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Review: Royal Blood

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Review: Royal Blood

Title: Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes
Author: Bertram Fields
Published: 1998
Length: 312 pages with a bibliography and index

My star rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Royal Blood is a thorough examination of the mystery surrounding the sons of King Edward IV of England, the so-called “Princes in the Tower,” through the eyes of a modern attorney.  Not long after being declared illegitimate and placed in the Tower in their uncle’s custody in 1483, the boys vanished.  Their uncle became Richard III, and rumors quickly spread that they had been killed.  Yet within a year, their mother left sanctuary and entrusted her five remaining daughters to the king. Henry Tudor invaded in 1485. He and Richard met at Bosworth Field that August and, betrayed by some of his most powerful magnates, Richard was killed.

The newly-crowned Henry VII quickly legitimized Edward’s children and married his eldest daughter, Elizabeth.  He accused Richard of treason and of shedding “Infants blood.” Strangely, however, he remained vague on the princes’ true fate. Neither bodies nor evidence were ever produced. Between 1487 and 1500, two pretenders came forward claiming to be the younger prince. Both rebellions failed.  Almost two centuries later, a trunk containing two small skeletons was unearthed beneath a Tower staircase.  Charles II had them interred in Westminster as the remains of the princes. They were long considered conclusive proof of Richard’s crime.

Bertram Fields examines the case closely and objectively. While there is little doubt that he sympathizes with Richard, he never dismisses him as a suspect. Royal Blood serves as both a legal “trial” (more of the evidence as a whole than of Richard) and as a response to Alison Weir’s book The Princes in the Tower, published in 1995. It is effective on both counts. A good deal of readers were annoyed that Fields spends so much time rebutting Weir. I, unlike many others, took some pleasure in seeing her poor excuse for scholarship torn apart. She is actually not mentioned as much as other reviews might have you believe. Weir is a very widely-read popular historian who, in her book, relies on highly biased and unreliable accounts to draw definitive conclusions where Fields shows none can be drawn at all. Keeping that in mind, and the fact that Fields is an attorney by trade and used to rebutting the arguments of another, is a good idea when going into this book.

(Honestly, Weir holds such a grudge against Richard that she has the nerve to use his now-confirmed physical condition as evidence against his character in her latest book, Elizabeth of York: “Severe scoliosis…can also lead to serious emotional and behavioral problems, such as low self-esteem, mood swings, depression, difficulty in sleeping, poor sexual relationships and interpersonal skills.” Merely making this statement is far more unprofessional and ludicrous than anything Fields writes in this book.)

But it should also be noted that other authors on the subject do not escape Fields’ critical eye simply because Weir is the most obvious target. He also takes issue, at times, with other biographers such as Charles Ross and Paul Murray Kendall.

The first few chapters briefly narrate the Wars of the Roses. This was helpful review for me, a more experienced reader, and is probably thorough enough for newcomers. He slows the pace considerably after that, examining each element of Richard’s supposed usurpation and subsequent reign and each piece of “evidence” of the crime in great detail. He is meticulous in his research, leaving no stone unturned—so if you aren’t interested in a whole chapters devoted to, for instance, whether the claim that Edward IV had a precontract with Eleanor Butler has any validity (it probably does), this book probably isn’t for you.

Fields’ book is fairly well-written, thought-provoking, and invaluable overall—but it’s not perfect.

This isn’t a historical work in that its author isn’t a professional historian. Nevertheless, footnotes would have been helpful and given it an extra air of legitimacy. That said, even the most puritanical scholar would be hard-pressed to find other fault with Fields’ research other than the lack of direct citations.

Just a few more nitpicks: Fields devotes almost an entire chapter to debunking the physical aspect of the “Black Legend”—that Richard was an ugly, deformed man with a withered arm and a “crook-back” or hump.  This is great detective work, and was probably very valuable when the book was published. Now, however, Richard’s body has been unearthed. We know he had scoliosis. We also know that it had little effect on him and was hidden easily by his clothes. Perhaps an updated edition is called for.

Also, when Fields considers the most likely suspects in the possible murders, he names both Henry Tudor and his stepfather, Lord Stanley—but he’s silent about Henry’s other, the formidable and ambitious Margaret Beaufort. Surely Margaret had just as strong a motive and at least some influence over her husband Stanley. It’s all guesswork, of course, but I don’t think she should be discounted merely because she was a woman.

Otherwise, Fields has produced a book that not only put me more in doubt of Richard’s guilt than ever, but made me question whether the princes ever died.  In fact, Perkin Warbeck kind of won me over.  Maybe he really was Prince Richard. Warbeck for King!  Fields doesn’t write anything off, as some biographers and historians are prone to do; nor does he presume to know the hearts and minds of people five hundred years in the grave.  He entertains every possibility, even the rather far-fetched allegations made by Thomas More. He also raises questions that, while we may never be able to answer, are excellent food for thought.

Why would Richard kill his nephews when, to take the throne, he only needed them to be illegitimate?  Why would Richard kill only Edward’s sons when had another nephew (Clarence’s son Warwick) and six nieces whose claims were stronger than his? Why would Elizabeth Woodville leave sanctuary and send her daughters to court if she suspected or knew that Richard had murdered her sons? Why did Henry VII banish his mother-in-law and confiscate her property in 1487, the same year of the first “pretender’s” rebellion, if not because she supported said rebellion—and why would the princes’ mother support a pretender in favor of displacing her own daughter if she did not have reason to believe that at least one of her sons had survived?

And those are just a few.

Perhaps the biggest question is, why will the keepers of the Westminster crypt not permit the bones found in the Tower to be tested?  Though no one’s remains should be continually disturbed for hundreds of years, if the bones prove to be those of the princes, they can be reinterred in a tomb befitting their royal status, and the mystery will be one step closer to being solved.  If not, they should be removed from Westminster—or at least the plaque claiming that they are the princes’ remains, and that Richard killed them, should be.

But I digress.

Ultimately, Fields demonstrates two things very clearly.  One, that Richard III was not the monster of Tudor legend, but a man of his time: a fierce warrior, capable administrator, and decisive leader and, perhaps, a ruthless one if need be; and two, that there is no evidence that a crime was even committed or that the princes even died, much less that Richard was responsible.

I won’t call Royal Blood exhaustive, but it is both extensive and impressive. It’s opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I hadn’t considered viable before.

I’m subtracting half a star for the lack of proper citations and half for their weird, speculative, and romanticized “what if” chapter at the end. (What if Richard had never taken the throne? How about what if Richard had never died at Bosworth?)


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