It is an old, but nevertheless profoundly true, cliché, that history is written by the victors: he who controls the present indeed also controls the past.
The centuries-long reach of propaganda
It is so easy to simplify, sanitise and glorify the great deeds of the past, creating a kind of national mythology, whilst tactfully ignoring the mistakes, failures and inhuman atrocities often used to sustain national power and prosperity.
So with much that we cherish as British history. We celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Waterloo, Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain but carefully erase from our consciousness the tyranny of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s state-sponsored piracy in the Atlantic, the barbarity of slavery, the exploitations of empire, the cruel neglect that led to genocide caused by the Irish potato famine, the Boer War concentration camps, and in more recent times the horrors of so-called Mau-Mau suppression.
But rather more serious stains on our national narrative occur where factual evidence is deliberately distorted and even transformed to the worst kind of propaganda to legitimise and protect regime change, which even over five centuries after the events that were supposed to have taken place shock and disturb.
To the victor, the spoils
This is why Philippa Langley’s powerful new book The Princes in the Tower – Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case is such an important piece of work, and why it has also attracted such interest and also controversy, even including personal hate mail. The book challenges part of our national mythology. Anyone who has read her book, seen her Channel Four documentary with criminal barrister Robert Rinder, or attended her capacity-audience lecture in early December at the Yorkshire Museum in York, can only marvel at the thoroughness and painstaking nature of her research.
Our national mythology has sanitised the Tudors, who to survive, had to be ruthless individuals. In 1485 Henry Tudor seized the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, aided and supported by a huge army of French mercenaries, supported by the French King in order to achieve regime change.
Richard III: correcting the record
Richard of Gloucester 1452-85 became the last of the Plantagenet Kings after a distinguished period of loyal service to his brother King Edward IV, as High Constable of England, Warden of the West Marches and, in effect, the governor of the North as the King’s loyal lieutenant. Far from being the cripple portrayed by Shakespeare, he was a strong horseman, a soldier capable of leading his troops into the field of battle – his deformity was only noted after his death. A reforming monarch, he was also the first English monarch to take the coronation oath in English.
He also oversaw one of the most forward-looking parliaments of the 15th century, taking measures to end corruption, ordering legal trials to be in English and juries to have sound finances. He also had an impressive record of support for the North of England, for Yorkshire in particular where he spent his teenage years at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale. He also did a great deal of important work in Yorkshire – supporting trade, bringing about important legal reforms, removing taxes on books and printing. He financed the strengthening of harbour walls and defences at Scarbrough, helped Holy Trinity Church in Skipton and was a great supporter of York Minster. In 1484 he also set up the Council of the North, initially at Sheriff Hutton Castle, in order to improve access to conciliar justice in the North of England.
But not all Richard’s reforming work and removal of corruption, as well as support for the North, went down well with rich and powerful southern barons, who were keen to remove this northern-inclined Yorkshire monarch, and therefore to support Henry Tudor’s insurrection.
There was also the difficult issue of the disappearance and presumed death of Richard’s nephews, the child-king Edward V and his brother Richard of York living in the Tower of London. Even though there was some argument as to the legitimacy of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which led to a Parliamentary Declaration or Titulus Regius in favour of Richard as legal King, the disappearance of the uncrowned Edward V was convenient for Richard.
A de-propagandised history?
However, the historian, Langley, who was a key researcher in the discovery in 2012 of Richard’s humiliated body, lost under the concrete of a Leicester car park, has spent 20 years researching the murky depths of this complex period of English history. This was made more difficult by the deliberate obliterating of monastic records, annals and archives by the ruthless Henry Tudor, in order to wipe out contemporary accounts of actual events. Fortunately, Henry’s reach did not extend to the European mainland including Flanders.
Thanks to the work of a team of up to 300 archivists and historians, many in the Netherlands and Belgium where archives remained undisturbed, a very different picture has emerged for analysis. Overwhelming documentary evidence, including archives and personal witness statements from manuscripts of proven age and authenticity, has established that the two princes were almost certainly not murdered in the Tower by Richard but smuggled perhaps for their own safety out of the country.
After Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth in 1485, various attempts were made for the young princes to return to claim the English throne from the usurper Henry VII. There is even evidence that Edward V was given a coronation in Dublin Cathedral before an abortive attempted invasion of England in 1487. However, he was deliberately given the name of Lambert Simnel by the Tudors to reduce the significance of the rebellion. A second attempt this time in 1497 to install his younger brother Richard of York as Richard IV, was defeated at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire. Again, a false name Perkin Warbeck diminished the nature of the threat to Henry.
Never let the facts get in the way of a national mythology
Unlike most historians, including many academics who have been quick to dismiss her work as being “amateurish” (i.e. not belonging to one of the long-established Universities), Langley has worked in partnership with forensic scientists, police and legal experts in a process of evidence-based, cross-checked deduction to build up a compelling case of how there was a deliberate falsification of facts to discredit Richard, actually one of our most enlightened monarchs. This was required in order to boost the legitimacy of the Tudor line, always under threat, even during much of Elizabeth’s reign, especially from her cousin Mary Stuart.
Elizabeth was however fortunate in having an extraordinary propagandist on her side, the world’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare. Naturally, in order to continue to have royal patronage, indeed to have a career at all, Shakespeare had to follow the party line. He also used the sources available to him such as Hollinshead’s Chronicles. His portrayal of the defeated monarch in Richard III is a masterly piece of dramatic art, a brilliant and compelling exploration of villainy. But it has little to do with actual historical fact. Yet this portrayal has entered our national psyche and has helped reinforce a particular piece of national mythology, which not even the forensic skills of Langley can entirely undo.
But it is also another sorry example of how an inspirational great northern leader, creator of the Council of the North and bringer of the English language to our legal system, was marginalised and even destroyed by a Westminster-based hegemony.
Victors continue to distort and change the history to suit their needs. And maybe that explains – but does not forgive – the hate mail.