Tag Archives: Sir Robert Brackenbury

Sir James Tyrell – reputed murderer of the Princes in the Tower.

Princes in towerFor those of you who like your history traditional – boo hiss!  For those of you who like your history revised – poor maligned soul!  I’ve blogged about Sir James before.  Depending on your interpretation of the sources and your historical affiliations, he either murdered the princes in the Tower, has been framed for the deed or for those of you who like happy endings there is a story that he removed them from the Tower and shuttled them to obscurity in the Suffolk countryside – I’ll get to that in another post.

Sir James is the chap who worked for Richard III – no problem with that, plenty of facts to support it.  It looks like he started on the Plantagenet career ladder in 1471 which would coincide with Richard getting his mitts on the Neville inheritance – remember he was married to Anne Neville, widow of Prince Edward of Lancaster and daughter of the Kingmaker. This would account for how Tyrell from Gipping in Suffolk came into Gloucester’s employment. We know he served in the Scottish war in 1492.

Once Richard was in power he was rewarded with a number of prominent positions across the country- which may have been tricky when it came to actually doing the jobs so presumably from Cornwall to Wales he had a number of deputies to help out.

He turns up in the Paston Letters in 1473 when he is identified as the employee who transported the Countess of Warwick, Anne Neville’s mother, from her sanctuary in Beaulieu to Middleham and Richard’s custody – Edward IV having conveniently declared the unfortunate countess dead for the purposes of the legal system so that brothers Richard and George could inherit estates which properly should have belonged to the countess.

In 1483  he helped carry Edward IV’s body to its final resting place and the same year Bishop Rotherham, the chap who’d helpfully rushed the Great Seal of England along to Westminster Abbey where he handed it into the care of Elizabeth Woodville on realising that Richard of Gloucester had taken charge of the young king, found himself in the custody of Sir James Tyrell. – Nothing unpleasant happened and the bishop died in his bed in 1500, just in case you were wondering.

It was in 1483, if Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil are to be believed Tyrell arrived in the Tower late one evening with a letter from Richard III, Brackenbury – the Constable of the Tower handed over the keys and Tyrell got rid of the princes by having them smothered.  Clearly More who was only five at the time wasn’t watching events unfold through a telescope and  Vergil- Henry VII’s official historian- wasn’t hiding in a convenient trunk, quill and parchment in hand to record events as they unfolded. Tyrell, inconveniently, didn’t keep a diary nor did he hand himself in to the authorities immediately after the event. Furthermore he couldn’t even find the bodies,  More says it was because Brackenbury removed them from where Tyrell had put them.

At the beginning of 1485 Tyrell was given command of Guisnes, a fortress in the Pale of Calais where he was in August and where he stayed when the Plantagenet dynasty became the Tudor dynasty. He was not attainted. On the 16th June 1485 Tyrell was issued with a pardon from Henry VII for anything and everything (well it was certainly unspecified). And then the pardon was issued again.  Two pardons in swift succession tends to make some folk think that Tyrell may have been doing work on behalf of the Tudors prior to Bosworth – bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of being a double agent. I would merely point out that whilst this is possible that in order to inherit Henry Tudor would have had to kill off rather a lot of people before the family tree perched the crown on his bonce…think Alex Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets for the general idea (spoiler alert – a distant relation stages a series of unlikely accidents wiping out an entire family in order to inherit). Historians have argued both sides of the equation eloquently and with passion with the same basic evidence.  It tends to come down to whether they are pro-Richard or pro-Henry.

What we can be sure of is that up until 1501 Tyrell was a man of influence and power.  Then he helped Edmund de la Pole, possible Plantagenet heir, avoid Henry VII’s wrath.  Next thing you know he’s under arrest on charges of treason and there is apparently a confession – allegedly made under torture- to the effect that it was him who topped Eddie and Richard. Quite honestly, I think most of us would agree that we would fess up to having committed the murders under those circumstances.  Unfortunately the paper copy of the confession seems to have been poorly filed and hasn’t yet turned up – meaning that it possibly never existed if you’re that way inclined.  Henry VII executed Tyrell for treason but failed to mention the murder of two members of the royal family  which you think he might have done, even in passing, as it would have scotched rumours of pretenders which bubbled up throughout his reign. It was pointed out to me that Richard ought to have paraded the princes in order to douse the rumours of 1483- and so he should.  But equally so should Henry have announced that Tyrell had confessed and executed him not just for treason but for murder…did he? No – he didn’t.   Maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to the princes  because it would, after all, have reminded his citizens that his general claim to the throne was a tad shaky – and yes I know he was the last Lancastrian standing, was married to Elizabeth of York and had won the Battle of Bosworth but Henry spent most of his reign bolstering up his claim one way or another so to draw attention to the correct albeit missing claimants might have been a bit counter productive in his mind.  Do I know that for sure? No – I don’t.  Sadly, Henry VII didn’t keep a personal diary, it’s just his financial accounts that are pretty nifty. Am I bearing in the general direction of sarcasm?  Quite possibly. There is only a basic amount of evidence and as any decent lawyer will tell you any story can be worked from both ends.

Tyrell was not, apparently, permitted to make a speech before being executed. Three years later the attainder against Tyrell was reversed and his son inherited Tyrell’s property.

Did Tyrell murder the princes? Quite probably  based on the evidence in hand but until such time as more evidence is forthcoming – like a DNA test on the bones purported to be the princes-  History’s biggest mystery will keep folk passionate and partisan not to mention keeping book sales buoyant.

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Sir Robert Brackenbury’s daughter

Princes in towerSir 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

 

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Filed under Fifteenth Century, The Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses