A day or three ago, I found myself wafting through the Tower of London, as you do, with my feet shuffling along the cordoned off path of the twenty-first century, in the hope of catching the echo of voices from the past. I was musing over the story of the Princes, as they’re never far from my thoughts, especially when all the other modern visitors fade away and, just for a moment, I’m left alone in one of the thick-stone-walled rooms. And that’s when I like to put out my hand, and touch the stone with my fingertips and imagine I’m back then, in those barbaric days. It fair sends a shiver through my spine, I assure you; I’m back there, then, with the footsteps of the Tower guard rushing up the staircase and the cannon booming, and then someone’s mobile goes off in the next room and the spell is broken.
But this time, something quite different happened: something extraordinary, that I can hardly believe, which I really must report upon, as it seems to me of such significance. I leaned slightly against the stone wall, catching my breath as I climbed the staircase, looking out of the window at the tourists below. And there, on the stone ledge, etched in deep, at least three millimetres, were two small stone carvings. I’d passed this way before and never seen them, so I was surprised now to notice they appeared to represent two children in late medieval dress: one, a girl of about twelve and another, a boy of perhaps nine, maybe ten. Beside them were inscribed the initials E and R.
Now straightaway those initials meant something to me. Having studied medieval history avidly forever since the discovery of Richard III, and the magnificent series of the White Queen, I know that E and R can be nothing else but the Princes in the Tower, who have been occupying my thoughts so much of late. And yet those images bothered me; the boy was the right age to be Richard of York, who had been born in 1473, but why was the elder one portrayed as a girl? I walked out into the daylight, to try and shake off the confusion. No, the images must refer to two other children entirely. Perhaps, I told myself, to the surviving children of George, Duke of Clarence, who I believe were a boy and girl with a similar age gap between them. I walked through the grounds, my mind turning to the coffee served in a small Italian Deli nearby, when I passed the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. Quite unexpectedly, in a way that I simply cannot explain, a sudden chill went through me. And that was when the idea struck me. Strange and fabulous it seemed at first, but the more I considered it, the more marvellous and incredible it seemed. It had been staring me in the face all these years and here it was, fully formed and real. Of course Edward V had to die, because he had been born a girl.
Bear with me now. I know it sounds strange, but think of the circumstances of his birth. His father, Edward IV, had been forced to flee the country and there was no certainty that he would return. His queen, Elizabeth Woodville, gave birth in sanctuary, in absolute secrecy, with only her mother and probably a doctor and priest present. She had already given birth to three girls, and while there was no male heir to the throne, the Lancastrian Henry VI had stepped back into the role. But what if, at that crucial time, there suddenly had been a male heir born: the hope of the York dynasty in the potentially permanent absence of his father? Let’s imagine for a moment that the child was a girl but that Elizabeth gave out the report that it was a boy, in order to provide a figurehead for her family? She names “her” Edward, dresses her in the unisex frocks of the period and treats her like a boy. Without a male heir, there was nothing to strive for, when King Edward might easily have been lost at sea, or killed in battle. It was the act of a desperate woman in an era that only valued men as leaders. When Edward finally returned, he was let in on the secret, but the young heir continued to be raised as a boy, until such point as a real son was born. Children did not always survive and they must have discussed the possibilities of the girl’s future and come up with some plan, some story they’d use in the future. Except they ran out of time.
Now fast forward to 1483. The girl Edward and her brother, the real male heir Richard, are awaiting the coronation in the Tower. The Woodvilles are in a panic and have fled into sanctuary because their secret is about to be discovered; no doubt they will be concocting some sort of story that the boy King has been bewitched, once the facts inevitably leak out. Because here’s the deciding factor: the she-Edward, now approaching thirteen, has hit puberty. She started to grow and, in the Tower, her menstruation began. This is where the evidence comes in. Among the accounts for the Tower during the summer of 1483, specifically from June to July, are listed a supply of “ragges,” for supply to the White Tower, the traditional location where the Princes were held. These were commonly used by women, worn between the legs, in order to stop the menstrual flow. Yet which women were resident in the White Tower at this time? The changes the young she-Edward was undergoing meant that her cover was blown. Once this news got back to Richard, it must have been overwhelming. After the shock, there was the realisation that he, and the rest of the world, had been lied to. Either that, or he believed that some strange witchcraft had transformed the boy. The secret had the potential to shame the family, to cast aspersions on their reproductive abilities and sanity, or Edward might be considered to be some sort of changeling child, indicating that the family were cursed. He couldn’t risk the scandal of it becoming news. So Edward had to go, and Richard, Duke of York, also had to go, because he knew the secret and, well, he was also the rightful King. Richard must have felt that the York dynasty would not have survived if the truth got out. I believe the little carvings on the window ledge, of E and R, are in fact the Princes in the Tower, except that one of them is a Princess, the rightful Queen of England, smothered in her bed before she had a chance to claim her inheritance. It may sounds strange, but the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Sources: Alison Weir, Wikipedia entries, Desmond Seward, Terry Deary, ketchup.
Jeff. R. Vescent can usually be found lying silently at the bottom of a fish bowl. Sometimes he comes out to drink lemonade, knit socks and ride non-stop round London on the tube. He is the reincarnation of a prune that was diced and served to Edward IV in a banquet on Christmas Day 1468.