When Edward IV died on 9 April, 1483, England was nearing the end of the tediously long conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. England needed a period of peace and stable government, but it was not going to get it.
Edward had two children, Edward, aged 12, and Richard, aged 9. The other player in the scene was Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward IV's younger brother and most able supporter and ally. Given the youth of the heir to the throne, a regency would be needed. The two most obvious people to head that regency were Queen Elizabeth and Richard of Gloucester. Richard and the queen were openly hostile, however; indeed, there was very little public support for the queen. Edward IV certainly made his own wishes known, appointing his brother Richard as Lord Protector on his deathbed.
At the time of his his father's death, Edward V was in the company of his mother at Ludlow, so the queen's cause looked the brightest. But Richard, acting with the decisiveness and courage which marked most of his life, forestalled the queen. He rode quickly to intercept the royal party before they could reach London, and on 29 April, took Edward into his own custody. He arrested the lords Rivers and Grey, who were later executed. The queen took sanctuary at Westminster with her daughters, and her second son.
Within six weeks Richard gathered support for a move to declare the princes illegitimate and have himself named king. He arrested those lords most likely to oppose such a move, and had Lord Hastings executed. He pressured the queen into giving Richard, Duke of York, into his care, and Richard joined his elder brother in the Tower of London.
It is worth remembering that the Tower of London did not at that time have the reputation it was later to acquire; it was a royal residence, an armoury, a protected place in royal hands. It was not first and foremost a prison. By placing the princes in the Tower of London, Richard was not, in theory, placing them in prison, or under arrest.
Richard then had a tame priest, Dr. Shaw, preach a sermon at Paul's Cross, claiming that Edward IV had been precontracted in marriage to another woman before marrying Elizabeth Woodville. Based on this 'evidence' Richard called an assembly which in due course asked him to take the crown as the only legitimate heir of the House of York. After a seemly show of reluctance Richard agreed and was crowned king.
Were the princes illegitimate?
Richard's claim to the throne was based on his assertion that the princes were illegitimate, because Edward had been betrothed before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the prince's mother. Given the customs of the time, a prior betrothal could have invalidated Edward's subsequent marriage, so any children of that union would be illegitimate. Richard would have found it easy to gather support against the queen, for she was very unpopular.
At first glance it would appear that this claim is a feeble attempt to legitimise Richard's own claim to the throne. However, it is possible that Richard's claim is based on the truth, though not through Edward's betrothal vows. Medieval historian Professor Michael Jones has determined through court records that Edward's legal father, Richard, Duke of York, was over 100 miles away from his mother, Lady Cecily, at the time when Edward must have been conceived. If true, this would mean that Edward IV was illegitimate, and had no claim to the throne. Therefore his children, Edward and Richard, would have had no claim to the throne. In that case, the person with the best claim to the throne would be Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward's brother (or half-brother if the tale of Edward's origins were true). Certainly, tales of Edward's illegitimacy circulated at the time; Louis XI of France is known to have believed that Edward's father was an English archer named Blaybourne.
The Princes disappear
The princes were regularly seen playing on Tower Green, or taking the air within the walls, but then, around the beginning of June, 1483, they dropped out of sight. Rumours began to circulate, perhaps started by enemies of Richard III, that the princes had been murdered. Richard was well aware of these rumours, and it is worth noting that he did not seek to counter them by the obvious expedient of showing the world that the princes were still alive and well. Were they already dead? We simply don't know. It may be that Richard believed that his nephews were truly illegitimate, and, as such, no longer of note.
Rumblings of discontent became open rebellion. Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham launched an abortive revolt, but that came to nothing and the unfortunate lord was beheaded. He might have stood a better chance had his ally, Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, joined him as planned. Richmond was in exile in France, but his attempt to sail for England was thwarted by storms, and he arrived only to find that Buckingham's rebellion had come to nothing. Richmond returned to France to bide his time.
In the spring of 1484 Richard had his own son, Edward, confirmed as heir to the throne. Then the unhappy child died, and that was not the last of Richard's family to suffer a sudden and unexpected demise. Richard's queen, Anne Neville, died suddenly. Rumours flew that Richard had killed her himself, in order that he might marry his own niece, Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, in order to further solidify his claim to the throne. Public support for Richard weakened considerably at this latest tale, and his former allies flocked to the banner of Henry Tudor.
The Battle of Bosworth
Richard's enemies made the most of the disappearance of the princes to sway public support for their cause. Certainly the absence of the princes made Henry Tudor's attempts to gather support for his rebellion much easier. Henry landed in Wales and marched into England, gathering support as he did so. Richard gathered his forces and rushed to meet him. The armies met at Bosworth, Leicestershire. In a furious battle that could have gone either way, Henry prevailed when key allies of Richard deserted him and went over to the Tudor standard. Richard, to his credit, fought on to the end. Legend tells us that the crown of England was found on a thorn bush after the battle, and placed on Henry Tudor's head by Lord Stanley, one of lords who deserted Richard at the crucial moment. Certainly, at this point Henry seems to have regarded the Princes in the Tower as dead, otherwise his own claim to the throne would have no weight whatever.
In 1674 workmen began preparation for some rebuilding work on the White Tower at the Tower of London. While they were clearing away rubble at the base of a staircase they unearthed a grisly find; two skeletons, small enough to suggest that they were those of two youths. The instant assumption made at the time was that these were the skeletons of Edward and Richard, the Princes in the Tower. If such a find were made today a forensic examination might have been made, perhaps DNA evidence might have been gathered, in an effort to determine if the skeletons were indeed those of the unfortunate princes.
However, such practices were not available at the time and the bones were moved to Westminster Abbey for reburial. Since that time there have been several attempts to reexamine the skeletons in an attempt to determine whether they are indeed the remains of the princes. To date no definitive answers have been forthcoming, though the question might well be asked; if these are not the remains of Edward and Richard, then who are they? And the most compelling question of all; if these are the skeletons of the Princes in the Tower, were they murdered, and if so, by whom?
Who killed the princes in the tower?
First, it is important to remember that we have no definitive proof that anyone killed the princes. All we know is that they disappeared. It is a likely assumption that they were murdered, but it is, in the end, still an assumption. If we indulge in the assumption that they were murdered, then we have to look at those who might have been responsible for such a deed.
- Henry VII - There is no evidence to connect Henry directly with the disappearance of the princes. The case against the first Tudor monarch rests on the question of motive. Henry's claim to the throne was weak, one might say 'nonexistent', even by medieval standards. If the princes lived, they both had a better claim to the throne. For Henry to become king, he needed the princes to disappear. That, in the eyes of many modern historians, makes him a prime suspect.
- Richard III - history has long regarded Richard III as the archetypal wicked uncle; who killed his own nephews to pave the way for his own ascent to the throne. The trouble with such historical accounts is that they are usually written by the winners. In this case, much of what we have been taught as 'facts' about Richard rest on subsequent Tudor accounts of him; accounts written, it is worth remembering, in the reigns of Henry VII and his descendants. Was Richard the wicked uncle of Shakespeare's play, Richard III? Was he even hunchbacked? One could make a good case that Richard had much to lose by killing his nephews. Doing so would turn public opinion against him, which in fact, is what happened when rumours of the prince's disappearance began to circulate. It is also worth remembering that prior to becoming king, Richard had shown extraordinary family loyalty, supporting his elder brother Edward IV through thick and thin. Richard was, in fact, regarded by many of his contemporaries, as something akin to an ideal knight. Was it in character for him to kill his nephews? Or did the allure of power bend Richard's sense of loyalty too far?
- Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham - Richard's brother in law, but also cousin to Henry Tudor and third in the Lancastrian succession behind Henry and his mother. Stafford supported Richard, while secretly plotting with Tudor. Stafford may have killed the boys to discredit Richard, thus furthering his cousins ambitions, and his own eventual rise to power. Or, Richard may have ordered Buckingham to kill the princes in order to solidify his own claim to the throne.
- James Tyrell - perhaps the instrument of the prince's death if not the person behind the murders. Tyrell was a bit of an unsavoury character, given to plotting and underhanded dealings. In 1502 he was in prison for treason against Henry VII. Under torture Tyrell confessed that he had killed the princes, though he supplied no information as to why or under whose influence he had acted.
The truth is that we don't know the truth, and probably never shall, but that is one of the reasons that the story of the Princes in the Tower has such a hold on the public imagination, even after the passage of five centuries or more.
Perhaps the princes did not die in the Tower at all. In 1491 a young man named Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Richard, youngest son of Edward IV. Over the course of several years Warbeck gathered support from abroad, and landed in England in 1497. Henry VII easily defeated Warbeck's scanty troops, and had him thrown in prison, where he was subsequently executed. An earlier pretender to the throne - though not one of the princes - was Lambert Simnel. This boy of about 10 claimed to be the son of George, Duke of Clarence, Edward IV's brother. Supported by Irish and Flemish troops, Simnel's 'army' landed in Lancashire, where they were easily defeated by Henry VII. Simnel was pardoned as an unwitting pawn in the designs of scheming adults, and given a job in the royal kitchens. The Simnel cake is attributed to him.
Did the princes survive?
It seems unlikely, but Elizabeth Woodville certainly seems to to think they did. The former queen testified before Parliament that she believed the boys to be legitimate, but she would not agree to the assumption that they were dead. She never, to the day of her death, claimed they had been murdered.
Wars of the Roses