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The Case Against the Duke of Buckingham

The Duke of Buckingham was first suggested as a possibility in the 1950’s, but since then a slew of objections have been offered to this idea, the two biggest being that he "was not in the right place at the right time; [and that] he had no authority to gain access to them [the Princes]" (Weir, 149), despite being the Constable of the Tower. Seeing as Buckingham supposedly was not even there, the issue of whether or not he would have had access to the Princes seems a tad irrelevant. However, not only did Buckingham lack means and opportunity, he also lacked "a plausible motive for contemplating regicide, nor would [he] have taken upon himself so grave an initiative without the king’s approval" (St. Aubyn, 181); the idea that he would "deserves to be treated with full scepticism" (Ross, 103). Ross goes on to say that

it is little short of fantasy to suppose that anyone else did so [murdered the Princes] except on his [Richard’s] direct command. The risks were far too great. The murder of...Thomas Becket...appears to be the only example in English medieval history of a political murder, except during rebellions, not sanctioned by the reigning king" (Ross, 103; italics mine).

That one qualification, "except during rebellions", destroys the whole point that Ross is attempting to make, and is all in all a remarkably thoughtless statement. It is the more amazing in that it comes from what is generally considered the definitive biographer of Richard. Traditionalists have a tendency (shared by revisionists, it is true) to decide what they want to believe, and will state or swallow anything that looks to confirm their opinions. They are additionally handicapped in that they do not think that the issue of whether or not Richard was guilty of his nephews’ deaths is even that important: what is important is what people thought at the time and how that affected history, not the actual facts of the matter; what is important is Richard-the-man-in-the-context-of-his-times, not such details about Richard the man as whether or not he was a murderer. This sometimes petulant unconcern results in a kind of lethargy, which in its turn results in such remarkable statements as the above; normally, of course, traditionalists' status as professional historians ensures that their judgement is accurate. After all, most revisionists are amateurs, as traditionalists are fond of pointing out--and in paying attention to this supremely important fact, and the nebulous but useful Balance of Probability, they sometimes forget to think.

The argument that Buckingham lacked opportunity has no relevance in any case. Because Buckingham was (most likely) not in London at the time of the Princes’ deaths, he is assumed to be innocent; it never occurs to any of these authors that for that same reason Richard must also be innocent, as he was on an official progress throughout the country at this same time. Richard is always assumed to have hired someone to murder the Princes; a few authors, such as Robin Neillands, ridicule the idea that Richard would actually have murdered his nephews personally. That Buckingham could also have hired someone to murder the Princes apparently never crosses anyone’s mind.

But having the ability to hire someone to murder the Princes is one thing; having the desire to do so is another. St. Aubyn says that Buckingham had "no plausible motive", thus implicitly admitting that there is indeed a possible (whether or not it is plausible is a matter of opinion) motive for Buckingham to kill the Princes, and that is greed for power, a desire to be king; obviously the people’s desire for the eldest Prince to be king would be a handicap to whoever was on the throne, or wished to be. Saying that this idea deserves to be treated with full scepticism, or flatly stating (oh, the wonders of omniscience) that Buckingham would not have murdered the Princes except as Richard’s accomplice, simply skirts the issue.

The only real reason given in support of Buckingham's innocence is that, on his own initiative, it would have been too risky. Buckingham, however, was willing to put his life on the line by rebelling; risk was obviously not something that bothered him a great deal.

After mentioning most of the above reasons, Alison Weir adds, "[e]ven more convincing is Buckingham’s own behavior after he left Gloucester. According to [Sir Thomas] More, Buckingham himself later declared to Bishop Morton: ‘God be my judge, I never agreed or condescended to it [the murder of the Princes]’" (Weir, 149). Leaving aside the issue of More’s dubious authority, it is obvious to all but Weir that a suspect’s denial is not proof of innocence.

In the end, the only objection to Buckingham’s guilt of any weight is that, if he were guilty, "Richard could have saved himself a lot of trouble by saying so" (Cheetham, 148). But, again, kings are not omnipotent: it is a possibility that Richard did not know who was responsible for the Princes’ deaths. If Buckingham had the Princes killed by means of an agent, would the murder necessarily be traced to Buckingham? If Richard suspected that Buckingham was guilty, he might have been hesitant to accuse someone of so serious a thing without proof, especially since he would also in so doing "risk being thought to have foisted his own crime on Buckingham in order to blacken an opponent of his crown" (Kendall, 493). There is also a time factor; if Richard learned of the Princes’ deaths before or during his progress, he would have "little time to meditate on the problem or penetrate the Duke’s motive before he was suddenly confronted with the outbreak of Buckingham’s rebellion" (Kendall, 493) and would have to spend his time devising strategies to preserve his kingdom.

The very fact that Buckingham rebelled implicates him as the murderer of the Princes. What motive for rebelling did Buckingham have? He was the second richest and second most powerful man in the country; he risked all that, plus his life, in rebelling. What could have possibly outweighed these things to such an extent that the risk was worth it to Buckingham? One suggestion is that Buckingham had long coveted the Bohun inheritance, and rebelled upon being refused it by Richard. Besides hardly being a sufficient reason to risk one’s life, this theory is contradicted by the facts. Richard made a provisional grant of the Bohun inheritance to Buckingham, which was as far as he could go; the final decision rested with Parliament.

Another possible explanation is that Buckingham regretted his part in the usurpation, and joined the rebellion to try to topple the man that he had helped put on the throne a few months earlier as a way of trying to rectify his mistakes. This is possible, although, again, a bit weak; it is an awfully sudden and vehement change of heart.

The most popular explanation is that Buckingham was horrified at the fact that Richard had had his nephews put to death, and rebelled in disgust and moral outrage. Assuming that Richard was actually guilty, how did Buckingham find out? He was in Wales, at least a hundred miles from Richard. Weir suggests that Richard sent Buckingham a note—discreetly worded, of course. Why, though, would Richard go to the trouble of doing that? Why couldn’t he wait until he could speak to Buckingham personally? What was the hurry? Yet if Richard did not tell Buckingham that the Princes were dead, how did Buckingham find out? For he apparently knew; it was at the time he joined the rebellion that the rebels began to spread a rumor that the Princes were dead, something that they would not have done were they not tolerably certain of its truth. By whatever means, Buckingham almost certainly found out that the Princes were dead; the simplest means, of course, would be to have been involved in the Princes’ deaths.

There is another explanation for Buckingham’s rebellion, and that is greed. Buckingham was the second richest, second most powerful man in England; the only higher rank he could achieve would be that of richest and most powerful; that is, king. Buckingham had evinced an interest in such things previous to Richard’s accession; he had had papers drawn up showing his closeness to the throne, with some illegitimacies in his ancestry left unmentioned. In the little we know if Buckingham, ambition shows itself with disproportionate frequency.

The idea that Buckingham’s motive in rebelling was greed is snagged by the fact that the ostensible purpose of Buckingham’s rebellion was to put Henry Tudor on the throne, not Buckingham. Yet Buckingham had already helped put one man on the throne, only to try to topple and replace him; why not do the same with Henry? Ousting Richard would be so much the easier with help from Henry, but once that sole bit of usefulness was outlived, Buckingham could topple this king as well and replace a man who had lived in a foreign country for the past fifteen or so years with himself, native born and bred. King making and unmaking was the kind of strategy that Buckingham was already using. As Cheetham points out, "the scheme was not as hare-brained as its failure made it appear" (136).

It is certainly an audacious scheme, though. Yet there is really no other convincing way to explain why Buckingham suddenly rebelled against the same man he had helped crown king only a few months before, and how he apparently knew with certainty that the Princes were dead. His actions are as consistent with a supposition of guilt as Richard’s are not. There is no conclusive proof either way, but the indications that Buckingham was guilty and Richard innocent are about as strong as they can be without such proof.