Sir Robert Brackenbury died at Bosworth in August 1485 fighting for Richard III. He’s best known as the Constable of the Tower who refused to kill the princes in the Tower i.e. Edward V and Richard duke of York on his master’s orders- Sir Thomas More’s version- but felt able to hand the keys over to Sir James Tyrell with a view to dispatching the aforementioned.
At the risk of being contentious, or merely stating the obvious -it was either Richard III or the Duke of Buckingham according to rumour at the time. Frankly whilst Buckingham could have done it thus framing Richard and getting him a step closer to the throne it does seem rather a huge leap of ambition as there were plenty of people in line before Buckingham for the crown (though stranger things have happened historically speaking). In terms of means, motive and opportunity as well as available sources the finger of blame points heavily at the wicked uncle in the contemporary and Tudor sources…and yes I know that the Tudor sources weren’t ever going to paint Richard in a warm and friendly light. I don’t suppose that Lord Hastings or Earl Rivers would paint Richard in a warm and friendly light either. Plantagenet kings did brutal things to gain and then to keep power – getting rid of unwanted nephews was hardly an innovation; though unlikely to win friends and influence posterity.
Sir Thomas More is not without his critics. The man was only five years old when the story kicked off. He was Cardinal Morton’s page, but he was a lawyer and unafraid, or so it seems, of irritating monarchs. He talked to people who had been alive at the time of the princes’ disappearance- to people who may have speculated and remembered and gossiped – none of which is evidence but is useful if you’re Thomas More writing a history – something which incidentally he never finished, never corrected for errors and which may have had allegorical tendencies…which is a lot of ifs, whats and maybes but its the best you’re going to get from this post.
Anyway back to Brackenbury who was apparently prepared to die rather than do as Richard ordered despite the lucrative rewords he was receiving at the time. He’d been made constable of the Tower for life as well as master of the mint. Juicy little estates seemed to fall into his pocket at a click of Richard’s fingers along with posts such as Sheriff of Kent- and as we all know ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’ In the next breath Brackenbury, without any apparent sense of irony, happily hands over the keys to the princes’ prison – which seems somewhat disingenuous. It was also claimed that James Tyrell, who is generally accepted as the murderer by those sources that identify the doer of the deed, couldn’t find the bodies after the event because for reasons best known to himself Sir Robert had shifted them – not that he felt inclined to raise hue and cry or point any fingers at anyone…making him an accessory to the deed whether he wanted to be or not. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t do well at the hands of Shakespeare who drew hugely on More’s history as well as the writings of Polydore Vergil.
Robert, aside from refusing to kill Plantagenet sprigs but looking the other way whilst someone else did, remained loyal to Richard III. Plain old Robert Brackenbury became Sir Robert during Christmas 1484. He took part in Richard’s final charge at Bosworth dying alongside him. His name features on an attainder for raising troops at Leicester. Four years later the attainder was reversed so that family lands in Durham which had been in the family since the twelfth century could be drawn on by his daughters Anne and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Brackenbury, Robert’s daughter, found herself in the Minories with the Duchess of Norfolk. When she died she asked her executors to reimburse the duchess for her kindness. And that is where Sir Thomas More comes back into the story – More was in the habit of visiting the Minories to see a nun called Joyeuce Lee who was the sister of a friend of his. One finds oneself wondering what More heard during his visits – as well as Elizabeth Mowbray (duchess of Norfolk) the mother of Anne Mowbray – Richard of York’s little bride there was Elizabeth Brackenbury, Mary Tyrell who was according to Weir (no fan of Richard’s) the sister or cousin of Sir James, Mary’s aunt – Anne Montgomery whose husband was the executor of Edward IV’s will and a loyalist of Richard’s (Weir:170). One can’t help wondering what the ladies knew, what they talked about and how much of it Joyeuce relayed to the young lawyer who visited her. Of course, that’s not evidence….but…
The story from behind the convent walls was further corroborated by an anonymous source that had a hand in the murders and who lived in fear of his life – according to More at any rate.
Make of it what you will! It is English History’s favourite topic for conspiracy theories after all – though from this angle it seems like a wicked uncle is involved in there somewhere.
Harris, Barbara J (2002) English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers.
Weir, Alison (1992) The Princes in the Tower. New York: Ballantine Books