There were three things that worried me about the alternative theory emerging from analysis of portraits of key characters of the time and their parentage.
1. How could the children born while Henry was in the Tower be his?
The first problem was how it was possible for Elizabeth Woodville to bear Henry’s children, especially while he was in the Tower, without Edward realizing and putting a stop to it – and to her? If she and Edward were not having sex, then he would know her children were illegitimate. On the other hand, if they were having sex, as was rightly pointed out, then there was no way anyone could afterwards say for sure her children were Henry’s. It seemed to be a showstopper.
Two alternative explanations emerge, though. It has been known for countless generations that if one chooses the right part of the natural monthly cycle, then pregnancy could be avoided. Elizabeth might have used this to ensure she only bore Henry’s children, without necessarily arousing Edward’s suspicions. Is the system infallible, though? No, it’s not, and no one could have been sure the three children she bore while Henry was in the Tower were his rather than Edward’s. Based on this it still looks as if saying Henry was the father was just scandal that had fooled the artist.
There is another explanation, though. And that is that the person seized in Clitheroe and taken to the Tower, although he resembled Henry VI, was not in fact him. A surrogate could have been planted by the Lancastrians to take the heat off the real Henry, and at the same time to facilitate his access to the Queen. If the Yorkists thought they had the real thing in the Tower, the true Henry, living under an alias, would have had easier access to the Queen. Or if it was not a trick by the Lancastrians, it could have been a ploy by the Yorkists to undermine Lancastrian morale. ‘Look! We have your King!’ Better still, it might force them to try to prove Henry was still at liberty, and by showing him, to reveal where he was.
Either way, why would the Yorkists keep either the real Henry (or his impersonator) in the Tower for five years rather than killing him, and why then kill him in 1471? A very good reason was not slow in coming forth (thanks Cyndi!). Until the Battle of Tewkesbury, Henry’s only legitimate son, Edward of Westminster, was free and organizing resistance against King Edward. If Henry (real or imposter) were seen to have been slain, then Edward of Westminster would have become the heir, and he was free and outside their control. He would have been much more dangerous. And that is also why, as soon as Edward of Westminster, Henry’s son, was slain, Henry VI (or his imposter) immediately followed him to the grave.
This fake ‘Henry’ would have been known to many who had seen him in the Tower, and once dead, Edward IV could safely risk showing the face of the dead ‘Henry’ on the funeral bier. So the more likely explanation, I think, if most of Edward’s children were in fact Henry’s, was that the Henry of the Tower, the Henry paraded through the streets by Warwick on his way to his ‘restoration’, was an imposter. If Henry were still alive, though, why would his wife Margaret of Anjou not have continued the struggle after being ransomed by Louis XI in 1475? If all this is true, then she either believed Henry was already dead – or she knew he was permanently incapacitated by mental illness, and no longer fit to lead.
2. Why would Lancastrian Elizabeth have married Edward, anyway?
My second concern was about Elizabeth – why would she choose to marry Edward and then have to avoid having his children? Expert opinion was that it was surely easier for her to have not married him in the first place? But the principal reason for the marriage was not for her to be Queen. Would she have wanted to be a Lancastrian Queen? Yes, of course, but would a Plantagenet want to be a Yorkist one? That’s not obvious to me. Far more likely that she was to be the Lancastrians’ key link in the Palace, feeding back information on Edward’s plans to Henry VI. What more perfect spy could there have been? Children would have been necessary for her to sustain that role, and better they be Henry’s than Edward’s. The story hangs together.
3. Privacy? Was it possible for a Queen to do this and it to not be known?
The third worry was the issue of how Elizabeth could have had occasional meetings with Henry without it becoming common knowledge at court, with all the dire consequences that would bring? The fact is that courts did not find out all that monarchs got up to, and the more astute the player, the better they got away with it. One of the ploys much used at the time (among merchants and artists at least), was to have a number of avatars. A different alias for each major and potentially contradictory role in life. Leonardo traveled on some of the great navigations of his time. He was not one to miss out on the greatest adventure of his age. But he did it under other names, and to this day people bought it. Jan van Eyck, when he needed to engage in a major diplomatic venture in Naples, pretended to die in Bruges, and reappeared in Naples as ‘Colantonio’. Madame de Pompadour, when she wanted to sneak into town from the Palace to consult a fortune teller, did it in disguise. So perhaps Elizabeth had concocted an alias… as one of her lady attendants, even, and used that. For a crafty Queen, much was possible.
The bottom line for me is that the artists’ tale is a viable (if extraordinary) alternative story, and part of it we can be reasonably sure about: that the two Princes did survive the Tower, and that Holbein painted them 44 years later. But who was their father? Is that part of the story true? Was this just a lie concocted by the Tudors? And if so why, because it didn’t help justify killing Richard III, or building their myth of the saintly Henry VI? And should we believe this propaganda was then naively swallowed by the very astute and well connected Holbein, and the other artists who depicted Edward IV’s children? Inexplicable Tudor propaganda or was this remarkable tale true? How to know?
We have a new and important historical resource available to us now, and for those who have looked at it with an open mind, there should be little doubt that there is far more lurking beneath its varnish for us to discover! That is where the answer most likely lies.