All the talk right now is of the last Plantagenet, Richard III, whose bones were identified after being excavated from beneath a car park in Leicester. You remember Richard III–the vile hunchback of Shakespearean fame who slew the princes in the tower, young King Edward V and his 9-year-old brother(or perhaps not, depending on whom you ask: learn more from the Richard III Foundation). Personally, I’m intrigued by the fact that science gives us windows into the truth of legend and historical rumor.
But today, I want to take us not merely 500 years in the past, to the time of Richard III, but almost 300 years further, to 1202, and the original bad guy of the British monarchy, King John–and the prince he dispossessed, Arthur. While Arthur was never held in the Tower of London, his fate is a clear precedent to that dread act.
King Henry II had four sons, but the ones that people know by name are Richard I, the Lionheart, the second prince, and John, the youngest–variously known as John Lackland (so dubbed by his father because he had no territory to rule over) and John Softsword (for relying on a negotiated peace, rather than go to war). As these epithets imply, even in his own time, John got little respect.
The eldest prince, Henry, known as the Young King, died in 1183, during a revolt he lead against his father and alongside that most vanishing of nobles, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, the third son of Henry II. Are you confused yet? Stay with me–we’re down to one Henry now, and he’s mad after being trounced by his own children, but really things are just beginning to go downhill for him. King Henry II liked John best and tried to set him up for a good future, to no avail. (If you haven’t already, check out The Lion in Winter, which is an imagined history of some of this mess.) Geoffrey died in a tournament, leaving two children, and sticking his father with choosing between the popular Richard and John. Richard, of course, was given the crown.
According to some sources, Richard actually named his brother Geoffrey’s son Arthur as his heir in 1190. What we do know is that the young Arthur, Duke of Brittany, had the support of the powerful French ruler, Philip Augustus, and the nobles of England’s French holdings. On his deathbed, Richard declared John to be his heir instead, leaving John with a problem: a declared successor, popular with a large number of powerful people. Arthur at first declares himself a vassal of France, receiving lands and support, but when he was disenchanted with Philip, he fled to John. That didn’t last–he got wise to John’s own ambitions and returned to his own seat to raise an army against John, but John and his barons managed to surprise the young duke and captured him.
What to do, what to do? For a few months, Arthur was imprisoned in one castle, then another, and rumor has it that John wanted him mutilated, but his keepers refused. Both men must have known the situation was untenable: John could not effectively rule while Arthur lived. Few would have been surprised when Arthur vanished in April 1203. His jailers are repeatedly said to have feared to harm him, and so the legend has come down to us that it was King John himself who did the deed. According to the Margam Annals, a contemporary chronicle, a drunken John slew his nephew, slung a stone about his throat, and tossed him into the moat at the castle of Rouen. A fisherman found the corpse in his net and, fearing this knowledge, sent the duke to be secretly buried at the priory of Bec.
Was Richard III responsible for the deaths of his nephews? Perhaps one day, science will provide that answer as well. But if so, he was merely one in a sad chain of precarious monarchs, clinging to the crown through the murder of kin.