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Book Review: Royal Blood (by Bertram Fields) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Royal Blood, by Bertram Fields, published by Regan Books, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022-5299. $25 hardcover.

The leaf following the title page of Bertram Field's Royal Blood bears a pointed quote by Horace Walpole: 'So incompetent has the generality of historians been for the province they have undertaken, that it is almost a question, whether, if the dead of past ages could revive, they would be able to reconnoitre the events of their own times, as transmitted to us by ignorance and misrepresentation.' This verdict is a daunting thought for any historian endeavouring to unravel the events of medieval Britain, and all the more so for one attempting, as Fields does, to throw light on the dark mystery of the disappearance of Edward V and his royal brother Richard, Duke of York–the two famous 'Princes in the Tower'.

Walpole's judgment against previous historians, in fact, may be a trifle harsh. Few historical events have generated as much debate and controversy as the Princes' fate and the part played by King Richard III, while providing historians with as little reliable evidence on which to base their interpretations. Walpole was right, however, in scolding historians who confidently attribute motives to the actions of men and women of ages long past and who confuse speculation with fact.

Fields, a lawyer who has represented many high-profile Hollywood clients, analyses the mystery of the missing princes as if it were being investigated in a court of law, and while he frequently interjects his own appraisals of the likelihood of the many possible explanations for the events surrounding Richard III's rise to power, his legal background limits the conclusions he is willing to make based on the limited amount of hard available evidence.

His systematic approach to solving the mystery involves several stages. First he examines the sources upon which all modern writers on the subject are dependent, recognizing that: 'Deprived of the weapon of cross-examination, we must evaluate their potential bias … and the degree of care they used in separating fact from gossip or deliberate falsehood.' Next, he examines the three critical factors used by modern judges and juries to establish guilt or innocence–motive, opportunity, and means to commit the alleged crime. Naturally, most of Field's book is devoted to examining Richard III's motive, opportunity, and means of killing the princes, but he also considers Henry VII and, perhaps most intriguingly, several other prominent players in the drama in this light.

Field's task in a difficult one. As he recognizes early on, 'Many of the sources of information are highly suspect, if not completely unreliable. Moreover, we are faced not only with determining who committed the crime, but even whether a crime was committed. The Princes disappeared; but it is but no means certain that they were killed by anyone.' Not surprisingly, this leads his investigation to some very ambiguous results–sure to be disappointing to those who will be hoping for a complete exoneration of Richard–but at the same time, he does perhaps the most credible job yet of concisely and convincingly casting doubt on traditional theories.

At the same time, Fields avoids the leap to the other interpretative extreme that is often the upshot of other revisionists studies, and concludes that, while Henry VII cannot be eliminated as a suspect, the case for his guilt is no stronger than Richard's.

Principal among Field's investigative forays are the questions of whether Edward IV had indeed had a marriage precontract with Lady Eleanor Butler, which would have excluded the King's sons from the succession; the supposed murder and confession by James Tyrell; the identity of the two skeletons discovered at the Tower in 1674; and the reason that Sir Thomas More left his history of Richard III unfinished.

Bruce Heydt

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