Did King Richard III Really Murder The Princes In The Tower?

King Richard III
King Richard III | Source
Edward V of England
Edward V of England | Source

In 1485 King Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth, the last major event of the War of the Roses which had divided the country for the best part of thirty years. His death left the Lancastrian Henry Tudor on the throne of England, ruling as Henry VII, and the victory of the Red Rose over the White Rose almost complete.

The whispers had started even before that fateful battle. What had happened to the two young sons of Richard’s elder brother King Edward IV? Why were they no longer seen playing in the gardens of the Tower of London? Had they been spirited away to a safer, more remote part of the country or were they dead?

When Edward IV had died prematurely in London in 1483, it plunged the nation into shock and left as the new ruler Edward, Prince of Wales, who was then only 12 years old.

So who would take on the care and guidance of the young King until he reached his majority and could rule for himself?

Edward IV their father had made a very unpopular marriage to a Lancastrian widow called Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, which was initially kept secret, as one of Edward’s most powerful allies and cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was trying to broker a marriage for him with a French princess at the time. Elizabeth came from a very large family and was deeply unpopular with the Yorkist nobility, because of her Lancastrian background and because it was seen that she managed to cajole titles and lands for her brothers and two sons from her previous marriage and important husbands for her sisters out of her royal husband.

At the time of Edward’s death the young Prince of Wales was residing at Ludlow Castle in the care of his uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, who was Elizabeth’s oldest brother. It was Lord Rivers who arranged for Edward to travel down to London to claim his throne. The aim was that he was to be reunited there with his mother and younger brother Richard, Duke of York who was ten years old at the time.

The fly in the Woodville’s ointment was that Edward IV had named his younger brother Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, as Protector in his will. Richard of Gloucester spent most of his time in the North of England where he was Governor, and had shown his military prowess recapturing the town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed from the Scots in 1482. On hearing of Edward’s death he marched from Yorkshire to meet with his young nephew Edward and Earl Rivers. At this meeting Earl Rivers was arrested and taken to Pontefract Castle, where he was later executed.

Richard escorted Edward to London and installed him in the Tower of London. On hearing the news of her brother’s execution, Elizabeth Woodville fled into sanctuary in Westminster with her younger son Richard, Duke of York and her daughters, and it took a lot of negotiating before she let her youngest son out to join his older brother. It should be mentioned that the Tower of London at that time was a royal palace as well as a place of imprisonment, and was traditionally where monarchs stayed before their coronations.

Initially, plans for Edward V's coronation were started but by June of 1483 the rumours began that Richard was planning to take the crown for himself. On 22nd June outside St Pauls Cathedral a statement was read that proclaimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegal as he had already been pre-contracted to Lady Eleanor Talbot, and thus all his children of this marriage were illegitimate and therefore not eligible to take the throne. This was confirmed later by an Act of Parliament. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was the next heir to the throne as his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence had been executed for treason, so his two children were under the attainder and barred from the succession.

Richard III’s short reign was destined to be riven with plotting and dissension; and also personal tragedy. He had to put down a rebellion led by Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham who was trying to put Henry Tudor on the throne and had Buckingham executed. His only child and heir Edward, Prince of Wales died and was shortly followed by his wife Anne Neville.

The rumours that the two young Princes in the Tower were dead had started early in Richard III's reign and when Henry Tudor took the crown he also failed to produce them and quell the tide of speculation. So who would benefit most from their death?

Richard has traditionally been vilified as the wicked, hunchback uncle who foully murdered his nephews. The view has largely been gleaned from the play of William Shakespeare entitled Richard III. It is important to remember that Shakespeare was writing in the Tudor court; his monarch was the granddaughter of Henry VII. It would have been the height of political folly for him to have written a play that was at all pro-Richard. The Tudors were still very sensitive about their initial tenuous claim to the throne and discrediting Richard III was one of the ways that they shored up their popularity and backed up their right to seize the crown.

There is no historical evidence to prove that Richard III had any physical disability; and in fact he had been a soldier and army commander from a very early age. Due to the physical nature of warfare in the Middle Ages, he would have to have been reasonably fit and healthy to take part in and survive as many battles as he did. He was notably loyal and devoted to his brother Edward IV, and, unlike his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, had never changed his allegiance. Richard III had always been a younger brother, and had no expectations of the crown; he also had no previous history of plotting to improve his position in life.

It must be remembered, that although he wouldn’t have personally known the boys well as he lived in the North, that they were Richard’s nephews, his blood relatives. When the Act of Parliament was passed that made the children illegitimate, it secured Richard’s place on the throne. Killing them would not benefit him politically, and if he thought that he needed to remove all other possible heirs to the throne, why did he leave his other brother George’s son alive? True he was barred from succession by his father’s treason, but that Act of Attainder could be repealed and Edward, Earl of Warwick restored to the succession.

Moreover, the Prince’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, left sanctuary and brought her daughters to live at Richard’s court. Would she do that if she really thought that he had killed her two sons? Would she have not been fearful for her own and her daughter’s safety and stayed in sanctuary?

Henry Tudor, on the other hand, had everything to gain by the death of the Princes. His claim to the throne was based on his mother being Margaret Beaufort, a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and the third son of Edward III. The Beauforts were the illegitimate children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, whom he later married as his third wife. Although, legitimised the Beauforts and their descendants were barred from inheriting the throne. When he seized the throne, his claim to it was mainly by right of conquest and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. In order to marry her he had to repeal the Titulus Regulus, the document that stated that she and her other siblings were illegitimate. By thus legitimising her and her sisters, he would have also been restoring her brothers to the legitimacy and the succession. Henry VII must have been very sure that they were dead, before he would have risked this. Despite this, later in his reign he still had to put down rebellions raised on behalf of two pretenders posing as one of the lost Princes of the Tower, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

Although Henry VII did not personally know the children or was closely related to them, it must, however, be remembered that he had married their elder sister and that their mother lived at his court until she retired to a religious life in Bermondsey. Would they have been able to live with the murderer of their loved ones, or were they constrained by the needs of practicality and survival in an uncertain medieval world?

There have been many theories as to the true fate of the Princes in the Tower and the debate seems set to go on. However, unless hard new evidence comes to light, it seems likely that we will never really know the truth about what actually happened to them, whether there was any crime actually committed and, if there had been a murder, the identity of the perpetrator.


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Comments 33 comments

Mikestone 5 years ago

I'm inclined to agree with you about the difficulties of leaving Sheriff Hutton. From what I can gather, the Earl of Lincoln seems to have been in charge there, so if he chose to stay in England, he could enforce that on Elizabeth too. Quite why he stayed I don't know. Possibly he feared precisely that Elizabeth might indeed marry Maximilian, and that this combination would be a more formidable obstacle to his own aspirations thsn a marriage to Henry. If so he needn't have worried.

As to Maximilian's attitude, this notion isn't strictly my own. I got it from Christine Weightman's "Margaret of York" (excellent book, by the way. Have you read it?) that Max hoped to marry Elizabeth in 1485. Her cite for this is Hermann Wiesflecker's "Kaiser Maximilian I", which I gather is considered the authoritiative work on that monarch. Unfortunately I don't read German so can't check it out.

However, I see no reason to doubt it. The lack of a marriage portion wouldn't signify if Max expected his real marriage "portion" to be England itself. He certainly had ambitions that way. Both Weightmann and Rowe mention that he extracted from Perkin Warbeck a Patent naming him and his son Philip as next in line to the throne should "Richard IV" die childless, so there's little doubt of his intentions. He evidently didn't worry about the illegitimacy any more than Henry Tudor did, and for the same reason. He already had a Lancastrian claim to the throne (his mother Eleanor of Portugal was a great-niece of Henry IV) and marrying EoY would reinforce it with a Yorkist one. Whether the Habsburgs would have been better or worse for England than the Tudors there is no knowing, but I find it a fascinating speculation.

As to the hub, I might try it some time, but can't promise when.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hey Mikestone, thanks for the detailed comments, maybe you should turn them into a hub on whether Henry VII ever really knew whether the princes were dead? Elizabeth of York was sent to Sheriff Hutton before Bosworth, so I doubt that she would have been allowed to leave the castle. Also her aunt may have given her shelter, but would the Archduke want to marry a young woman who had been declared illegitimate and would have had no marriage portion?


Mikestone 5 years ago

CMHypno - Re your message of three months ago, Elizabeth may have had one other choice, but it would have been a gamble and she'd have needed to act very quickly.

Had she fled the country on getting the news of Bosworth, she could have gone to Burgundy where her aunt would have supported her. However, Archduke Maximilian was a young widower and might well have wanted to marry her himself. I'm not sure how she'd have felt about that, though in hindsight there would have been one gain. Max's mother having died in 1467, there would have been no "mother in law from hell" to cope with.


Mikestone 5 years ago

Well, he certainly didn't know in 1483, and it's not at all clear that he ever knew.

Even a decade later, he clearly didn't know for certain, as he had to send his agents scouring Europe to establish the true identity of Perkin Warbeck. He was all too clearly scared stiff that Warbeck might turn out to be the genuine article.

What seems clear, though, is that in 1483 he was confident enough about it to proceed on the assumption that they were either dead or as good as dead. After all, if this were not widely believed, pledging himself to Elizabeth would benefit him nought, since Yorkists would not turn to the daughter while the sons still lived - or were generally believed to still live. Not to mention that he'd have looked a proper Charlie had Richard responded to his act by producing the Princes alive and well.

The rebels of 1483 seem to have drawn the same conclusion even sooner. Despite being mostly former Yorkists (even including former members of Edward IV's household) by October they were declaring for Henry Tudor, not Edward V. They too evidently despaired of the Princes' survival. Guillaume de Rochefort expressed the same belief in Jan 1484, in his famous words to the States-General.

None of this, of course, constitutes definite proof that the Princes were in fact dead, still less of who killed them. However, it seems to leave little doubt that by late 1483, even without proof, a lot of important men were ready to assume the worst.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for reading about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower Mikestone and leaving a great and detailed comment. The question is did Henry Tudor know that the princes were already dead in 1483, or was he just being pragmatic, as for him to take the English throne the threat of those two boys to his claim would have had to have been neutralised somehow?


Mikestone 5 years ago

Small point Keith. Henry took the oath in Rennes Cathedral (Brittany) not Reims. Also, he took it at Christmas 1483, nearly two years before the Bosworth campaign.

This would indicate that by late 1483 he was working on the presumption that Elizabeth was heiress of York, ie that her brothers were dead, and that Richard would be unable to prick his balloon by producing them.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that you enjoyed reading about the possible fates of the Princes in the Tower Cal and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment


Cal 5 years ago

Wow,That was really well written!!!

Thanks for the great info:)


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Keith, thanks for reading the hub on the Princes in the Tower. Henry may not have married Elizabeth of York until early 1486, but the support of many of the leading nobility may well have hinged on the expectation of this union. As for poor Elizabeth, I really don't think she had a lot of choice in the matter. If she could have refused, what future would she and her sisters have as illegitimate young women of a discredited royal house, who had no estates and no male relatives to protect them?


Keith 5 years ago

Interesting hub - having studued the period a little I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring! An interesting point is that Henry VII didn't merely have Titulus Regius repealed - he ordered every copy of it to be returned to London and destroyed. I think two copies survived the recall, which is why we know of it. What was Henry trying to hide?

If I might introduce a minor correction - Henry VII's claim or "right" to the throne was purely by right of conquest - he didn't marry Elizabeth until January 1486. He had taken an oath in Rheims Cathedral, prior to setting out, to marry her if he was successful - but this presumed she would accept him! Their son Arthur was born a month premature - or.....?? And here the speculation gets interesting. If it interests any other reader, apart from myself, I would suggest looking closely at the career of Sir James Tyrrell.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Scott, thanks for reading about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. I have read Josephine Tey's 'The Daughter of Time' several time, and, as you say, it is a very interesting book and a great read.


scott 5 years ago

there is a lovely book written on this mystery written by Josephine Tey, "The Daughter of Time." It is a work of fiction, but it is historical, in that the whole book works to disprove the popular thought that Richard III killed the boys.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Sebastian, glad that you enjoyed reading the hub on the Princes of the Tower. The play Richard III is a good play, but it is not all true and William Shakespeare was writing for a Tudor monarchy that politically needed to discredit the Yorkists to underline the legitimacy of their dynasty


Sebastian 6 years ago

Hello, I really enjoyed reading your article. Most of the ones I see on the mystery of the princes say the same exact things. Honestly, I don't know who to blame, but I do enjoy Shakespeare's play. It is my favorite all time story, even though I know about half of it is lies. Still, great job on the article.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hey hi - would have been interested in knowing what your theory on what happened to the Princes in the Tower was? Thanks for reading the Hub and leaving a comment


hi  6 years ago

wow this changes my theroy completely


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Ron, yes the War of the Roses was a dangerous time to live in. I think that we should be very careful of judging any of these historical characters, as they were playing for survival of themselves and their families


Ron 6 years ago

Gosh, the treachery and the danger back then of living with a title! Great hub. Those were "interesting times," for sure (as in the expression "May you live in interesting times").


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad you enjoyed reading about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, De Greek - but don't beleive everything that Shakespeare has to say about Richard III!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Fascinating, thank you very much for this. "Richard III" is one of my favourite plays and I cannot get enough of this. Look forward to reading more hubs on history :-)


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi wrenfrost56, glad you enjoyed the hub. The War of the Roses is a fascinating period in English history and Richard III an interesting character


wrenfrost56 profile image

wrenfrost56 6 years ago from U.K.

Great hub CMHypno, loads of great information and again so well written. I always learn so much from your work.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Carole, this was a great comment - you should turn it into a Hub! Olivier was acting in a play - a work of fiction - and he did an admirable job. History is history and Shakespeare was writing for a Tudor monarchy! If the full truth is ever revealed, it will spoil it all in a way - no more mystery left!


Carole Heath 7 years ago

Sorry I did not finish my comment before and forgive the spelling mistakes, I did not get a chance to check my comment, my final part of my comment is this when Laurence Olivier made his film of Shakespeare's Richard 111 in the 1950s he got a lot of stick from various historical societies for blackening Richard's name through his performance, although I admire his performance as Richard 111 in the film, I always felt that Richard was not this terrible man who killed half his family to gain the throne and died a bloody death at Bosworth. Perhaps one day all will be revelled but I have my doubts


Carole Heath 7 years ago

This hypotheis regarding who muredered the princes in the tower has never been solved really, I oersonally think that the culpit was Henry V11, not their uncle Richard 111. After the battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor earl of richmond was crowed king thus starting the Tudor dynasty, he also married Elizabeth of York daughter of Edward 1V, and niece of Richard 111. To my knowledge after the death of Edward 1V his son by Elizabeth Woodville was proclaimed King as Edward V, but there was also an anomaly regarding the succession, owing to the fact that Edward 1V had also been betrothed to another woman prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. And in those days it was a legal binding contract to my knowledge. Richard Duke of Gloucester later Richard 111 was the next in line to the throne and was offered the position, as George Duke of Clarence Richard's elder brother had been executed as a traitor some years before. Regarding the Shakespearian Play of Richard 111, I think that most of it was Tudor propaganda and hearsay on Shakespeare's part and when Shakespeare wrote this play I think Elizabeth 1 was on the throne and she was the granddaughter of Henry V11, so was Shakespeare trying to appease her as well. Iam sure Richard was not the monster Shakespeare said he was with all those deformities. W


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Ceb, Interesting point and thanks for leaving the comment. The Beauforts were legitimised by the Pope and then by Letters Patent read out in Parliament brought about by Richard II in 1397. The Letters Patent did not specifically mention the right to inherit the throne, but did give them the right to inherit property etc.

Henry IV reissused the Letters Patent in 1407 with the wording excluding them from the throne added.

They could have probably brought this to be tested in a Court of Law, as within a strict version of the law they could probably have been regarded as possible successors to the throne.

However, non of the Lancastrian or Yorkist monarchs seemed to view them as part of the sucession and English, Catholic values in the fifteenth century would probably not have accepted them as legitimate, suitable successors to the English throne either.


ceb 7 years ago

The original act of parliament legitimizing the Beauforts did not bar them from the throne. When Henry IV confirmed their legitimation(?) he included a clause which did bar them. However this clause had no legal standing as it would require an act of parliament to overturn the original act.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for dropping by - the world would be a much less interesting place if we had all the answers!


heyju profile image

heyju 7 years ago

Very interesting, well written. What a mystery makes you wonder.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the great comment James.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

Fascinating history! You certainly know your subject. Thanks for a well written, insightful article.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

As with all good historical mysteries, probably the worst thing that could happen would be if someone discovered their grave with a big inscription saying 'We were murdered by ....... or we died naturally of.......'


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada

Interesting - love historical mysteries. I seem to remember reading that the skeletons that supposedly proved Richard's infamy were unearthed from behind or beneath a portion of the structure that predated Richard, hence they could not have been the remains of the murdered boys.

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