Relationships between uncles and nephews are some of the most problematic in history and literature. They can range from close and loving to distant and even dangerous. My novel The Protector depicts a number of possibilities. In its prequel, The Neville Inheritance, I have written a fictional scene that prefigures two of the key uncle/nephew relationships that will emerge in The Protector. In it, the exiled King Edward IV has returned to England to reclaim his crown and meet his five-month-old son who will one day succeed him as Edward V. With him are three of the baby’s uncles: Edward’s two brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as well as the queen’s brother, Anthony Woodville, the Earl Rivers.
After siring three girls, Edward is overjoyed to have a son at last to carry on his line. He asks the three uncles to swear their allegiance to the future King of England then and there, but only Anthony Woodville obliges. As Richard observes to himself, he is the only one among them whose position has been enhanced rather than diminished by the arrival of this small upstart. Clarence does not (no surprise if you know Clarence!) More surprisingly, despite his record of unblemished loyalty to his brother, Richard does not, though he deeply regrets the omission as soon as the opportunity is past.
Twelve years in the future as The Protector begins, Edward IV is on his deathbed, but his son is still too young to rule. The boy-king will need someone to take over the reins of power for him until he comes of age. For most of his life he has been in the charge of his Uncle Anthony, who has raised him at Ludlow Castle where he has presided as Prince of Wales. He is close to Anthony, regarding him almost as a surrogate father. But even though the elder Edward has entrusted the upbringing and education of his heir to the deeply unpopular Woodvilles, he is unwilling to entrust them with the governance of his realm. Instead, he names his only surviving brother, Richard of Gloucester, to be “protector of the king and of the realm,” but he is too late. Already enjoying the taste of power, the Woodvilles are in no hurry to relinquish it just because the king has died. Indeed, they see an opportunity to augment that power by having the new king under their complete control.
This is the quagmire Edward IV has bequeathed to his brother as Richard makes his way to London from his home in the north of England. He knows his former life away from the court is over and fears that a misstep could cause him to lose his life altogether. He barely knows the youth in whose name he must rule, but he knows the Woodvilles all too well. When Anthony Woodville tries to block his access to the king, he has the earl arrested despite knowing that this act may create an unbridgeable divide between his nephew and himself.
Another uncle by marriage, ironically on the boy’s mother’s side, enters the picture here. He is Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and he has every reason to hate the Woodvilles after being forced into marriage against his will to the queen’s sister. And hate them he does. He is the voice in Richard’s ear, whispering, coaxing, cajoling him to do away with them. Richard is reluctant to listen to him at first, but the revelation of an old family secret gives him the pretext he needs to act if he chooses to stake his own claim to the crown.
Still there is a complication. Edward V has a nine-year-old brother, Richard, Duke of York. He is his Uncle Richard’s namesake and godson and a particular favorite with him. The protector moves to gain custody of the small duke, who has been in his mother’s keeping, but at this point, he is still on the fence about going further. He rationalizes that he wants King Edward to have his little brother as a companion and also have the boy play his proper role in the upcoming coronation, but the inescapable truth is that if he does intend to take the throne, he must first secure both of his late brother’s heirs because they stand in his way.
It is the final blow-up with Edward on the afternoon he delivers the young duke to the Tower that makes Richard decide his own fate as well as that of the two boys and of Anthony Woodville. He has just escaped a Woodville-inspired plot to unseat and perhaps kill him, and he fears that further unrest is building in the kingdom. Worse, he reasons that even if he somehow manages to keep his enemies at bay for the rest of Edward’s minority, he is unlikely to escape the king’s wrath when he comes of age.
One sad aspect of all of this is that Richard must consign his beloved younger nephew to the same fate as the older. Both boys must be declared illegitimate; both must be locked up in the Tower to prevent their mother and her family from making use of them. This is deeply repugnant to him, but it is unavoidable. While he may not wish to have them killed, the truth is that he leaves both of his nephews open to that possibility. And Buckingham, another uncle with truly evil intent, seizes the opportunity for his own duplicitous reasons.