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