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
‘It was also claimed that James Tyrell, who is generally accepted as the murderer by those sources that identify the doer of the deed’ – you mean More, I presume? Isn’t he the only source who mentions Tyrell?
I think Polydore Virgil mentions Tyrell – though whether one drew on the other is another question entirely.
No, only More. Virgil actually doesn’t mention it. Of course Starkey assumes that More must be telling the truth because apparently Henry VII and his wife were at the Tower during the trial. Someone needs to tell David Starkey that 1+1 doesn’t make 5!
Arch Bishop Morton told his guests at table, whilst More was a young servant of Mortons, that they bodies of both Princes lay at the bottom of the stone stairs to Royal apartments under a great pile of stones. As Morton hated Richard and was very close to Lord Stanley and his wench mother of the swine called the Beaufort bastard.One comes to see that Morton must have been involved in the boys fate. Mores version of events is patchy and may have only written it tongue in cheek. Morton still alive may have made publication rather difficult. More was a cleaver and honest man even though he was a fool who sacrificed his life at the expense of his own family. His wife starved to death when Henry of England claimed More the traitors house and goods. We know that More was in service at table for Morton as that is what sons of Judges did to learn a craft of housekeeping. Morton was the only one high enough in power to have known Richard and Henry Tudor personally. The fact that he knew so much leans to both he and Margaret Beaufort and Lord Stanley ,her new husband, must have murdered the Princes to plan Richards demise. It certainly worked at Bosworth.
There’re lots of theories about More’s book. I might do a post about the Laslau Theory at some point.
Got to wonder why Richard III didn’t “off” his distaff nephew Arthur Plantagenet, just to be sure. After all, some bastards have been known to be legitimised, whereas others took the throne anyway.
Very true – and let’s face it Edward, earl of Warwick probably ought to have had a nasty accident as well.
Whist enjoying breakfast I mulled over this case yet again. Bare with me. You see Richard was on Kings Progress with his Queen and retinue as was his Royal duty. Now who really had motive to kill the Princes? Richard No as still had his brother Edwards daughters ready to rule. But now Beaufort had a plan. Degrade Richards name enough to place her beloved son on the throne and marry Elizabeth of York , Edwards eldest daughter , problem solved and that dear lady is how it worked and how Morton knew all. When Tyrell was thought of later anyone would have signed confession promised life with a lance up the jacksie. In investigations it seems Tyrell had set off with Richards party leaving it wide open for Morton and Stanley to do the deed. My thought only but it works on all evidence as Richard profited not from dipatch of boys he had declared them rightly so bastards if Bishop Stillingtons words are true and Edward the womanizer had married the Talbot girl before Woodvile.
I believe that Stillington who married them was telling the Gospel truth. Edward may well also have been a bastard tracing Proud Cec around France Eddy may have been the son of a big blond archer who looked the spitting image of Edward the King. Richard and George looked smaller and more swarthy like their father who was killed in battle. Richard was quick tempered as all Plantageanets in degree. He was not a rash man nor known as an idiot. He was a great King in law and good deeds during his short two years as our Lord King. Yes he took the throne to save war and to stop Woodviles rule. What else could he have done but sit and be slaughtered as poor Edward may have been. Thank you for such an article it gave vent to sixty years of study in this case.
Churchill argued that Richard was guilty as no one else was in the loop. But on this he was wrong. Morton was a powerful planer a man who took sides with Beaufort what did it matter to kill tow declared bastards if it brought Richard down. Elizabeth York was in Beaufort clutch and easy plan to place her as queen, the girl herself all for it. Power mad Woodville as she was. Loved by the people and seen as holy by many who thought of her as virgin Mary. Morton was the thinker Stanley involved with the murder and Beaufort the way to the throne for both of them.
I agree with the bit about the lance! Its fishy too that Tyrell’s land wasn’t confiscated. His son inherited. Makes you wonder what went on behind the scenes.
If the confession actually happened (which is only mentioned once and that is in More’s writings) it would definitely seem like something Tyrell would have done under torture to save his living family from an awful fate.
I think what needs to be said also is that there is no evidence that the boys were murdered by anyone. Apart from some rumours in 1483 (likely put about by Morton to stir up rebellion against the new king), there is nothing to suggest such a crime at that time. King Richard was not accused of any such thing by Henry Tudor. Tyrrell’s so-called ‘confession’ didn’t surface until it appeared in More’s very historically-inaccurate manuscript – which was never finished, and not published until long after his death – after ‘editing’ by the publisher, which may well have been done to fit better with the then-current narrative in the mid-sixteenth century. These are just some of the reasons why we should be careful not to accept blindly what has sadly become the ‘accepted history’ of this period. Tudor’s constant fear of Perkin Warbeck being the young Duke of York points to his having no belief that the boy was murdered by anyone. And why, if the boys had been killed in the Tower as More claims, would a sensible ruler not display their bodies and blame their deaths on some prevailing sickness to prevent any further rumours and disturbances? In some ways Brackenbury and Tyrrell have been as much maligned by ‘history’ as King Richard himself.
The attainder against Richard referred to the murder of “innocent babes” which is as far as it went. It might be argued that Henry VII, knowing that his claim was dodgy, wanted to leave the whole thing well alone. There is also the theory that More is deliberately error strewn – see the Laslau Theory which is interesting. You make some salient points about Warbeck which I think I have dealt with elsewhere in the blog at an earlier date. It’s nice to do a contentious post as it inevitably produces more comments and discussion – though I object to the phrase ‘blind acceptance’ – the post is quite clear that the content is open to interpretation and that there are other views. Who knows I may even approach some of them in due course.
The mention of ‘accept blindly’ was directed not at your piece, but at the general run of historians who still take the Tudor/More narrative as ‘gospel truth’, despite the glaring flaws, and therefore pass it on to the general reader. Where many of us hoped the discovery of Richard’s grave would lead to a proper reassessment of the sources and his story, sadly all too often there has just been regurgitation of the same old narrative, sometimes even embroidering it further, often in the mainstream press. However, it’s refreshing on occasion to see a piece that is more open to questioning the story – as here.
Sorry – I may have been a bit tetchy by the time I replied to your comment. As you say a proper reassessment is essential. There are flaws, errors and so many whats, ifs and maybes. I hope the history does unfold more fully – after all who would have thought Richard would turn up where he did or that he would have scoliosis? I’d have laid odds that his “crooked back” was Tudor propaganda and clearly it was emphasised and exaggerated by the Tudors which is perhaps indicative of the way in which they took the truth and twisted it in other matters.
Beautifully written, packed full of stuff I didn’t know and will have difficulty retaining. Wonderfu, but terrible, intrigue. I’m an old-fashioned sort – the old question often serves – cui bono?
Thank you. Intrigue is at the heart of it and that’s what fascinates me about history.
Elizabeth Duchess of Norfolk was the sister of Lady Eleanor Talbot. The odds are that she knew whether or not Eleanor had married Edward IV. She attended Richard III’s coronation and Richard later granted her Chelsea, a nice little gift.
Now, whatever More gleaned from the ladies in the Minories, he clearly didn’t learn about the Duchess’s sister, as he wrote that Elizabeth Lucy was the lady who supposed bride of Edward IV, a matter easily disproved.
One of number of factual errors in his account. Note, factual. I gave up after counting half a dozen. If the police received a statement from a witness which contained half a dozen factual errors, what would they make of it? I think the answer is obvious.
I didn’t realise she’d pocketed Chelsea. Have you explored the Laslau Theory? It’s fascinating in terms of why there may be errors in More’s history- the opening line of the account gets Edward IV’s reign wrong. I did note that it hadn’t been proof read and that More himself didn’t publish it. The post is short and has been effective in getting feedback! I think that this post and the one I did about one of the Woodvilles has elicited more comments than any other during the time I’ve been blogging. I’m working on the contentious element as I want to increase the history jar platform. The Eleanor Butler thing is interesting as you’d think More would have mentioned it had he known, either he didn’t or it didn’t fit with the story he wanted to tell. One of More’s difficulties appears to be that history and literature ran awfully close to one another in Tudor times. Weir’s account of More’s rationale is an interesting one. No doubt I shall progress to John Ashdown-Hill’s account at some point in proceedings. One thing’s for sure – it’s along way from the old Jackdaw case study about the murder of the princes that I remember from school. Oh yes – and I should add that Richard in London and Richard in the north appear to be two entirely different commodities! definitely another post there.
Elizabeth was subsequently ‘persuaded’ to give Chelsea to Reginald Bray. Margaret Beaufort’s associate. Which is interesting in itself.
It is pretty unusual for a woman to be granted land on her own account – other than the normal dower or jointure, and the reason for Richard’s gift is unclear. She held it by ‘the service of a red rose’.
Elizabeth had reason to be unhappy with Edward IV, who had ‘asked’ her to take a reduced dower – obviously grabbing two thirds of the Mowbray lands for his son just wasn’t enough.
It certainly is interesting on more than one count. Mr Bray is turning into a pet project of mine.
Richard knighted George of Clarence’s son, Edward at the same time he made his own son Prince of Wales….. now why didn’t he do away with Edward as well as the boys in the Tower? (If this is what you believe he did) Edward was only described as an imbecile later on, possibly because he had been locked away by Tudor for so long. Nothing to say he was so in Richard’s time.
As grdtobin observed he should also have done away with Arthur Plantagenet, Edward IV’s illegitimate son. So, in answer to your question -I don’t know but there again neither does anyone else- Richard sent Edward north distancing him from the seat of power. Financial and household accounts demonstrate that Edward was well cared for and that it is probable that some of Edward IV’s daughters stayed in Sheriff Hutton as well as Edward of Middleham. As you say the earl of Warwick ended up not knowing a ‘goose from a capon’ thanks to years of imprisonment and neglect at the hands of Henry VII – which doesn’t paint Henry in a very positive light. Why didn’t Richard kill him if he killed the princes? Maybe he didn’t think he needed to, maybe he hadn’t got around to it or maybe he wasn’t going for the full ‘Kind hearts and coronets’ removal of all potential heirs – unlike Henry VII and Henry VIII who seemed to work their way through the family tree.
In terms of do I think Richard III had the princes silenced then the answer is a very measured yes on the available flawed evidence- and in that I don’t think Richard was any better or any worse than any other medieval monarch- though I also think there’s a possibility that the Duke of Buckingham had a hand in it; and whenever I revisit the Laslau theory or read about Perkin Warbeck I can quite see that at least one of them could have survived. I’m open minded on the subject and hope that one day more evidence will be forthcoming. DNA testing the bones in Westminster Abbey would be a useful start.