The discovery, if that's what it is, has once again, of course, shone attention on the thorny question of whether Richard III was really responsible for the death of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. In The Times (behind a paywall, so no link), Ben MacIntyre is saying "Would Richard really have done away with the sons of a brother to whom he was demonstrably loyal, inviting scandal so early in his reign?"
I've long been interested in the Princes in the Tower. I wrote the following piece orignially for the fanzine Banana Wings, issue 24 (November 2005). It was initially sparked by something one of the editors, Claire Brialey, wrote in another fanzine, Paraphernalia, back in Easter 2001 – while writing a long article about history and film, she talked about the Battle of Bosworth Field (close to that year’s Eastercon), and mentioned "vile opportunist weaselly mean-spirited Henry Tudor". Clearly, Claire had an opinion on one of the most controversial figures of English history, Richard III. I was further moved to write by conversations with my friend Hester Duffy. I've done a bit of a polish to what follows, but my conclusions remain unchanged.
The question of Richard’s responsibility or otherwise for the death of the Princes in the Tower is a controversial topic, one that can be argued over incessantly because the evidence is pretty slim and vague.
The bare facts, which are beyond question, are that in 1483 the Yorkist King, Edward IV, having finally disposed of his Lancastrian rival Henry VI, died, leaving the throne to his young son, Edward V. Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were placed in the hands of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would act as Lord Protector. But within months the Duke of Gloucester had deposed Edward V and taken the throne himself as Richard III. The Princes went into the Tower of London. They were technically not 'imprisoned', as they certainly weren't charged with anything, save not being legitimate heirs to the throne. 'Protective custody' probably covers it better, but to all intents and purposes they were imprisoned, and were never seen again.
After Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, and took the throne as Henry VII, blame for the Princes’ death was firmly laid on Richard. There it lay, encouraged by Shakespeare's portrayal ("The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom" he has Richard say, in Richard III, Act IV, Scene III) until the nineteenth century, when the alternative theory that Henry VII was the guilty party was first aired. Since then bodies such as the Richard III Society have been pushing this latter view.
Many people’s interest, including mine and Hester's, was sparked by Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time, a fictional account of a bed-ridden detective investigating the death of the Princes; the detective concludes that Henry VII, not Richard, was the culprit. Tey’s novel is very persuasive – when I read it over twenty years ago I was prepared to accept its case. But I no longer do. And I thought I’d set out my reasons.
First of all, let us eliminate two minor suspects: Richard's ally and then enemy, Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham; and Margaret Beaufort mother of Henry VII. They can be ruled out, because neither of them had access to the Princes. This leaves Henry and Richard.
Then, let me remove one piece of evidence from consideration. In 1674, two skeletons were found in a chest hidden in the substructures of the Tower of London. It was immediately assumed that these were the Princes, and it’s certainly a possibility. If it could be proved that they were, this would settle the issue beyond doubt, as the elder boy was between eleven and thirteen years old, consistent with Edward V’s age in 1483, but not with how old he would have been in 1485. But the evidence isn’t quite strong enough to make this certain, so we need to look at other arguments.
The first point made by Richard’s defenders is that it is obvious that our picture of Richard is a fabrication of the Tudors. Plainly it’s difficult to believe that Henry VII would not have taken every opportunity he possibly could to blacken Richard’s name. He had to - Richard was a legitimately-crowned king, for all that the legitimacy of his coronation rested on dubious assertions about his nephews (to which we shall return), and Henry needed to paint him as a tyrant to justify removing him. Clearly the picture of Richard III that comes through Shakespeare is an exaggeration, presenting the Tudor-approved picture of an evil monster. I have no issue with the idea that Richard III was nothing like as black as the Tudors, and their mouthpiece Shakespeare, painted him.
But one must not over-react. Just because Richard was not as black as Tudor propaganda paints him, that does not mean he was entirely innocent of all charges laid against him. Yes, the depiction of him as hunchback is done in a malicious way,* meant to suggest that the deformed body was accompanied by a deformed character. But Richard’s defenders seem to assume that if he wasn’t deformed then he couldn’t have been a bad man, and deploy this as an argument. This is to do exactly the same thing as the Tudors, and make a link between physical form and character. We ought to be taking the view that whether or not Richard had a hunchback is irrelevant to his character.
It is argued that Richard was a popular ruler in his day. Well, he was probably more popular than the Tudors and Shakespeare would have us believe. And there is evidence that suggests he tried to be an enlightened and just ruler. But nonetheless, he did have to face two major rebellions within the twenty-six months that he ruled, in 1483 and 1485. Many of those who joined the 1483 revolt had been those who, a few months earlier, had helped him to the throne. In any case, again, this is not strictly relevant to whether or not he killed the Princes.
The next argument in Richard's defence is that Sir Thomas More is the only source that says Richard killed the Princes. More was writing well into the sixteenth century (around 1514-1518, with subsequent revisions in the 1520s), and so was removed from the events by several decades. Moreover, at the point he was writing, he was a strong proponent of the Tudor government. Therefore, the argument goes, he cannot be trusted in this respect.
Well, it is true that More's is the most detailed account, and there is almost certainly a large amount of dramatic invention in what he wrote. But that doesn’t mean the central point is necessarily untrue. And there are other sources from the time when More was writing, in the early sixteenth century, who name the same individual as More does, Sir James Tyrell, as being the man sent by Richard to do the deed.
Richard’s supporters might accept that, but will then argue that there was no talk of Richard killing the Princes during his reign. This is not true. There are several contemporary records that show that there was speculation about the Princes’ fate as early as the late summer of 1483.
Dominic Mancini, an Italian cleric who was in London in summer of 1483, but left soon after Richard’s coronation, wrote after his return to the Continent that ‘there was a suspicion he [Edward V] had been done away with’, but that he could not ascertain if this were true or not. There is a note written by a wool merchant, George Cely, in late June 1483, saying that there were rumours that Edward V was dead (admittedly, even if Richard was the murderer, Edward possibly was not dead at the time of Cely's note, as he may have been seen in early July). In January 1484 the Chancellor of France delivered a speech in which he alleged that the Princes had been murdered. The Croyland Chronicle states that there were such rumours in September 1483, just before the Duke of Buckingham’s revolt, but that was written in April 1486, so may not be entirely reliable. Nevertheless, whilst it could be said that these rumours and accusations were spread by Richard’s enemies, with the exception of the Croyland Chronicle, it cannot be stated that they were an after-the-fact invention of people writing under Henry VII.
Certainly, no-one saw the Princes after June or early July of 1483. It is no good arguing that this does not prove they "disappeared" then, that one would not expect anyone to have seen them between 1483 and 1485. Disappearances are dated from the last time the people concerned were seen (see, I watch Without A Trace!), so the Princes disappeared at the point that they were last recorded as being seen, in 1483. It is often said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but whilst this is a good rule of thumb, it is only that, and is better formulated as “absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence”. Arguments from silence are not always invalid, and if there is no evidence where evidence ought to be expected, then it’s legitimate to draw inferences. (Compare Sherlock Holmes’ curious incident of the dog in the night time.) Moreover, the trouble with attacking the argument that there is no evidence for the Princes being alive as an argument from silence is that the counter-argument, that there is no evidence that they were dead, is equally one from silence.
It is true that the Princes’ entourage was probably progressively reduced until there would only be a couple of jailers – it is known that they had a doctor who used to visit from outside, but he stopped being summoned after July; possibly evidence that there was nobody to be summoned for after that. In any case, not many people would have direct contact with them.
Nevertheless, the Tower was, among other things, a royal residence (which is why the boys went there in the first place), right in the middle of London. There were people coming and going on a regular basis. In two years, someone ought to have caught sight of them, and I find it suspicious that no-one did. Other royal personages of similar ages, such as their sister Elizabeth of York, or Richard III's illegitimate son, John of Gloucester, are recorded in the sources as being alive in this period, making the Princes' absence even more worthy of comment.
As I have said, in the summer of 1483, there were rumours that the Princes had been killed, but when no evidence was forthcoming either way, the rumours died down. Had there not been these rumours, maybe the Princes’ continued presence would have gone unremarked; but given that there were rumours, I would have thought someone might have recorded that the rumours were untrue, had the Princes been seen. Basically, the evidence does not admit that they were. And if they were not seen, then it is more likely that they were killed than that Richard III kept them alive but completely incommunicado – why should he do that? Also, by late June 1483 Richard was already giving some of Richard of York’s titles away to favoured supporters.
The pro-Richard camp would counter this by asking why Richard would kill his own nephews. That’s the wrong question. The right question is “why wouldn’t he kill them?” Once he had seized the throne, their continued existence posed a threat to his power. Had they fallen into anyone else’s possession, they could have been used to legitimate a challenge to his power. Getting rid of them made solid dynastic sense. I cannot see why Richard would have kept the Princes alive, except out of sentiment - but if he was sentimentally attached to them, why declare them illegitimate and depose Edward V?
And it is no good pointing out that the Princes had already been declared illegitimate, and asking why Richard needed to kill them as well. Declaring the children illegitimate wouldn't remove them as political pawns. Their illegitimacy was based on suspect, or at least arguable, grounds, that Edward IV was already precontracted to marriage when he married Elizabeth Woodville. Given the lack of clarity around the alleged precontract, many people (Elizabeth Woodville herself, for a start) would have disputed this, and the illegitimacy was quite reversible (in effect, Henry VII declared them legitimate when he married their oldest sister, Elizabeth of York).
But, the argument goes, all through Edward IV’s reign Richard had been a loyal servant of his brother and defender of his brother’s family. And when he took possession of Edward V, he was just asserting his position as Protector, as appointed by Edward IV.
This makes unwarranted assumptions about continuity of behaviour. How Richard behaved under a strong king, and how he behaved under the rule of a twelve year-old boy, when many people were jockeying for position, might well be two quite different things. The trouble with this argument is that if Richard was so concerned for the welfare of his nephews, why didn’t he just stop when he’d made himself Protector? (A role, incidentally, which it is not absolutely certain Edward IV granted him on his deathbed.) He could have been content with that. Instead, he went for the throne, deposing his nephew and declaring thier parents' marriage invalid. That is not the most loyal thing he could have done for his dead brother, and something that is, I think, very hard for Richard’s apologists to argue away.
They try to, by saying Richard only took the throne because a priest declared that the Princes were illegitimate. Supposedly, that took Richard by surprise, because he hadn’t summoned any troops yet, which he would have done if the declaration of illegitmacy were part of a coup plot.
But the notion that somebody very powerful who had a lot to gain, i.e. Richard, was not behind the attacks on Edward V’s legitimacy is really hard to take. One did not causally declare the reigning monarch a bastard, especially on such disputable grounds. Richard had no need to accept the arguments if he didn’t want to – I just don’t buy the idea that he was forced into declaring his nephew illegitimate (even if, as might be the case, there was truth to the matter). Moreover, it’s not true that the summoning of troops came afterwards. Richard called for troops from York on June 10th or 11th 1483. The sermon attacking Edward V’s legitimacy came on June 22nd. Richard III’s coronation was on July 6th. He moved pretty quickly for someone taken by surprise. Moreover, he had delayed Edward V's coronation twice; might that not suggest he was planning to seize the throne, and was playing for time?
Richard’s defenders then ask, if he killed the Princes, why didn’t he produce the bodies? But had Richard produced bodies, whatever gloss he had tried to put on it, he would have been accused of murder. Far better to have them quietly disappear. Okay, he would have had to cope with the rumours, but since no-one quite knew what was going on, public opinion wouldn’t necessarily turn against him. And it is notable that though he did not provide clear evidence that the Princes were dead, neither did he crush rumours of their demise by producing them alive when he might have had the opportunity.
The way Richard treated the Princes’ sisters and his nephew Edward, Earl of Warwick (the son of George, Duke of Clarence, younger brother of Edward IV, but elder brother of Richard III) needs attention. He did not have them killed, and it is argued that this proves that Richard couldn’t have killed the Princes. After all, if they stood between him and the throne, weren’t they threats as well?
Yes, they were, but Richard's failure to kill them doesn’t prove that he didn't kill the Princes. Edward of Warwick was rather different to Edward V. He was already disqualified from the succession because of the Attainder against his father Clarence (who was a dangerous traitor, rather than the dupe of Richard that Shakespeare describes), so he was less of a threat. Moreover, he was related to the Nevilles, the family of Richard’s wife and Richard’s allies, so there was reason to keep him alive.
The Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters were holed up in Westminster Abbey until February 1484. When they emerged, Elizabeth Woodville extracted very clear, public and witnessed guarantees for their safety – if anything happened to the girls, it would soon become known. Richard accepted that because it was better than sending troops into the Abbey to drag them out. Elizabeth had manoeuvred Richard into a position where he couldn’t immediately have her tried for treason or executed. She was very clever, and won that round. The Princes had no such protection.
Richard’s treatment of the eldest daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, is distorted by the later Shakespearian tradition that he planned to make her his wife. But marrying Elizabeth of York, far from strengthening Richard’s claim to the throne, would have weakened it. Doing so for dynastic reasons would have conceded that Elizabeth was legitimate. If she was, so were her younger brothers, and if that was the case, even if they were dead, Richard would still be by his own admission a usurper. Moreover, he was already married, with no good reason to put aside his wife Anne Neville. The suggestion that he planned to marry Elizabeth only appeared after Anne’s death, and if planned by Richard was probably a desperate measure meant to weaken Henry Tudor’s position, as Henry would then not have been able to strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth. Alternatively, it could just be lies spread by Richard’s in-laws, the Nevilles, who were concerned that the death of Anne had weakened their own position, and wanted to forestall any possibility of Richard III marrying his niece; these lies were later picked up on and exaggerated by Tudor propaganda.
I have two further problems with the argument that Richard’s treatment of Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters and Elizabeth’s acceptance of that treatment shows the two were on good terms, and therefore the boys were still alive. Firstly, even if Richard was not the man who killed Elizabeth’s sons, he was still the man who deposed one of them from the throne of England. So there is likely to have been little familial love there anyway, and Elizabeth’s accommodation with Richard was more probably politically motivated, or simply motivated by a desire to stay alive. Secondly, if the Princes were still alive in 1484, but just being kept in the Tower for their own safety, why is there no evidence that their mother and sisters ever visited them?
Richard subsequently treated Elizabeth Woodville well, but he may well have been operating on the principle of "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer". Elizabeth was a formidable woman, potentially hostile to Richard (indeed, she was already intriguing with her late husband’s Lancastrian enemies). Richard was trying to buy her off. Elizabeth, for her part, was taking advantage of all of this for her own purposes, to whit manoeuvring to get Henry Tudor on the throne of England (something that has a bearing, as we shall see, on whether or not her sons were alive). She did write to her son from a previous marriage, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, to encourage him to come to England and make his peace with Richard (no doubt after getting similar public guarantees of safety as she extracted for herself and her daughters); but this was part of her political plotting, giving her another ally with freedom of movement, whilst Richard was encouraging the move in order to deprive Henry Tudor of another ally (renouncing his allegiance to Henry Tudor was the condition Richard laid down), or at least to sow dissension in his enemies’ ranks. (In this he succeeded – though Dorset in the end did not come over to Richard, Henry no longer trusted him.)
It is in any case entirely possible that Richard could be lenient when political expediency suggested that this was the best course of action – he was by no means secure on his throne, so too many executions might have worked against him. He could, however, be utterly ruthless when he needed to be – viz. the fate of Lord Hastings, arrested and beheaded in a matter of hours. He also ruthlessly eliminated the Woodvilles, Edward V's maternal family. It is too simplistic to suggest that if he was lenient to one person he would be lenient to another, and especially so to suggest that he would be lenient to his family because he was lenient to others outside his family. As with all monarchs, how Richard dealt with people depended on how much of a threat to his position they posed, and the Princes posed a very great threat.
Henry VII treated Elizabeth Woodville quite badly, and deprived her of her estates. But this proves nothing with regard to the fate of the Princes. As I said, Elizabeth was a formidable woman, and may have hoped to influence Henry’s reign. Henry wanted to be his own man, so took her off the political scene as soon as it was safe to do so. There is no need, in order to explain that, to believe that Elizabeth had discovered any complicity in the Princes’ death on Henry’s part.
Nevertheless, it is argued that surely Henry VII is a better candidate for instigating the Princes’ deaths. He had much more to gain from having them killed. This is perhaps true. I’m sure had Henry found them in the Tower in 1485, he might well have thought it expedient to get rid of them, as otherwise he would not be king himself. They posed exactly the same threat to Henry as they posed to Richard. They were potential figureheads around which opposition to Henry's reign could coalesce, and thus were clear threats to his rule. And the option of declaring them illegitimate was not open to Henry, as it would mean that Henry's wife, and therefore his children, were not legitimate descendants of Edward IV; Henry wanted the descent to be legitimate to strengthen his own position.
But I don’t think Henry did find the Princes in the Tower in 1485. The Princes disappeared in 1483, not 1485. For two years, years when Henry Tudor had no influence in London, there was no sign of the Princes. Again, I ask why no-one saw them at all, even a brief glimpse, if they were still alive.
Also, it can be argued that Elizabeth Woodville’s move to secure an alliance with Henry Tudor by betrothing her daughter to him would not have happened were she still expecting that her sons could emerge from the Tower. In other words, Henry Tudor got in a position to claim the crown because it was already known, or at least assumed, that the Princes were dead.
One might then ask why Henry didn’t make use of Richard’s crime in his propaganda in 1485 before Bosworth. That is an odd one, and I’m not sure I know the answer. Possibly, even though he was pretty sure that the Princes were dead, he couldn’t take the risk that they weren’t, and that Richard would respond to such attacks by producing the boys, which would have been the last thing Henry wanted. But actually, there is a reference in the Act of Attainder passed by Henry against Richard, by which he argues that Richard was an illegitimate king, to the “shedding of infants’ blood”. Now, that’s frustratingly vague to us. But it may well have been that in the context of late 1485/early 1486, it was plain to everyone what he meant.
In any case, the question of why Henry didn’t make use of the Princes in his propaganda is one that needs to be asked whether you believe Richard or Henry had the Princes killed. Because even if Henry did the deed, who would contradict him if he pointed the finger at Richard? No-one, as far as we know, had seen the Princes in two years, except possibly a few Tower servants, and they were not going to risk contradicting the new king. In the end Henry’s failure to mention the Princes explicitly is equally curious whichever side of the debate you’re on, and proves nothing either way.
And if the Princes were alive up until Henry’s arrival at the Tower, why did no-one on the Yorkist side ever accuse Henry of the murders? He spent more than a decade putting down residual opposition, yet not even either Perkin Warbeck or Lambert Simnel ever accused Henry of killing the Princes. I can see why Warbeck, who was pretending to be Richard, Duke of York, shouldn’t – it was not in his interests to give any legitimacy to Richard III’s acts. But Simnel was pretending to be Edward of Warwick, so why didn’t he bring it up? It’s all very well saying that no-one before the Tudors accused Richard of the murders, but it was the Victorian period before anyone pointed the finger at Henry.
The philosophical weakness of the whole Tey/Richard III Society argument is that it leans heavily on what a nice man Richard was, whom we only think of as evil because the Tudors did a hatchet job on him. That really won’t wash at all. Yes, the Tudors did do a hatchet job, but nevertheless he was Not A Nice Man At All. This is a man, who entrusted by his dying brother (allegedly) with the Protectorate over his nephew, instead took advantage of that position to depose the new king and be crowned in his place. The allegations of Edward V's bastardy could have been easily dismissed, if Richard had wanted to. Nor did he need to be king himself to assert his position against his enemies, the Woodvilles, though their position was certainly weakened by not being related to the reigning monarch. One can only conclude that he wanted the crown, and took it. And I find it very hard to believe that, having done that deed, he would have stopped short of bumping off two such serious threats to his position as the Princes. The other problem with the Richard III Society position is that it not only makes Richard out to be a very nice man, it also makes him out to be a bit of a chump.
Showing that Richard was capable of the act of killing the Princes may well not be enough to show that he did it. But neither is it enough to point the finger at HenryVII just because he had it in him to do the deed (which I don’t dispute).
Anyway, when one of the arguments advanced for Richard’s innocence is that he didn’t have it in him, I think it’s entirely legitimate to point out that a man capable of deposing his own nephew was probably quite capable of having his nephews killed as well. So if we concede that Henry and Richard were both equally capable of the deed, and both had equal motivation, we come round to opportunity, and we are left with the unavoidable fact that the Princes were in Richard’s way to the throne first.
So we come back to what I consider to be the key point. Richard seized the throne in 1483, but the Princes could still be the focus for conspiracies against him. He had the example of Edward IV’s treatment of Henry VI before him – Edward had spared Henry’s life in 1465, and whilst we might well admire his humanity, it’s undeniable that he could have saved himself a lot of trouble, including having to flee the country in 1470, had he not done this. So why would Richard III have let the Princes live? For me, none of the oddities in Richard’s behaviour are sufficient to deny my basic point, that the logical thing for an usurper to do is to eliminate the monarch he has usurped, and I want good reason to believe Richard didn’t do this. There is simply no evidence that the boys were alive after the summer of 1483, and some slim, if not conclusive, evidence that it was known that they weren't.
There’s one last point to make. Some years ago, Tony Robinson made a television programme for Channel Four on Richard III, in which he included a bit on the legitimacy of Edward IV. Robinson then made a subsequent programme in which he searched for the "true monarch of Britain" if the line descended from Edward IV was illegitimate (actually this would only be the true monarch of England, as Elizabeth II’s right to rule Scotland has nothing to do with Edward IV); he turned out to be a sheep farmer in Australia, descended from the Duke of Clarence.
It seems that records from the cathedral at Rouen, where Edward’s mother was when he was conceived, show that Edward’s supposed father, Richard, Duke of York, was somewhere else entirely around the time of the conception. So, if, as Richard’s agents alleged briefly at the time, Edward was himself illegitimate (though Richard’s propaganda soon dropped this to concentrate on the less provable illegitimacy of Edward’s children, probably because Richard didn’t want to alienate all of Edward IV’s supporters), then Richard, in his own eyes, was the legitimate King (and let’s not get into an argument over the fact that the Yorkists had usurped the throne from the Lancastrian Henry VI, himself a descendant of the man, Henry IV, who usurped his cousin Richard II).
The suggestion made by Robinson was that Richard took power from the illegitimate Edward V because he felt it was the right thing to do, and then had the Princes killed because it was too risky not to (with which last statement I agree). But the suggestion was that he did this because he knew he had to, not because he wanted to. This might well explain why he was so cagey about the fate of the Princes – it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of. I can see the appeal of that, though I have to admit I still think Richard could have suppressed the illegitimacy of Edward IV and V had he wished.
To conclude, though I accept that Richard III was not as black as he is painted, and that he had many redeeming features as a King, he remains by far the most likely candidate for instigator of the murders of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. * I originally wrote that the depiction of him as a hunchback was malicious, accepting the notion that this deformity was entirely Tudor propaganda. Now that the DNA seems to point to the skeleton in the Leicester car park being Richard, then, as there is severe curvature to the spine, Richard was a hunchback. What is malicious is the association of that with character, rather than the attributing of the feature to the Plantagenet King.