I often forget exactly why the people of the North loathe Theon Greyjoy. Theon Turncloak. Many Northerners still believe Theon Greyjoy murdered Bran and Rickon, the last sons and heirs of the beloved house of Stark. However we know that Theon did not murder Bran and Rickon. It is true he murdered two innocent children, a terrible crime of which he should not be absolved. But Bran and Rickon still live. And in A Song of Ice and Fire there are even some in the North who have heard whispers of their survival.
The Princes of Winterfell
Balon Greyjoy, still suspicious of his only son, had sent his daughter Asha (Yara on the show) to take Deepwood Motte and Theon to raid fishing villages on the Stony Shore in the North. Theon, still desperate to prove himself to his father, decided to take Winterfell while the senior members of House Stark were absent. Winterfell would be a huge prize that would, in Theon’s eyes, win him his father’s approval. But to hold Winterfell he would have to hold Bran and Rickon hostage. He would reverse their positions, now Theon would no longer be a hostage of the Starks, and he would have power over the precious Stark heirs. When Theon discovered they had escaped he would have known it was not enough to merely hold Winterfell while Bran and Rickon were thought to be alive and at large. Alive they would still be the focus of rebellion. In the end the heirs to Winterfell had to be eliminated.
Would Theon really have murdered Bran and Rickon had he found them? The act of murdering the miller’s boys was horrifying but not one that Theon actually exalted in.
“He took no joy from those heads, no more than he had in displaying the headless bodies of the children before the castle. Old Nan stood with her soft toothless mouth opening and closing soundlessly, and Farlen threw himself at Theon, snarling like one of his hounds. Urzen and Cadwyl had to beat him senseless with the butts of their spears. How did I come to this? he remembered thinking as he stood over the fly-speckled bodies1 .”
After burning the bodies of the miller’s boys to make them unrecognisable Theon kept a shard of melted silver, all that remained of the wolf’s-head brooch that had once been Bran’s. It is a reminder of the man Theon once was and just how far he had fallen into darkness.
In Theon’s predicament we can see shades of a centuries-old mystery, the disappearance of King Edward IV’s sons, King Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.
The Princes in the Tower
Infanticide is an unforgivable crime that has earned Theon Greyjoy his reputation, and that has stained the reputation of Richard III for five centuries. The fate of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ is so complex it is fiercely debated to this day and remains one of the greatest mysteries of the middle ages.
Theon’s actions are, on the whole, clear. He took Winterfell to impress his father and win his trust. Perhaps there was some lingering resentment towards the Stark family. Richard III’s actions, however, continue to perplex historians. The facts that we have are after Edward IV died, his young son, now King Edward V, was escorted into London by his uncle Anthony Rivers. Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, met them at Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire. In the first of his shocking moves, Richard captured Anthony Rivers, Edward V’s half-brother Richard Grey, and Edward’s long-time chamberlain Thomas Vaughan. He would execute all three men. As was the usual tradition, Edward was lodged in the Tower of London until his coronation took place. But Richard seized his nephew’s throne and declaring the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville invalid, and therefore their children illegitimate.
Elizabeth Woodville still had her younger son Richard in her keeping and fled to sanctuary in Westminster with Richard and her daughters. Richard III eventually pressured Elizabeth to give up her youngest son to his safekeeping. She never saw either of her sons again. Or so we are led to believe.
The Lost Princes
Theon Greyjoy fooled most of the North by providing evidence, corpses. By burning the bodies he was able to disguise their features, about the right age, about the right height, a sickening sight that would raise little question. No one could know that the Princes of Winterfell escaped. Had Richard III presented two bodies we would now only be debating who murdered them. Yet there are many who believe the boys were not murdered at all. Historians tend to shy away from the idea as a flight of fancy and there is a tradition of deposed kings being murdered, such as Richard II and Henry VI. However it would seem far more logical to ask how we can be debating the murder of two boys when we have never been presented with a shred of evidence that they were murdered at all. Not for five centuries.
We have some contemporary rumours of their demise. Later writers directly accused Richard III of the murder, and William Shakespeare immortalised the idea in his play The Tragedy of Richard III. Yet we lack concrete evidence. The remains in Westminster Abbey that are alleged to be the princes were found in 1674, in the Tower at foundation level, ten feet down, under a staircase it had taken many workmen several days to dismantle. Hardly the stuff of a hasty burial. Although the remains were exhumed in 1933 for further analysis these tests have been largely disputed, while the approximate ages at the time of death may be correct we have no way of knowing if they were able to even determine the sex of the remains. The only conclusive evidence we have is that the bones belonged to children.
As to the contemporary accounts of their fate it was never officially declared the boys were dead. Richard III was never accused by Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort or Elizabeth Woodville of having murdered Edward V and Richard Duke of York. It was not to either Richard III or Henry Tudor’s advantage to not produce a verdict, or scapegoat, for the fate of the Princes. In Richard’s case it garnered mistrust, and in Henry Tudor’s cause for rebellion. We again have no actual evidence of the alleged confession by Sir James Tyrell. Henry VII never officially declared that Tyrell had confessed, it was Sir Thomas More who would come up with this alleged confession, written forty years after the event, in a manuscript that remained unpublished during More’s lifetime after he abandoned it. And even Thomas More wrote that ‘some remain yet in doubt whether they were in [Richard’s] days destroyed or no’.
The fate of the princes? It is impossible to say. But certainly not impossible that they left the Tower of London alive. Theories range from Edward V dying of illness in the tower and Richard of York then being removed and sent abroad, to both boys being spirited away from the tower after Buckingham’s rebellion and sent to Flanders. There is even a Tyrell family legend that the boys survived, staying at Gipping Hall with their mother Elizabeth Woodville “by permission of the uncle”. Even more curiously, Elizabeth Woodville drops off the map between making peace with Richard III and leaving sanctuary and the Battle of Bosworth. A long time for the Dowager Queen to go unnoticed, considering her daughters were firmly ensconced at court2 .
It is very significant indeed that so many were prepared to take the word of the pretender Perkin Warbeck, naming himself King Richard IV, the lost son of Edward IV during the reign of Henry VII. Had there been evidence of their murder, or even a general acceptance, how could Warbeck have posed as Richard Duke of York and gathered so much support?
Both Theon Greyjoy and Richard III’s names have been blackened by the accusation of murdering their kin. They are neither saints nor wholly innocent of crime. But Theon did not set out to murder Bran and Rickon, only to hold them. Richard III did not plot to murder his nephews, only to depose them. The unfortunate miller’s boys presented Theon with the opportunity to quash any hopes of rebellion. Richard III had to remove his nephews after Buckingham’s rebellion, an attempt to take the boys from the Tower of London. In the end the Lost Princes of York may have shared the same fate as the Lost Princes of Winterfell.
Literary and Literal Afterlife
The last and rather curious parallel we can draw between Theon Greyjoy and Richard III is Richard’s fictional body and Theon’s injuries at the hands of Ramsay Snow. George R.R. Martin’s description of Theon is lean, dark and handsome. Richard III was described as small of stature, rather slender and he was dark-haired. What William Shakespeare created was a monster of a villain, twisted and limping, with a hunched back and a withered arm, drawing on the superstitious prejudice against deformity of his time. By doing so he took away much of what made Richard III the man he was, a military general and a knight, and the only English king to be slain in battle defending his crown. It was a death worthy of songs and sagas. As Polydore Vergil would famously state ‘King Richard alone was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’. Even the stuffy old Crowland Chronicler would describe “For in the thick of the fight, and not in the act of flight, King Richard fell in the field, struck by many mortal wounds, as a bold and most valiant prince.”
Shakespeare, however, was writing a morality tale and in all likelihood a political satire. We now know that Richard suffered from scoliosis but it did not necessarily affect his abilities on a horse or in battle. Theon Greoyjoy was a healthy young man, an able soldier and a womaniser, proud of his masculinity. Yet when the psychopath Ramsay Snow captures Theon, he continually injures and tortures him into submission. He flays the skin from his fingers, his toes, he breaks bones and teeth, he may even have cut off Theon’s genitals. Theon is unable to eat or even walk without pain, and Ramsay never allows him to bathe. Reek. As the real Richard III was eclipsed by Shakespeare’s twisted monster, Theon’s maimed body has swallowed his true self. The man that Theon once was is so deeply buried that Theon has forgotten him, and become Ramsay’s creature. Theon Greyjoy is still living in a nightmare of a body, not unlike the nightmare that Shakespeare created for Richard III. The monster, the creature, the villain. The Turncloak.
By Olga Hughes. Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.