This installment is part two of a series on the great historical mystery of the Princes in the Tower, so if you skipped the last one, be sure to go back and read it before continuing. In part one, I established the context of familial struggles for the throne of England that one must be familiar with to get a strong understanding of the goings on leading up to the princes’ disappearance, detailing the back and forth conflict between that Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the Plantagenet family that we call the War of the Roses, all culminating in the death of Edward IV and his brother Richard’s taking of the throne from Edward’s son on the grounds that Edward’s marriage to the boy’s common-born mother had been illegitimated. In that episode, we also examined the reputation of Richard III that we have inherited, asking whether or not Richard’s memory has been unfairly sullied by propagandists seeking to please Henry Tudor after he had defeated Richard and established the Tudor dynasty. And indeed it does appear that he was the victim of character assassination after his death and perhaps even while he was still alive. We looked at the claims of his deformity and other legends that would make of him a hideous creature, and relying in large part on evaluations made in my principal source, Bertram Fields’ Royal Blood, we discussed accusations that depict Richard as a greedy, power-hungry despot, all of which seem to lack credibility. And there are further accusations that I didn’t even have time to delve into, such as that Richard’s background shows him to be coldly calculating and murderous and therefore proves he had the appetite for so gruesome a task as killing children if it would benefit him. For example, it is claimed by traditionalists that at the Battle of Tewkesbury, Richard personally killed the young Prince of Wales, likely illegitimate son of Lancastrian Queen Margaret and heir apparent to the feeble-minded King Henry VI, and likewise that it was he who murdered Henry VI in the Tower when the old, crazy king was helpless. And some even claim that it was he who executed his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Firstly, there is no evidence of Richard having been the one who killed any of these men. And if indeed he personally slew the prince at Tewkesbury, it was in defense of his brother, the king, and likely on royal orders. Likewise, in his role as the constable, he may have overseen the killing of Henry VI at the Tower, but it would surely have been at the king’s request. The same might be said for his brother’s execution, but George had stood trial, and actually all indications point to Richard not wanting to see George killed and resenting the fact that Edward had bent to the pressures of his wife’s family to have their brother killed. Now there was a pernicious rumor that seems to have arisen during his lifetime, toward the end of his brief two-year reign, when his wife Anne Neville passed away, that he had poisoned her so that he could marry his niece, Elizabeth. There appears to be no evidence for the poisoning whatsoever. Richard actually took the odd step of publicly denying these rumors, perhaps because by this time he was already plagued by rumors that he had done away with his nephews in the tower. In fact, it makes no sense that Richard would ever have considered marrying his niece, as she had been made a bastard along with the princes and any other Woodville children of his brother. The only benefit to it would have been to keep her from marrying the pretender Henry Tudor, who he knew was scheming in Brittany to take the throne and might strengthen his claim by marrying Elizabeth and uniting the houses of Lancaster and York. Actually, young Elizabeth does seem to have been amenable to the idea of marriage to her uncle based on letters she is said to have written, but this proves nothing besides the fact that she and the Woodvilles likely didn’t believe the rumors that Richard had killed her brothers. This rumor is the true black mark against him, the accusation that likely bred all the others, and it too showed up before the Tudor accession to the throne. So, finally, we must examine this exceptionally cold case of missing children to come to any clear conclusion on the matter of Richard’s character.
After Parliament’s late June declaration that the princes were illegitimate in a document called Titulus Regius, Richard was crowned on July 6th, 1483, and two weeks later departed on his royal progress—kind of a victory tour, if you will. Now there are indications, based on the records of fine cloth being bought for him, that at least one of the princes, the older boy, Edward, was present at the coronation, and the Great Chronicle of London reports that the children had been seen “playing in the Gardyn of the Towyr” more than once during that summer. This may have been before or after Richard had the princes moved to apartments inside the Garden Tower, so called for its access to the garden—a tower that in later years, as I previously mentioned, would be renamed the Bloody Tower after a prominent earl committed suicide there. These sightings that summer appear to be the last time the boys were seen alive, and rumors that the princes had been murdered seem to have arisen as early as July that summer, perhaps even before Richard left on his progress. One contemporary chronicler, Dominic Mancini, an Italian priest who left London in July, brought the gossip back to France, including vague claims that Prince Edward had confided to his physician that he was afraid for his life, although we have other indications that one or both of the princes may have been ill, so these secondhand reports may have been misconstrued. By January the next year the rumor turned into an outright accusation from a bishop in France, and after Easter 1484, the rumor seems to have gained strength in England. And yet, around this time, Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters left sanctuary and appear to have been on friendly terms with King Richard, which would suggest that she must have known or believed that Richard had not harmed her sons. Now, it has been pointed out that, while Richard took the initiative to deny the rumor about his planned marriage to his niece, he kept silent on the far more damaging rumor of the princes’ murder. Why? Perhaps the boys were still alive and the people who mattered knew it. Or if they were dead, it’s also possible that he was not responsible if some other person had done the deed without his knowledge or if the princes had died of natural causes, and Richard may not have wanted the news to get out for fear that it would only exacerbate the rumors of his guilt in the matter. And another possibility is that keeping people guessing was the smart move. After all, the pretender Henry Tudor would rely on his marriage to a daughter of Edward IV to strengthen his claim, but this would only serve his cause if the children of the Woodville marriage were legitimated again, and if the princes were still alive, then their claim would trump his. Therefore, if they were dead, Richard would want Henry to think them alive in order to discourage him, and if they were alive, perhaps Richard had secreted them away for their safety and would prefer that Henry thought them dead, as Henry would seek to eliminate them as well. Thus, whether the princes were dead or alive, Richard would have had good reason not to trumpet the news to the realm.
Indeed, Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was exceedingly weak. The Tudors had come from the servant class, but Henry’s grandfather had an affair with Katherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, and after Katherine died, he made unsupported claims that he had secretly married her, which would make their son a legitimate half-brother of Henry VI. This was no claim to the throne, but Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was of the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets, which gave him a bit more standing. In fact, he had been at court during the Lancastrian restoration, but after Tewkesbury had fled the country and ended up shipwrecked on Brittany, where for more than a dozen years he was essentially a prisoner living in comfort, all the while trying to convince the Duke of Brittany to support his claim to the throne. Well, in 1483, while Richard was on his royal progress, the Duke demanded some aid in defending Brittany against the French, and when Richard failed to provide it, the Duke of Brittany did indeed begin to help Henry Tudor plan his invasion. In the subsequent years, while Richard was dealing with rumors and plots against him, a formidable alliance was formed between the Lancastrian supporters of Henry Tudor and the Woodvilles, who must have at least believed at that time that the princes were deceased even if they did not believe Richard responsible, otherwise why support Henry’s claim to the throne? Moreover, a very powerful man now turned against Richard: the first peer of the realm and constable of England, the Duke of Buckingham, a trusted ally to Richard who had been with him at the beginning, riding daringly with Richard into the midst of the Woodville forces to assert Richard’s protectorship. It is odd that Buckingham supported Henry, being that his own claim to the throne was greater and he had no love for the Woodvilles, but he may have had ulterior motives that we’ll examine later. Buckingham coordinated his rebellion with Henry Tudor’s invasion, but Richard put them both down. While Henry escaped, Buckingham donned a disguise and went into hiding but was betrayed for a reward. Brought to Richard’s encampment, he requested an audience with the king, for purportedly he had a hidden blade and planned to leap at Richard and stab him, but Richard refused his request and had him executed for treason.
Undeterred and with further support from the French, Henry Tudor landed another invasion in August of 1485. Although Richard took the threat seriously, he seems to have been confident enough in his own martial prowess to believe he would handily defeat Henry’s forces. There were, however, complications based on whose military support Richard believed he could rely on. First was Lord Stanley, whose loyalties were notoriously unreliable, but Richard took charge of Lord Stanley’s son as insurance that Stanley would not play both sides of this conflict, as his family had done before. Then there was the Earl of Northumberland, a powerful man in the North whom Richard believed he could rely on based on his own ties to the North. However, it seems Northumberland may have taken umbrage with Richard’s decision not to award him authority over the region. Thus, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard had the high ground and was assured victory, his fortune changed suddenly when Northumberland refused to send his forces into the fray at a crucial moment in the battle. Rather than retreating, Richard gave up his high ground and made a bold charge with a hundred knights right into the heart of the opposing army, seeking to punch through their lines and slay Henry Tudor. But in that moment, as they passed in front of Lord Stanley’s troops, the perfidious lord ordered them to attack. Richard III died in that bloody melee, unhorsed and surrounded by his enemies, and all accounts, even those written by his enemies, admit that he fought fiercely to the end. He was the last English monarch to die in battle. When Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII, among his first acts were to undo Titulus Regius and marry the newly re-legitimized Woodville daughter, thereby uniting the houses of Lancaster and York and truly ending the War of the Roses once and for all. It is likely, Bertram Fields points out, that he would not have done this unless he knew for a certainty that both the princes were indeed dead and gone; otherwise, he would have been raising their claims above his own. And his bill of attainder months later against Richard, which made cryptic mention of the “shedding of Infants blood” seems to further indicate some knowledge not only of the princes’ death but of Richard’s guilt. This is the era in which the legend or myth of Richard III and his murder of the Princes in the Tower cemented. And it is said that in 1502, some 17 years later, one James Tyrell and another associate, John Dighton, confessed to murdering the princes at Richard III’s request.
The traditionalist account of the murders, based almost entirely on Sir Thomas More’s unfinished history, is supposed to have been derived from what was revealed in Tyrell’s confession. The account is as follows. During Richard’s royal progress in 1483, Richard sent word back to the current constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, to murder the children, but Brackenbury refused. Relieving himself in the privy when he received Brackenbury’s refusal, Richard complained, asking a page whom he could possibly trust for such a task, whereupon the page suggested that James Tyrell would certainly do whatever Richard asked. And so Richard sent Tyrell to Brackenbury with a letter telling the constable to give Tyrell the Tower keys for a night, which Brackenbury did. Tyrell then recruited his horsekeeper, John Dighton, and a jailer by the name of Miles Forest to do the dark deed. At midnight, Forest and Dighton entered the princes’ apartments while they slept and smothered them with their blankets. Thereafter, Tyrell directed them to bury the children at the foot of some stairs. Upon hearing where they had laid them to rest, however, Richard protested that as king’s sons, they must be buried in a more appropriate place and had a priest disinter them and rebury them in a new and secret grave. Quite a detailed account, but is it credible? Needless to say, these letters ordering the murders have never shown up. Moreover, More’s story presents Tyrell as a nobody that earned Richard’s trust by undertaking the murders, but Tyrell had fought at Tewkesbury and been knighted and awarded with substantial lands by Edward IV. Nor was he a stranger to Richard, who had actually fought beside him. And if the account truly were derived entirely from Tyrell and Dighton’s confessions, this presents other problems, for it’s not entirely certain that these confessions were ever actually given. There is no surviving documentation of the confession, and if they were real, it is exceedingly odd that Henry VII didn’t make them immediately public and waited two years to declare Tyrell a traitor and even then only on account of his support of another rebel, not for murdering the young king. There would have been good reason to come forward with such a confession, since Henry had recently dealt with an imposter trying to take the throne on the claim that he was one of the princes. Then there’s the fact that one of the supposed murderers, Dighton, who purportedly confessed as well, was never even punished. If the story is to be believed, Henry VII had evidence that the man had committed regicide and simply let him go. Finally, there’s the fact that these confessions are supposed to have been common knowledge, and yet More and others, like Sir Francis Bacon, indicate that many still doubted that the princes were even dead. I suppose that means the confessions were hard to credit even then.
And what of these rumors that the children lived? There exists a document accounting for the delivery of clothes to the Tower in March of 1485, received by the footman of “Lord Bastard,” but it is possible that this refers to Richard’s own bastard son. There are other documents dating from July 1484 indicating the presence of children at Richard’s northern estate, so could it be that Richard had the princes smuggled out of the tower and hidden in safety. After all, Sir Francis Bacon wrote of whisperings during Henry VII’s reign that the princes, or at least one prince, had survived and been living in secret. This would jibe well with some other theories involving certain pretenders to the throne that appeared during Henry VII’s reign. The first was Lambert Simnel. This pretender, called Edwardus by his adherents, showed up in Ireland claiming to be the son of George, the Duke of Clarence, even though it was common knowledge that George’s son was being held in the Tower. Moreover, there is reason to believe that George’s son was cognitively disabled, so it is very strange that this pretender’s cause drew the support of the earl of Lincoln and his aunt, Margaret. Margaret was a sister of Edward IV and Richard III, and the earl of Lincoln was her nephew. They would have known, firstly, that this Edwardus was not George’s son, and secondly that George’s son, with his disability, was not fit to be the king. So it has been suggested that this Lambert Simnel, who was taken captive after Henry VII put down his rebellion at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 and revealed to be a young commoner, was just a stalking horse, a false claimant knowingly put forward to gauge the strength of opposition to Henry VII. Thus, if Simnel’s rebellion had succeeded, perhaps the earl of Lincoln could have been placed on the throne in his stead. Oddly, though, at this time, Henry VII sent Elizabeth Woodville, now his mother-in-law, to a convent and took her lands, and the only apparent reason for this seems to be that she supported the cause of Lambert Simnel. But why on earth would she do this when her daughter was queen? One explanation seems to be that perhaps this Edwardus was a stalking horse for one of her sons, not dead after all and come forth to claim his birthright, which Henry Tudor had himself reinstated. Another is that Edwardus was actually her son, Edward V, and rather than being captured was killed at Stoke and replaced by Henry VII with a young commoner to make the uprising look like a total farce.
A few years later, though, yet another pretender to the throne appeared, this one openly claiming to be the younger of the two princes thought to have been killed in the Tower: Prince Richard. What’s more, even though Henry VII claimed that his spies had discovered this pretender was nothing but a commoner named Perkin Warbeck, he dressed the part, he reportedly looked the part of a Plantagenet, he supposedly had intimate knowledge of family matters, and he was able to convince numerous members of European nobility and royalty that he was who he said he was. After Henry rebuffed his invasion and captured him, this pretender supposedly confessed to everything Henry VII had said about him. Thereafter, having failed in two attempts to escape the Tower, he was executed after the manner of a commoner: hanged, drawn and quartered. But as has been seen before, when exploring other topics, the confession is obviously suspect, being that it was surely extracted under coercion or at least the threat of it. What’s more, there are certain inconsistencies in Perkin Warbeck’s confession that may indicate it was fabricated or that he may have inserted falsehoods into it as a signal that the whole thing was false. One inconsistency is that his name is given as Osbeck rather than Warbeck, and there are several additional inconsistencies relating to the pretender’s supposed background and names of family members. Then there is the far-fetched quality of the story the confession tells, for it claims that while in Ireland, two Englishman first mistook him for a Plantagenet and then forced him against his will to learn English in a short amount of time and undertake his imposture as Prince Richard! And while a few years later, Henry would make no effort to bring forth proof of Tyrell’s confession, he did have many copies of Perkin Warbeck’s confession circulated, yet no signed original seems to exist! Bertram Fields outlines a compelling notion that Perkin Warbeck may indeed have been Prince Richard, and that Lambert Simnel, if he wasn’t Richard’s older brother Edward, may have been a stalking horse for the younger prince. He points to a legend passed down in the Tyrell family that James Tyrell, the very man accused of murdering the princes, took them in, along with their mother, with Richard III’s permission. And there is some indication of Richard sending Tyrell on mysterious errands abroad and rewarding him with a large sum of money in late 1484 and early 1485. Therefore, it would seem at least plausible that Richard did indeed make arrangements for the princes to live in secret, away from England, where they grew to be men and eventually returned to reassert their birthright in abortive attempts at overthrowing Henry VII.
Of course, there is also the possibility that the princes did indeed die in the Tower. Even so, would that necessarily mean they were murdered? There are reports of young Prince Edward expressing fears for his life to his personal physician, but there are also reports that the young prince may have been gravely ill, which would seem to reframe that exchange as the prince expressing his fear of a natural death rather than his fear of being murdered. It’s widely accepted that Prince Edward suffered from osteomyelitis, a chronic condition common in the Middle Ages that involved bone infections. Moreover, Sir Thomas More himself quotes Elizabeth Woodville as saying that the younger Prince Richard was also “sore diseased with sicknes.” So it stands to reason that the poor children, sequestered in their tower apartments, simply passed away from separate illnesses, and Richard did not make this known for a number of reasons. First, with the princes gone, it may have encouraged other claimants to press their causes, as the further impediments to usurpation that the princes may have seemed to be were now gone. Second, the simple truth was that, even if Richard declared how the children had died and produced their bodies for examination, the bare fact of their deaths would only further strengthen the rumors that he had murdered them.
There may be no evidence that the princes survived, but there does appear to be evidence that they died, for in 1674, as workers excavated beneath a staircase in the Tower of London, they uncovered a chest containing two small skeletons. These were presumed to be the remains of the Princes in the Tower and were ceremoniously placed in an urn at Westminster Abbey. In 1933, some scientists were permitted to examine the remains, and their findings would seem to confirm this conclusion. Based on the size of the bones, it was estimated that they were the remains of children of the right age to have been the princes, and the older of the two showed signs of his jawbone having deteriorated due to disease, which would correspond with Edward’s osteomyelitis. Furthermore, both skulls appeared to display hypodontia, or congenitally missing teeth, which would indicate the two were related.
Case closed, then? If these were the princes, then the very fact that their remains were buried in a chest beneath a staircase not only indicates they were murdered but also seems to confirm Sir Thomas More’s version of the events. However, that’s not exactly true, for according to More’s version, the children’s remains were dug up and reburied elsewhere. Also, the evidence may not be as concrete as it seems. For example, one might argue that the existence of children’s bones in the Tower at all proves it was them, but in fact, 27 years earlier, two other children’s skeletons were discovered laid out on a table in a walled up room. In fact, these had been presumed to be the princes until the second set of skeletons was discovered. Moreover, it has been pointed out that hypodontia may prove the two skeletons were related, but if the remains discovered in a parking lot in 2012 really are that of Richard III, as I mentioned in the last installment, then those remains, which show no signs of hypodontia, may indicate that the skeletons under the stairs were of no relation to him and couldn’t be those of his nephews. Furthermore, Bertram Fields points out that judging age from bone size, as those who studied the bones in the 30s did, is an imperfect proposition at best, considering variation in bone size and the fact that people generally tended to be much smaller in the Middle Ages than the average sizes the scientists relied on. Therefore, we can’t be certain of how old these children were at the time of their deaths, and in this case, that is of the utmost importance.
If these are the remains of the princes, and if they were proven to have died any time after the Battle of Bosworth Field, then the clear suspect is no longer Richard but Henry Tudor, who would have taken control of the boys when he took control of the Tower of London, and as reversing the Titulus Regius and re-legitimizing the offspring of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was crucial to his plan to marry the princes’ sister and strengthen his own right to rule, they would have been rivals to the throne. If however, the bones were able to prove that the princes were killed before Bosworth, that does not necessarily prove Richard’s guilt either, for there is always the possibility that someone murdered the princes without his approval, perhaps thinking he would approve and reward them. There is a cryptic letter from late July 1483 referring to “certain persons” being held for engaging in an unnamed “enterprise” and awaiting “due execucion of our lawes.” Could this carefully worded letter of Richard’s be referring to the difficult matter of punishing some murderers for a crime that many would likely blame on Richard himself? This is total speculation, of course, but possible, and there are other likely suspects as well. Another candidate Fields puts forth is the Duke of Buckingham. We know that in his rebellion and support of Henry Tudor, he was likely scheming to put himself on the throne, and the princes could have been perceived as standing in the way for him as well. He was lord high constable of England and could have easily entered the Tower and done the deed when Richard was away on his progress. Then he could have spread the rumor that Richard murdered them to undermine Richard’s rule and stir up support for supplanting him with someone else, which of course Buckingham believed should be himself, even if it meant ensuring Henry Tudor died in battle. It’s a solid theory, for it further explains Buckingham’s falling out with Richard and gives a good reason why Richard might have kept the princes’ deaths a secret, since few would believe he was not party to their murder. But it’s just guesswork and not more or less credible than the traditionalist view that Richard had the princes killed himself. Perhaps one day soon the bones will be released again for more modern scientific analysis, and through DNA and modern dating techniques we might determine whether the bones beneath the stairs did indeed belong to the Princes in the Tower and perhaps discover when exactly they were killed, but that still will not prove that Richard III was responsible. Therefore, it seems safe to assert that this will forever remain one of the most intriguing historical mysteries of all time.