Did Richard III Really Kill The Princes in the Tower?
© Teresa Eckford, 2000
Most children have heard of Richard III, the evil, hunchbacked uncle who killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. But did he really do it? Throw this question out to a group of historians and you're likely to receive one of two answers: "Yes, of course he did." or "No, he's completely innocent." Having spent years doing research on this topic, I've come to the conclusion that the answer lies somewhere in between. Though I do not believe that he took a pillow himself and smothered them, or even that he ordered someone to do so, I do feel he was at least partially responsible for their deaths.
Sitting on the fence, you say? Well, yes, I have to admit that I am. My first introduction to the whole controversy was Sharon Kay Penman's novel The Sunne In Splendour. In it she shifts the blame from Richard to his cousin, Henry, Duke of Buckingham. I then read Josephine Tey's classic The Daughter of Time, in which a bed-ridden police detective sets out to prove Richard was not a killer and that the Princes lived into the reign of Henry Tudor. Using novels to learn history, you say? Well, yes. Not that I depend on them exclusively, but the two abovementioned authors did do a lot of research and are valuable as introductions to the controversy surrounding what has come to be known as They Mystery of The Princes in the Tower.
In my third year of university I took a course in English history and had the chance to write an essay about Richard III, which I subtitled Loyaulté me Lie (Loyalty Binds Me), Richard's personal motto. I used this as the basis of my thesis statement, that he was too restricted by family ties, and the oath of loyalty he took to his brother, Edward IV, father of the Princes, to kill them. Looking back on that essay now, I see just how naive I was, but the essence of what I said remains true. I do not believe he ordered those children killed. But they were his responsibility and by leaving London on progress and not taking them with him (the only way he could be sure they were safe) he indirectly contributed the their mysterious deaths sometime that summer. His relationship with the younger of the two princes is also important. As the young Duke of York's godfather, he had a duty to protect him. Richard was known to be a pious man and would have taken his role as godfather very seriously.
Now most historians who come down on the "Richard as murderer" side will point out that it was politically expedient for him to murder them. I disagree. As it was, though no-one outright rebelled when he took the throne, there were murmurs of discontent throughout the country. Why would a king who was already having problems with public opinion do something that would so obviously make him even less popular? The real threat to his throne remained Henry Tudor, not two small boys, one of whom, young Edward (who had briefly been proclaimed as Edward V), was known to be sickly.
And, if he had murdered them, why did he not say they died from an illness and produce the bodies, instead of allowing rumours to destroy his reputation? It would not have been difficult to believe that some fever had carried both boys off to their grave. This, I believe, is one of the most compelling arguments in Richard's favour. He had no reason to keep the deaths a secret, especially after the rumours began to circulate. Though some might have not believed the deaths an accident, it is doubtful more than a select few would have openly challenged him, since nothing could be proven.
In her book, The Princes in the Tower, Alison Weir states: "When, on 8th September, he walked hand in hand with his son and his wife into York Minster for Edward's investiture as Prince of Wales, the King did so in the belief that he had removed the last dynastic threat to his throne and put an end once and for all to the conspiracies that had overshadowed his reign." [Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. (London: Pimlico, 1994) p. 162 ] This, I find, very hard to accept. The most important "dynastic threat" and conspiracy to overshadow his reign was that represented by Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir. Though officially barred from the throne because of his Beaufort ancestry, Tudor had been plotting to take it from Richard since April of that year. His mother, Margaret Beaufort Stanley, Countess of Richmond wanted nothing more than to remove Richard from the throne and replace him with her beloved son.
Murdering the Princes would by no means secure Richard the throne. In order to do that he would have to eliminate Henry Tudor, who remained in exile in Brittany, while his mother worked to foment a rebellion to gain him the crown of England.
And why, if he had murdered her sons, did Elizabeth Wydeville come out of sanctuary the following year and allow her daughters to live at court with their uncle? Again, those who believe in Richard's guilt say he forced her to come out of Sanctuary by threatening her. Alison Weir quotes from various chronicles of the period to support this theory [Weir, p.194], but I'm not entirely certain how any of these chroniclers can know for certain what was said when Richard's representatives spoke with Edward IV's widow. They were only reporting on what they heard and rumours are notoriously bad sources of information. Because the Princes had disappeared and because Richard could not prove he did not murder them his public image was tarnished and many people were willing to believe that he would also threaten Elizabeth Wydeville.
Weir hinges her argument on the fact that the former Queen made the king take a public oath to protect her children before she would agree to turn them over to her sons' murderer. But if Richard was a cold blooded murderer then it is unlikely he would feel himself bound by a public oath. After all, had not Richard taken an oath as Protector and then supposedly forsworn it when he allegedly killed young Edward? Why would this oath be any different? So no, I don't buy that reasoning. I believe it is more likely that Elizabeth Wydeville emerged from Sanctuary and allowed her daughters to live at Richard's court because she could not be certain what had happened to her sons. Yes, he had ordered the execution of her younger son from her first marriage, Lord Richard Grey, but that was done openly, if not wisely. Though it is doubtful she ever forgave him for that act, it appears she had enough faith in him not to arrange for the convenient deaths of her remaining children.
So, if Richard did not kill the Princes, then who did? After much research, I have come the conclusion that it was Henry, Duke of Buckingham, who had both motive and opportunity. A descendant of Edward III's youngest son, he was a Prince of the Blood and had a reputation for not letting anyone forget that. [Clive, Mary. This Sun of York: A Biography of Edward IV. (London: Sphere Books, 1974) p. 218] He bore no love for the Wydeville family, having been forced into a marriage with one of Elizabeth's sisters at age eleven - she was several years his senior and a commoner. [Mancini in Dockray, Keith, Richard III: A Sourcebook (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishers, 1997) p.43] A Lancastrian by birth, his mother was a Beaufort (cousin to Henry VII's mother), he resented Edward IV for denying him half of the Bohun inheritance and the Wydevilles taking power in Wales (where he owned land) he thought was rightfully his. [Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1983) p. 41] Though he and Richard knew each other, it is doubtful they were close before the events of April and May 1483, when Buckingham supported Richard in his role as Protector and later as King.
So, you may be asking, why did he kill the Princes? I believe all along he entertained ambitions of taking the throne for himself. What better way than to support Richard in his claim for the throne, then discredit him by murdering the Princes and claiming Richard had done it. But, you might say, he joined the rebellion to put Henry Tudor on the throne. All we know is that he conspired with those who would put Henry on the throne, but my feeling is he was rebelling in the hopes of taking the crown for himself. Richard had rewarded him well for supporting him, yet he turned his back on him and rebelled. He had to have a good reason for doing so.
Now had Buckingham's character been different, I might have believed he returned to the Lancastrian fold because he was disgusted by the murder of the Princes. But, by all accounts, even those by anti-Richard historians, [Weir, pp. 22, 68-69] he was proud, ambitious, ruthless and jealous by nature. Here is what More has to say about him: "Very truth it is, the Duke was a proud-minded man and evilly could bear the glory of another, so that I have heard, of some that said they saw it, that the Duke at such times as the crown was first set upon the Protector's head, his eye could not abide the sight thereof, but he twisted his head another way." [Kendall, Paul Murray (Ed.). Richard III: The Great Debate. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965) p.109] Hardly the type to be bothered by the murder of two young boys.
He also had the opportunity to kill, being Constable of England and he remained in London in late July, 1483 after King Richard and Queen Anne departed on progress, at least according to Paul Kendall. A note in Charles Ross's biography says that Buckingham was on progress with Richard, [Ross, p. 148] but Reading was well within a day's ride of London, so he could have returned there easily, then rejoined the royal retinue, especially as it was in Reading for two days. [Edwards, Rhoda, The Itinerary of King Richard III 1483-1485 (London: Alan Sutton Publishers, 1983) p. 5] As Constable he had access to the Tower and the Princes. Some might say that he murdered the Princes on the king's orders, but it would be unlikely he would then turn around and rebel.
It is possible that he murdered the Princes in hopes of furthering ingratiating himself with Richard, only to rebel after Richard was horrified by what he had done. This is an extreme hypothesis, but there can be little doubt that Henry Stafford had just as much motive and opportunity to kill the Princes as did Richard.
Now some might say, after reading what I've written, that I have fallen victim to the romanticized image of Richard created by the revisionist historians. That may have been true at one point, but as a historian, rather than a novelist, I have managed to put aside my romantic notions and look at the facts.
Yes, it is quite likely Richard was present at the death of Henry VI, but on Edward's command, and there is no evidence that he wielded the knife. Similarly, there is no evidence he slew Henry's heir, Edward of Lancaster after the Battle of Tewekesbury. Croyland reported that "... Prince Edward himself (King Henry's only son), the duke of Somerset, the Earl of Devon,...met their deaths on the battlefield or afterwards at the hands of certain of their enemies." [Hallam, Elizabeth (Ed.). The Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses. (Markham: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1988) p. 262] He names no names, though, and it is possible than any number of Yorkist soldiers might have killed the young prince and his supporters had they found him, in retaliation for his mother's army's pillaging, looting and raping rampage after the Battle of Wakefield in 1461.
In the matter of the death of his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, it comes as no surprise that he supported Edward instead. Though he and George had been close as children, the latter's penchant for turning his coat at opportune moments during the years 1469-71, followed by their quarrel over the shared inheritance of their wives had soured the relationship. Over and over, Clarence had proven himself to be unreliable and no friend to his brother, the King. The final straw came when, after the Edward had condemned two members of his household to death for practising black magic, he began spreading rumours that the King was illegitimate and his marriage to Elizabeth null and void. He sealed his own fate by declaring the King's justice unfair and proclaiming his former servants innocent.
Richard III remains one of the most well-known figures in English history, alongside his great-nephew Henry VIII and great-great-niece, Elizabeth I. Thanks to dedicated scholars, many of whom are members of the Richard III Society, his reputation is slowly being redeemed. Their aim is not necessarily to make him a saint, rather to demonstrate how circumstantial evidence has been twisted to condemn him of a crime someone else could have committed. Unfortunately, in some works of fiction (and non-fiction) he is still often portrayed as the sly, scheming murderer associated with Shakespeare's famous play. Maybe one day this will change for good and the more balanced views of him will become the norm.
It is unlikely we will ever know who did kill the Princes. Richard cannot escape all blame as they were in his custody when they disappeared. But the evidence of his complicity is all circumstantial, and, though many would like to believe he had the most to gain by murdering them, history proved that he lost as a result of their deaths. His reputation sullied by that incident, it later became necessary for him to deny rumours he intended to marry their sister, Elizabeth, after the death of his wife, Queen Anne. Had the Princes not disappeared I think it unlikely anyone would have given credence to such innuendo concerning the king and his niece. Some Ricardians argue that the key to the mystery lies in the testing of the bones found under the Tower, yet, to my mind, even should they prove not to be those of the Princes there are people who will still believe Richard had them murdered. And if they ARE the bones of the Princes that will seal his guilt, though the bones alone by no means prove anything other than that they were likely murdered at the Tower, but not who did the murdering.
I have included below a bibliography of my sources for this article.
Clive, Mary, This Sun of York: A Biography of Edward IV (London: Sphere Books, 1975)
Notes: Solid biography of Edward IV.
Dockray, Keith, Richard III: A Sourcebook (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire, Alan Sutton Publishers, 1997)
Notes: Documentary evidence relating to life, reign and death of Richard III. Valuable asset for the researcher.
Edwards, Rhoda, The Itinerary of King Richard III 1483-1485 (London: Alan Sutton Publishers, 1983)
Notes: Extremely useful source for knowing where Richard travelled throughout his reign.
Fields, Bertram. 1998. Royal Blood (New York, NY: Regan Books, 1998)
Notes: A sound and interesting assessment of the mystery of the Princes written by an entertainment lawyer. A good counterpoint to Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower.
Hallam, Elizabeth, Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses (Markham: Penguin Books Canada, 1988)
Notes: For those who can't read Latin, this collection of primary documents in translation is quite useful. Also includes mini-essays on a variety of topics to do with the period.
Kendall, Paul Murray, Richard III (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1956)
Notes: Kendall is one of Richard III's biggest supporters. His work is well referenced, with a complete bibliography and detailed index.
Kendall, Paul Murray, Richard III: The Great Debate, More's History of Richard III & Walpole's Historic Doubts (New York, NY, 1965)
Notes: Brings together one of RIII's greatest detractors and one of his biggest supporters. Important reading.
Pollard, A.J., Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1995)
Notes: Though not entirely sympathetic to Richard, Pollard's scholarship is sound and well-referenced. A key work for understanding the debate surrounding the disappearance of the Princes and Richard III's role therein.
Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1983)
Notes: A solid biography of Richard.
Weir, Alison, The Princes in the Tower (London: Pimlico, 1993)
Notes: Weir's scholarship is flawed. She takes great leaps of logic and seems determined to use only sources that will support her thesis. Worst of all, her book is not well referenced at all. There are no footnotes which makes it difficult to know from where she is drawing her support for certain statements.
Williamson, A., The Mystery of the Princes (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishers, 1981)
Notes: An older, but still valuable discussion about the deaths of the Princes in the Tower.
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