What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.
You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?
And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.
Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily
In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.
But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.
This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.
I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.
A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!
Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post– as we look at an ancient bog body murder.
All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.
Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.
Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?
I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.
And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.
Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder
Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.
So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.
He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.
Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.
He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.
In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.
Bog body confused for modern murder
A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.
For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.
Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!
This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.
The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.
A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.
They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.
This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.
“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.
In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.
And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.
So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!
Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.
The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.
It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!
Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.
Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.
Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.
The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.
Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.
The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.
The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.
And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!
If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chroniclesyou might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.
The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.
Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.
At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.
The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.
Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:
Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.
The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.
To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!
Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.
But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great
Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.
I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.
But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus
Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.
The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.
And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudiusby Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.
Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians
Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).
And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia
Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.
His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.
One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.
Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.
The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn
I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.
She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.
And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!
Countess Bathory isn’t that well known outside of her native Slovakia but she really ought to be. This was a real-life female vampire aristocrat who had young women round for dinner – and then, literally – had them for dinner.
She indulged her vampiric passions with gusto!
The other day, I met a Slovakian gentleman called Lukáš in the English town of Farnborough who had seen me on TV talking history and was very keen to share the story of this murderous noble woman from his country.
Yes – you didn’t misread that – six hundred and fifty women.
Most infamously, the vampire Countess Bathory was accused of bathing in the blood of victims who were virgins at the time of their death. The reason? To remain young of course!
It may not be surprising therefore to discover that her uncle was the highest ranking official in Transylvania – the mountainous land where the fictional Dracula had his castle. Well, that’s according to the nineteenth century Anglo-Irish author Bram Stoker.
Eventually, crimes of the blood soaked countess were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor who ordered an investigation. Some three hundred witnesses all but fell over each other to spill the beans on the vampire princess.
They had seen the vampire Bathory abducting peasant girls and biting at their flesh or burning them with red hot tongs – before ending their lives.
Worse, from the point of view of the aristocracy, this ghoulish killer had even enticed girls of high birth to her castle. She had promised them lessons in etiquette. What they actually got was a lesson in why not to trust the vampire countess Bathory!
She tried to plead her innocence but the evidence was pretty overwhelming. Although the death penalty was called for, it was decided that as an aristocratic woman, she would endure something more refined but equally terminal.
The vampire Bathory was walled up in a small series of rooms with a big enough gap to pass her food. It took four years for this royal serial killer to die.
Politicians and journalists are more unpopular today than ever. But in the past in London they stood a very real risk of being lynched.
One of the many politicians to be lynched was Walter Stapleton, Lord Treasurer of England, who came to a sticky end around 1326.
Victim of the London mob
Not only was he in charge of the country’s finances, Walter was a leading adviser to King Edward II and – typical of the Middle Ages – also the Bishop of Exeter. Men of the cloth often held top political positions. It wasn’t seen as unusual or ungodly. However, the conduct of King Edward II was seen as less than godly – with accusations of sodomy and vice swirling around him.
Edward’s own queen launched a rebellion to overthrow her husband the king in alliance with her lover. Londoners came out in the queen’s support. The king fled towards Wales while his Lord High Treasurer, the unfortunate Walter, tried to lock the gates of the city to stop Queen Isabella getting in.
Stapleton is one of many medieval lynched politicians
However, he’d misjudged the mood of London very badly.
The hapless politician galloped as fast as he could towards St Paul’s cathedral to plead for sanctuary but was intercepted by the mob. They pulled Walter from his horse, stripped his clothes (worth a pretty penny I’m sure) and dragged him naked to the stone cross that once stood in Cheapside.
There, they proclaimed him a traitor and cut off his head – putting it on a pole and processing around with it. The same fate befell his servants whose headless bodies were tossed on a heap of rubbish by the river.
Over fifty years later, a similar gory end came to Simon Sudbury, the Lord Chancellor of England. Like Walter, Simon held some ecclesiastical positions as well as being a politician. He was both Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury – so a top nob in medieval society. But the London mob soon cut him down to size – literally.
Poll tax leads to politicians being lynched
Regrettably, Sudbury supported the introduction of a poll tax. The peasants hated it. They marched on the capital and surrounded the Tower of London where Simon was holed up with the Lord Treasurer Sir Robert Hales.
Eventually, the two men were handed over to the mob and beheaded. Apparently, it took something like eight blows to take Simon’s head off. His skull can still be seen in the church of St Gregory in the town of Sudbury, Suffolk today.
Londoners have frequently rioted and attacked top politicians with no regard to their rank or position. During the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots”, the house of Lord Mansfield was thoroughly plundered. In 1815, Lord Eldon – the Lord Chancellor – confronted a mob that was breaking the windows of his home with a shotgun in his hand!
Eldon was hated by the city populace as he’d managed to oppose just about every progressive measure you could imagine including the abolition of slavery and attempts to secure affordable bread for the poor (the Corn Laws).
But the pelting of Eldon’s house with stones wasn’t a one off incident. Lord Wellington – hero of Waterloo – was assailed in his carriage by Londoners – as was King George III and King George IV.
So if politicians think they’ve got it tough today – pick up a history book. They’re getting off lightly in our times – with just a few hostile tweets. In the past they were lynched – their lives cruelly cut short.
Is there any link at all between the Knights Templar and Freemasons? I have recently been filmed for an episode of The Curse of Oak Island – Specials – Season 7, episode 2. I was asked to comment on the links between the Masons and Templars.
As you know, the Knights Templar were in existence between their founding in 1118 and their destruction in 1307 – a period of nearly two hundred years. The Freemasons as we know them today are largely a construct of the 18th century though with roots going further back.
How far back and whether they link to the Knights Templar is the big question. Freemasons seem to vary between those that are quite happy to state an explicit and firm link and those who say it’s part of the masonic mythology but not to be taken too literally.
Templar infiltration of the Freemasons?
The linkage between the Freemasons and Knights Templar is difficult to prove but there’s no shortage of theories. One goes that after they were suppressed by Pope and the King of France, the Templars infiltrated stone mason guilds.
These were then refashioned to embrace Templar ideals and rituals. In effect, the masons and Templars over time became one and the same thing.
Freemasons came to full public view in 1717 with the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England. The organisation’s website traces the history of the order back to the stone masons of the Middle Ages who built Europe’s great cathedrals and not to the Knights Templar. It doesn’t recognised the aforementioned merger of masons and Templars.
The website cites evidence of people becoming Freemasons throughout the seventeenth century such as a gentleman called Elias Ashmole in 1643. Then in the eighteenth century, grand lodges were formed in England, Ireland and Scotland and the order grew significantly to include top politicians and establishment figures. But as its lodges spread throughout government and business, the conspiracy theories proliferated.
From the eighteenth century to the present day, there were Freemasons happy to state that their rituals and organisation were directly descended from the Templars. Equally, there have always been Freemasons irritated by these claims. However, the creation of an occult mythology around masonic activity was largely created by Freemasons and not their detractors.
Baron Gotthelf and the Knights Templar – Freemasons link
The prominent eighteenth century Freemason Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund was forever hammering home the link between masonry and the Templars. The baron founded The Rite of Strict Observance within Freemasonry, as series of degrees through which members would pass including the degree of “knight”.
Michael Haag details in his book The Templars that a crusader connection was first expounded by Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Jacobite who headed up the French Grand Lodge around 1737. He said in a speech that the crusaders had wanted to create a global spiritual confraternity. While attempting to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, he believed they had developed secret signs and rituals to protect themselves from Saracen infiltration.
When the crusades collapsed, these spiritual crusaders left the Holy Land and returned to their European homes setting up the first Freemason lodges. But these were neglected over time and the secrets forgotten. Only in Scotland was the flame kept burning.
Holy Blood Holy Grail – and the Knights Templar – Freemasons connection
The authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail in 1982 wrote about the alleged flight of Knights Templar to Scotland when the order was suppressed by the King of France in 1307, repeating an old claim that they participated in the Battle of Bannockburn against the English.
They claimed to have discovered “what seemed to be” a Templar graveyard in Argyllshire with 13th century Templar gravestones and eighteenth century Masonic gravestones. The authors asserted that the later stones had mixed motifs suggesting a fusion at some point between the Templars and Freemasons.
The alleged link between Freemasonry and the Templars has often been used to damage the reputation of masons. Stephen Knight authored The Brotherhood in the early 1980s claiming a link to the Templars and arguing that Freemasons were running the United Kingdom.
Knight had also written a book on Jack the Ripper claiming that his murders were part of a conspiracy involving masons and the Royal Family. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it influenced the later work From Hell by Alan Moore.
John Robinson’s 1989 book Born in Blood claimed that Knights Templar fleeing arrest and torture in England and Scotland formed a secret society of mutual protection that eventually revealed itself as the Freemasons.
The symbols and rituals we associate with the masons in fact dated back to the Templars. He credited this secret society with the Protestant Reformation and included among its members the first US President George Washington.
In the summer of 1483, two princes of the English royal family disappeared off the face of the earth. The boys had been put in the Tower of London for their safekeeping. But it turned into a jail and their unmarked grave for centuries.
That was until 1674 when workers dug up a wooden box with two smaller than average skeletons. Academics have requested DNA testing to be done on the bones but the Church of England has refused. Its curious argument is that if one set of bones are tested then this will lead to multiple royal exhumations where there are surrounding historical mysteries!
If the Princes in the Tower were murdered – why?
If indeed they were murdered, of course. Though the evidence seems pretty damning. And the culprit is assumed by most people to be Richard III.
As any lawyer will tell you – getting somebody convicted or alternatively off the hook is as much about the power of story telling as it is about the facts. Portray the accused as a monster and you’re on the way to getting them banged up.
In the court of public opinion, Richard III has always been suspected of killing the Princes in the Tower – who were his own young nephews. Richard’s brother – King Edward IV – had died in 1483. The crown should have gone to his 12-year-old son – also called Edward.
But England had just been ripped apart in the preceding years by a civil war. The House of York (emblem a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (emblem a red rose) had struggled to take the throne of England. The bloody civil war that wiped out a good part of the English aristocracy was termed The War of the Roses.
The Lancastrians had been overthrown by the Yorkists. The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, had died in rather mysterious circumstances. Official the cause of ‘melancholy’. Unofficially, he was murdered. Henry had come to the throne as a child and never really grown into the role. So the idea of another child monarch wasn’t attractive.
But uncle Richard also wanted the throne for himself – pure and simple. In the way was 12-year-old Edward and his 9-year-old brother, also called Richard. And one also has to note their resourceful and ambitious mother, Elizabeth Woodville.
Now she was an interesting character. Not royal or even very aristocratic. The late king had married her in secret and his choice of wife had gone down like a lead balloon with the court. It didn’t help that her family were all Lancastrians. But she was also bereft of titles – not even a Countess or a Duchess. Just plain Elizabeth Woodville. That would never do!
However, she enjoyed a long marriage to King Edward and gave him many children including the two Princes. When Edward IV died, most like of typhus, aged 41 – the 12-year-old son Edward journeyed to London expecting to be crowned king.
But the future Richard III, his uncle, rushed down from the north of England and intercepted the boy’s royal procession towards London. He imprisoned a couple of key protectors of the prince and escorted the 12-year-old to the Tower of London…..for his ‘protection’.
Elizabeth Woodville knew what Richard’s game was – and rushed to Westminster Abbey with all her servants, treasury and the younger son, 9-year-old Richard. His uncle couldn’t let that state of affairs continue for long and now he made a beeline for the abbey. Elizabeth was forced to surrender her son to join Edward in the Tower of London also….for his ‘protection’.
And the uncle Richard delivered his coup-de-grace. He went to parliament and had the Princes in the Tower declared illegitimate. That argument was that the secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been legal in the eyes of the state or church. So now, the path was clear for uncle Richard to become King – and he was duly crowned.
As for the Princes in the Tower – they were seen playing in the precincts of the castle for a while before very suddenly vanishing. A contemporary account from an Italian diplomat is pretty damning, pointing the finger at king Richard III.
But Elizabeth Woodville would have the last laugh. One of her daughters married the future Henry VII – first of the Tudor dynasty. And it was Henry’s forces that defeated Richard III in battle at Bosworth and killed him.
Under the Tudors, Richard III was completely vilified for his role as a child killer. Sir Thomas More, the famous chancellor to King Henry VIII, characterised Richard III as an evil character, both physically and morally deformed. This caricature was then taken up by William Shakespeare in his famous play.
It suited the Tudors – who had usurped the English throne – to portray Richard as a degenerate and murderer. And he does have supporters today – termed ‘Ricardians’ – who argue that he didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower. They feel this is Tudor propaganda designed solely to destroy his reputation.
Interesting, I have a history book from the 1920s that doesn’t mention the Princes in the Tower at all. And it portrays Richard III as a reforming king who passed many ‘beneficial laws’. But in all honesty – I find the case against him overwhelming.
Here I am perusing the book and an image of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – where he died and his naked body was displayed slung across a mule.