Book Review: The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Title: The Princes in the Tower
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: 1992
Length: 287 pages
Genre: History
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain two of the most fascinating murder mysteries in English history. Did Richard III really kill “the Princes in the Tower,” as is commonly believed, or was the murderer someone else entirely? Carefully examining every shred of contemporary evidence as well as dozens of modern accounts, Alison Weir reconstructs the entire chain of events leading to the double murder. We are witnesses to the rivalry, ambition, intrigue, and struggle for power that culminated in the imprisonment of the princes and the hushed-up murders that secured Richard’s claim to the throne as Richard III. A masterpiece of historical research and a riveting story of conspiracy and deception, The Princes in the Tower at last provides a solution to this age-old puzzle.

After watching The White Queen on Starz a couple of weeks ago, I realized how little I knew about the War of the Roses and the complicated history of English royalty prior to the Tudors. And one of the things that really caught my attention was the story of the lost princes.

I’d heard about “the Princes in the Tower” before, but didn’t know the historical context at all. After learning about the missing princes through the fictionalized version of Edward IV’s reign and Richard III’s ascension, as presented in The White Queen, I was dying to know more.

I’ve had a few Alison Weir books on my shelves for years, but only those focused on Henry VIII, his children, and his court. I eagerly picked up her 1992 historical investigation into the fate of the young princes.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that’s pretty mind-boggling in terms of cruelty and tragedy. Upon the death of Edward IV, his young son Edward was the acknowledged heir. Edward IV named his brother Richard as Lord Protector for his son, but the protectorship by law would only last until the young king’s formal coronation.

Richard, seeking power for himself, brought Edward V into the Tower for protection in the months leading up to the coronation. He eventually convinced the boys’ mother, Queen Elizabeth, to send her younger son Richard to join Edward.

In a brief period of time, Richard convinced Parliament to delegitimize the boys, by declaring Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth invalid. With Edward’s heirs named as bastards, Richard was more easily able to claim the throne, and was eventually coronated himself.

Meanwhile, after a few documented months in the Tower, the young princes were never seen again.

Over the centuries, mystery has swirled around their disappearances. They are presumed to have been murdered, and the murder is most frequently attributed to Richard III, although other theories dispute this and even question whether they actually died in the Tower at all.

Author Alison Weir combs through sources from the time period as well as soon thereafter, and delves deeply into both what the written record shows as well as what details may have been omitted. She painstakingly builds her case, and by the end of The Princes in the Tower, presents a very compelling argument for her conclusion.

I found The Princes in the Tower an intriguing read, occasionally dry (especially to someone who — I admit — more frequently picks up history via historical fiction), but always full of interesting facts, sources, and speculations.

She carefully identifies which sources were contemporaneous with the events related to the princes, and which were created after the fact (such as Sir Thomas More’s chronicles), and how changing political climates could have affected the way in which events were portrayed.

Highly recommended for those interested in intricate studies of complicated times. I look forward to reading more of Alison Weir’s work.