Freelance writer from Cornwall
“Farewell, mine own sweet son. God send you good keeping. Let me kiss you once yet ere you go, for God knows when we shall kiss together again…”
Elizabeth of York to her son Richard, Duke of York, just before he was taken to the infamous Tower of London with his brother. Both Princes then disappeared, widely believed to have been murdered by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterward crowned Richard III, King of England.
In late 2012 a skeleton was unearthed in the British city of Leicester, not far from the old battlefield of Bosworth Field where the brutal ‘Wars of the Roses’ were finally decided in 1485. In late January, 2013 mitochondrial DNA testing confirmed the remains as those of King Richard III, the last British monarch to die in battle. Richard, like many experienced soldiers, was undoubtedly a practised killer, but was he also a common murderer who killed his own nephews and stole their Crown for himself?
In truth, Richard’s guilt or innocence in the mysterious disappearance of his nephews (the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’ who he held as prisoners and who disappeared in 1483) is never likely to be conclusively established, but the general consensus among historians and scholars is that Richard made himself King by declaring his nephews illegitimate (to block their inheriting the crown) and then had them both murdered before claiming the throne for himself.
While the debate still rumbles on, the recent discovery of his remains under a parking lot in the city of Leicester (scarcely a fitting resting place for a King) has revived yet again the question of whether or not a former King of England was really a common murderer. The question has again risen. Was Richard III really a rightful King of England? Or was he merely a usurper of treasonous ambition and homicidal intent who stole the crown he was so proud of wearing? So, let’s step back to medieval England and examine whether or not Richard III, King of England was really a murderous monarch.
We’ll set the stage for our medieval melodrama by looking at the context, the time and place in which the ‘Princes in the Tower’ disappeared and why they were almost certainly murdered. By the 1480’s England had spent the previous three decades wracked by periodic wars, battles and rebellions collectively known as the ‘Wars of the Roses.’ Rival nobles fought a series of increasingly bloody campaigns, attempting a series of power grabs as they jockeyed for power, prestige and position. The biggest prize of all the bloodshed and betrayals being a chance to install themselves or a compliant puppet as King and make themselves the real power behind the throne.
From the late 1450’s onwards England was a hotbed of perpetual instability, fear and bloodshed and by the 1480’s many important nobles and the peasantry grew increasingly desperate for stability, order and, most of all, peace. The climate among the English nobility had become increasingly toxic and, as ever, it was the peasants who suffered most. For decades they had been dying by their thousands in seemingly never-ending battles, risings and rebellions. The country was desperate for an end to the chaos and, circumstantial though it is, the evidence suggests that Richard, Duke of Gloucester decided that he was the man to provide it. By any means necessary.
There were two main obstacles to Richard taking power and thus imposing peace and stability. These obstacles were his nephews Richard, Duke of York and Edward, next in line to inherit the crown as Edward V. Both were too young to rule by themselves so, until they reached adulthood, a leading noble would have been appointed Regent to rule in their name and make decisions on their behalf. When their father died a Regent was indeed appointed. That Regent, entrusted with ruling England on their behalf and in the interest of both the Princes and the population, was none other than their ambitious uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Richard’s first option was to openly question their legitimacy. If the Princes were to be declared illegitimate children (what were then called ‘bastards’) then, by law and tradition, neither of them could inherit the crown and it would pass to their nearest male relative. Which also happened to be Richard, Duke of Gloucester. In 1483 Edward IV died and his son would have been crowned Edward V. Edward’s brother (Richard, Duke of York) would have been next in line after Edward, leaving his uncle out in the cold. The evidence suggests strongly that either Richard himself or an ally acting on his orders or their own initiative decided that this was intolerable. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Eventually there was only one way to eliminate the problem. Eliminate the people creating it.
After the death of Edward IV there would be some months before the Coronation of his son Edward V. All manner of legal and political formalities had to be observed and arrangements made for the ceremony itself. All of this would have taken months to arrange. In the meantime, Richard managed to secure an Act of Parliament called ‘Titulus Regius’ proclaiming both children illegitimate and legally barring them both from assuming the Crown. Once installed as Lord Protector (effectively making himself a temporary monarch with all a King’s powers and responsibilities) Richard made himself next in line to take the Crown and be crowned Richard III.
Edward (unaware of the Act ruling him out of the succession) had journeyed to London for his Coronation only to find himself confined immediately to the ‘White Tower’ at the infamous Tower of London (which at the time was as much a prison as a royal residence). The Tower of London, nowadays one of London’s principal tourist attractions, played host to prisoners for centuries ranging from disgraced medieval noblemen and religious heretics to German spies executed there during the World Wars. It was regarded by sitting monarchs as ideal for keeping rivals and political pawns securely jailed, but also conveniently located near the nation’s capital.
With both boys declared illegitimate and Edward under lock and key it was time for Richard to grab Edward’s brother. Richard, Duke of York was living with his mother Elizabeth of York and Richard’s representatives (a large band of heavily-armed and ‘legally’ appointed representatives) arrived quickly, spent many hours cajoling and eventually bullying her into surrendering Richard as well and then hauled him away to London to join his brother. The final parting between mother and son must have been very painful for them both, especially in light of the Princes’ disappearance from what was then considered one of the most secure prisons in the country. With both boys securely confined at the Tower, Richard installed himself securely in the role of Lord Protector. What had been perhaps the most violent and chaotic era in English history seemed to have settled down a little. It wasn’t to remain settled for very long.
Declaring his nephews illegitimate was only part of Richard’s scheme. So far he’d put himself safely within striking distance of the Crown but, as William Shakespeare so aptly stated ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’ Yes, Richard was well on his way, but could he take the throne and, most importantly, keep it? After all, his nephews were still alive and Richard himself was surrounded by a panoply of noblemen all as unscrupulously ambitious as he was. To further advance his position Richard needed to eliminate his strongest rivals and send an unmistakable message to anyone else thinking of a power grab.
Two leading nobles also stood in his way and they were dealt with using similarly spurious ‘legal’ means. One was Earl Rivers, Elizabeth of York’s father. Rivers was eliminated swiftly and ruthlessly. While escorting Prince Edward to London for his Coronation Rivers was arrested and confined awaiting charges, trial and execution. Edward found himself imprisoned at the Tower of London, held incommunicado to await the arrest and delivery of his brother. Richard, Duke of York was snatched not long after Edward. One down,one to go.
Another significant problem was Lord Hastings. Hastings was a senior nobleman who had the ear of Elizabeth of York so, if he wasn’t eliminated, could easily have seen Richard himself being imprisoned and executed for treason. Hastings had been instrumental in enforcing Richard’s (entirely legitimate) claim to the title of Lord Protector (although Richard had no claim to become King while his nephews were still around). Hastings was deeply uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s ambitions to install her son as King and make herself the power behind the throne which explains his support for Richard becoming Lord Protector, but Richard didn’t trust him not to switch sides or defy Richard’s authority. In short, Hastings was too principled for Richard’s liking. Hastings had to go as well.
With Earl Rivers out of the way Richard was confirmed as Lord Protector, to rule until an official Regent could be formally chosen. With that arranged Hastings became a liability instead of an ally. He found himself arrested, charged with treason and executed at the Tower of London only the day after being found guilty. Richard’s sister Elizabeth of York had by now discovered the detention of her sons, the removal of her principal allies and had seen at first hand the almost pathological ambition of her brother. She promptly fled to France taking with her a sizeable portion of the Royal treasure.
With his main opposition jailed, exiled or dead and himself quietly installed as Lord Protector Richard created a Council of Regency composed of experienced political, military and diplomatic advisors. Contrary to what you might expect from a ruthless, cynical powerseeker Richard didn’t offer Council positions solely to his friends and sycophants. To do that would certainly have created factions of dissatisfied nobles who had the power to see Richard replaced one way or another. Whatever else Richard might have been he was smarter than that. He created a Council that certainly gave the appearance of being independent although there’s little doubt that everybody involved knew where the power really lay.
Richard’s best means to finally steal the Crown was to eliminate the Princes. The Princes were securely (if not comfortably) confined in the Tower of London, easily within his reach. They began to be seen less and less frequently by visitors and then quietly disappeared altogether, never to be seen or heard from again. As contemporary scholar Dominic Mancini described it:
‘He and his brother were taken into the inner rooms of the Tower and each day could be glimpsed more and more rarely until finally they ceased to appear at all…’
Their precise whereabouts remain unresolved to this day. The ‘Princes in the Tower’ simply vanished, but there can be no doubt that they were murdered and (while entirely circumstantial) Richard III remains far and away the most likely suspect for the assassination of his own nephews. One of the basic principles of criminal detection is what lawyers in ancient Rome called ‘Qui bono..?’ ‘Qui bono..?’ best translates into modern English as ‘Who benefits..?’ Murder is usually a very personal crime. In modern-day Britain over 90% of murder victims know their murderers. Once you can answer the question ‘Why?’ you’re usually a lot closer to answering another question, ‘Who?’ So, who benefited?
The answer is obvious, it was Richard. By murdering his nephews, jailing, exiling or beheading his other rivals and intimidating anyone else who might have tried to follow his example Richard first secured the throne and then consolidated his position. He could and (I strongly believe) did murder his nephews and steal their Crown. But I don’t think his motives were entirely those of a cynical power-seeker with a homicidal desire for wealth, power and position. I’d suggest that his motives were as much political as personal.
After the previous thirty years of perpetual violence, turmoil and instability England was in a sorry state. It had become inceasingly difficult to tell who was siding with who and why they were choosing sides. Some parts of the country were devastated by warfare, huge numbers of ordinary people had died in repeated battles and campaigns (the Battle of Towton remains the bloodiest battle in English history even today with an estimated 50,000 combatants, an estimated 30,000 died). There’s also little doubt that rulers of other European countries would have been following events with great interest, possibly as a prelude to invasion and installing a puppet ruler of their own. Richard was wise in the ways of European statesmanship, politics and diplomacy and would have been well aware of the consequences of yet another period of internal struggle and warfare.
With what was then called a ‘boy King’ the English throne (and by extension, the country as a whole) would have been perceived as being effectively up for grabs both at home and abroad. Even if any foreign ruler hadn’t seen and seized the opportunity to invade and either steal the crown or simply install a puppet King there would have been plenty of domestic factions all too ready to organise themselves, raise armies and the merry-go-round of slaughter and chaos would been spinning all over again. And who knew how long for? Or with what result?
Richard perceived himself as a strong ruler ready to do whatver he considered necessary (no matter how unpleasant) to preserve the kingdom’s stability and security. Preserve its very existence, even. If the price of avoiding another phase of endless chaos, weakness and bloodshed was murdering his nephews, purging his political rivals and taking the Crown for himself then it was a price he was seemingly prepared to pay.
Richard had the means to confine the Princes to the Tower and then to have them killed and disposed of. To senior medieval European noblemen assassins were always available (either for a price or a willingness to further a political cause). He had the power to install himself as Lord Protector until a permanent King was crowned, effectively making himself King in all but name. He had direct access to the Princes under his remit as Lord Protector. Physically getting to them simply wasn’t a problem for him or assassins working on his behalf.
Richard had the motives, both personal and political. He could gratify his own ego and ambition by stealing the Crown. He could also rake in fortunes in taxes and rule as he wanted. In Medieval England the King’s word was law, literally. What historians call the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ (ridiculous as it may seem today) held that Kings were directly chosen by God to rule their respective nations and, as such, the word of a King was the word of God himself. A King could issue any orders he liked for any reason that seemed worthwhile.
His political motives would have been to save England from yet another extended period of mayhem during which he and his rivals would have battled for the Crown. Richard would have seen a child King as the problem and a coup d’etat as the solution. Richard was also a seasoned soldier, totally comfortable with killing personally or ordering the deaths of those he considered a threat. Most likely, he would have weighed the cost (human and political) of allowing his nephews to rule against the strong likelihood of their Coronation creating yet more civil strife. On a less virtuous level it’s hard to believe that the personal perks of taking the Crown for himself would have entirely escaped him either.
The facts of the matter are simple. Richard had the strongest motives, the simplest means, the easiest opportunity and who profited most from the Princes’ disappearance? It was Richard himself. Before having them declared illegitimate the Princes would have been crowned ahead of him, first Edward and then (on Edward’s death) his brother Richard. Both Princes then mysteriously vanished into the ether leaving Richard, as Lord Protector, first in line to inherit the Crown. All of Richard’s principal rivals and opponents were either executed, exiled or jailed, neatly clearing the way for Richard to murder his nephews, seize power and crown himself King. After the disappearance of the Princes and the elimination of his main opposition, Richard DID have himself crowned King Richard III which was, at best, highly unlikely under any other circumstances.
If the Princes were murdered (and their disappearing while under Richard’s supposed ‘protection’ makes it the most likely option by far) then subsequent events point to only one realistic suspect. It’s extremely difficult to believe that Richard, while unlikely to have done the work himself, didn’t have other people do the dirty work for him.
With deniability in mind (not that it has done Richard any good) let’s look at the principal suspects. First on the list (and the most likely to have actually done the dirty work) is nobleman James Tyrrell. Tyrrell was a supporter of the Yorkist faction during the Wars of the Roses when the rival factions (the Yorkists and the Lancastrians) fought a recurring series of bloody battles to put their own figureheads on the throne. Being a fellow Yorkist, Tyrrell was well known to Richard personally and one of his keenest supporters.Before his execution in 1501 (having involved himself in one intrigue too many) Tyrrell was tortured to extract a confession of his alleged treachery in supporting a later candidate for the Crown. Tyrrell also confessed to having murdered the Princes on Richard’s orders. William Shakespeare among others openly named Tyrrell as their assassin, although it should be recognised that Shakespeare was a propagandist for the household of Henry Tudor (who crowned himself Henry VII after Richard’s death at the Bosworth). Being a trusted supporter of Richard, Tyrrell would have been able to gain access to the Princes and could well have been devoted enough to accept even the most unpleasant of assignments to further Richard’s ambitions. Personally (and I very much doubt that Richard would have done the job personally) I’d put Tyrrell as the prime suspect in the actual murders although any confession extracted under torture is always going to be suspect. If you make a prisoner suffer badly enough for long enough then they’ll probably confess to anything in the hope that a confession will end their suffering.
The second most likely suspect would be Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was regarded as Richard’s strong right arm and some scholars consider him a prime suspect even before Tyrrell. Stafford, thoroughly dissatisfied with the honours and perks Richard offered him after his Coronation, rebelled against Richard and was executed for treason in late 1483. Stafford was close enough to Richard to have both access to the Princes and the willingness to do anything needed to further Richard’s power grab.
Stafford’s rebellion against Richard (another example of English noblemen’s loyalties being pretty flexible when convenient) is widely accepted as stemming from Richard not offering him sufficient rewards for his service. It’s also said that Stafford claimed to be a descendent of Edward III and had ambitions to become King which, by default, made him a serious danger to Richard. In the late 1980’s the London College of Arms discovered some archived documents explicitly naming Stafford as the killer, although the documents don’t specify whether he acted on Richard’s orders or his own initiative.
The last (and least) likely suspect is Henry Tudor, who crowned himself King Henry VII after Richard’s defeat and death at Bosworth. Henry was the husband of Elizabeth of York (the Princes’ mother) and so a confirmed enemy of Richard. Henry Tudor can be almost completely ruled out as a suspect as the Princes disappeared in 1483 and Henry wasn’t crowned King until 1485. It’s difficult to imagine Henry being the prime mover in murdering his own stepsons, not least because his return to England and deposing of Richard were partly funded by the Royal treasure that his wife Elizabeth of York had taken with her after fleeing during Richard’s rise to power.
And what of Richard himself? It’s highly unlikely he would even have considered doing the deed himself and his power grab did him no good anyway. Henry Tudor returned from exile, landing in England in Spring, 1485. He’d spent a sizeable amount of the Royal funds taken by Elizabeth of York on recruiting large numbers of professional mercenaries. As Henry and his mercenary army marched through the country they recruited large numbers of peasants and some disaffected noblemen, many of whom brought their own private armies to further swell the Tudor ranks. Richard III met Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field later in 1485 and, aided by having hardened foreign mercenaries and veteran English troops in his ranks (coupled with Lord Stanley and his troops changing sides once it was obvious which side was winning) the Tudor army were victorious. Richard III became the last British monarch to die in battle. Henry Tudor crowned himself King Henry VII (father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I). With Richard III died so did the Plantagenet dynasty and Henry VII ushered in the Tudor era. Richard’s power grab had resulted not just in his own downfall, but that of his entire bloodline as well and, while he’d shown himself ruthless enough to steal the crown, he wasn’t astute enough to keep it.
And what of the Princes? It wasn’t until 1674 (during the reign of Charles II) that two unidentified bodies were discovered by workmen during an extension of the Tower of London. They were found buried under the base of a staircase near the ‘White Tower’ where the Princes were last confined. The bones were incomplete and severely damaged by the workmen during their discovery. The remains were placed in an urn and interred at Westminster Abbey in the Henry VII Lady Chapel. They were disinterred and examined in 1933 and were found to be mixed in with construction debris and animal bones. Their ages were determined as being 11-13 years old and 7-11 years old but no identification was made. To this day DNA analysis hasn’t been done as neither the Church of England nor the Royal Family will give consent for testing, consent required by law.
In 1789 the mystery deepened still further. Workmen repairing St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle discovered a previously unknown vault adjoining the tomb of Edward IV and Elizabeth of York (the Princes’ parents). In the newly-discovered vault were the remains of two unidentified children. No examination was permitted and the small vault was promptly resealed without further checks. The names on the tomb were two of Edward IV’s other children, George (Duke of Bedford) and Mary of York, both of whom died before their father. It remains unclear whether or not these are actually the remains of the Princes.
Between 1810-1813 workmen were digging a tomb for King George III. Two small lead coffins were discovered bearing the same names (George and Mary) and were promptly moved to join the unidentified coffins. No effort was made to identify or examine these newly-discovered remains, they were simply quietly reburied without any further inquiries into why there are now two sets of similar remains bearing the same names.
In the late 1990’s more maintainance work was being carried out around the tomb of the Princes’ father, Edward IV. Still no request was even made to examine the remains of the four children now interred there. Still no resolution to the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower.’
And, finally, in 2013, in a parking lot on Leicester during routine construction work, the foundations of a formery nunnery were discovered and a skeleton was found. After checking numerous old maps and cross-checking them against historical records the nunnery was confirmed as the final resting place of Richard III. The skeleton (as yet unidentified as a member of the Royal Family) was passed to experts at the University of Leicester. in Working with forensic experts and DNA specialists, the team used mitochondrial DNA from the current known descendents of Richard III to positively identify the remains of the fallen King.
Or fallen usurper, depending on what evidence you happen to believe…