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Did King Richard III kill the Princes in the Tower of London?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 6

The body of King Richard is found

[7328]Up until last month there were two unanswered questions concerning the reign of King Richard III where was he buried and did he order the deaths of his nephews commonly referred to as the “Princes in the Tower”. Following the pain staking work of the University of Leicester the first question has been answered and the King’s body has been found in a car park on a site near what is now Leicester cathedral. However the questions concerning the two princes have remained unanswered

King Edward IV
Credit: By Simon François Ravenet (1706-1774) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of King Edward IV

On the 9th April 1483 the King Edward IV died after a lifetime of dissipation leaving his son Edward then aged 12 as Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. The boy and his brother were left in the guardianship of their Uncle Richard the Duke of Gloucester thereafter known as The Protector.

Two weeks after the burial of King Edward IV the Queens family (the Woodville’s) and Richard Duke of Gloucester were to meet at Northampton to make a progress to London for the coronation of his nephew King Edward V. Richard met with Earl Rivers who explained that the King and his retinue had moved further near London and Richard agreed to ride out the next morning to join the King.  During the evening Henry Stafford the Duke of Buckingham arrived and he and his advisors explained to Richard how poor their position would be if the King was crowned and the Queen’s family became even more powerful.

In the morning of the 30th April Richard took action and ordered that the Earl Rivers be arrested and that no news of his arrest was leaked from the town. Richard and Henry Stafford left Northampton accompanied by a troop of soldiers and rode to Stratford to seek an audience with the Prince. At the audience the Prince confirmed that he would take his mothers advice and seek advisers from her recommendation and those who had advised his father. The Kings chamberlain and his half brother were placed under arrest and their leaderless troops obeyed to instructions to return home. The Dukes returned to Northampton with their prisoners

Plaque to the memory of the King
Credit: Bill Sibley [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard - Protector and guardian of the two Princes

In London there was uproar which resulted in the Queen and her remaining children seeking sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Public opinion was running against the Queen and it was commonly believed that only Richard, Duke of Gloucester was faithful to the King. Richard wrote to the Mayor and Aldermen announcing an early date for the King’s coronation, 24th June and the King was moved to spacious royal apartments in the Tower of London which also served as a palace.

As with many actions there was a catalyst to the next actions of Richard, this time in the face of Lord Hastings. In early June Richard heard that the Earl and the Queen were coming to an understanding and that Hastings was ready to support her in her attempts to influence and gain control of the young King. There is a theory (there always seems to be a theory surrounding Richard) that Hastings understood that Richard wanted to usurp the Crown and out of obedience to the late King wished to take steps to make this impossible.  Hastings was dealt with quickly before support could be summoned as he was arrested at a meeting of King’s council, taken outside where  he met with a priest to give him final absolution then forced to kneel across a log and executed. Swift action from Richard who then sent for prominent citizens to tell them that the execution had been necessary as the Earl had plotted to kill both him and Henry Stafford.

The princes in the tower(132101)

Richard usurps the Crown

Richard now realised that after taking such sudden action he needed to be King in his own right, the Prince of Wales was a well educated young man, capable of independent thought and not afraid to voice his opinions. On the 16th June Richard visited Westminster Abbey where the Queen was persuaded to give up her second son, Richard, Duke of York to the Protector; presumably she believed that the coronation of her eldest son due in a week’s time would secure both the boys safety.

Once both the Princes were safely in Richard’s charge, locked in the Tower he dredged up old stories that had circulated concerning the legitimacy of the birth of the two boys. Richard cited the fact that there was a marriage contract between his brother and lady Eleanor Butler. Under the marriage laws at the time any subsequent marriage would be invalidated and therefore any children would be illegitimate. The news was told to the people of London in a sermon at St Paul’s cross  by the Mayors brother Dr Ralph Shaa who preached on the theme that the seedlings of  “bastard slips should not take deep root”.

The Lords and Commons had already been summoned to confirm Richard’s role of Protector and as they began to arrive they became acquainted with the situation.  On 24th June the day which should have seen the young prince’s coronation Dr Shaa appealed to the thronged representatives that Richard should be King and promising them a settled future without the abuses and taxation that would be sure to come if the Prince became King controlled by his mother’s family, the Woodvilles. Parliament met the next day and assented to support a petition from the Duke of Buckingham to be made to Richard, Duke of Gloucester which begged him to become King.  Richard, ever the actor at first feigned surprise and concern but then after some pleading from the petitioners agreed to become King and was crowned on 6th July 1843.

The white tower(132102)
Credit: By Crux [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard the murderer-

Evidence from Sir Thomas Moore

With Richard secure in  his position of King, albeit with little support amongst the nobility, what happened to his brothers sons the two princes, Edward and Richard. A contemporary chronicler Dominic Mancini described how the princes lived in the depths of the apartments and “day by day began to be seen more rarely………til at length they ceased to appear at all.  The Croyland Chronicler reported that a “A rumour was spread that the sons of King Edward had died a violent death” Perhaps the most influential account was that written  by the scholar Sir Thomas Moore during the reign of King Henry VIII some forty years later.

Sir Thomas More argues that as soon as Richard was crowned he realised that his nephews could be used by his opponents to take the crown from him and at that point he decided to kill them. It was said that a letter was sent to Sir John Brackenbury master of the Tower of London, stating that the boys should be killed, Sir John refused. A servant suggested that Sir James Tyrell would be willing to do the deed and so he was sent to Sir John Brackenbury who was advised to give him the keys of the Tower for one night so that the Princes could be murdered. Sir James decided that the boys should be killed whilst they slept and thus the boys were smothered to death, they were not strong enough to oppose four strong men. The bodies were then undressed and taken to be buried under a stair well under a pile of stones. It was rumoured that when a priest of Sir John Brackenbury heard this,  he found the grave and with help moved the boys to a more suitable resting place. Sir Thomas More also said that when Sir James Tyrell was himself in the Tower for committing treason against King Henry VII he admitted what had happened but could not find the boys grave

Bodies found in the Tower of London

In 1674 workmen at the Tower of London were taking down a staircase and found a large chest which contained the skeletons of two children, which were at the time believed to be the two princes. In 1933 tests were undertaken to establish the ages of the children which were deduced to be about ten and twelve which were the ages of the two princes when they disappeared. The skeletons were subsequently buried in Westminster Abbey and the Church of England has refused to release the bones for DNA testing to see if they belong to the princes. Recently DNA testing has established the location of King Richard III skeleton. The churches stand is backed by the Queen and her Ministers for some twenty years

Henry Tudor(132104)
Credit: Michael Sittow (circa 1469-1525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who killed the Princes?

Was it the Duke of Buckingham or Henry Tudor?

So who did kill the young princes in the tower? There are some suspects thought he evidence is not strong enough to convict in a modern court of law. It is generally accepted that the boys were killed sometime between mid 1483 and early 1484. The main murder suspects were King RichardIII, The Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Tudor

Buckingham who was desperate for power was seen as a candidate except that he openly rebelled against King Richard and had to be forced into submission during an armed rebellion. He was beheaded in November 1483. It has been argued that if Buckingham was indeed that murderer; King Richard would have known this and would have accused him of it in order to gain support from the Woodville family. (The Princes mothers’ family)

Henry Vii has been accused. In 1486 he pardoned Sir James Tyrell of treason against him and it has been argued that he did this as Sir James had killed the boys on Henry’s orders.  Neither during the war of the Roses or after it did King Henry refer to the deaths of the princes in order to blacken King Richards name and gain public sympathy or support. In 1487 he quickly removed his mother in law ( the princes mother) to a nunnery, thereby perhaps removing a vocal woman who had found out what had happened to her sons?

Prime suspect- King Richard
Credit: See page for author[see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Did King Richard kill the princes?

Prime suspect- King Richard III

The main suspect has to be King Richard III himself- he would not have done the deed but would have arranged to have it done by someone else. Examination of the surrounding circumstances gives the best clues.  In September 1843 the marriage was negotiated between the princes sister Elizabeth and Henry Tudor- this marriage of the Kings sister would not have been countenanced by the Kings mother if she had any hope of either of her sons inheriting the crown, it is believed at this point that she knew that her boys were dead. At this point rumours began to circulate throughout the country, especially in London and yet the King did not bring the Princes out of seclusion to show that they were still alive.  The Princes sisters were released from their seclusion at Westminster Abbey in March 1484, had the boys still been alive it is likely that they would still have been held as hostages for their safety. King Richard actually swore an oath to guarantee the safety of the Queen and her daughters. He swore “ I shall see that they be in surety of their lives, and also do not suffer any manner of hurt…..” This was a public oath and if he had broken it or allowed someone else to break it  then it would have been known by the whole Kingdom. The queen and the girls were quite safe in their public limelight in King Richard’s  court.

There was no investigation into the death of the two princes, they simply quietly disappeared. They were inconvenient to the three men trying to gain power in England. Was it Buckingham or King Richard who ordered their deaths, if so by doing so they pushed support toward Henry Tudor as many still regarded the Princes as the rightful heir.  If it was King Henry could the Princes sister have  really married him and given him heirs, knowing he had killed her younger brothers? Perhaps we will never know but maybe the account of Sir Thomas Moore is as near the truth as we will ever get.

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Comments

Apr 25, 2013 1:22am
adragast
I always thought it was Richard III but did not know about the other suspects. Thanks for telling us more about it, nice article.
Apr 25, 2013 11:24am
Case1worker
Thank you- I think more is known and held in archives than we will ever learn. I heard today that they are doing more digging around the Kings burial site so who knows what will be found
Apr 25, 2013 7:22pm
JadeDragon
Richard III is guilty as hell and the rest is just mis-information to divert attention for the King's role in ordering the Prince's murder.
Apr 25, 2013 10:50pm
Case1worker
JADE DRAGON- Wow no chance of innocence then? However I do tend to agree- but I think it was an establishment cover up which subsequent Tudor monarchs knew about but for some reason did not want to make public. (Perhaps they feared for their own succession)
Apr 26, 2013 9:43am
trufflehunter
I always thought it was Richard III but have to admit, that was mainly coz of Shakespeare! I seriously doubt it was Buckingham though.
Apr 29, 2013 2:54am
Case1worker
trufflehunter- Thank you f or your visit. Shakespeare certainly blackened Richards character and for example his hunched back physique- which has been proven to be correct! So maybe he was guilty?
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Bibliography

  1. Anthony Cheetham The ife and times of Richard III. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited and Book club associates, 1972.

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