The Case Against Henry VII

Is there, though, a lack of evidence against anybody else?

A popular candidate with Ricardians is Henry VII, Richard's successor. Sir Clements Markham first put forth this theory, which relies for evidence largely on the Titulus Regius, on Henry's general informal (and quite successful) plan to kill off those members of the royal family with a better claim than he to the throne, and on the two pardons granted to Sir James Tyrell.

The Titulus Regius is simply the document in which Richard laid out his claim to the throne. Briefly, the case is this: that Richard's brother, Edward IV, had made a troth-plight with Lady Eleanor Butler, and then, while Lady Eleanor was still alive, had married Elizabeth Woodville, thus making hte children of the marriage illegitimate, thus invalidating their claim to the throne, thus making Richard the rightful king. Clearly the legal significance of the troth-plight is the crucial issue here. This is not the most heavily researched field, but it appears from what we do know that the troth-plight at that time in England had the same binding qualities as marriage; it was something like a secular marriage. As such it was looked down upon somewhat, not considered to be a real marriage. It became a fairly well known practice for young men to plight their troths to young women, and then desert them once bedded. This sort of thing is in fact what led to the discontinuance of the troth-plight. Now Ricardians have frequently pointed out that Edward IV was not used to having his will crossed in these matters, and it seems to have been a point of pride with him never to force anyone. Up against those with principles, troth-plight, marriage, and admission of failure were the only options. It is perfectly plausible that Edward IV plighted his troth with about as much seriousness as was usual, it is a fact that if he did, it was binding and that it invalidated his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.

Of course, the claims set forth in the Titulus Regius and the testimony of Bishop Stillington could have been made up of whole cloth. True or not, Henry certainly felt this account to be dangerous, and ordered it to be destroyed in toto. One copy was overlooked, which is how we know of it; that and the decree ordering that it be destroyed and never mentioned again.

Henry, then, is very touchy about his claim to the throne; he wants to take away all that might possibly tend in Richard's favour so as to make himself shine by contrast. The Ricardian case is that Henry has a motive, while Richard is the legitimate king, already on the throne, with no need to kill his nephews. Of course, the traditionalist response is that 1.) Richard could still have a motive and 2.) the princes died during Richard's reign, when Henry was in France. The case against Richard we have already dealt with in some detail. The second objection carries more weight, but forensic science at a distance of some four to five hundred years cannot be precise to the exact number of years ago the princes died; it is not even one hundred percent certain that the bones are even those of the princes.

What is certain is that Henry was very aware of his tenuous claim to the throne and took some pains to eliminate those would had a better claim. Henry was a member of the Lancastrian branch of the royal family, descended from the usurper Henry IV. Aware that this was not the best set of credentials, Henry claimed descent from King Arthur himself, and named his first son Arthur (the unfortunate boy died young). Not everyone was convinced, including Henry’s historian Polydore Vergil, as we have seen. The children of George, Duke of Clarence, and of Elizabeth (both siblings of Edward IV and Richard III) had much more solid claims to the throne, and Henry accordingly had nearly all of them imprisoned or executed, minus one who prudently disappeared from the scene and another who was exiled to Ireland. Not that Henry had no scruples; he did. It was just that a blend of caution and self-love usually won in the end. Trollope’s character Cousin Henry, in the novel of the same name, has more in common with Henry Tudor than the name; in essential character, Trollope might have modeled his protagonist on the king.

But while it would be quite in keeping with Henry's known actions and character to have murdered the prince, and while he had the motive to do so, there is a strong indication that Henry was not guilty. When beset by various pretenders, especially Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the youngest of the princes, Henry panicked. He assigned people to find out who Perkin was and it is generally agreed that he was nervous. As he had reason to be; but this nervousness and curiosity could have sprung from genuine uncertainty as to the claims of these pretenders, and uncertainty could only mean that Henry was innocent. Then, too, there is the problem of the prince's dying in 1483, when Henry was in France. While this does not rule Henry out, it makes him very unlikely. Is there not a better candidate?

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