Saturday, July 2, 2011

Richard III, the law, and the Innocence Project

When Richard III became king in 1483, he instituted statutory reforms to prevent concealment of property transfer—what we know today as title search. In Richard’s time, it was not unusual for property to be fraudulently transferred from person to person such that the final buyer ran the risk of financial ruin from multiple lawsuits. Another statute placed a five-year limitation on when a person could sue.

Many of the statutes affected all citizens, not just the privileged. As an introduction to the laws reforming bail and juror qualifications, for example, he wrote that the laws shall cease to be an instrument of oppression and extortion.(1) Prior to these laws, it had not been uncommon for people to locked up without charge, or to be charged and held for weeks and months awaiting trial.

Late in 1483, Richard III made himself accessible through his officers to the lower classes: peasants, yeomen, and artisans. He established a council that sat at Whitehall that would hear the requests of the poor, where the council would either take action or refer the cases to appropriate courts.(2) Richard did not simply delegate all cases to his council. Kendall cites an example where the king sent a letter to the Mayor of York, “...on behalf of our poor subject Katherine Bassingbourne of an injury....”(3)

In July of 1484, Richard III established the Council of the North to afford the same accessibility to justice that the south of England enjoyed. This council lasted for more than 150 years.(4)

When on August 22, 1485, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, Richard lost not only his life and kingdom, but his good name as well. Shakespeare then immortalized the rumor promoted by the Tudors that Richard had had his nephews murdered. Richard’s demonization began with Henry taking the crown. To begin, Henry “back dated” the start of his reign to August 21st in order to name those who fought for Richard as traitors. Henry then had his Parliament revoke Titulus Regius, thus reversing the bastardization of all Edward IV’s children so that he could marry Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. If the princes were still alive, they would no longer be bastards and would have a stronger claim to the crown through inheritance than Henry.

Although it was in Henry’s best interest for the princes to be dead, it is my contention that he didn’t know what had happened to them. Then it was general practice to display the bodies of your enemies or of any potential challengers, which he had done with Richard’s body, despite the despicable treatment Henry’s forces gave the body on the battlefield. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that if Henry had had proof of the boys’ deaths, he would have displayed skeletonized bodies to prevent rebellion on behalf of the princes. Instead, Henry never directly accused Richard of having the princes murdered.

In 1487 Henry did have to put down a rebellion (Battle of Stoke), where he captured the impostor who first claimed to be Edward VI, and then another of Richard III’s nephews, Edward, Earl of Warwick.(5) In 1497 Henry’s forces captured the man who claimed to be Richard of York when he led a rebellion to recapture the crown. Two years later, Henry had him executed after forcing a confession that he was an impostor whose real name was Perkin Warbeck.

During Charles II’s reign the Tower of London underwent extensive renovations, which started in 1666. In 1674 some skeletonized remains were removed from a pit ten feet deep near the White Tower.(6) The remains were tossed into a trash heap containing other debris. Four days later, the skeletons were “rescued” and Charles II declared that they were those belonging to Edward IV’s boys, now thought to have been murdered by their uncle, Richard III.

Up until the Tower bones were declared to be those of Edward IV’s sons, there was no physical or other extant evidence to suggest the boys had died prior to Richard III’s demise, let alone that he had killed them. However, if one accepts that the bones are those of the princes, then Thomas More’s history—albeit wildly inaccurate in detail—coupled with the remains might suggest that the boys were killed, although the killer remains unidentified. Therefore, it would be nice for the crown to permit DNA testing of those bones to determine if they could have been those of the princes, or if they should be excluded. Even if permission is granted, there is no assurance that there is sufficient uncorrupted DNA available to do the necessary testing, for not only would they need to test the tower bones, but also those of Elizabeth Woodville’s and Edward IV’s DNA.

But the events, whatever those events were, occurred over 500 years ago, and simply testing the DNA can only exclude the bones being those of the princes. A positive result would not determine how they died or who killed them if they were murdered. Likewise, a negative result would not be proof that the princes weren’t killed.

This was not the case with the over 270 people who were languishing on death row. Through DNA testing, the Innocence Project had been able to exonerate them, but there are still so many who need the project’s support. So while Richard III may be the ultimate “poster boy” for those wrongfully convicted, I think those wrongfully accused today shouldn’t have to wait more than 500 years for their DNA tests.


(1) Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard III. pp 340-341
(2) Ibid. pp 374-375.
(3) Ibid. pp 374-375.
(4) Ibid. pp 376-377. I encourage readers to read Kendall’s text for an in depth look at these statutes and councils.
(5) I believe there are a lot of strange circumstances surrounding this impostor who was later referred to as Lambert Simnel. For one, why would John, Earl of Lincoln, support an impostor if the princes were dead since he would have been the next rightful heir to the throne once Richard III died.
(6) Fields, Bertram. Royal Blood. pp 239-241

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