The Princes in the Tower

The story of the Princes in the Tower remains shrouded in mystery. Did Richard III have them killed after he seized the throne? We take a look at the facts behind the stories.
Richard III and the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford-upon-Avon

Richard III and the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford-upon-Avon © Steve Frost/Alamy

William Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Richard III as a charismatic, deformed, treacherous usurper of England’s throne has intrigued audiences for more than 400 years. The murder of Richard’s nephews, “the gentle babes…girdling one another within their alabaster innocent arms”, so the royal villain could grab the crown is shocking stuff.

Yet are we witnessing historic fact, dramatic licence or retrospective Tudor propaganda to discredit King Richard? In 1984, some five centuries after the sudden disappearance of the two boys immortalised in history as the Princes in the Tower, a jury in a TV ‘trial’ found that it could not, on the evidence presented, convict Richard of his nephews’ murder. Such is the mystery of the Princes’ fate that it fascinates to this day – you can even join a jury and decide for yourself at the Richard III Museum in York.

Princes Tower
© Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

So what did happen to the Princes? The gist of the story is well known: King Edward IV dies unexpectedly in April 1483, leaving his 12-year-old son Edward to inherit the throne. The late king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, becomes Protector of England and lodges Edward and his sibling, nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London.

Events move fast. Before the year is out Edward V and his brother have been declared illegitimate, Edward is deposed and they both vanish, and the Duke of Gloucester is crowned King Richard III.

Within another two years, Richard is killed at the Battle of Bosworth and the victor, Henry Tudor, is crowned King Henry VII. Thus ends the turbulent era of dynastic dispute known as the Wars of the Roses and the momentous Tudor age dawns.

The fate of the Princes has divided opinion for centuries. Popular belief is that they were murdered – whether smothered, locked in a room and left to starve, poisoned or even drowned in wine – theories range from realistic to fanciful. Richard III, his ally the Duke of Buckingham, his henchmen, and even Henry VII have all variously stood accused of carrying out the crime.

Partisan Tudor writers – including those that provided Shakespeare’s source material – were unequivocal that Richard was responsible. Paintings show him as a hunchback, his physical deformity an outward sign of his wickedness, though no contemporary reports record such an appearance.

The Richard III Society, originating in 1924, aims to promote research into the life and times of the much-maligned king, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to the period. President, historian and author Peter Hammond says, “The Society has no official view on the death of the Princes but would point out that there is no evidence that they were in fact murdered at all. They were known to have been in the Tower of London in the late summer of 1483 and there are no reports of them being seen after that. The implication usually drawn is that they were murdered but that does not necessarily follow; they could have been moved elsewhere.”

The Tower of London
The Tower of London photos: © Steven Phraner

Indeed, in the wake of the Princes’ disappearance it was sometimes rumoured they had been spirited to safety in the countryside or abroad. Well into the reign of Henry VII figures would emerge claiming to be one or other of the brothers. A humble bricklayer working at Eastwell Park in Kent around 1530 surprised folk by reading Latin in his spare time: some whispered he was
Richard, Duke of York.

Let’s step right back to the beginning of the saga in April 1483 and follow the trail of events. Young Edward was residing at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire when he heard of his father’s death and, as the new King Edward V, set out for London with an escort including his maternal uncle Earl Rivers.

Edward’s paternal uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was at his northern stronghold of Middleham Castle, Yorkshire, and hastened south to assume the role of Protector of the Realm. On the way he and his ally the Duke of Buckingham intercepted the royal party and arrested Rivers, Edward’s half-brother Sir Richard Grey, and two others.

Did Gloucester already have designs on the crown? Or did he simply want control of the boy king, fearing plans by the queen’s family and their faction in London to make Edward their puppet? In the following months Richard would successfully sideline his opponents, having Rivers and Grey executed at Pontefract Castle for alleged plotting against him.

So Richard escorted Edward to the capital. Sir Thomas More, later railing against tyranny in his 16th-century History of King Richard III, says Edward “wept and was nothing content” at what had happened.

Following tradition, the young king lodged in sumptuous apartments at the Tower of London (it was still a royal residence, not solely a prison) while awaiting his coronation: originally set for 4 May, then 24 June, then 22 June, then postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile Gloucester, busy manipulating the council called to decide plans for the coronation and government while Edward was a minor, was officially named Protector and Defender of the Realm. He also pushed the queen, who had sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, to surrender Richard to join his brother Edward in the Tower.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III
Laurence Olivier as Richard III © Alamy

John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, tells us that Edward possessed a “gentle wit and ripe understanding, far passing the nature of his youth”, while French chronicler Jean Molinet said York was “joyous and witty, and ever ready for dances and games.” The brothers were seen playing in the garden at the Tower.

But sometime after 16 June Edward V and York were withdrawn to inner apartments. Edward Mancini, a monk in the entourage of the French ambassador to England, reported “day by day [they] began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows.” It is thought they were kept in the White Tower.

Suddenly it was announced that Edward IV had been in a pre-contract of marriage before he married the Princes’ mother, Elizabeth Wydville, and the boys were illegitimate. No evidence was produced but an assembly of lords and commons deposed Edward V on 25 June. The next day Gloucester became King Richard III.

Richard proved an efficient and capable ruler but the fact that the Princes were never seen publicly again and the widespread belief that he had done away with them blackened his reputation: even in those ruthless times, murder of children was considered shocking. Many writers presented Richard’s death at Bosworth in 1485 as a fitting come-uppance.

Nevertheless, persisting uncertainty over the fate of the Princes allowed ‘pretenders’ to the throne to emerge periodically throughout the reign of Henry VII, most notably Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. Both purported to be the long-lost Duke of York.

Then in 1502 Sir James Tyrrell, while being held in the Tower for treason, confessed that he had smothered the Princes on the order of Richard III. Sir Thomas More later wrote a chilling re-enactment of the alleged scene when Tyrell’s accomplices entered the Princes’ bedchamber at midnight and “so bewrapped and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather bed and pillows hard into their mouths”.

The Tower of London today is dwarfed by the City of London
The Tower of London today is dwarfed by the City of London © Roland Nagy

More also said that the bodies were buried “at the stair foot, meetly deep under the ground” and that the murder happened on 15 August 1483; modern historian Alison Weir calculates it was 3 September.

In 1674 workmen found two skeletons at the base of the staircase to the chapel in the White Tower. Following investigations by the royal surgeon and selected antiquaries, the remains were declared to be those of the Princes, and King Charles II had them reburied in an urn in Westminster Abbey.

In 1933 the skeletons were re-examined using more modern scientific techniques and, while findings are not considered conclusive, they are generally thought consistent with two children of the ages of the Princes.

Bones, circumstantial evidence, reports and rumours paint a poignant and bloody tale, but mystery still shrouds the full truth.

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