On 21 June 1483, Edward, the thirteen year old heir to the English Throne and his ten year old brother Richard, Duke of York, were seen playing together in the grounds of the Tower of London, they would never be seen again. What happened to them and who was responsible for their disappearance remains one of the most enduring mysteries in English history. The man traditionally held culpable for their disappearance and probable murder was their uncle the sinister, hunch-backed, pathological Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the soon to be King Richard III. Yet was he the depraved monster described in the works William Shakespeare among others, or merely the victim of remorseless negative Tudor propaganda.
The Princes father King Edward IV had fought long and hard throughout what would become known as the Wars of the Roses, the bitter family feud of complex alliances, broken promises, and savage retribution between the Houses of York and Lancaster, to secure the throne of England but his hold upon it would remain contested and the cause of resentment.
His father, Richard of York, had originally laid claim to the throne and openly rebelled against King Henry VI but when he was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, his claim passed to his son.
Just over a year later on 29 March 1461, in a snowstorm the young Edward lead his army to a comprehensive victory at the Battle of Towton following which he was crowned King and it seemed, for the time being at least, that the Wars of the Roses were over.
Edward had only been able to triumph with the help of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as The Kingmaker, and had earlier been betrothed to his six year old daughter but now chose to marry the woman he loved instead, the formidable Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian, of whom it was said, “she was the most beautiful woman in England with heavy lidded eyes like those of a dragon”, and by all accounts had the tongue of a dragon to match.
The Woodville family were detested as ambitious upstarts and Warwick furious at being deceived and with his own dynastic ambitions stymied now changed his allegiance and conspired in secret with Edward’s brother the Duke of Clarence, to put Henry VI back on the throne.
Taken completely by surprise Edward was forced to flee ignominiously to France along with his younger brother Richard who, as he always would, stood loyally by his side.
During his period in exile Edward plotted his return convincing his brother Clarence to yet again change sides and with his forces much reduced as a result on 14 April 1471, Warwick was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet.
Edward then went onto eliminate any lingering Lancastrian resistance at the Battle of Tewkesbury and not long after his triumphal entry into London he had Henry VI murdered. He was again King of England, for the second time.
But needless to say the plots against him continued with his brother Clarence once more at their centre. Learning of this Edward’s forbearance finally snapped. He had Clarence arrested and ordered his death. Under pressure from his mother he permitted Clarence to choose his own means of execution and he chose to be lowered head first into a vat of Malmsey wine. The execution was supervised by his younger brother Richard.
With the only remaining claimant to the throne Henry Tudor in exile abroad, Edward was able to rule over a country at peace and he was to prove himself an able administrator but the once physically imposing Edward, who at 6’4″ is the tallest ever English Monarch, secure on his throne, became lazy and dissolute. On 9 April 1483, aged just 40, he died, probably of pneumonia.
Just before his death he named his brother Richard Lord Protector during his son’s minority. He could know that he had left his Dynasty in safe hands, for there was no one he trusted more.
Though he rarely spoke of it, no doubt with the fate of his brother Clarence fresh in his mind, Richard had long believed Edward to be illegitimate. The physical differences between the two of them were stark. Richard was short at no more than 5’7″. He had dark hair and eyes, a pallid almost sickly complexion and was thin and brittle in appearance. Indeed, he was the spitting image of his father and so unlike his tall, blonde, athletically built, and ruddy complexioned brother.
Edward had also been born in Rouen to very little fanfare for a first born and prospective heir to the throne. The rumours of Edward’s illegitimacy were to persist throughout his reign and even his own mother referred to it. He was by all accounts the issue of a liaison between her and an English bowman named Blaybourne.
Despite Richard’s own doubts as to his brother’s legitimacy and thereby his right to rule he never took issue with it and remained loyal to him throughout his life, for which he was richly rewarded. He had estates throughout England and had been appointed in turn Chief Constable, Grand Chamberlain, and Lord High Admiral. He had been to all effects Edward’s chief enforcer. It had not made him popular.
Richard may have been close to his brother but he despised Elizabeth Woodville, who he considered little better than a whore. She in turn feared for her life and her children’s safety and despite Richard’s emollient words she now sought sanctuary in an Abbey. Although there would eventually be a reconciliation of sorts and she would return to Court she continued to conspire with Richard’s enemies against him.
Yet despite his antipathy towards their mother he had always been a good uncle to Edward’s children and was often seen to display considerable affection towards them.
Following Edward’s death it fell to Earl Rivers the Queen’s brother and Head of the Prince of Wales’s Household, to escort the young Prince safely to London for his coronation. He was intercepted on his procession south by Richard who informed him that he was taking the young Prince into his charge. He then had the Earl imprisoned at nearby Pontefract Castle where he was executed on 25 June 1483.
Richard was now advised by the powerful Lord William Hastings who had always been ultra-loyal to the House of York to secure the Prince in the Tower of London for his own safety, where he would later be joined by his younger brother, the Duke of York.
With the Protectorate in place and the Coronation due Richard now invited Lord Hastings and other leaders to a meeting to discuss how they should proceed. Richard who was an earnest man and not noted for his sense of humour appeared to be in a particularly jovial mood that day and during the proceedings he ordered that some strawberries be brought. He then excused himself for a moment. When he returned he was accompanied by an armed guard. Standing before Lord Hastings he angrily denounced him as a traitor before having him dragged out and beheaded in the courtyard. It was the first execution ever to be carried out in the grounds of the Tower of London.
Despite his execution Lord Hastings was never formally attainted on the charge of treason and his family were permitted to retain his title and estates whilst his widow Katherine was placed under Richard’s personal protection. This casts doubt on whether or not Richard truly believed Hastings to be a traitor at all. Rather, if it was indeed his aim to usurp the throne then he may have thought it wise to rid himself of a man whose loyalties were known to be with the young Prince.
Not long after the execution of Lord Hastings, Richard declared his brother Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville void on the grounds that he had previously been betrothed to another woman, Eleanor Butler, thereby making his deceased brother’s children illegitimate – with the bastardisation of his nephews Richard was now heir to the throne.
For a time the two young Princes would be regularly seen in the grounds of the Tower of London and to those who witnessed them play they appeared happy and carefree but it might not have been all that it seemed for perhaps out of fear for his life, Edward had requested a remission of his sins.
It is not known if they were killed but after 22 June 1483, they were never seen again.
On the same day that the Princes were last seen alive a sermon was preached outside St Paul’s Cathedral in which it was announced that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York were bastards and that Richard, Duke of Gloucester was now the rightful King. It was at this point that Richard was supposed to appear on the balcony to accept the acclamation of the people of London. But he had been delayed and by the time he appeared the crowd had dispersed. Nonetheless, he was crowned King Richard III on 6 July, and his coronation confirmed by Parliament the following January.
There was no doubt that Richard had usurped the throne and there was also no doubt that in his mind he had every right to do so. But was he responsible for murdering the Princes in the Tower?
It was true that he could not have ascended to the throne without their removal but having already declared them illegitimate why then murder, them? It has always been assumed that as the most obvious beneficiary of their deaths then he must have been responsible. But there is little evidence for this other than hearsay and conjecture, and there are other suspects.
One possible suspect in the disappearance of the Princes was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He had at one time been Richard’s effective right-hand-man but seeing his opportunity to press his own claim as a descendant of Edward III’s son John of Gaunt he rebelled in October 1483. Like Richard he could have had no claim to the throne while the Princes remained alive.
He certainly had access to them and could very easily have had them killed without Richard’s knowledge; and even after he was arrested and sentenced to death for treason he made no accusation against Richard with regards to the Princes disappearance.
Indeed, it could be said that the man who benefited most from the disappearance of the Princes was Henry Tudor. After all, he had little if any legitimate claim to the throne beyond his own vainglorious ambition, or at least that of his formidable mother Margaret Beaufort. He was merely the illegitimate son of the third son of Edward III but he was the last remaining candidate to the throne that the House of Lancaster had.
His lack of legitimacy meant that any other candidates to the throne would have to be eliminated. But he would have had little opportunity to do so until the summer of 1485 and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, unless, of course the murders were committed on his behalf. The Duke of Buckingham, who had allied himself with Henry before his execution could easily have committed the deed to prove his loyalty.
If the Princes had still been alive when he had arrived in London then he would no doubt have had them disposed of and he wasn’t to declare them dead until more than a year after he ascended the throne, and then made no effort to either find or produce the bodies. This allowed future pretenders to the throne claiming to be one of the murdered Princes to emerge. Also, despite denouncing Richard as a bloody tyrant he never accused him of murdering the Princes. Even so Tudor propaganda proclaiming Richard to have been a monster of unspeakable wickedness and depravity, and designed to blacken his name at every turn was to continue for decades after his death.
Then again if Richard was not responsible for the disappearance of the Princes then why did he make no comment to that effect? If they were still alive why did he not produce them to quash the gossip and rumours.
In 1502 James Tyrrell, who had been a trusted servant of Richard III’s, confessed to murdering the Princes at his behest but the confession had been extracted under torture. He was also unable to say where the bodies were buried other than that they had been removed from the Tower. Also, he was never accused of the crime but was instead executed on 6 May 1502 for treason.
In his History of Richard III, Sir Thomas More elaborated upon the Tyrrell confession claiming that the two Princes had been smothered in their beds by Myles Forest and John Dighton on the orders of James Tyrrell. The bodies were then buried he claimed:
“At the stayre foote, melely depe in the grounde under a great heape of stones.”
More then goes on to say that the bodies were later removed and buried elsewhere but it should also be remembered that More, was writing as an unequivocal propagandist for the Tudor regime.
In 1674, during repairs to the Tower of London the skeletons of two children were discovered in a coffin. Charles II assumed that they were the bodies of the Princes and had them reburied with great solemnity but an autopsy carried out on the remains in 1933 failed to determine either the sex of the children or how they died, though it was agreed that they were the remains of children between 10 and 16 years of age.
It has also been suggested that Henry Tudor’s formidable mother Margaret had found the Princes still in the Tower of London upon her son’s arrival in the city and rather than have them exiled or killed kept them imprisoned for the rest of their lives.
This may not be as ridiculous or as unfounded it might appear for ever since the birth of her only child she had sought to legitimise him and attain the recognition that had always been denied to her and her family within the House of Lancaster. Now that he had secured the throne would she have flinched at disposing of the young Princes had they been found alive? But, given her personal history of child rape, the inability to conceive again thereafter, and absolute devotion to her own son would she simply have had them killed?
Both Margaret and Henry were aware that as a usurper he had sinned against God, a fact that haunted Henry for the rest of his life and he often remarked upon how badly he slept so to heap one sin upon another by murdering the true heirs to the throne would be a deed of unconscionable wickedness. Even so, if they were still alive they could never be seen to be so.
The mystery and controversy surrounding the fate of the Princes in the Tower remains unresolved to this day.