Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 9 May 2014

'Put to silence'...the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

"...their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodies dead in the bed."
- Sir Thomas More

"Of their death's manner was many opinions, for some said they were murdered between two feather beds, some said they were drowned in malmsey, and some said they were sticked with a venomous poison..."
- The Great Chronicle

"The princes, by some unknown manner of destruction, had met their fate..."
- The Crowland Chronicler

"In this year (1483) the two sons of King Edward were put to silence in the Tower of London."
- Robert Ricart, recorder of Bristol

The princes
I've held off writing this post, to allow some of the dust over the discovery of Richard III's remains under the now-famous Leicestershire car park to settle down. Richard has always been a controversial subject, but the finding of his bones caused some tempers to get a wee bit risen, especially via social media. He has plenty of admirers and detractors, and I sincerely hope the more extreme members of either faction never meet in person, unless there is a police van in attendance. 

Much of the controversy over Richard stems from one of England's most famous unsolved mysteries: what happened to the sons of his brother, Edward IV? The traditional view is that their Wicked Uncle Richard, regarding the boys as an inconvenience after he had snatched the crown, caused them both to be quietly disposed of. The murder of two innocent boys, even by late medieval standards, was so shocking that Richard's reputation lay in ruins for centuries, until the likes of Clements Markham and Paul Murray Kendall decided to redeem it.

Kendall's book on Richard III, published in 1955, proved hugely influential, and inspired a spate of pro-'Ricardian' fiction and nonfiction. Authors such as Josephine Tey, Sandra Worth, Sharon Penman, John Ashdown-Hill, Philippa Langley and others have all scrambled to declare Richard innocent of any wrongdoing, and reached for alternatives to the traditional version of events. Many alternative candidates for the death of the princes have been put forward, including Margaret Beaufort, Lord Stanley, Henry Tudor, the Duke of Buckingham, even John Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Richard's principal ally. 

Margaret Beaufort
The problem is lack of evidence. Not a shred of genuine evidence can be produced to implicate any of the above, including Richard. All we know for certain is that the boys were last seen playing in the grounds of the Tower between July-November 1483. Dominic Mancini, an Italian eyewitness to events in London, wrote that Edward and his brother 'were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper and day by day began to be seen more and more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether.' A similar version appeared in various versions of the London Chronicle, and the Great Chronicle records that 'the children were seen shooting and playing in the garden of the Tower by sundry times' before November 1483, and were then seen no more. 

The second problem is the nature of the crime, and the creeping horror of it: two innocent boys, swallowed up by the dreaded Tower and never seen again. No-one who has read the positive accounts of Richard, and who admire him for his undoubted talents, wants to believe that he ordered such a thing. Far more comforting to pin it on someone else - and who better than his various enemies? After all, Henry Tudor and his hard-nosed mother also had vested interests in getting rid of the princes. 

Arms of William, Lord Hastings
For me - and this is where I make myself unpopular - there is a fatal lack of practicality to most of the alternative theories. How, for instance, was Margaret Beaufort supposed to have gained access to the princes, held securely inside the strongest fortress in England? She had only recently been placed under house arrest in the custody of her husband, Lord Stanley, and all her assets confiscated. Even if she was able to hire an assassin to do the deed, he would have needed superhuman powers to get inside the castle, creep past Richard's guards, murder the boys and creep out again, all without being detected.

Another theory is that Henry Tudor found the princes still alive in the Tower when he arrived in London after his victory at Bosworth in 1485, and quietly murdered them himself. A few years later the cunning rat tortured Sir James Tyrrell, a loyal Yorkist knight, into 'confessing' that Richard was responsible, and then executed Tyrrell. Job done! 

Henry VII
It won't do. If Margaret planned to clear the way to the throne for her son, then her Super-Assassin would have to bump off not only the princes, but Richard himself, his son, and all the male de la Poles, who were next in line to the Yorkist succession. The eldest, John de la Pole, would cause Henry VII serious problems immediately after Bosworth.

The crux is the rebellion of 1483. Kendall tried to explain away the rebellion as a Woodville conspiracy, but Woodville influence was limited, and the ringleaders were essentially Edward IV's old retainers. Men such as Sir George Brown (who carried the banner of St George at Edward's funeral), Sir John Fogge and Nicholas Gaynesford, among many others, cannot be accused of being traitors to the House of York. They had spilled much blood in the Yorkist cause, and gained great rewards. Having served the old king so faithfully, they wished to know what had become of his sons, and yet Richard would not produce them. Why?

It looked suspicious then, and still looks suspicious now. Richard's defenders point to his previous record of loyal service to Edward, but his loyalty didn't prevent him from trying to smear Edward's mother (also his own) as an adulteress, from killing Edward's best friend (William Hastings) without trial, from declaring Edward's sons illegitimate and taking Edward's crown. Whether or not you believe in the Stillington pre-contract and everything that flowed from it is a moot point, and too complex to go into here. The timing of it, however, was extremely convenient for Richard's purposes.

What of Richard's character? Here was a man whose father and brother were killed in battle when he was just eight years old, who presided over his first treason trial at the age of eighteen, and from an early age was exposed to the lethal, bloodstained politics of late medieval England. His role model was the Earl of Warwick, later know as the Kingmaker and the living embodiment of realpolitik. Richard was happy to benefit from the ruthless carve-up of the estates belonging to Warwick's widow (Edward IV had her legally declared dead!), and later mercilessly persecuted the aged and defenceless Countess of Oxford, until she agreed to sign over her lands to him for half their annual value. He was no innocent lamb riding guilelessly to the slaughter, as some would have him portrayed.

The man himself...Richard III

Richard's actions in the immediate aftermath of Edward IV's unexpected death show a man trying to act decisively and in haste, in order to protect and secure his own position as Lord Protector. I don't personally believe he always planned to take the throne: rather, his behaviour suggests he was making it up as he went along. Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute were seized and despatched to Pontefract Castle, to be later judicially murdered after a show tribunal presided over by the Earl of Northumberland. Hastings was dragged out of a council chamber in the Tower, on vague suspicion of conspiracy, and brutally slaughtered on the green beside the chapel. Buckingham was executed after deserting his former ally, and many of his fellow rebels, including 'divers of the king's own household' also ended on the block.

None of these ruthless acts, however you interpret them, suggest a man who was incapable of ordering the death of his own nephews, if he thought it necessary. Ricardians may throw their hands up in horror at such a statement, but I find it impossible to read him any other way. His brother Edward, the other great exemplar in his life, was himself guilty of breaking the rules of sanctuary at Tewkesbury, ordering a private gangland-style execution of their troublesome brother Clarence, and murdering the defenceless madman, Henry VI.

For all these reasons, I believe the traditional verdict still stands, and that Richard is the most likely candidate for the murder of the princes. They vanished while under his official care and protection, so at the very least he stands charged with criminal negligence. His decision to kill them may have been prompted by a bungled effort - probably instigated by the Woodvilles - to rescue the princes from the Tower in the late summer of 1483. Feeling himself threatened, Richard reacted as he always did in such circumstances, and struck out. Blindly, hastily, and mistakenly. He paid for the mistake two years later, in a marshy field a couple of miles south of Market Bosworth.

Far-fetched notions of the boys being smuggled out of the country to Burgundy, where one later re-emerged as Perkin Warbeck while the other found his true calling as a bricklayer, are (for me) so much hogwash, and take wishful thinking to the extreme. By the summer of 1483 the princes had become surplus to requirements, and in this era spare royals had the life expectancy of a kitten in a furnace.

To ram home the point, I'll leave the last word to Prince Geoffrey and his brother John, sons of Henry II, from The Lion in Winter:

Geoffrey: We are extra princes now, and you know where extra princes go?

John: Down. 


  1. I'm not taking sides, but it's one of the greatest mysteries in western history. Now that Richard III's bones have been found, and Alfred's alleged pelvis has been located, and today I read about an archaeological study proving that Avebury/Stonehenge has been continually occupied since 8000bc, what do you think is next? Maybe the key to the mystery of those princes.

    1. They need to examine the remains found under the chapel stair again, but the Queen won't allow it.

    2. I understand her desire to, perhaps, let them rest in peace. Would it be good to have the answers, I wonder? Or is it better to leave some things unsolved?

    3. Even if the supossed remains of the princes were allowed to be examined I doubt that they would offer any new insights. They were unearthed over 300yrs ago passed through many hands and were lost for several years. When brought back together again they were jumbled and even reputedlt were mixed with some animal bones - far too much contamination.

      As for did Richard have them killed I'm with the author - he is the only likely suspect - I like Richard and in many ways he was a good man but was also a product of his time, and did what he felt he needed to do in order to survive!

  2. Can I express a resounding Amen to this post? Pretty much represents my own take on the matter.
    Its hard to believe a man whose family had basically seized the throne and kept the throne by naked force, and by sheer ruthless pragmatism was not capable of such ruthlessness himself.

    Yet such an opinion all too often frequenly mocked and derided in favour of opinions based on emotionalism which seem do not seem to take account of Medieval morality and the savage nature of Realpolitik...

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