The Wars of the Roses
The Princes in the Tower
Perhaps the greatest mystery in English history. Prince Edward, later Edward V, and Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York, were the only biological sons of Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville.
Following Edward IV’s death on 9 April 1483, the ascension of Edward V should have been a formality. The prince was proclaimed King of England in London two days later, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the only surviving brother of the late king, was, according to most sources, named in Edward’s last will as Protector of the Realm, much to the dismay of the Woodville faction. The will of 1483 does not survive, but the content is attested by many contemporary sources.
Richard and Edward were set to meet for the first time since Edward IV’s death at Northampton on 29 April. However, during the course of the day, the new king moved on to Stony Stratford, located fourteen miles south in Buckinghamshire. Richard, accompanied by his loyal supporter the Duke of Buckingham, learned of the change of plan from the new king’s uncle, Earl Rivers, and subsequently dined with him in Northampton. The following day, Richard arrested Edward V’s Woodville-dominant retinue at Stony Stratford. The arrest and later execution of Earl Rivers, brother of Elizabeth Woodville, and Sir Richard Grey, Edward V’s half-brother from Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage, saw Elizabeth take her children into sanctuary. Richard and Edward entered London on 4 May and announced plans for the coronation for 24 June.
It is here things become misty. Edward’s incarceration since 19 May might seem strange to many, but the act was nothing out of the ordinary. Stranger still were Richard’s actions around 8 June, when plans for the coronation changed. It has been suggested that it was on this day that Richard learned for the first time, through Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, of the precontract agreement between Edward IV and one Dame Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, prior to Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Most of the information here comes from the French chronicler Philippe de Commines, and is absent from all other chroniclers. On 9 June, a letter written by Simon Stallworth, servant of the Bishop of Lincoln, suggested business was taking place ‘against the coronation’. There is evidence at that time that dialogue between the council and Elizabeth Woodville, in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, had broken down, while the coronation was brought forward to 22 June. Further letters over the next two days confirmed Richard’s problems with the Woodville faction, while a council was called for 13 June at the Tower. The council convened at 9am, lasting some thirty minutes. When it reconvened at about 10:30am, Richard’s mood had apparently changed somewhat, and he seemed convinced of a plot against him. Lord Hastings was probably executed that day, allegedly for his involvement in a plot against Richard. Sometime between 16 and 21 June, Edward’s coronation was postponed, allegedly to November, almost certainly due to the events of three days earlier. By 21 June, Richard, 1st Duke of York, is recorded as having come out of sanctuary and joined his brother at the Tower.
Exactly what happened next remains a mystery. The chronicler, Mancini, while still in England refers to how the two brothers were seen, shooting and playing, in the Tower garden (the Bloody Tower was named the Garden Tower at the time), yet they were apparently never seen again after mid July. After the executions of Earl Rivers and Sir Richard Grey on 25 June – the day of the aborted parliament – a meeting at Westminster occurred, led by the Duke of Buckingham, at which accusations against Edward IV’s first marriage came to light. The following day the lords met at Baynard’s Castle and petitioned Richard to take the throne. Eventually he accepted, and on 6 July he was crowned at Westminster.
While providing a detailed insight into the events at the time would be largely impossible without a second book, doing the same thing for what happened to the princes would be doubly difficult. At least one attempt at rescuing the princes occurred, the Sanctuary Plot in July, which may or may not have contributed to the princes’ deaths. The Italian chronicler Dominic Mancini had left England before the end of July, and was already writing about the disappearance of the princes. While it can be confirmed the princes were still alive at that time, according to Thomas More, they were both shut up and isolated except for one person who served them, named William Slaughter or ‘Black Will’. More suggests there may later have been three others, including one Miles Forrest – possibly the same man who was recorded as Keeper of the Wardrobe at Richard III’s Barnard Castle in Yorkshire.
What fate awaited the princes comes down to the period of late August, early September. According to the chronicler Commines, the princes were murdered. How exactly, depends on the version. Commines refers to the Duke of Buckingham acting under orders from Richard. According to another source found in the College of Arms, they were murdered on the vise (advice/direction/undertaking) of the Duke of Buckingham, one of Richard’s closest allies. Another manuscript, Ashmole ms 1448.60, refers to the prompting of Buckingham, while Jean Molinet suggests it was actually Buckingham.
Sadly, the opinions are far from consistent. The author of the second Croyland continuation is irritatingly silent on the matter, while More goes into far more detail. More’s unfinished chronicle specifically states the murder to have occurred on 15 August, while Alison Weir suggests More was correct in everything bar the date, 3 September being the key event. More’s detailed description includes a letter being given to Richard III’s faithful servant Sir James Tyrell, ordering that the keys to the Tower be given to Tyrell for that night only. After this, More states it was one John Dighton and Miles Forrest who smothered the children in their beds. The chronicler Polydore Vergil also accuses Tyrell of the murder, though he mentions nothing of More’s detail. Other versions tell of the murder being by the sword or else drowned in wine – Clarence was executed that way. On his return to England in 1502 and subsequent incarceration, Tyrell is alleged to have confessed involvement, later included in More’s chronicle.
More is the only author who details what became of the bodies. He wrote that they were buried at the foot of the Tower stair and moved into the garden. In 1674 when work was being carried out at the Tower, the bodies of two small boys were found at the location where More claimed the princes had originally been buried. Also present was purple velvet rag, the colour of the monarch. Charles II was convinced the bodies were those of the princes, and they were henceforth interred in Westminster Abbey, in the urn the work of the great Sir Christopher Wren. DNA testing on the bodies in the 1930s confirmed the ages to be in the region of twelve and nine respectively.
In all likelihood the boys were indeed the sons of Edward IV. Yet until DNA testing takes place, the matter can never be put to rest. The recent discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester has generated new interest. Of Richard’s appearance, the gaps have finally been filled in and legend and history can at last agree.
In all likelihood, the princes were murdered. In all likelihood, Richard was the man who was ultimately responsible. But he is not the only candidate. Between Richard and Buckingham, and perhaps Tyrell, if indeed he was the man in question, there remains one even more compelling candidate whose need for the princes to be dead was even greater than Richard’s. For Richard had the throne regardless. Though rebellion may one day have awaited him, for Henry Tudor the demise of the princes was pivotal. Thus leading to the even greater candidate.