The Princes in the Tower
by Alison Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Princes in the Tower / B007I5QO50
I am very fond of Alison Weir's histories, and have an interest in the Princes in the Tower, so I expected to enjoy this historical account, even knowing that it is several years old now (and now somewhat out of date since Richard III's bones have been disinterred from the car park). Having read this book twice -- both before and after the disinterment -- I am perfectly satisfied that it lives up to Weir's tradition of excellent writing and engrossing scholarship.
This is one of Weir's shorter books, and it is possible to whip through the material fairly quickly. She starts by outlining her sources and their nearness to the matter and what she means by "contemporary", since the scholarly material spans a large period; she also scrupulously identifies the biases and shortcomings of her sources, and then explains *her* view on their accuracy in light of that. It is left as an exercise to the reader to decide whether or not to accept her view, and I appreciate that the decisions made by historians in the search for truth are open and exposed to the reader for them to make their own choices.
Weir then traces the circumstances surrounding the birth of the princes, the controversial choice of their mother (Elizabeth Wydville) as queen, the subsequent alienation of many members of court at being replaced in the King's favor by a family seen as ignoble and greedy, and the events which occurred immediately following Edward IV's death and how Richard III was able to quickly imprison the new child king (Edward V) through a swift and brutal campaign of terror.
Weir outlines the contemporary rumors and beliefs of both foreign royalty and common Londoners, and makes the case that Richard's contemporaries certainly believed it very plausible that he had the princes murdered (though some, as with Louis XI, believed the princes were dead or as-good-as-dead a few days earlier than Weir believes the actual event occurred -- an understandable mistake on Louis XI's part since the precise date of the murder wasn't heralded from the Tower with trumpets). These contemporary beliefs are laid out scrupulously in order to point out that Tudor propaganda cannot be entirely to blame for Richard's grim reputation, not when his pre-Tudor contemporaries already believed him guilty. Once again, it is left to the reader to balance how much weight to give these beliefs, but I personally feel that Weir makes a convincing argument for the case that Richard is the most plausible responsible party for the deaths of the Princes.
I was initially puzzled by the number of poor reviews on the book. Having now read the book twice, along with several negative reviews, I have to strongly agree with a previous review (MS) who stated that "Many of the criticisms I've read in other reviews are based on isolated paragraphs which have either been misunderstood or taken out of context." For Louis XI to believe, a few days earlier than the date proposed by Weir for the murder, that Richard either had or would soon murder the Princes does not point to a scholarly error with dates; Louis XI's suspicions are mentioned only to underscore contemporary beliefs, and not in support of the date of the murder. And for Margaret Beaufort to be able to convince Elizabeth Wydville of her sons' death, but for Henry VII to still retain a small doubt, years after his failure to find the bodies, is in no way something to marvel at in my opinion -- these differences in the perspectives of Elizabeth Wydville and Henry VII reflect the realities and context of their lives as a grieving mother and an insecure king. For some reviewers to seize on these as somehow "proofs" of poor scholarship make me very dubious.
In summary, I believe this is an engrossing and relatively quick read to the subject, and I strongly recommend it to fans of Weir's other work. I appreciate that Weir clearly lays out the flaws in the available sources and guides the reader through her decision-making process, so that engaging readers may choose to make different choices. And I believe that a number of the so-called errors and contradictions in this work seem to me to be entirely plausible when considering the nuances of the personalities and political realities involved in this historical period.
~ Ana Mardoll