The Tower of London is thought of today with a shudder and an image of the chilling world of British execution and torture. When one hears the name of this castle, the first thing one remembers is that the infamous Anne Boleyn was executed here after several alleged affairs against her husband, King Henry VIII, same as Katherine Howard soon after. Lady Jane Grey was also killed here, after nine days on the throne of England so that the crown could pass on to the Queen who would be forever known as Bloody Mary. But the most controversial story involving the Tower does not involve an execution of a monarch, but the disappearance of two.
In 1483, a twelve-year-old boy became Edward V of England, but his crown would instead be passed to his uncle, Richard III, who would place both him and his younger brother in the Tower, after which neither of the so-called Princes in the Tower were seen or heard from again. The assumption is that both boys were murdered in captivity, but by whom? Why? The mystery is over five centuries old and the tangled threads that separate fact from fiction are so blurred that it still remains without a definite answer. The plot thickened when renovations in the White Tower uncovered bones under a staircase there in 1674. They were believed to be the Princes themselves and were reburied in Westminster Abbey under orders of Charles II. Although the bones have not been positively identified as the missing boys, they were exhumed in 1933 and tests confirmed that the bones belonged to two children, one aged eleven to thirteen and the other seven to eleven years of age (whereas the children in question were aged twelve and nine). Could it be coincidence?
To draw any conclusion, we must go back to the beginning of the story. Let us look at the facts first.
In 1470, Prince Edward was born into the Plantagenet Dynasty, the son of Edward IV and his power-hungry queen Elizabeth Woodville on the 28th of April. He would be the eldest surviving son and heir to the English crown when Edward IV died in the spring of 1483. Soon after, the Princes’ uncle and Edward IV’s brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, persuaded Parliament to declare all of Edward and Elizabeth’s children illegitimate on the grounds that their marriage was never legal, as it had been conducted in secret. This allowed the Duke to usurp the throne as Richard III, one of the most controversial kings in European history.
Richard III had Edward V and his nine-year-old brother, the Duke of York who was also named Richard, taken to the Tower, which doubled as a royal residence at the time. The boys were last seen playing there that summer, after which they simply vanished. No funeral was given according to records. The king was killed at Bosworth Field two years later and the throne passed on to Henry Tudor (Henry VII), who would become the first monarch of the short-lived Tudor Dynasty. They would take their secrets to the grave and leave behind only strings of rumors.
For those who favor the murder theory, Richard III seems like the most likely culprit, but there is nothing to prove or disprove this, and there are several other suspects who have been brought forward by historians and witnesses. Before we throw Richard under the sword, we must examine every source with an objective eye. So let us profile our suspects.
William Shakespeare specifically fingered a knight by the name of James Tyrrell, whom was arrested and hanged by Henry VII in 1502. Though no official record was made of this, it was whispered that Tyrrell confessed under torture to the Princes’ murder by orders of Richard III shortly before his death. Historian Sir Thomas More wrote fifty years later that Tyrrell hired two men to smother the boys in their sleep, after which they were buried under a set of stairs in the castle, which, if true, would account for the bones found during the 1674 renovations.
Then we have Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham and Richard III’s ambitious right-hand man. Though loyal to his master, Buckingham himself had royal blood as second cousin of Edward IV in addition to having three grandparents descend from Edward III. According to a text discovered in the early 1980s in the College of Arms collection, the Princes were murdered “be [by] the vise” of the Duke of Buckingham, however, there is some argument over whether “vise” means advice or devise. From this standpoint, if Buckingham had indeed killed the Princes and blamed Richard, he could provoke a rebellion, putting the throne into play with Henry Tudor as his sole rival (Tudor was also Buckingham’s cousin). Indeed, he was one of the leaders of a revolt, ostensibly in favor of Tudor, in October 1483. However, the rebellion was quickly crushed and Buckingham was executed that year on November 2nd. Tudor would succeed in defeating Richard III in battle two years later.
This returns us to Richard III once again. He had succeeded in removing his nephew from the seat of power, but despite this, his grip on the monarchy was far from secure. He showed no proof that the Princes were alive or dead when rumors of their deaths began that fall, and in turn did not open any investigations on the matter either. He was also heard claiming “his innocence concerning the murder of his nephews”, which strongly suggests that the Princes were dead by this time and that they had indeed been killed. The only problem with most evidence against Richard III is that most of it is biased rumor and nothing concrete.
Personally, my belief is that Richard III is innocent. If they had been removed from the line of succession, neither of the Princes were a threat to Richard’s reign. Tudor, however, was. Tudor had an army of his own and the support of several prominent noblemen, including the Duke of Brittany and the Woodvilles. Tudor even married Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, to cement his claim to power, however, Elizabeth’s right to inherit the throne would depend on both of her brothers being dead already. As they say, history favors the winners, and in this case, it is especially true. The Tudors won the war. They wrote the history of the decisive Battle of Bosworth and had the power to tarnish their predecessor’s name, which they most certainly did. Richard III was far from the tyrannical ruler that the Tudors painted him to be; he certainly does not seem the type to murder two young boys, let alone his own nephews, even if it meant he might gain the position of King of England. The Tudor monarchy had created propaganda against Richard after and maybe even before his death, creating the image of a tyrant with a hunched back and evil temperament, cold eyes, claw-like hands, and a sneer. There is even a portrait that has been doctored to fit this image, bringing down the king’s reputation all the more over the centuries, namely in the well-known words of William Shakespeare himself in his famous play.
We have not even accounted for whether the Princes’ deaths were accidental. They could simply have died of disease, couldn’t they? Everyone loves the murder theory, the drama of it, but it is not without possibility that there was no murder at all. And even then, there is the theory that one or even both boys survived and were taken away to safety. Indeed, there were many men who claimed to be the young Duke of York and his brother. The most prominent of these was Perkin Warbeck, who had the support of James IV of Scotland and the Duchess of Burgundy, Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York. She recognized the man who called himself Richard IV as her nephew, though since Margaret harbored a deep resentment towards Henry VII for what she saw as the murder of her youngest brother Richard III, it is not known if her claims were true and she truly believed that the young man was indeed her nephew. Either way, Warbeck, backed by the Scots and Burgundians, attempted to overthrow Henry VII, but he was captured and under torture, confessed to be, not the missing Prince, but an imposter, and was executed at Tyburn in 1499.
Thus the question is left open for debate: who or what really killed the Princes in the Tower? You decide.