19 August 2013 15:08

On Sunday after ten gruelling weeks the House of Lancaster finally won the Wars of the Roses as the final episode of The White Queen, the BBC’s dramatisation of three of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels, unfolded. 

For anyone not even superficially acquainted with the history of the period, it must all have been rather bewildering, as many of the leading characters were called either Edward or Richard and artistocratic titles were regularly bestowed, revoked and re-awarded, giving rise to questions like “So who is Earl of Richmond this week?”.

There was also the problem of déjà vu as actors from other historical series kept appearing. James Frain, who played Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, turned up as Warwick the Kingmaker. Poor David Oakes, recently stabbed to death by his brother Cesare while playing Juan Borgia in The Borgias, was cast in the more or less identical role of George, Duke of Clarence, and ended up drowned in a butt of malmsey at the orders of his brother Edward IV. It would be fair to say that the series correctly highlighted the murderous factional struggles and infighting characterizing the events of the period and drew attention to the central role of women, notably Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort, in the shaping of events.

But Philippa Gregory went seriously off the rails when she came to the Princes in the Tower by acquitting Richard III of their murder and suggesting that Elizabeth Woodville substituted another boy for Richard, Duke of York, and smuggled him to the continent. Richard III has suddenly become a hot historical topic again following the discovery of his remains in a Leicester carpark. Aneurin Barnard, the actor chosen to play Richard III, looks uncannily like the facial reconstruction of his features done from the unearthed skull.

The discovery also reminded me that the recent trend to vilify academics like Professor Mary Beard on Twitter is nothing new. Some twenty years ago when I suggested on television that Richard had a hunched back and killed his nephews in the Tower I received hate mail.

Imagine my delight then when the skeleton showed Richard to have suffered from curvature of the spine which would have made one of his shoulders higher than the other. The idea that Richard of York escaped from the Tower is palpably absurd as the pretender who turned up in Cornwall in 1497 claiming to be Richard IV was verifiably Perkin Warbeck, son of the Controller of Tournai, as he admitted before his execution.

As for the Princes in the Tower, every medieval monarch who deposed a predecessor killed him. Edward II was murdered by his wife Isabella who had deposed him in the name of their 14 year old son Edward III. Richard II was murdered by Henry IV. Henry VI was murdered by Edward IV. For Richard III not to have liquidated Edward V and his brother Richard would have been an act of supreme folly as alive, they constituted a focus for rebellion. He would have been unique in medieval monarchs in not removing his predecessor and no one is that saintly.

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