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The Princes in the Tower: What Happened to Them?

Updated on February 5, 2013

The Lost Princes

What happened to them?
What happened to them? | Source

History Through Painting

In the Wallace Collection, London, is a small but very poignant painting called The Princes In The Tower (1831) by Paul Delaroche. In Europe at the time, the public had a huge appetite for scenes from history, life-sized or bigger, and flocked to see these in galleries and exhibition spaces. Though not life-sized, it bears the hallmarks of other paintings by Delaroche; his use of bright colours, attention to detail and the ability to convey human emotion in dramatic situations.

In the painting we see two young boys seated on a bed, reading from the same book. They are obviously brothers, blond and handsome, and dressed elegantly in the style of the late fifteenth century. But the boys do not look happy. Worried frowns crease their well-formed features. A small dog at the foot of the bed is crouched, his nose pointed in the direction of the door. Although the door is closed, we can see light shining through the crack underneath, and this band of light is disturbed by a shadow. It is apparent that someone is coming and that that someone is unsettling both the boys and the dog. The fate of the princes in the tower must be one of the most mysterious stories in English history. Who exactly were they?

Edward V (born 1470) and Richard of Shrewsbury (born 1473) were the only sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville. An Act of Parliament known as Titulus Regius declared both princes illegitimate after their father died in 1483, because he had been formally betrothed to another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler, before he married Elizabeth. In the same year the boys’ uncle, Richard III, placed them both in the tower of London which was then a royal residence as well as a prison. The princes were never seen again and the popular theory is that their uncle murdered them. Why would he have done such a terrible thing?

Richard III was born in 1452, the youngest son of Richard Plantagenet. Richard III fought for his brother, Edward IV, under the Yorkist banner during the Wars of the Roses. On Edward’s death in 1483, Richard took over the administration of the kingdom. Parliament declared that Richard was the rightful king on the grounds that the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal. Because of the threat of being usurped by his nephews, he placed them in the Tower. When no one saw them again after 1483, the rumour that Richard had them put to death grew and grew. If this was true, Sir James Tyrell, a loyal servant of his, most likely carried out the actual murder. Whether or not Richard was guilty, the disappearance of the boys caused him to fall out of favour with the public.

On August 7 1485, Henry (Earl of Richmond) landed at Milford Haven in Wales. He collected allies as he marched towards England. Richard hurried to meet him and the armies faced each other on Bosworth Field. Richard was defeated and slain, and the Earl of Richmond became Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England. You could say that the boys’ disappearance altered the course of history. But was Richard III or one of his henchmen really responsible for the death of the boys? One theory has it that Henry VII disposed of them after his accession to the throne. He was actually married to the boys’ sister, Elizabeth of York. Their marriage would reinforce Henry’s claim on the kingship but only if Elizabeth’s brothers were dead.

The problem with this theory is that Henry could only have disposed of the boys after his accession in 1485 – and this leaves an interval of two years from the time that the boys disappeared from public view. If Richard was innocent of their deaths, why had he not produced the boys to allay suspicion and retain public favour? It seems likely that Richard was the culprit, and yet there lingers an uneasy air of condemning him on circumstantial evidence, as we say in modern terms. One way or another, the disappearance of the boys was a delightful opportunity for Henry VII to seize the throne for himself, and scapegoat his rival as a murderer.

In 1502, Sir James Tyrell was executed for treason against Henry VII. Shortly before his death, he was said to have confessed to the murder of the princes at the behest of Richard III. But any confession of his would most likely have been extracted under torture by a king who was desperate for his subjects to believe that all claimants to the throne were dead. And of course, the supposed death of the boys cast Richard III in even greater villainy. Whether valid or not, Tyrell’s "confession" seems to have put paid to the procession of impostors that included Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warebeck claiming to be either of the boys or another claimant to the throne.

In 1674, workmen at the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The box was found at the foot of a staircase, the bones covered with pieces of rag and velvet. The then monarch, Charles II, ordered them interred in Westminster Abbey. Modern examination of the bones has revealed that the larger of the skeletons is that of a child 11-13 years, and that the smaller is a child 7 – 11 years. The bones, which are unsuitable for DNA analysis, remain at Westminster Abbey. However, it is possible that advances in technology may change all of this and the identity of the children established as being or not being those of the princes. The painter Paul Delaroche has been criticised for conveying only drama and emotion, while eliding historical accuracy. But if The Princes In The Tower reminds us that there are many wrongfully imprisoned people in the world today, then it is a very important painting.


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