Sunday, September 23, 2007



The subject of this book is one of those remarkable stories of someone who may have been a prince escaped from murder or a clever and well-tutored imposter. This is the Anastasia story of England in the late 1400s. Was the subject of this book Richard Plantangenet, Duke of York, second son of Edward IV, or one Perkin Warbeck (a name with various spellings including Werbecque) from Tournai in what today is Belgium? Ms. Wroe, while telling an interesting story and enlightening us on many of the story's complexities, does not solve the mystery.

A bit of the background to the Prince Richard/Warbeck story is known to many through Shakespeare's wonderful play, Richard III, where Richard's nephews, the sons of Edward IV, are murdered in the Tower at Richard's command. But Shakespeare was concerned with drama and human character and notoriously inaccurate in his histories. The legend of a hideous, spidery Richard III is no more valid than the story of Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I, having bizarre markings plus an extra finger on one hand, a story which served the interests of Henry VIII in demonizing his legally-murdered wife.

Shakespeare's Richard was the creation of several writers, notably Sir Thomas More, a truly nasty piece of work always ready to burn "heretics" alive and yet coming down to us in popular history as the noble "Man for All Seasons." More wrote to please and flatter the Tudors.

Richard's character is today regarded as heroic, and it is not certain at all that he had the young princes murdered, as indeed it is not certain that the princes were murdered. Richard's terrible death on Bosworth Field marked the start of Henry Tudor's reign as Henry VII, father of tyrant Henry VIII and grandfather of the redoubtable Elizabeth Gloriana.

Wroe's book has a number of faults. First is a stylistic tendency for a dreamy drifting-off from the narrative with paragraphs of associations and tidbits of obscure fact. You might call this illustrating the manuscript. Some find it appealing, and so do I when it is not overdone, but it can be irritating, as it sometimes is here, reminding me somewhat of the excesses of Fernand Braudel in The Identity of France.

For someone concerned with a display of detailed and even obscure scholarship in the early part of the book, Wroe, in the latter part, offers some almost naively simple scenes. In speaking of Warbeck's confession at his execution, for example, Wroe says, "The last thing they [the condemned] did was to speak falsehoods. It is almost unthinkable that Henry would have forced such a thing on Perkin, or that he would have agreed to do it."

Nonsense. Invariably at public executions of important or notable persons, they confessed their guilt, just as virtually all accused did at Stalin's show trials. The King's powers were too sweeping for it to be otherwise. In the case of treason, individuals were hung before being taken down, still alive, to be disemboweled and castrated, then to be drawn and quartered. A nod from the King allowed death to occur mercifully on the gallows. Also in the case of treason, the condemned person's children could be turned into paupers through confiscation of all property, or they could be treated with some degree of leniency. The wife and any relatives faced terrible possibilities were the death not an acceptable one (Warbeck left a wife and a son in England).

The book's index is inadequate, a considerable fault in a book about an era in which spelling was almost guesswork. The name Warbeck, for example, is not listed alphabetically for at least a cross-reference.

Still, this is a book worth reading, and, at times, it flows nicely.