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The Princes in the Tower were Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. The two brothers were the only sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville alive at the time of their father's death. Then 12 and 9 years old, they were lodged in the Tower of London by the man appointed to look after them, their uncle, the Lord Protector: Richard, Duke of Gloucester. This was supposed to be in preparation for Edward's coronation as king. However, Richard took the throne for himself and the boys disappeared.
It is unclear what happened to the boys after their disappearance in the tower. It is generally assumed that they were murdered; there are several suspects who had motives for such an action. The murder may have occurred some time around 1483, but apart from their disappearance, the only evidence is circumstantial. Some believe that one, or both, princes were not murdered; some believe that one or both managed to escape. In 1487, Lambert Simnel initially claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, but later claimed to be Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick. From 1490 until his capture in 1497 Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, who had supposedly escaped to Flanders. Warbeck's claim was supported by some contemporaries (including the aunt of the princes, Margaret of York).
In 1674 workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The bones were found in the ground near the White Tower, which is close to one reported site of their burial. The bones were widely accepted at the time as those of the princes, but this is not proven. King Charles II had the bones buried within Westminster Abbey.
On 9 April 1483 Edward IV of England died unexpectedly, after an illness lasting around three weeks. At the time Edward's son, the new King Edward V, was at Ludlow, and the dead king's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was at Middleham in Yorkshire. The news reached Richard around 15 April, although he may have been pre-warned of Edward's illness. It is reported that he then went to York Minster to publicly "pledge his loyalty to his new king". The Croyland Chronicle states that, before his death, Edward IV designated his brother Richard as Lord Protector; however, although a rumour of Richard's designation did circulate, there is no documentation of the King's actual wishes. Edward's request may not have mattered however, "as the precedent of Henry V showed, the council was not bound to follow the wishes of a dead king".
Both Edward V and Richard set out for London, meeting at Stony Stratford on 29 April. The following morning Richard arrested Edward's retinue including the boys' uncle, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, and their half-brother Sir Richard Grey. They were sent to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire where, on 25 June, they were beheaded. Richard then took possession of the prince himself, prompting Elizabeth Woodville to take her other son, Richard, Duke of York, and her daughters into sanctuary.
Edward V and Richard, Duke of Gloucester arrived in London together. Plans continued for Edward's coronation, but the date was postponed from 4 May to 25 June. On 19 May 1483 Edward was lodged in the Tower of London, the traditional residence of monarchs prior to their coronation. On 16 June he was joined by his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, who was previously in sanctuary. At this point the date of Edward's coronation was indefinitely postponed by their uncle Richard. On Sunday 22 June, a sermon was preached at St Paul's Cross claiming Richard to be the only legitimate heir of the House of York. On 25 June, "a group of lords, knights and gentlemen" petitioned Richard to take the throne. Both princes were subsequently declared illegitimate by Parliament; this was confirmed in 1484 by an Act of Parliament known as Titulus Regius. The act stated that Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's marriage was invalid because of Edward's "pre-contract of marriage" with Lady Eleanor Butler. The Duke of Gloucester was crowned as King Richard III of England on 3 July. The declaration of the boys' illegitimacy has been described by Rosemary Horrox as an ex post facto justification for Richard's accession.
Dominic Mancini, an Italian friar who visited England in the 1480s and who was in London in the spring and summer of 1483, recorded that after Richard III seized the throne, Edward and his younger brother Richard were taken into the "inner apartments of the Tower" and then were seen less and less until they disappeared altogether. Mancini records that during this period Edward was regularly visited by a doctor, who reported that Edward, "like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him." The Latin reference to "Argentinus medicus", was originally translated as "a Strasbourg doctor"; however, D.E. Rhodes suggests it may actually refer to "Doctor Argentine", whom Rhodes identifies as John Argentine, an English physician who would later serve as provost of King's College, Cambridge, and as doctor to Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King Henry VII of England (Henry Tudor).
There are reports of the two princes being seen playing in the Tower grounds shortly after Richard joined his brother, but there are no recorded sightings of either of them after the summer of 1483. An attempt to rescue them in late July failed. Their fate remains an enduring mystery.
Many historians believe the princes were murdered, some suggesting that the act may have happened towards the end of summer 1483. Maurice Keen argues that the rebellion against Richard in 1483 initially "aimed to rescue Edward V and his brother from the Tower before it was too late", but that, when the Duke of Buckingham became involved, it shifted to support of Henry Tudor because "Buckingham almost certainly knew that the princes in the Tower were dead." Alison Weir proposes 3 September 1483 as a potential date; however, Weir's work has been criticised for "arriving at a conclusion that depends more on her own imagination than on the uncertain evidence she has so misleadingly presented."
Sir Clements Markham suggests the princes may have been alive as late as July 1484, pointing to the regulations issued by Richard III's household which stated: "the children should be together at one breakfast". James Gairdner, however, argues that it is unclear to whom the phrase "the children" alludes, and that it may not have been a reference to the princes. It may refer to Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of the Duke of Clarence) and Edward IV's two youngest daughters (Catherine and Bridget), all of whom were living under Richard's care at Sheriff Hutton.
Other than their disappearance, there is no direct evidence that the princes were murdered, and "no reliable, well-informed, independent or impartial sources" for the associated events. Nevertheless, following their disappearance, rumours quickly spread that they had been murdered. Only one contemporary narrative account of the boys' time in the tower exists: that of Dominic Mancini. (Mancini's account was not discovered until 1934. Accounts written after the accession of Henry Tudor are often claimed to be biased or influenced by Tudor propaganda.)
Four unidentified bodies have been found which are considered possibly connected with the events of this period: two at the Tower of London and two in Saint George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Those found in the tower were buried within Westminster Abbey, although neither set of remains has been subjected to DNA analysis to positively identify them as the remains of the princes.
Several sources suggest there were rumours of the princes' deaths in the time following their disappearance. Dominic Mancini and the Croyland Chronicle mention rumours circulating by the end of 1483, but do not suggest who was responsible for the princes' deaths. Rumours of murder also spread to France. In January 1484 Guillaume de Rochfort, the Chancellor of France, urged the Estates General to "take warning" from the fate of the princes, as their own king, Charles VIII, was only 13. The early reports, including that of Rochfort, Philippe de Commines (French politician), Caspar Weinreich (contemporary German chronicler) and Jan Allertz (Recorder of Rotterdam), all state that Richard killed the princes before he seized the throne (thus before June 1483). De Commines' Memoirs (c.1500), however, identifies the Duke of Buckingham as the person "who put them to death".
Only Mancini's account is truly contemporary, having been written in London before November 1483. The Croyland Chronicle and de Commines' account were written three and seventeen years later, respectively. Markham, writing long before Mancini's account was discovered, argued that some accounts, including the Croyland Chronicle, may have been authored or heavily influenced by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in order to incriminate Richard III.
Robert Fabyan's Chronicles of London, compiled around 30 years after the princes' disappearance, names Richard as murderer. The History of King Richard III, published c.1513 by Thomas More (a Tudor loyalist and later Chancellor under Henry VIII), identified Sir James Tyrrell (d.1502) as the murderer, acting on Richard's orders. Tyrrell was the loyal servant of Richard III who is said to have confessed to the murder of the princes before his execution for treason in 1502. In his history, More said that the princes were smothered to death in their beds by two agents of Tyrrell (Miles Forrest and John Dighton) and were then buried "at the stayre foote, metely depe in the grounde vnder a great heape of stones", but were later disinterred and buried in a secret place. Curiously, under Henry VIII, a documented Miles Forrest was granted King's favours as found in English historical documents: After the Dissolution, the manor of Morborne, with the house and grange of Ogerston in the same parish, lately the property of the Abbey of Crowland, was granted in 1540, with all appurtenances, to Miles Forrest, bailiff of the Abbot of Peterborough at Warmington in 1535. However this was 50 years after the Battle of Bosworth Field, and 52 years after the deed was allegedly done, leading to suspicion that this Miles Forrest was not the one referred to by More. In 1513, Thomas More named Miles Forrest as a murderer. In 1534, More fell out of favour with Henry VIII when More denied that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry had More beheaded in 1535. In the same year or in 1540 (the above history references both dates), Henry awarded the manor to Miles Forrest, the documented bailiff of the Abbot of Peterborough.
Polydore Vergil, in his Anglica Historia (c.1513), also specifies that Tyrrell was the murderer, stating that he "rode sorrowfully to London" and committed the deed with reluctance, upon Richard III's orders, and that Richard himself spread the rumours of the princes' death in the belief that it would discourage rebellion.
Holinshed's Chronicles, written in the second half of the 16th century, claims that the princes were murdered by Richard III. The chronicles were one of the main sources used by William Shakespeare for his play Richard III, which also portrays Richard as the murderer. A. J. Pollard believes that the chronicle's account reflected the contemporary "standard and accepted account", but that by the time it was written "propaganda had been transformed into historical fact".
In 1674, some workmen remodelling the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The bones were found buried 10 ft under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower. They were not the first children's skeletons found within the tower; the bones of two children had previously found "in an old chamber that had been walled up", which Pollard suggests could have equally been those of the princes. The reason the bones were attributed to the princes was because the location partially matched that given by More. However More also stated that they were later moved to a "better place", which does not match with the bones discovered. One anonymous report was that they were found with "pieces of rag and velvet about them"; the velvet could indicate that the bodies were those of aristocrats. Four years after their discovery, the bones were placed in an urn and, on the orders of King Charles II, interred in Westminster Abbey, in the wall of the Henry VII Lady Chapel. A monument designed by Christopher Wren marks the putative resting-place of the princes.
The bones were removed and examined in 1933, by the archivist of Westminster Abbey, Lawrence Tanner; a leading anatomist, Professor William Wright; and the president of the Dental Association, George Northcroft. By measuring certain bones and teeth, they concluded the bones belonged to two children around the correct ages for the princes. The bones were found to have been interred carelessly along with chicken and other animal bones. There were also three very rusty nails. One skeleton was larger than the other, but many of the bones were missing, including part of the smaller jawbone and all of the teeth from the larger one. Many of the bones had been broken by the original workmen. The examination has been criticised, on the grounds that it was conducted under the presumption that the bones were those of the princes and concentrated only on whether the bones showed evidence of suffocation. Thus no attempt was even made to determine whether the bones were male or female.
No further scientific examination has since been conducted on the bones, which remain in Westminster Abbey, and DNA analysis (if DNA could be obtained) has not been attempted. A petition has been started on the British Government's "e-petition" website requesting that the bones be DNA tested; 100,000 signatories are required to trigger a parliamentary debate. However, Pollard points out that even if modern DNA and carbon-dating proved the bones belonged to the princes, it would not prove who or what killed them.
In 1789, workmen carrying out repairs in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, rediscovered and accidentally broke into the vault of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville, discovering in the process what appeared to be a small adjoining vault. This vault was found to contain the coffins of two unidentified children. However, no inspection or examination was carried out and the tomb was resealed. The tomb was inscribed with the names of two of Edward IV's children: George, 1st Duke of Bedford who had died at the age of 2, and Mary of York who had died at the age of 14; both had predeceased the King. During the excavation for the royal tomb house for King George III under the Wolsey tomb-house in 1810–13 two lead coffins clearly labelled as George Plantagenet and Mary Plantagenet were discovered and moved into the adjoining vault of Edward IV's but at the time no effort was made to identify the two lead coffins already in the vault.
In the late 1990s, work was being carried out near and around Edward IV's tomb in St George's Chapel; the floor area was excavated to replace an old boiler and also to add a new repository for the remains of future Deans and Canons of Windsor. A request was forwarded to the Dean and Canons of Windsor to consider a possible examination of the two vaults either by fibre-optic camera or, if possible, a reexamination of the two unidentified lead coffins in the tomb also housing the lead coffins of two of Edward IV's children that were discovered during the building of the Royal Tomb for King George III (1810–13) and placed in the adjoining vault at that time. Royal consent would be necessary to open any royal tomb, so it was felt best to leave the medieval mystery unsolved for at least the next few generations. The 2012 Leicester archaeological dig has prompted renewed interest in re-excavating the skeletons of the "two princes", but Queen Elizabeth II has not granted the approval required for any such testing of an interred royal.
If the boys were indeed murdered, there are several major suspects for the crime. The evidence is ambiguous, and has led people to various conflicting conclusions. Many modern historians, including David Starkey and Michael Hicks, support the theory that the princes were murdered and regard Richard III as the most likely culprit.
The most common theory is that they were murdered on the orders of their uncle, Richard, who had usurped the throne from Edward. Although the princes had been eliminated from the succession, Richard III's hold on the monarchy was not secure and the existence of the princes would remain a threat as long as they were alive. The boys could have been used by Richard's enemies as figureheads for rebellion. Rumours of their death were in circulation by late 1483, but Richard never attempted to prove that they were alive by having them seen in public, which strongly suggests that they were dead by then. However he did not remain silent on the matter. Raphael Holinshed, in his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, written in 1577, reports that Richard, "what with purging and declaring his innocence concerning the murder of his nephews towards the world, and what with cost to obtain the love and favour of the communal tie (which outwardlie glosed, and openly dissembled with him) ... gave prodigally so many and so great rewards, that now both he lacked, and scarce with honesty how to borrow." Richard also failed to open any investigation into the matter, which would have been in his interest if he was not responsible for the deaths of his nephews. Many modern historians, including David Starkey, Michael Hicks, Helen Castor and Alison Weir, do regard Richard himself as the most likely culprit. There was no formal accusation against Richard III on the matter; the Bill of Attainder brought by Henry VII made no definitive mention of the Princes in the Tower, but it did accuse Richard of "the unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders, in shedding of infant's blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations against God and man". The "shedding of infant's blood" may be an accusation of the Princes' murder.
James Tyrrell was an English knight who fought for the House of York on many occasions. Tyrrell was arrested by Henry VII's forces in 1502 for supporting another Yorkist claimant to the throne. Shortly before his execution, Tyrrell is said by Thomas More to have admitted, under torture, to having murdered the princes at the behest of Richard III. The only record of this is the writing of Thomas More, who wrote that, during his examination, Tyrrell made his confession as to the murders, saying that Richard III ordered their deaths. He also implicated two other men; despite further questioning, however, he was unable to say where the bodies were, claiming that Brackenbury had moved them. William Shakespeare portrays him as the culprit, sought out by Richard after Buckingham demurs.
The only record of Tyrrell's confession is through More, and "no actual confession has ever been found". Pollard casts doubts on the accuracy of More's accounts, suggesting it was "an elaboration of one of several circulating accounts"; however, she does not discount the possibility of it being "just his own invention", pointing to the "clear similarities to the stories of the Babes in the Wood". Clements Markham suggests that More's account was actually written by Archbishop Morton and that Tyrrell was induced to do the deed by Henry VII between June 16 and July 16 1486, the dates of two general pardons that he received from the king.
The plausibility of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, Richard's right-hand man, as a suspect depends on the princes having already been dead by the time he was executed in November 1483. Buckingham had several potential motives. As a descendant of Edward III, through John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester, Buckingham may have hoped to accede to the throne himself in due course; alternatively, he may have been acting on behalf of a third party.
Some, notably Paul Murray Kendall, regard Buckingham as the likeliest suspect: his execution, after he had rebelled against Richard in October 1483, might signify that he and the king had fallen out. A contemporary Portuguese document suggests Buckingham as the guilty party, stating "...and after the passing away of king Edward in the year of 83, another one of his brothers, the Duke of Gloucester, had in his power the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, the young sons of the said king his brother, and turned them to the Duke of Buckingham, under whose custody the said Princes were starved to death." A document dated some decades after the disappearance was found within the archives of the College of Arms in London in 1980; this stated that the murder "be the vise of the Duke of Buckingham".
Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, has been suggested as a potential candidate for involvement in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, her personal interest in having her son become king being considered a possible motive for the princes' murder. As with the other suspects, she is unlikely to have murdered the princes herself and would have had to arrange their deaths through a third party.
Despite being of the House of Lancaster, Margaret joined the Yorkist court of King Edward IV, and was chosen by Queen Elizabeth to be a godmother of her daughter Bridget in 1480. Following Edward's death and the seizure of the throne by Richard, Margaret became a lady-in-waiting to Richard's wife, Anne Neville, and even carried Anne's train at her coronation. Despite this she was actively plotting with Elizabeth; she agreed to the betrothal of her son, Henry Tudor, to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth and Edward IV. Pollard calls her a "formidable opponent of Richard III, inveterate conspirator and dedicated promoter of her son's cause". Margaret is thought to have been involved in the Duke of Buckingham's rebellion, for which she was attainted for treason.
Polydore Vergil says that, when Margaret heard the rumour of the princes' deaths, she "began to hope well of her son's fortune, supposing that that deed would without doubt prove for the profit of the commonwealth". If Henry defeated Richard III in battle, Henry would not necessarily become king, as the throne would theoretically be restored to Edward V; however, the princes' removal would not only leave him as the prime candidate for the throne but would, theoretically, help Henry's military chances, as much of the opposition to Richard was in the name of the usurped princes; without them, much of that opposition to Richard could be channelled to support Henry.
Henry VII (Henry Tudor) following his seizure of the crown, executed some of the rival claimants to the throne. Among those executed was John of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Richard III. Henry was out of the country between the princes' disappearance and August 1485, thus his only opportunity to murder them would have been after his accession in 1485. Pollard suggests Henry (or those acting on his orders) is "the only plausible alternative to Richard III."
The year after becoming king, Henry married the princes' eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, to reinforce his claim to the throne. Not wanting the legitimacy of his wife or her claim as heiress of Edward IV called into question, prior to the marriage he had repealed the Titulus Regius which had previously declared the princes (and Elizabeth) illegitimate. Markham suggests the princes were executed under Henry's orders between the 16 June and 16 July 1486, claiming that it was only after this date that orders went out to circulate the story that Richard had killed the princes, and that the princes' mother, Elizabeth Woodville, knew that this story was "false", and so Henry had to have her "silenced". Markham suggests this was the motivation behind Henry's decision, in February 1487, to confiscate all of Elizabeth's "lands and possessions", and have her confined to Bermondsey Nunnery, "where she died six years afterwards". However Arlene Okerlund suggest that her retirement to the nunnery was her own decision, whilst Michael Bennett and Timothy Elston suggests the move was precautionary, precipitated by Lambert Simnel's claim to be her son Richard. Pollard calls Markham's theory "highly speculative", and states that Henry's silence over the princes was more likely "political calculation than personal guilt".
There were subsequently a number of pretenders claiming to be Prince Richard, Duke of York, although there seem to have been none claiming to be Edward V. It has been suggested that this is because Edward V was well known and would have been difficult to impersonate; this would be less true of his younger brother. The best-known pretender was Perkin Warbeck, who began by claiming to be Edward, Earl of Warwick (the son of George, Duke of Clarence), but later succeeded in convincing a number of royal contemporaries that he was Prince Richard. Following his capture, he "confessed" to being the son of a middle-class family of Tournai.
Historian David Baldwin suggests that contemporaries believed Edward had died (either of an illness or as the result of attempts to cure him) and that Richard was still alive. Baldwin argues that it is "impossible" that no one knew what happened to the Princes after they entered the tower; he believes Richard III and Henry VII, leading courtiers and their mother would all have known the boys' whereabouts and welfare. Baldwin theorises that both princes may have survived; if both boys had died, "the matter could have been discussed and the culprit blamed openly", but neither Richard III nor Henry VII did so. He argues that, if the princes were alive, the kings could not declare them dead as too many would know the truth; but neither could they pronounce the princes alive, as the boys' claim to the throne was better than their own.
During the reign of Henry VII, two individuals claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, who had somehow escaped death. Lambert Simnel initially claimed to be Richard, before changing his story and claiming to be Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick.
Perkin Warbeck later claimed to be Richard, appearing in Ireland and calling himself king Richard IV. Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, formally recognised Warbeck as Richard. Margaret, Richard III's sister, an unrelenting opponent of Henry VII, had previously recognised Simnel as Warwick. Warbeck was also accepted as Richard by James IV of Scotland. After a failed attempt to invade England he was captured. He retracted his claims, was imprisoned and later executed.
The fact that two persons claimed to be Richard led the 18th century writer Horace Walpole to argue that Richard had in fact escaped death, and that Warbeck genuinely was Richard. This view was also supported by Malcolm Laing. Many modern historians believe he was an imposter, whose supporters accepted his claim for political reasons.