Did Richard III Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Richard the Third
King Richard III's skull is seen next to a portrait of him during a news conference in Leicester Darren Staples/Reuters

Since King Richard III of England’s remains were discovered under a car park two years ago, we know where he is going to be buried—in Leicester Cathedral—and what his tomb will look like: fit for a king. But was he really the child murderer he is painted as in the history books?

He has been called a “maligned king,” a victim of Tudor propaganda, accused by Shakespeare of ordering the deaths of the “Princes in the Tower.” But was Shakespeare right? The truth emerged as I researched Tudor: The Family Story, but only when I stopped thinking like a 21st century person and began thinking like someone from the 15th century, when the murders took place.

In the summer of 1483, the 12-year-old Edward V and his 9-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The boys had been declared illegitimate, which allowed their uncle, Richard, to become king in their place. According to Shakespeare, Richard III wanted to go further, and in the eponymous play he declares, “I wish the bastards dead.”

Thomas More’s The History of Richard III, which influenced Shakespeare’s take on the events, describes how Richard’s killers went into the princes’ bedchamber, “lapped them up among the bedclothes…keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths” until they were “stifled.”

But More’s history was inaccurate and biased, written as it was during the reign of Henry VIII - the son of Richard’s archrival, Henry VII, the first Tudor king who won the crown, after defeating Richard on the battlefield. All that is known for certain is that the princes vanished in 1483. No bodies were displayed by Richard III or found by Henry VII. And after the end of the Tudor dynasty, people began to question Tudor accounts of Richard’s guilt.

The most popular work to argue his innocence is Josephine Tey’s 1951 crime novel, The Daughter of Time. It has inspired generations of readers to join the Richard III Society, which campaigns for a reassessment of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. It was a member of this society who raised the money for the archaeological dig that in 2012 discovered Richard’s body in a shallow grave in a Leicester car park.

Tey’s novel features a modern detective investigating the historic murder of the princes who believes that if the princes were illegitimate (it was claimed their father, Edward IV, had married their mother bigamously), Richard III had no motive to kill them. The detective also argues that since there is no hard evidence they died in 1483, they might still have been alive in 1485 when Henry Tudor became Henry VII.

When Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, the new Tudor king, Henry VII, had to justify his claim to the throne. His right through blood was weak, drawn as it was through an illegitimate female line. But Henry VII married the princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York, having had Edward IV’s children declared legitimate to strengthen her claim to be the senior heir to the House of York.

It strikes Tey’s detective that if the princes were alive, their right to the throne was superior to Elizabeth’s, giving Henry Tudor a motive to kill them and cast the blame on Richard.

But was it in character for Richard III to commit such a terrible crime? He was a religious man and, in many respects, a fine king. And if he was guilty, why did Henry VII make no effort to launch an inquest into the deaths of the princes?

It was the primary, even religious duty of a good king to ensure the nation was united. After Richard III’s coronation on July 6, 1483, it was clear that not everyone accepted that the princes were illegitimate. And so long as they lived, they remained a focus of opposition and division. So Richard did have a motive to kill the princes, just as his brother, Edward IV, had killed Henry VI, the king he had deposed.

The mentally ill Lancastrian Henry VI was found dead in the Tower in 1471. It was said he had died suddenly of “grief and rage” over the death of his son in battle. But few doubted that Edward IV ordered Henry’s murder. The death wiped out the House of Lancaster, leaving only Henry Tudor, a descendent of the Lancastrian house through his mother’s illegitimate Beaufort line, to represent its cause.

Henry Tudor was in exile in Brittany, France, in 1483 when Edward IV died and Richard overthrew the princes to become Richard III. Londoners, remembering the fate of Henry VI, feared for the boys. A foreign visitor described men weeping in the streets as “day by day they began to be seen more rarely behind the bars” of the Tower’s windows.

By October 1483, rumors that the princes had been murdered began to fuel talk of a rebellion. If Richard knew the boys were still alive, it seems strange he did not say so to quell the rumors. But equally, if the princes were dead, why did Richard not follow the example of earlier royal killings? The bodies of deposed kings were put on public display with the claim they had died of natural causes (like “grief and rage”) so the people could transfer their loyalty to the new king.

It is the disappearance of the princes that lies at the heart of centuries of conspiracy theories about what exactly happened to them. The solution to the mystery lies in a sequel to Henry VI’s murder that was forgotten soon after Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

Mad king Henry VI had been popularly acclaimed a saint, with miracles reported at the site of his modest grave in Chertsey Abbey, Surrey. Edward IV failed to suppress this explosive cult, and Richard was well aware of its power. In an act of reconciliation and in an effort to gain some control over the cult, Richard allowed Henry VI’s body to be moved and buried alongside Edward IV at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.

But Richard knew the princes would likely attract a cult with a far larger following than that for Henry, because in the murdered boys the religious qualities of royalty were combined with the innocence and purity of childhood. Having the princes vanish suited Richard, for without a grave there could be no focus for a cult, and without bodies there would be no relics either.

Nevertheless, Richard wanted the Edwardian Yorkists to know the princes were dead so they would transfer their loyalties to him. But when the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was given the news they were dead, she called for vengeance. And Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, suggested how that might come about. A promised marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York would unite the old Lancastrian affinity with Edwardian Yorkists and bring Richard down.

Richard crushed the October rebellion that followed, and by 1485 a despairing Elizabeth Woodville accepted Richard as king. But Henry fought on and emerged victorious at the Battle of Bosworth. So why did Henry then do nothing in public to investigate the deaths of the princes? Well, it is possible Henry feared this would draw attention to a role in the murders played by someone close to his cause.

A document in the College of Arms, London, dating to around 1512, says the princes were killed “by the ‘vise’ [advice or device]” of a royal cousin of Margaret’s, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He had been a close ally of Richard in plotting the overthrow of the princes, but then turned against Richard and plotted the October rebellion with Margaret.

Buckingham may have encouraged Richard to have the princes murdered, hoping to see the House of York extinguished and that of Lancaster restored, with Henry Tudor, or himself, as king. It is even possible Buckingham was acting on Margaret’s advice, as she hoped to clear the way for her son. But this does not absolve Richard.

The Lieutenant of the Tower, who controlled access to the princes, was totally loyal to Richard. Without the king’s word, he would never have permitted their murder. When Richard executed Buckingham for taking part in the October rebellion, he did not accuse him of killing the princes. The real reason Henry Tudor did not look for the princes’ bodies is that he had his own reasons for wishing to forestall a cult.

It is true Henry’s blood claim to the throne was extremely weak. Yet he was determined not to be seen as a mere king consort to his wife. Henry did not base his right on her legitimacy but on divine providence. To prove his case, Henry argued that before the “saint” Henry VI was murdered, the holy man had prophesized his, Henry’s rule. God’s will was confirmed by the victory at Bosworth.

It would have been unwise to allow Yorkist royal saints to compete with the memory of Henry VI, whose cult Henry VII now encouraged. Nothing was said, therefore, about the princes in 1485, beyond the vague accusation in Parliament that Richard III was guilty of “murders in shedding of infants’ blood.”

The danger for Henry was that there was still no real proof the princes were dead. As Henry’s enemies sought a figurehead to rally round, it was a question they took advantage of. In 1491 a young man appeared in Ireland claiming to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower. He said one of the assassins, who could not bring himself to kill “so little a child,” had helped him escape.

Henry said the young man was, in fact, a Dutchman, Perkin Warbeck, who was in the pay of foreign powers. But who could be sure? Warbeck led three attempts to invade England before he was captured in 1497. Henry then kept Warbeck alive long enough for him to publicly confess his modest birth. But even after Warbeck’s execution in 1499, Henry continued to fear the emergence of other “pretenders.”

In May 1502, a condemned traitor named Sir James Tyrell supposedly confessed before his execution to murdering the princes on Richard’s orders. Thomas More tells us that Tyrell claimed that the boys had been buried at the foot of a staircase in the Tower “under a great heap of stones,” but that Richard had asked for their bodies to be reburied somewhere more dignified. Those involved had subsequently died, so the final resting place of the princes was unknown—a suspiciously convenient outcome for Henry VII.

Richard’s reputation plummeted, the deaths of the princes were “confirmed,” and their graves were lost. Meanwhile, the tomb of “saint” Henry VI had come to rival in popularity that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, one of the top three pilgrimage sites in Europe. Thousands were still visiting it in 1533, the year Henry VIII broke with Rome.

But the protestant English Reformation that outlawed Catholicism brought to a close the cult of saints, and memory of them faded, along with an understanding of why Richard had the princes disappear and why Henry did nothing to find them.

In 1674, the skeletons of two children were recovered in the Tower of London in a place that resembled More’s description of their first burial place. Whoever they are, we might remember how the princes murdered in the Tower were denied any decent burial at all, while a grand tomb to house Richard III’s remains is currently being built in Leicester Cathedral.

Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story is published by Vintage.

Since King Richard III of England’s remains were discovered under a car park two years ago, we know where he is going to be buried—in Leicester Cathedral—and what his tomb will look like: fit for a king. But was he really the child murderer he is painted as in the history books?

He has been called a “maligned king,” a victim of Tudor propaganda, accused by Shakespeare of ordering the deaths of the “Princes in the Tower.” But was Shakespeare right? The truth emerged as I researched Tudor: The Family Story, but only when I stopped thinking like a 21st century person and began thinking like someone from the 15th century, when the murders took place.

In the summer of 1483, the 12-year-old Edward V and his 9-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The boys had been declared illegitimate, which allowed their uncle, Richard, to become king in their place. According to Shakespeare, Richard III wanted to go further, and in the eponymous play he declares, “I wish the bastards dead.”

Thomas More’s The History of Richard III, which influenced Shakespeare’s take on the events, describes how Richard’s killers went into the princes’ bedchamber, “lapped them up among the bedclothes…keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths” until they were “stifled.”

But More’s history was inaccurate and biased, written as it was during the reign of Henry VIII. He was the son of Richard’s archrival, Henry VII, the first Tudor king who won the crown, after defeating Richard on the battlefield. All that is known for certain is that the princes vanished in 1483. No bodies were displayed by Richard III or found by Henry VII. And after the end of the Tudor dynasty, people began to question Tudor accounts of Richard’s guilt.

The most popular work to argue his innocence is Josephine Tey’s 1951 crime novel, The Daughter of Time. It has inspired generations of readers to join the Richard III Society, which campaigns for a reassessment of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. It was a member of this society who raised the money for the archaeological dig that in 2012 discovered Richard’s body in a shallow grave in a Leicester car park.

Tey’s novel features a modern detective investigating the historic murder of the princes who believes that if the princes were illegitimate (it was claimed their father, Edward IV, had married their mother bigamously), Richard III had no motive to kill them. The detective also argues that since there is no hard evidence they died in 1483, they might still have been alive in 1485 when Henry Tudor became Henry VII.

When Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, the new Tudor king, Henry VII, had to justify his claim to the throne. His right through blood was weak, drawn as it was through an illegitimate female line. But Henry VII married the princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York, having had Edward IV’s children declared legitimate to strengthen her claim to be the senior heir to the House of York.

It strikes Tey’s detective that if the princes were alive, their right to the throne was superior to Elizabeth’s, giving Henry Tudor a motive to kill them and cast the blame on Richard.

But was it in character for Richard III to commit such a terrible crime? He was a religious man and, in many respects, a fine king. And if he was guilty, why did Henry VII make no effort to launch an inquest into the deaths of the princes?

It was the primary, even religious duty of a good king to ensure the nation was united. After Richard III’s coronation on July 6, 1483, it was clear that not everyone accepted that the princes were illegitimate. And so long as they lived, they remained a focus of opposition and division. So Richard did have a motive to kill the princes, just as his brother, Edward IV, had killed Henry VI, the king he had deposed.

The mentally ill Lancastrian Henry VI was found dead in the Tower in 1471. It was said he had died suddenly of “grief and rage” over the death of his son in battle. But few doubted that Edward IV ordered Henry’s murder. The death wiped out the House of Lancaster, leaving only Henry Tudor, a descendent of the Lancastrian house through his mother’s illegitimate Beaufort line, to represent its cause.

Henry Tudor was in exile in Brittany, France, in 1483 when Edward IV died and Richard overthrew the princes to become Richard III. Londoners, remembering the fate of Henry VI, feared for the boys. A foreign visitor described men weeping in the streets as “day by day they began to be seen more rarely behind the bars” of the Tower’s windows.

By October 1483, rumors that the princes had been murdered began to fuel talk of a rebellion. If Richard knew the boys were still alive, it seems strange he did not say so to quell the rumors. But equally, if the princes were dead, why did Richard not follow the example of earlier royal killings? The bodies of deposed kings were put on public display with the claim they had died of natural causes (like “grief and rage”) so the people could transfer their loyalty to the new king.

It is the disappearance of the princes that lies at the heart of centuries of conspiracy theories about what exactly happened to them. The solution to the mystery lies in a sequel to Henry VI’s murder that was forgotten soon after Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

Mad king Henry VI had been popularly acclaimed a saint, with miracles reported at the site of his modest grave in Chertsey Abbey, Surrey. Edward IV failed to suppress this explosive cult, and Richard was well aware of its power. In an act of reconciliation and in an effort to gain some control over the cult, Richard allowed Henry VI’s body to be moved and buried alongside Edward IV at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.

But Richard knew the princes would likely attract a cult with a far larger following than that for Henry, because in the murdered boys the religious qualities of royalty were combined with the innocence and purity of childhood. Having the princes vanish suited Richard, for without a grave there could be no focus for a cult, and without bodies there would be no relics either.

Nevertheless, Richard wanted the Edwardian Yorkists to know the princes were dead so they would transfer their loyalties to him. But when the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was given the news they were dead, she called for vengeance. And Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, suggested how that might come about. A promised marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York would unite the old Lancastrian affinity with Edwardian Yorkists and bring Richard down.

Richard crushed the October rebellion that followed, and by 1485 a despairing Elizabeth Woodville accepted Richard as king. But Henry fought on and emerged victorious at the Battle of Bosworth. So why did Henry then do nothing in public to investigate the deaths of the princes? Well, it is possible Henry feared this would draw attention to a role in the murders played by someone close to his cause.

A document in the College of Arms, London, dating to around 1512, says the princes were killed “by the ‘vise’ [advice or device]” of a royal cousin of Margaret’s, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He had been a close ally of Richard in plotting the overthrow of the princes, but then turned against Richard and plotted the October rebellion with Margaret.

Buckingham may have encouraged Richard to have the princes murdered, hoping to see the House of York extinguished and that of Lancaster restored, with Henry Tudor, or himself, as king. It is even possible Buckingham was acting on Margaret’s advice, as she hoped to clear the way for her son. But this does not absolve Richard.

The Lieutenant of the Tower, who controlled access to the princes, was totally loyal to Richard. Without the king’s word, he would never have permitted their murder. When Richard executed Buckingham for taking part in the October rebellion, he did not accuse him of killing the princes. The real reason Henry Tudor did not look for the princes’ bodies is that he had his own reasons for wishing to forestall a cult.

It is true Henry’s blood claim to the throne was extremely weak. Yet he was determined not to be seen as a mere king consort to his wife. Henry did not base his right on her legitimacy but on divine providence. To prove his case, Henry argued that before the “saint” Henry VI was murdered, the holy man had prophesized his, Henry’s rule. God’s will was confirmed by the victory at Bosworth.

It would have been unwise to allow Yorkist royal saints to compete with the memory of Henry VI, whose cult Henry VII now encouraged. Nothing was said, therefore, about the princes in 1485, beyond the vague accusation in Parliament that Richard III was guilty of “murders in shedding of infants’ blood.”

The danger for Henry was that there was still no real proof the princes were dead. As Henry’s enemies sought a figurehead to rally round, it was a question they took advantage of. In 1491 a young man appeared in Ireland claiming to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower. He said one of the assassins, who could not bring himself to kill “so little a child,” had helped him escape.

Henry said the young man was, in fact, a Dutchman, Perkin Warbeck, who was in the pay of foreign powers. But who could be sure? Warbeck led three attempts to invade England before he was captured in 1497. Henry then kept Warbeck alive long enough for him to publicly confess his modest birth. But even after Warbeck’s execution in 1499, Henry continued to fear the emergence of other “pretenders.”

In May 1502, a condemned traitor named Sir James Tyrell supposedly confessed before his execution to murdering the princes on Richard’s orders. Thomas More tells us that Tyrell claimed that the boys had been buried at the foot of a staircase in the Tower “under a great heap of stones,” but that Richard had asked for their bodies to be reburied somewhere more dignified. Those involved had subsequently died, so the final resting place of the princes was unknown—a suspiciously convenient outcome for Henry VII.

Richard’s reputation plummeted, the deaths of the princes were “confirmed,” and their graves were lost. Meanwhile, the tomb of “saint” Henry VI had come to rival in popularity that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, one of the top three pilgrimage sites in Europe. Thousands were still visiting it in 1533, the year Henry VIII broke with Rome.

But the protestant English Reformation that outlawed Catholicism brought to a close the cult of saints, and memory of them faded, along with an understanding of why Richard had the princes disappear and why Henry did nothing to find them.

In 1674, the skeletons of two children were recovered in the Tower of London in a place that resembled More’s description of their first burial place. Whoever they are, we might remember how the princes murdered in the Tower were denied any decent burial at all, while a grand tomb to house Richard III’s remains is currently being built in Leicester Cathedral.

Correction: The article originally contained an ambiguity which could be taken to imply that Thomas More rather than Henry VIII was the son of Henry VII. Thomas More was the son of John More, a lawyer and judge. The article has been edited to make this clear.

Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story is published by Vintage.

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