Who Killed the Princes in the Tower?

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway Picture Collection
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway Picture Collection

It is summer, 1483.  Twelve-year-old Edward V of England and his nine-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, are never going to be seen playing in the Tower of London grounds again. Their mother and former queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had managed to escape to sanctuary underneath Westminster Abbey, fearing that herself and her daughters would also be imprisoned or worse. By this point the Prince’s uncle had already declared himself Richard III of England, a man whose reputation was soon to be shrouded with cruelty as a hunchback child-murderer. England had been in the midst of civil war, commonly known as the Wars of the Roses, for almost 30 years now and the entire country was socially and financially destabilised from constant war and uncertainty between the rival houses of York and Lancaster. Yet this is not a story between the two opposing houses but that of a new division between the Yorkists themselves. Plausible conclusions to the most mysterious and secretive disappearance in Medieval History still dissatisfy historians today and the Princes remain a rife topic in historiographical debate.

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III (c. 1520, after a lost original), formerly belonging to the Paston family (Society of Antiquaries, London)
The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III (c. 1520, after a lost original), formerly belonging to the Paston family (Society of Antiquaries, London)

Richard, Duke of Gloucester was always a loyal and devoted brother to Edward IV, the Yorkist King who replaced the incompetent and Lancastrian Henry VI. Richard had vast control of the North and succeeded in pacifying a temperamental region and ensuring that any threats to the Yorkist regime were dealt with effectively. Compared to his other brother, the troublesome and traitorous George, Duke of Clarence, he was a highly respected and trusted member of the nobility despite his strong claim to the throne. Edward IV had two sons with Elizabeth Woodville amongst her seven daughters: Edward, the eldest, and Richard, the younger. Upon Edward IV’s sudden death in 1483, the Crown was to immediately pass to his eldest son Edward V with his uncle, Richard, titled as regent and Lord Protector. Yet extraordinary and fast-paced events were to follow once rumours reached the north that the king was dead. Richard intercepted the Prince’s journey to London on 29 April and took possession of the boys against Elizabeth Woodville’s will and took them to the Tower. Yet this would not have seemed like forced imprisonment at the time – future kings always inhabited the Tower prior to their coronation. After postponement for Edward’s coronation, Parliament declared both Princes illegitimate on grounds of a suspected pre-contract between Edward IV and a previous woman, and crowned himself King of England. Over time sightings of the princes were recorded less and less, until in the summer of 1483 they seem to have disappeared altogether. Alison Weir believes that the obvious is the most compelling theory: Richard III’s claim to the throne would always be threatened by the princes and their potential as a focal point for rebellion remained very possible indeed. Although perhaps not committed by himself, the boys were murdered on his own orders.

Margaret Beaufort at prayer c. 1500 (later copy by Rowland Lockey)
Margaret Beaufort at prayer c. 1500 (later copy by Rowland Lockey)

Yet historians such as Philippa Gregory believe this wasn’t really what happened. Margaret Beaufort was mother of the future King Henry VII, a Tudor boy who had a weaker claim to the throne than the Princes, but a claim nonetheless. She was fanatic about her son’s future and perhaps the wealthiest woman in England. Access to the Tower of London was within her reigns of power whether by herself or through a third-party. With her ruthlessness, influence and determination to put Henry on the throne, it is highly possible that Margaret master-minded the entire affair: with two of Edward IV’s children and heirs in the picture, the future looked bleak for her son. Polydore Vergil also wrote that when rumours of the Princes death reached her, she spoke of how ‘that that deed would without doubt prove for the profit of the commonwealth’. Even by medieval standards, the murder of two young boys was seen by contemporaries as a horrific crime against nature and God, yet it is not Margaret’s reputation or her son that would suffer for her suspect involvement.

Richard III and Margaret Beaufort are not the only names that crop up when discussing the mystery of the Prince’s disappearance. James Tyrell (a Yorkist knight), Henry Stafford (2nd  Duke of Buckingham) and Henry VII himself following his accession are all suspects or thought to be potentially involved in the boys mysterious fate. But were they killed? In 1674 the remains of two skeletons were found under the staircase of the White Tower. Astonishingly, their location matched records written by Thomas More. In 1933 their bones were exhumed and examined by experts. Weir points out that there were also wrapped in velvet, which was believed to be in England only after 1400, ruling out any possibility that they were early medieval or Roman remains. The estimated ages of the bodies also coincided with historical records. Controversially, this year it was discovered upon the exhumation of Richard III, in a car park in Leicester, that his spine was indeed curved and boosted the reliability of many who had blackened Richard’s reputation by deeming him a hunchback and mutated man. Yet this curvation was mild, most likely early scoliosis and thus a minor disability. Yet if his enemies accounts resembled some truth, should that mean the accusations were truth? How did a loyal brother turn against his own nephews, and did he actually? Frustratingly there are so many unanswered questions regarding the fate of the Princes and unfortunately it appears as if they will remain unanswered.

Bibliography

Weir, A., The Princes in The Tower (London, 2008)

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