Who murdered the princes in the Tower?

princes_in_the_tower_2.jpgThe honest answer to that is that it rather depends on your interpretation of the sources and, as I have said before, your affiliations. Richard III is a monarch who stirs strong sentiments!  I first encountered the event and a few of the various sources aged eleven when my History teacher used the Jackdaw activity pack about the princes to encourage his class to see that History isn’t something cast in concrete and that the same source can be valued or discredited according to viewpoint and known facts. The story of the princes is the story of an unsolved murder – it’s a bit like unmasking Jack the Ripper in that everyone has their pet theory and some evidence to back up their ideas. The novelist Patricia Cornwall has spent a huge sum of money to gather overlooked evidence which points to Jack being the artist Walter Sickert. Unsolved historical murders have a fascination because everyone can look at the available evidence and draw their own conclusions.  Difficulties arise when historians – and determined amateur sleuths – try to find previously unknown evidence that has disappeared down the crevices of time  that will point in the right direction. It is often the work of painstakingly moving the pieces around until a more clear picture emerges. Until then it has to be best and most accepted fit – but that doesn’t mean that in a modern court the evidence would produce a guilty verdict.

So here  are the possibilities of what happened to the Princes- in no particular order, other than the order they’ve emerged from my brain.

  1. King Richard III had them killed. Please don’t inhale and reach for your keyboard if you think he’s innocent – he is a rather notable suspect.  Richard, as duke of Gloucester, served his brother Edward IV with loyalty and honour.  Edward left him to get on with ruling the North of England and he did a stonkingly good job of it.  The good folk of York felt sufficiently strongly about it to make a note of his deposition and death at Bosworth – an act guaranteed to hack off the new regime.  The problem for Richard, if you’re that way inclined, was that Edward IV allowed the Woodville faction to gain dominance at court in terms of lucrative positions, marriages and ultimately by giving the care of his son into Woodville hands.  Richard only found out about his brother’s death because Lord Hastings sent him a note warning of Woodville intentions to get young Edward crowned as quickly as possible which would have seen Richard as a protector without any power because he didn’t have control of the king. When Richard intercepted the young king at Northampton it could be argued that Richard was acting in the interests of rather a lot of people who weren’t terrible keen on the aforementioned Woodvilles who were regarded by many as too big for their boots – and now is not the time to go down the side alley of Jacquetta Grey’s lineage. So far so good. Nor is this post the time to go through the whole chronology of events. The key things that stick in my mind are the Eleanor Butler incident i.e. the announcement that Edward IV had already been pre contracted in marriage thus rendering all his children illegitimate and Richard as heir to the throne.  The argument is usually put forward that if the children were illegitimate and since the Titulus Regulus act of Parliament said they were then there was no way they could inherit-so why kill them?  There’s also the episode with Lord Hastings finding himself being manhandled out of a privy council meeting to a handy lump of timber where he was executed without trial – clearly a large chunk from the historical jigsaw missing there although plenty of historians have presented theories on the subject as to why Richard should fall out with his brother’s friend so dramatically and decisively. Jane Shore found herself doing public penance, lost her property and ended up in jail in the aftermath of the episode – again why should Richard do that?  His brother had plenty of other mistresses.  The problem with skulduggery is that people don’t tend to make careful notes before, during or after the event – at least not if they wanted to keep their heads. There is obviously much more that I could write about both for and against Richard’s involvement.  I have four rather hefty volumes on my desk as I type.  Richard was the key suspect at the time according to rumour- Dominic Mancini left an account of events as he understood them.  He left England the week of Richard’s coronation, doesn’t provide an account of what Richard looked like and his manuscript went missing until 1934.  He says:” But after Hastings was removed, all the attendants who had waited on the king were debarred access to him. He and his brother were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day  began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, til at length they ceased to appear altogether. The Physician John Argentine, the last of his attendants whose services the king enjoyed, reported that the young kin, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.”

    “I have seen many men burst into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there is a suspicion that he had been done away with. Whether, However, he has been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not yet at all discovered.” 

    Mancini recognises that rumours aren’t fact but does give us a circumstantial account which holds water in that he doesn’t have any particular axe to grind on the subject.  Richard was in charge – whilst dying in the Tower was a huge risk for any of its imprisoned inhabitants it should only have happened if the bloke at the top of the chain of command gave the order; medieval Kings needed to secure their dynasties.  In having Edward of Middleham created Prince of Wales, Richard was laying a marker for the future.  If nothing else, and this is my thought on the subject, the Wars of the Roses would have taught him that having two kings on the board isn’t a terribly good idea in terms of political stability.  Little boys, bastardised or not, have a nasty tendency of growing up to be focal points of rebellion (and so does the idea of their existence as Henry VII swiftly discovered). I should also add that I have no problem with it if Richard did do it – medieval kings weren’t required to be nice they were required to hold on to the throne, pass it to the next generation and preferably win a large number of wars abroad whilst avoiding the scenario of their own citizens killing each other. I might also add that no one has any problem with Edward IV bumping off Henry VI in order to ensure no further unrest – of course he had the body displayed which eases the problem of conspiracy theories popping up out of the woodwork and he produced heirs – not to mention a brother who managed to land himself with a far more juicy tale. Equally Henry IV who bumped off his cousin doesn’t suffer as much as Richard on account of the fact that there were two further generations of Lancastrian kings making Henry’s actions less noteworthy (if you wanted to keep your head) whilst Richard lost his throne and his life after only two years  allowing the Tudor propaganda machine to get to work which also muddies some of the sources.

  2. Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham was descended from both John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock. Again, if contemporary/near contemporary accounts are to be believed he had something of a grudge against the Woodvilles believing that his marriage to Katherine Woodville was beneath his dignity and that he hadn’t been permitted to take up his correct position in society. There are accounts where it is Stafford who is encouraging Richard to do away with the two princes. Things weren’t going terribly well for Stafford in terms of promotion and power although he swiftly became virtual ruler of the whole of Wales when Richard followed his brother’s model of giving titles, offices and lands to people he trusted and then letting them get on with it. By the winter of 1483 Bucking was in open rebellion against Richard and in cahoots with Margaret Beaufort who we  know he met on the road to Brecon where Bishop Morton was being kept under house arrest.  There seem to be two separate plots that turned into one plot – untidy but demonstrating that the great and the good had seen an opportunity for making their moves and also demonstrating that beneath the surface there were some very nasty currents at work – none of which is evidenced through much more than hearsay, some gleaned documentary comments and a few very interesting travel itineraries. The combination of  Buckingham’s arrogance and a few well chosen words of encouragement could have  been enough to see Buckingham have the boys murdered.  He had the means and the opportunity in that he was Constable of the Tower and had Richard’s trust.  He was executed in Salisbury on 3 November 1483.  He was not permitted to make a speech before his death.  It is plausible that he had the boys killed in order to make life difficult for Richard and also to open his way to the throne – it would have to be said that if the latter was the case Stafford was an inordinately optimistic chap.  If the former is true then he succeeded better than he could ever have dreamed. Jean Molinet is one of the sources who references Buckingham as does Commines.  There’s also a fragment of manuscript in the Ashmolean that points in Buckingham’s direction. The key thing here is that Richard didn’t know about it until it was too late and then who would have believed him.

    Sir James Tyrell- according to Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil – the chap that did the deed. He apparently confessed in 1502 prior to his execution.  There is no known copy of the confession in existence. The Great Chronicle of London repeated the rumour.

  4. And that was more or less it until historians began revising their views in the Twentieth Century – the Victorians as the image above demonstrates were rather keen on the wicked uncle theory.  There is an account written by the Tudor historian John Stowe which says that there was a failed rescue attempt complete with a diversion of fire.  Again, I have no problem with that as it is entirely plausible that Stowe had access to sources that are now lost – happens a lot in this story.  This account opens up the possibility that the princes were killed accidentally or on purpose by someone other than on the orders of the folk in charge.  If there was a rescue attempt and it went wrong it would be very easy for the princes’ guards to kill them either to prevent their rescue or – and this is pure speculation- trying to do their best Thomas Becket replay for reward or someone could have paid the killer on the staff to do the deed – which opens up the possibility of the Lancastrian faction weighing in…all of which has no evidential base – Josephine Tey and Philippa Gregory are fiction writers. They can take  scraps and use the wriggle room as they wish. For accounts in the history books to be changed there needs to be something rather more substantial.
  5. They died accidentally or of illness. Well, why didn’t Richard just say?  Who would have believed him – look what happened to Edward II and Richard II and Henry VI – no one believed their deaths were natural….and that’s mainly because they weren’t.  There are plenty of other examples of the elite dying unexpectedly and the next thing you know its on account of poison or dastardly deeds. The average medieval man and woman in the street liked a conspiracy theory as much as the present generation – another thing which doesn’t help the primary accounts that we do have.  It’s largely all gossip.
  6. They didn’t die at all.  There was a story in Tyrell’s family that he removed the boys from the Tower.  There’re un-identified children in Richard’s financial records in Sheriff Hutton (oh goody, more speculation- but at least there’s something documented). There is also the Laslau Theory that says that John Clement, Margaret Gigg’s husband, was actually Richard of York. It’s a really interesting theory based on Holbein’s picture of Sir Thomas More’s family – obviously with flaws like the idea of Sir Edward Guildford (father of the duke of Northumberland’s wife) actually being Edward V incognito  but it would account for some of Sir Thomas More’s more glaring errors in his account of events – if you’re a follower of the Laslau Theory, Sir Thomas rather than being a Tudor propagandist/historian (depending on your viewpoint) is actually laying a screen of misinformation in order to protect the identity of a surviving prince. Laslau does offer some slender  threads of documentary evidence in his quest which are  interesting and which muddy the waters still further.  And finally and most obvious of the lot there is Henry VII’s on-going fear of pretenders.  King James of Scotland accepted Perkin Warbeck as Duke of York. This isn’t without its difficulties as Warbeck was initially acclaimed in Dublin as Earl of Warwick but you get the gist.  Elizabeth Woodville testified to the legitimacy of her children but never accused anyone of murder – either before or after Richard’s demise…and yes there’s a whole host of things that could be added to that statement.
  7. There are a couple of other candidates for murderer- take John Howard who became Duke of Norfolk.  He was the claimant to the estate of the Mowbray Dukes of Norfolk.  He was given custody of the Tower of London under less than regular circumstances the night the Princes are supposed to have disappeared from the Tower (Weir). He had opportunity and it turns out he had a motive—Richard, Duke of York was also Duke of Norfolk in right of his deceased child bride Anne, the daughter of the last Mowbray Duke.  Normally land and title reverted to the family where a child marriage was not consummated and no heir produced – which is why Edmund Tudor didn’t wait until Margaret Beaufort was a bit older before getting her with child.  he was concerned she’d die and he’d lose the lolly. In this case though, Richard had kept the title, the estates and the revenue…
  8. And finally John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. John had been by Uncle Richard’s side throughout 1483.  Like Buckingham he was trusted.  He would become Richard’s heir presumptive after Edward of Middleham’s death.  If we’re going to suggest that Buckingham was looking to be king then it also makes sense that someone a bit nearer to the Crown would bear some investigation.

The thing is that there is some evidence but its contradictory and circumstantial.  It might be possible to rule out the princes’ survival if the bones in the urn in Westminster Abbey turned out to belong to Edward V and Richard of York. Even if they weren’t it wouldn’t necessarily mean that they had survived their misadventure. And if the bones were theirs, it wouldn’t prove who did the killing since the skeletons did not emerge from their resting place clutching a note identifying the murderer – though it would make the account offered by More more plausible – errors and all.

And that’s all I intend to post about the Princes in the Tower for the time being.  Most of the time, with a few notable exceptions, if it weren’t for the traffic stats on the History Jar I wouldn’t know whether anyone was reading my ramblings or not.  I’ve not got the hang of being liked, joining communities or developing conversations through comments – Richard III, the Woodvilles and the Princes on the other hand certainly get a response! So thank you for your comments – positive, negative, knowledgeable and thought provoking as they are.

Primary sources or near primary sources include:

André, Bernard: Vita Henrici VII (in Memorials of King Henry VII, ed. J. Gairdner, Rolls Series, 1858)

Bull of Pope Innocent VIII on the Marriage of Henry VII with Elizabeth of York (ed. J. Payne-Collier, Camden Miscellany I, 1847)

Fabyan, Robert: The Concordance of Histories: The New Chronicles of England and France (1516) (ed. H. Ellis, 1811)

Grafton, Richard: Grafton’s Chronicle, or History of England (2 vols, ed. H. Ellis, 1809)

Hall, Edward: The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (London, 1550; ed. H. Ellis, 1809; facsimile edition of the original published 1970)

Holinshed, Raphael: Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (6 vols, ed. H. Ellis, 1807–8)

Leland, John: Collectanea (6 vols, ed. T. Hearne, Oxford, 1770–74)

A London Chronicle in the Time of Henry VII and Henry VIII (ed. C. Hopper, Camden Society, Camden Miscellany IV, 1839)


More, Sir Thomas: The History of King Richard the Third (in The Complete Works of Sir Thomas More, Vol. II, ed. R. S. Sylvester and others, Yale, 1963, London, 1979)

Rous, John: Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis. Historia Regum Angliae (ed. T. Hearne, Oxford, 1716 and 1745)

The Song of the Lady Bessy

Stow, John: A Survey of London

Vergil, Polydore: The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil, AD 1485–1573 (trans. and ed. D. Hay, Camden Series, 1950)

For secondary sources both for and against Richard as well as presenting other possibilities and candidates see http://erenow.com/biographies/richardiiiandtheprincesinthetower/26.html


12 thoughts on “Who murdered the princes in the Tower?

  1. Alison Weir makes a pretty convincing case in her book on the subject. I found the evidence that there was velvet clothing found on the skeletons in the 17th C. pretty compelling.

  2. Dear Julia , one one hand I am flattered you wanted to contact me on this. One the other yes I am fully aware that his store is full of holes. i did , in my defense, say it was only my opinion that Richard may have been framed so well that even those such as Dominic Or the Croyland John Russell saw only what was meant for them to see. More served Morton for three years at table. Being a shape cookie he must have overheard what he related to himself later. His witterings no more than that. He aimed his work in Utopia at the handling of Henrys defective reign as big hint for change. In his writings found far later may it be so that a hint at the truth was Mores intent. As was Alison Weir , whom is a friend of mine, her book on this subject tells us nothing that liz Jennings had already stated in her book on the same subject , namely the Princes. I also say that all of Alisons works are wonderful to read and in no way am I knocking her ability to impress with her researched works. Velvet somehow vanished from the first inspection and to my information no trace of it is included in the only chance to see the bones as photo work of the only sight of them as banned by Queen and Church ever since. DNA would be rather helpful to this case. If as a Lawyer to the Bench I was asked to give verdict my word I could only save that Margaret Beaufort had far more motive than Richard had to kill to innocent boys that stood in her way not Richards. Case inconclusive even with the velvet as to whom did the evil deed. Now I have just come off the phone from call from Simon in USA who also replied to what I typed to you
    . He agrees that Morton knew the location of the grave if we believe that we have in Westminster Abbey today as bones of both Princes of Edward 1v? You see if Edward in Windsor vault could be DNA and so to the bones we could say two things one was Edward a bastard.
    And are the bones related to him.Neville DNA may be taken from myself or my uncle actor John Nevile. i doubt if any other such as Benedict Cumberbatch who was chosen as he claimed descent and is famous. I have gone through his family marriages and found nothing to relate him to Nevile blood. I am only a Baronet and not as famous so past over. I also name Sir Owen Davenport Mortimer who is Nevile blooded and lives in London as far as I know. My dear mother was so lovely and saintly I can only say all Neviles may have been like her. her family tree goes back to 1120 in North of England and Raby Castle she knew very well. I too. The Parr tree goes back to Henry !! but Lord Parr 1211 Lords of Lancashire . We have all the papers but not in all shape. research for me has been easier owing to the piles of boxes I inherited . In one signed by Edward 111 a land deed for Cheshire awarded to one of my clan is proved would take a county by storm. CASE 1953 Birkenhead Cheshire UK James Parr , my father executive to both his fathers and grandfathers wills called to law as ASA cOUNRY COUNCIL had built over sixteen acres of land believed to belong to them but later proved to belong to Sir John Parr my great great grandfather.
    Solicitor was and still is there in that town. deeds or half deeds of land in Westmorland from Sir Thomas Parr from Ivo De Tabloise I have. It seems in old days parchment tears only in one way per paper. So tearinga deed in two one half to vender other to purchaser both signed and sealed in wax was the only way sales ended legally .Lord William Parr had family in Kendal years prior to his castle being built on the eastern hillock outside Kendal streets having been moved by Scots action in wars from one side of the vale to other side.Along with the whole town rebuilt by he including the yards as he had seen them in France serving the King used as defensive by commoners who could save their homes that way.I could go on forever and ever it is so absorbing as you see those Princes in the Tower same blood as me by even half if their father was half Nevile and half some other seed? Cecily did not deny when questioned twice by two of her family? Her actions with a soldier archer when staying in France was widely known and talked over.we both know the story so good night it must be.Lovely chewing the fat with you as on my level you are.English Criminal law was my work and LAW and history join hands I find so often. I have history book, of sorts on Amazon Kindle seems to pay little by still I got it off my chest.

    • Ah well – the Parrs seem to turn up in most texts I read these days. I’m doing a day school on Margaret Beaufort in May so no doubt we’ll be exchanging ideas again shortly – I want to find out more about Reginald Bray as well. Then its back to the Wars of the Roses via Mary Queen of Scots another figure who attracts varied and lively opinions. A very good evening to you – hope the weather is mild with you as it is here. Spring in the air and History on the mind.

  3. Many thanks for your kind thought. Yes Richard was a man of his times. Violent at times and always ready to aid his own ambitions but , as I say, his motive for murdering those boys is far less than the need of Henrys mother to destroy Richard totally. If we had lived in that time dear we would have hated may things about our ancestors and loved many other. Glad to have been born long afterwards. Today history may well repeat as Charles is trying to take his mothers throne. If we look at law he cannot. He is not able to take Church head job either as he is a man who married went with mistresses. Not able on self same reasons as in 1938 his relative was forced to give up the throne as he wanted to marry a woman who was married before. Charles stole Camilla away from her loyal nice husband and neither of them cared who they hurt. William must be puppet King in the grand waste of time nonsense of Civil List robbery of the peoples purse we call monarchy today. Plastic Windsors indeed. Perhaps too strong for you but look at what is spent of them that should be spent on paying off the massive national debt.Keeping safe the great free National health too.

  4. just thought I have been rude reading through, yes weather here is like Spain .It goes up suddenly in June to 42 cel and having a sixty mile white sand beach just a mile from my estate it helps cool off . Look if you want please contact me on my supplied E mail. Have an interesting day in over taxed UK. Here no taxation only on goods bought same vat as in Blighty. I dont have to work so no tax there and no rates, water rates or tax on six acre gardens. I left owing to Abbey Life and Nat trust Government dept taking a fancy to my treasured historic home.

    • You weren’t rude at all – to me at any rate – not sure House of Windsor would be terribly flattered but as this isn’t the sixteenth century everyone is entitled to their own opinion I am pleased to say.

  5. Since we now know through archeology that medieval people lived longer then we thought we have to look again at sudden mysterious and unexpected deaths among the ruling classes. Ann Mowbray had.levels of arsenic in her hair. It was NOT a common medicine. The Duke of Norfolk dies suddenly overnight, the Duchess of Clarence and her son. We have even a murder trial for her. Anne Mowbray conveniently dies leaving her vast fortune to the Duke of York. Eleanor Talbot dies when her family is away. She had not been.sick. Edward IV possibly done away with. The doctors were puzzled by his symptoms which occurred after eating with the queen’s relatives.

    • It’s always good to have a conspiracy theory or two and I must say this set of unexpected deaths would making a ripping historical novel but there are too many what’s and maybes for it to find its way into the history books.

  6. If the DNA of John Clement (?)(doctor who married Thomas More’s adopted daughter) was tested against Richard iii’s DNA (or the DNA of the relative who was used to identify Richard’s remains), the result might give some information. If Clement was the grandson of Edward iv, you would have proof that the princes (at least one of them) were not killed. If Clement was not related, at least one conspiracy theory could be laid to rest.

  7. Just writing in to say I love your blog. Just doing my family tree to find I’m a direct descendant of Sir James Tyrrell. Lucky me.
    Sir James Tyrrell Alleged murderer of Princes in the Tower
    BIRTH 1455
    DEATH 6 MAY 1502
    15th great-grandfather

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.