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Amen to That

The King’s Grace

by Anne Easter Smith
Touchstone Books, 2009

At the heart of Anne Easter Smith’s new historical novel, The King’s Grace, there are two mysteries one big,one small.The book tells the tumultuous story of a dynasty change: England, long racked by the Wars of the Roses, witnesses a new player for royal dominance, a dark horse candidate called Henry Tudor, who seeks to take the throne from the last of the Yorkist monarchs, Richard III. Henry’s claim of legitimacy is audaciously slim: he’s descended from one of the mistresses of John of Gaunt, the son of the mighty King Edward III. John of Gaunt’s bastards were retroactively legitimized, but that doesn’t help Henry much – it’s never a good sign if people have to play a round of Trivial Pursuit just to talk about your rights. Henry’s problem is that he had no royal blood in his veins.

Richard III, the man whose kingdom Henry wants, has royal blood in his veins (his brother was the recently-deceased King Edward IV), but it’s mixed with the blood on his hands – because he wasn’t in line for the throne. At Edward’s sudden and unexpected death in April of 1483, the kingdom was supposed to go to Edward’s 12-year-old son Edward V, with Richard acting as Protector to the boy and the boy’s younger brother Richard (a bit confusing, I know, and not helped any by the fact that these Yorkists don’t seem to have been able to think up new or different names – even their pet hamsters are named either Richard or Edward). And the next thing anybody knew, those two boys – the so-called Princes in the Tower – disappeared and were never seen again. What happened that summer in 1483 has had people talking and arguing and speculating ever since.

But as near as I can tell, the problem didn’t start in 1483, it started in 1951. That’s when a British author named Josephine Tey wrote a book called The Daughter of Time about the Princes in the Tower. In that book, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is laid up in the hospital and thus unable to chase criminals on foot through the streets of London. So he decides to chase them through the pages of history – specifically, he grows suspicious of the standard schoolbook version of 1483, which matter-of-factly maintains that evil, hunchbacked Richard III ordered the murder of his nephews and seized the throne for himself. The more he reads about the subject, the more convinced Grant becomes that Richard is innocent of the murders, innocent of the ambition, and even innocent of the hunchback.

Tey puts great emphasis on having Grant go straight to the contemporary sources at the time – the chronicle compiled by the monks at Croyland, and the partial history written years later by Thomas More, who was later beheaded by Henry VIII for failing to consent to Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Grant comes to the conclusion that the Croyland monks were fed their information by Bishop Morton, who hated Richard and wanted to malign him, and that Thomas More was either stupid or lying his face off or both. Grant finds no evidence whatsoever that Richard harmed a hair on his nephews’ heads … in fact, Grant thinks they might have outlived their uncle and died only after the battle of Bosworth, on the orders of mean, evil Henry VII. Grant learns that shortly after Edward IV’s sudden death, parliament ruled that Edward’s marriage to his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had been invalid because Edward had been secretly married to somebody else years before. Needless to say, this would make Edward’s heirs, the two little princes, illegitimate and therefore barred from the throne … leaving Richard as the most logical candidate, since he was the only royal nearby with an army handy and had, after all, been the late king’s brother.

When Henry VII takes power, he has all copies of that parliamentary decree destroyed, and bedridden Inspector Grant cries “aha!” Because the only reason Richard would have needed it in the first place is if the princes (especially young Edward, who became Edward V when his father died) were still alive and needed to be disinherited, and the only reason Henry would repeal it (and therefore automatically transform little Edward back into Edward V, thereby putting himself out of a job) is if he was 100 percent certain the princes were dead. QED, or whatever the Latin geeks say.

You just wouldn’t believe the repercussions The Daughter of Time, this skinny little murder mystery, had on, like, every single word ever written in any language on any topic forever and ever. Science textbooks inserted a tiny little picture of the book’s cover into the Periodic Table of Elements. One of Schrodinger’s theorems solves for ‘Alan Grant.’ Tribes of South American aborigines first encountered in the 1970s greeted their discoverers by saying, “We really dislike Henry VII.”

History books – real-life, straight-up traditional history books—all mention Tey’s little whodunit. The two biographies of Edward IV published since 1951 both mention the book several times, and so do the 500 biographies of Richard III (what can I say? Evil sells) – and they don’t just mention it lightly, with a polite chuckle over cocktails. They contend with it, on serious, historical and biographical grounds. There are more than a dozen books about the Princes in the Tower whose only purpose is either to champion the conclusions of The Daughter of Time or to condemn them. An endless stream of novels, including The King’s Grace (you thought I’d forgotten about it, didn’t you? Bear with me a little longer!), owe their existence at least in part to the case made in Tey’s book.

Which is odd, because it isn’t much of a case. Alan Grant gets all excited by the fact that there’s no contemporary evidence from 1483 to indicate that people at the time thought Richard III killed his nephews – he takes this as a sign that the whole story was concocted later by the Tudors, aided and abetted by poor old Thomas More, to vilify Richard. But there is evidence: an Italian named Mancini reported that at the time of Richard’s coronation in July, it was already widely believed that he’d had a hand in the boys’ disappearance. And More’s account (which relates what people told him about Richard ordering the death of the princes) wasn’t published in his lifetime or intended to be, so it couldn’t have been used as any kind of propaganda. And the guy was a trained lawyer – why would he bother to write stuff, even in private, that people told him if his courtroom instincts told him it was all wrong?

Grant – and Tey – also get a lot of mileage out of the fact that when Henry VII later accuses Richard of every offense under the sun, he doesn’t make any mention of the supposed murder of the princes – and why wouldn’t he, Grant wants to know, since it doesn’t get much worse than smothering two innocent boys? But this is also a little weak, don’t you think? After all, any attention Henry called to the fact that Richard used murder to usurp the throne couldn’t help but reflect badly on Henry himself, who’d also used murder to usurp the throne. If Richard’s rubber, Henry’s glue – and we all know how that turns out

Anyway, these are the kinds of silly little details that only trip up historians (and some crime novelists). Reality is so much simpler you’d have to be tenured not to see it. When his brother the king died, Richard had two choices: let Elizabeth Woodville and her family (who had no great love for him) rule the country through the puppet boy-king Edward V, or rule the country himself, and there was no way he could rule if his nephews were still alive. That’s a tough choice – they don’t come much tougher – but Richard was a tough character, and he made it. He had the queen’s brother and chief counselor murdered almost immediately, and he had the boys murdered by summer’s end, and he had himself coronated, and if it hadn’t been for Henry VII off agitating in France, who knows but that Richard might have had a long and stable reign? He didn’t get the chance – he died at Bosworth, bravely, fighting half a dozen men – but it’s just crazy to say he didn’t even take that chance. It’s like biographers – and Alan Grant – think Richard was the only person in 1483 England who didn’t want to be king.

Richard III

But if the big mystery in Anne Easter Smith’s The King’s Grace turns out to be not so much of a mystery at all, the small still is: Smith has chosen for her main character the lady Grace Plantagenet, one of Edward IV’s illegitimate daughters. Grace appears in historical records exactly once: she was one of the attendants on the funeral barge of Edward’s widow. We don’t know anything more about this Grace, except obviously that she was half-sister to the Princes in the Tower and would have had a ring-side seat to all the events of Richard’s reign, including its ending, which gets reported breathlessly to Grace and everybody else present:

“King Richard …” John faltered as he spoke his father’s name and then, seeing the expectant, loyal faces staring at him, rallied to continue with his awful report. “King Richard is slain, the army is routed and Henry Tudor already wears the crown. We are lost …” his voice trailed off as gasps and groans echoed across the bailey. Villagers had crept through the gate, unmanned as it was, and stood stock-still when they heard the pronouncement. Grace overheard one say, “He was good to us, was Richard of Gloucester, God rest his soul.” She crossed herself and muttered the rote response, “Amen to that.” Poor John, Grace thought, how he worshipped his father!

Now you can see right away from that passage what some of Smith’s more annoying tics as an author are. By far the worst of these is her creaky historical-novel dialogue, only one step up from all those awful ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s of Sir Walter Scott. She doesn’t want to be accused of anachronism, so none of her characters ever say ‘it’s’ … instead, the book is full of ‘tis, ‘tis, ‘tis. And that’s nothing compared to ‘certes’ – none of her characters ever says ‘for sure’ or ‘certainly,’ they say ‘certes.’ This might be more accurate, but sweet Jesu is it annoying.

But you can also see some of Smith’s strengths in that passage as well. Her narrative brims with an immediacy that’s engrossing – and her portrait of Grace is very appealing. Grace’s reaction in that passage – going through the rote motions about a distant tragedy but right away feeling empathy for the suffering of those nearest her – is typical of the character: she’s no saint, but she’s immensely likeable.

And like Alan Grant, she’s got a nose for mysteries, especially the mystery of what exactly happened to her half-brothers. “’Tis a riddle,” she says, “and I love solving riddles.” Family loyalty is only part of her motivation in this, as she admits to herself in a bit of self-psychoanalysis:

And the mystery of the missing boys was exactly the kind of puzzle that she would enjoy gnawing on, like a dog with a bone. As she lay pondering, she thought that solving it would make her family so proud of her that she would never feel left out again.

My uncle’s shrink in Larchmont doesn’t get to the point like that, and he’s putting his kids through college with the money my uncle pays him. Things were so much clearer in the Middle Ages!

The King’s Grace is first and foremost a family drama, and to her credit, Smith never loses sight of that in the midst of the bigger royal and political issues her characters have to deal with. It’s true that too often she lets her characters talk out some of the research she put into the book, but it’s a good way to personalize things and put them in perspective:

“My boys, my beautiful boys!” she [Elizabeth Woodville, obviously] sobbed. “Certes, they are dead, Grace. Or else, where are they? Richard promised me they would be safe. How foolish I was to give my baby boy up to him in sanctuary – he said it was for Edward’s sake, his brother who was lonely at the Tower. And I believed him, God help me. When the archbishop – old Russell – came that last time, I knew I could no longer fight Richard.” She paused to blow her nose. “They pulled my boy from me, Grace. He was weeping, I was weeping and I gave him one last kiss, telling him I knew not when we would be together again. And so Richard had his way – and I have not seen either boy since … There is no proof that Richard harmed them, but he took my boys and, woe is me, he took my crown and my dignity. ‘Tis hard to forgive.”

That pause while the haughty and conniving Elizabeth Woodville of the history books blows her nose is sheer genius. Smith’s previous two historical novels, A Rose for the Crown and Daughter of York, both showed some signs of that particular kind of humanizing talent, but it’s much more strongly on display in The King’s Grace. Grace is the key, I think: she’s such a pure and mild character that she provides Smith with a perfect balance against the harshness of the world she’s portraying. The request Grace makes of the dying Elizabeth Woodville is a clear glimpse into her nature:

Grace waited until Elizabeth was calm again. “Your Grace?” Her voice was low and urgent. “I would ask a boon before you die.”

“Ask,” Elizabeth said, a little of her impatience returning. “For I have not much time left, and I must reconcile my soul to God.”

“I am not your daughter, but, in truth, you have been like a mother to me. May I be given leave to call you ‘Mother’ just this once?” Grace held her breath. She was breaking all the courtesy codes with her request.

Now Elizabeth’s tears began to flow and her serene face crumpled. “Nothing would please me more, child. Certes, you have shown me more devotion than any of my own daughters.”

But such tender moments are sidelights only – the book’s main subject is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, and in the pursuit of that fate Grace hears lots of passionate testimony herself, mostly from the womenfolk – all of whom grudgingly exonerate Richard, which would have pleased Alan Grant, I suppose:

“The king would be in a boat without an oar if one of them had been found alive after Bosworth, and ‘twould not surprise me if ‘twas Henry and not Richard who ended their sweet lives,” she murmured. “’Tis true I hated Richard for taking them, but I cannot justify all that I knew of Richard and believe him a cold-blooded murderer. In truth, he worshipped his brother, and I cannot think he could so have dishonored Edward’s memory. Nay, they are either still alive and abroad somewhere, or they sickened and died in the Tower – perhaps even after Henry took the crown.”

Of course, after Henry took the crown he famously had to deal with not one but two young men claiming to be one of the Princes in the Tower (for some reason, Richard, not Edward, was their favorite choice) – first Lambert Simnel, then Perkin Warbeck. Both these young men managed to rally some large-scale support (the Scots even dubbed Warbeck “King Edward VI of England” – a full generation before the real boy-king of that name came along), including the backing of what was left of the Woodville faction. But both Simnel and Warbeck fail in their bid to topple Henry VII, and Grace is left confronting more of the same angry speculation she’s been dealing with throughout the book:

Many people lay the guilt at Uncle Richard’s feet, but I truly do not believe he harmed them. He was too kind to all of us – aye, even mother, after she came out of sanctuary. And he loved Father too well. I do not think Mother would have agreed to be at court with him if she imagined he had murdered her boys … I think they were taken away, maybe even abroad. Bess thinks I am foolish, but if I am not right, where are they? If they are dead then why does Henry not bury them with honor and declare Uncle Richard a murderer? Because there are no bodies, ‘tis why. And why did no one come forward after uncle’s death and say he was made to murder them under pain of his own death? Henry would have been merciful. Indeed, he would have been relieved to know the boys were well and truly dead. If they are still alive, his throne is not really safe.

Despite the fact that Josephine Tey thinks he’s lying or stupid or both, Thomas More tells us what happened to those bodies: he says the killers took them from the Prince’s bedroom and buried them a good distance underneath one of the staircases of the Tower of London. And a century after More wrote that, in 1674, during routine reconstruction at the Tower, a makeshift coffin-box was indeed discovered buried about ten feet beneath one of the Tower’s staircases. Inside were the bones of two young boys. King Charles II assumed they were the bones of the Princes and had them ceremoniously moved to Westminster Abbey, and in 1933 scientists examined them and determined that they exactly matched the ages of the boys when they were last seen alive in the Tower in 1483. That might not be good enough for Alan Grant, but unless security camera footage from the fifteenth century turns up, it’s probably good enough for most people.

And what of sweet, gentle Grace? I don’t think I’m revealing too much to tell you Smith likes her main character enough to carve out for her a fairly nice life. She meets a good man named Tom, and they have children, and we can only hope they live happily ever after (people sometimes actually did that, even in the Middle Ages). She even manages, in a way, to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. But I’m not telling.

Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen is a lifelong Manhattanite (except for six summers at band-camp in rural Maryland) with a budding interest in historical fiction. This is her second piece for Open Letters.

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