V on the road to London, his mother Elizabeth Woodville took herself and her other children into sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.
When Gloucester demanded she hand over her younger son, Richard, Duke of York, to join his brother in The Tower, viewers of The White Queen will recall that Elizabeth sent a changeling in his place. Whether this would have worked must be open to doubt of course.
The real Duke of York was last seen being rowed to safety down the Thames. We presume that the young king and the changeling were done away with and that it is the boy in the boat, now a young man in his 20s, who in Philippa’s novel emerges on the continent as pretender to the English throne.
The Kings of France and Scotland and the Holy Roman Emperor believe he is Richard and so do the Irish lords. He is provided with some troops and makes several invasion attempts while Henry Vll loudly claims that his real name is Perkin Warbeck, the son of a drunken Belgian barber from Tournai.
When the boy finally falls into Henry’s hands he is put under house arrest and initially treated well.
But the King of Spain, who is negotiating to marry his daughter Catherine of Aragon to Henry’s son Arthur, demands all pretenders must be eliminated before he gives his consent. The boy’s fate is sealed.
We never know whether ‘Perkin’ really is Richard because his sister Elizabeth never says so. If she does know what is going on, she keeps it to herself.
According to the book this is because Henry tells her that if she recognises him as her brother, then she and anybody else who does so will be executed for treason. Another dubious scenario.
The book is at its best when it brings the character of Henry Vll out of the shadows. Not the most charismatic Tudor monarch, he is described in The Little Book of Monarchs as ‘dour, manipulative and suspicious, beset by rebellions and pretenders’. He did set England’s finances and legal system straight and encourage a revival of learning and he slowly grew to love Elizabeth after initially viewing their marriage of convenience as a duty.
Philippa Gegory puts flesh on his bones and shows us a cautious, nervous individual whose love for his wife is repeatedly tested by the suspicion that she is plotting with his Yorkist enemies. We see with some surprise how weak the Tudor hold on the throne must have been for nearly 20 years into Henry’s reign.
Behind Henry, holding it all together, is his deeply religious mother Margaret Beaufort, every bit as obsessive and hateful as she was portrayed on TV in The White Queen.
So how good is Philippa’s theory about the Princes in The Tower? It just about works but I still have a sneaking preference for the hypothesis of medieval expert and author David Baldwin in The Lost Prince. He points out that Edward V was being regularly treated by a Dr John Argentine in The Tower and could easily have died of natural causes.
David suggests Edward’s younger brother was then quietly taken out and brought up in a remote safe house while his uncle, who had decided the Yorkists needed a competent adult on the throne, took the crown as Richard lll.
After Bosworth it is suggested the young Duke of York was spirited away by King Richard’s friend Lord Lovell to Colchester, where he was enrolled as a lay brother in the abbey and taught the art of bricklaying.
We know that Henry Vll visited Colchester more than any town of its size during his progresses – very possibly to check up on Richard. And that Catherine of Aragon later went there too. After the dissolution of the monasteries Richard turned up in Kent, by now an elderly man. He helped build a house for the lord of the manor at Eastwell and confessed to his employer who he was. The tale comes down to us from this lord and the gravestone of a Richard Plantagenet lies in Eastwell Churchyard to this day.
So there you have the two theories. Which one is right? Or could each one be half true? Could the boy in the boat have become the bricklayer. Or could ‘Perkin Warbeck’ actually have been the boy from the safe house. Are we onto something here? All we can know for sure is that the search for the truth will go on.
The White Princess is published by Simon & Schuster, hardback £20, paperback £7.99.
Tony Boullemier, a retired newspaper publisher and former Fleet Street executive, is author of The Little Book of Monarchs and Leonie and the Last Napoleon. www.boullemierbooks.co.uk