6 August 2018

Book Review: The Mythology of the 'Princes in the Tower', by John Ashdown-Hill


New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The much-needed spotlight of historical scrutiny is shone into the dark corners of one of our greatest medieval mysteries - the death of the princes in the Tower. This new book is a worthy testament to the long career of the late Dr Ashdown-Hill, and challenges the many myths which surround the disappearance of Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, sons of Edward IV.

Part of the 'mythology' of the princes in the Tower of London
Painting by Paul Delaroche in 1830 (Wikimedia)
I was surprised to learn that even the term ‘Princes in the Tower’, which we use so easily, was never used at the time - or by Shakespeare, and only emerges in the nineteenth century.  I also recall  trying to decipher the Latin inscription on the urn purporting to contain the remains of the princes in Westminster Abbey:


The author helpfully provides a full translation:
Here lie the relics of Edward V, King of England and Richard Duke of York. These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper; whose bones, long enquired after and wished for, after 191 years in the rubbish of the stairs (those lately leading to the Chapel of the White Tower) were on the 17th day of July 1674, by undoubted proofs discovered, being buried deep in that place. Charles II, a most compassionate prince, pitying their most severe fate, ordered these unhappy princes to be laid amongst the monuments of their predecessors, 1678, in the 30th year of his reign.
I've included the translation in full as here lies, not just the bones, but the foundation of much of the mythology.  People could be forgiven for accepting the inscription as fact, yet John Ashdown-Hill challenges almost every word of it.

There simply wasn't the forensic understanding in 1694 (or in 1933 when the urn was opened for 'modern' examination) to claim undoubted proofs discovered. I also hadn't realised that being buried deep in that place meant some ten feet below ground level - into the region where Roman and earlier bones have been found.

As a staunch 'Ricardian' one might expect the author to implicate Henry VII, who had much to lose by the existence of a legitimate Yorkist challenger to his throne. I know suspicion about Richard III's involvement was useful to Henry and Jasper Tudor when they were trying to raise an invasion force in France, but Henry seems to have remained silent about the matter for nineteen years after his victory at Bosworth.

This thought-provoking book raises many questions - and intriguingly points out that we might one day be able to use improved DNA analysis to answer at least some of them.  John Ashdown-Hill was uniquely placed to answer these questions, and will be missed. By working with geneticists and scientists he came tantalisingly close, so it is to be hoped that his book will inspire others to continue his work.

Tony Riches

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In Memory of the Author

John Ashdown-Hill,  a prolific author and a leading historian of the Yorkist dynasty, died on the 18th of May 2018, so never saw the publication of The Mythology of the 'Princes in the Tower'. He completed his MA in Linguistics and PhD in medieval history at Essex, and his research helped lead to the discovery of Richard III’s remains beneath a Leicester car park in 2012. Here is a short video of his acceptance of an honorary degree from the University of Essex in 2014:

1 comment:

  1. John Ashdown-Hill was not only an historian and author of many books about the Yorkist age, he was a poet and linguist as well. All Ricardians and others interested in this medieval period will be sad at his passing and miss his wonderful surge of books.

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