Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower, Edward V of England (1470-1483?) and Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York (1473-1483?), were the two young sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville who were declared illegitimate by the Act of Parliament known as Titulus Regius.

Their uncle, Richard III of England, placed them both in the Tower of London (then a palace as well as a prison) in 1483, and no one knows what happened to them after that, although they are presumed by many to have been killed there.

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway picture collection
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway picture collection


Five major suspects have been identified, and the arguments in favour of each potent

Richard had eliminated the princes from the succession. However, his hold on the monarchy was insecure, and the princes remained a threat as long as they were alive. Not that they themselves represented a threat, but that rebellions would be launched in their names by Richard's enemies. Rumours of their death were in wide circulation by early 1484, but Richard never attempted to prove that they were alive by having them seen in public. However, despite the obvious advantages to Richard of the death of the princes, their 'disappearance' is in itself evidence against his involvement. This is because he had at least two options for proper subtle disposal of his nephews that would not have been condemned by the public and peerage of the realm. If the princes 'fell ill' and died and great state funerals were held, there may have been rumours but little to substantiate them. Or Richard could have waited until they came of age and publically executed them on Tower Green as a risk to the peace and security of England. In either case there would have been none of the political or popular damage that resulted from their rumoured disappearance. The strongest evidence for Richard's guilt (besides a reputation for ruthlessness) remains the fact that after the summer of 1483, rumors were rampant about the Princes' murder, and Richard's complicity. Richard was well-aware of these rumors and could have stopped them at any time, by producing the live princes. Unless that his nephews were taken by someone else, with the intention of defaming him, making him look guilty of murdering them.

The Duke of Buckingham was Richard's right-hand man and sought personal advantage through the new king. Some regard Buckingham as the likeliest suspect: his execution, after rebelling against Richard in October 1483, might signify that he and the king had fallen out because Buckingham had taken it on himself—for whatever reason—to dispose of Richard's rival claimants. Buckingham was also descended from previous kings and, after Henry Tudor's line he was the next Lancastrian claimant—some even think his claim was stronger than Henry's. This theory is unlikely however, since in the wake of the rumors of Richard's guilt with regard to the princes' murder, Richard would certainly have made sure Buckingham was identified as the culprit.

King Henry VII of England, following his accession, proceeded to find a legal excuse to execute rival claimants to the throne. He married the princes' eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, to reinforce his hold on the throne, but her right to inherit depended on both her brothers being already dead. Realistically, Henry's only opportunity to murder the princes would have been after his accession in 1485, but it has been suggested that Buckingham, if he was responsible, was acting on Henry's behalf rather than Richard's. If Richard had killed the Princes, why did Henry not accuse him of the murder upon coming to the throne? The implication is that they were still alive in 1485. If they'd still been alive and at the hand of Richard after the summer of 1483, Richard would've produced them and indeed had every political motive for doing so.

John Howard, later the first Duke of Norfolk of the current creation, was a 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. He had opportunity and 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. However, other suspects had a much greater motive.

Henry VII's mother Margaret Beaufort, as Henry Stafford visited the Beaufort Castle earlier that year, and was possibly bribed to kill the princes. This is highly unlikely--at no time did Margaret Beaufort ever demonstrate the kind of character traits that would lead her to murder children.

Evidence for the rumours

The Croyland Chronicle, Dominic Mancini, and Philippe de Commines all state that the rumour of the princes' death was current in England by the end of 1483. In his summary of the events of 1483, Commines says quite categorically that Richard was responsible for the murder of the princes, but of course he had been present at the meeting of the Estates-General of France in January 1484, when the statement was taken at face value. The other two sources do not suggest who was responsible. Only Mancini's account, written in 1483, is truly contemporary, the other two having been written three and seven years later, respectively. The Great Chronicle, compiled 30 years later from the contemporary London municipal records, says the rumour of the princes' death did not start circulating in London until after Easter of 1484. Historians have speculated, on the basis of these contemporary records, that the rumour that the princes had been murdered was deliberately created to be spread in England as an excuse for the October 1483 attempt of Henry Tudor and Buckingham to seize the throne. If the princes were not already dead by the end of 1483, this of course removes any possibility that Buckingham, who was executed on November 2, 1483, could have murdered them.

No discussion of this episode would be complete without mention of Sir James Tyrrell, the loyal servant of Richard III whose "confession" to having murdered the princes has always been taken with a pinch of salt. It is mentioned by Tudor sources (which, naturally, must be treated with caution) as having taken place in 1502, under torture. A confession under torture would not nowadays be regarded as reliable, and Tyrrell was unable to say where the bodies of the princes were.

In 1674, some workmen remodelling the Tower of London dug up a box containing two small human skeletons. They threw them on a rubbish heap, but some days or weeks later someone decided they might be the bones of the two princes, so they gathered them up and put some of them in an urn, which Charles II of England ordered interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1933 the bones were taken out and examined and then replaced in the urn in the vault under the Abbey. It is not possible to say the sex of the skeletons, but if they were the princes then they must have died before the Battle of Bosworth. (One skeleton was larger than the other, and many of the bones were missing, including part of the smaller jawbone and all of the teeth from the larger one.)

Why were the princes barred from the throne?

Part of the controversy still surrounding Parliament's ruling that Edward (and his brother Richard) could not be rightful heirs to the throne arises from confusion about why Parliament ruled that their parents' marriage was invalid. There were two separate but related issues:

As a matter of law, the marriage was, indeed, invalid if the story of the precontract between their father and Lady Eleanor Butler was true. Under both canon law and civil law, a "precontract of marriage" was a promise to marry, and it was enforceable in court as if the promised marriage had in fact taken place (the concept of a "precontract" still exists in law, but it usually arises today in the context of precontracting to make a contract for a business deal, like a sale of property or a corporate merger). A precontract with Eleanor Butler would have invalidated the king's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. This was the law in England, and many other contemporary examples can be pointed to. The purpose of publishing the "banns of marriage", and then asking in the wedding ceremony if anyone knows of just cause why the marriage should not take place, was to prevent marriages that were invalid, because of a precontract or for any other reason. Marrying in "secret" (or "private", which usually meant "not in a church") wedding (without the calling of the banns, as Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville did) was considered virtually an admission that there was a legal impediment. If Parliament was presented with evidence of Edward's marriage to Eleanor Butler or his precontract to marry her, it was bound to rule that his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous, and therefore any children born to them were bastards.

The fact that the princes were technically bastards (following his deposition from the throne, Edward V was referred to by his uncle's followers as the "Lord Bastard") did not necessarily mean they could never inherit—William the Conqueror was neither the first nor the last bastard to inherit lands and titles. "Bastardy," the legal term for illegitimacy, was a legal status that could be changed by fiat, ecclesiastical or civil, as shown by the number of times King Henry VIII changed the status of his children. Parliament could have legitimized the princes and allowed Edward V to remain king, but it used that excuse for what it wanted to do for practical reasons. Boy kings (Henry III, Richard II, Henry VI) had always been disasters for England—and the Wars of the Roses had been halted by the accession of Edward IV as a capable adult. The Yorkists were in power, and Edward V's numerous Woodville relatives had always been Lancastrians at heart and had already made many enemies. Richard III, on the other hand, was considered the Yorkists' best all-round candidate for the job of king at the time.

It has also been argued that once Edward V was proclaimed as king by Richard and everybody else on the death of Edward IV then legally he was king, his alleged illegitimacy was irrelevant. Several former Yorkists joined Henry when he landed, which suggests that they saw Richard as a usurper.

Although this issue has generated, and continues to generate, a good deal of debate, the view of many is still that Richard did it, despite the lack of evidence.

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