Richard III and the Tower of London
©1998 Donald MacLachlan
Let’s start a Ricardian tour of the Tower of London with a wonderful piece of Tower of London bunkum, courtesy of Shakespeare’s play, King Richard The Third.
In it, the young Edward V asks Buckingham: “Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?”
Buckingham replies: “He did, my gracious lord, begin that place; which, since, succeeding ages have re-edified.”
Edward then goes on to asks if Caesar’s building of the Tower is upon record, or tradition. Buckingham replies: “Upon record, my gracious lord.”
No, it isn’t, my gracious Lord.
Because Julius Caesar did not build the Tower. William the Conqueror built a fortified camp on the site in 1066, on old Roman ruins. And it was William who began the Tower of London.
He started building the famous White Tower in 1078, and it was completed by his son Rufus about 20 years later.
Henry III (1216-1272) built a royal palace in the Tower grounds, and massively expanded the Tower’s defences. In 1241, he gave the White Tower the first of the many coats of whitewash that led to its name.
From 1275 to 1285, Edward I (1272-1307), England’s great castle builder, did a huge amount of work. By the time he finished, most of the walled and moated Tower complex as we know it today was in place, though demolition and building and rebuilding continued on and off through the 16th century.
The first visit to the Tower that we know of by Richard was in June, 1465, when he was created a Knight of the Bath, at age 12.
We have some detail of the ceremonies, but where they took place, we are not 100% sure. Put your money, though, on the royal chambers and the Chapel of St. John, in the White Tower.
Surviving records note a dozen of Richard’s official visits to the Tower, and he must have been there often as well, as a guest at Edward IV’s palace. Edward used the Tower constantly, but he did only a little building, putting up some outer walls at the southwestern Bulwark entryway; they are long gone.
Richard followed the tradition of staying in the royal apartments in the Tower, with Queen Anne Nevill, on the eve of his coronation, and going next day in procession to Westminster to be crowned.
During his short reign, Richard commissioned repair work at the Tower. We know he engaged one Thomas Daniel to conscript masons, bricklayers and carpenters. Lord Hastings’s head was supposedly chopped off on a length of timber that was on site for repair work. That execution was reportedly close to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.
Richard also built up an arsenal of artillery in the Tower, early in 1484. Records list the hiring of men to assemble “cannons and necessaries for the king’s ordnance.” Some cannon were made at the Tower, others imported.
But let’s go back and start with Henry VI.
Edward IV had Henry held prisoner in the royal residence, which then was attached to the Wakefield Tower.
The vaulted upper chamber in the Wakefield Tower contained, in a recess in its thick walls, a miniature chapel known as the Oratory. It was here in May 1471 that, according to tradition, Henry VI died. Today, a stone tablet in the floor marks the supposed spot.
[Starting with the Lancastrian writer Dr. John Warkworth comes the charge that Richard was the one who wielded the knife, or perhaps a sword, that dispatched Henry. Various writers, documents and interpreters give the date as May the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, or 24th of 1471. There is evidence that on the 23rd and 24th, at least, Richard was at Sandwich, 70 miles from the Tower.]
Let us move over now to the famous White Tower. The tower is 90 feet from ground to battlements, and the walls are 15 feet thick at the bottom, 11 feet thick at the top. It looks square, but all four sides are actually of different lengths.
It began life as a typical Norman castle, with a single entrance up one level on the south face, approached by stairs that were easy to defend.
In Richard’s time, entry through that door took you into the Constable’s Hall. Behind that was the Constable’s chamber, and, in the opposite corner to the door, a spiral staircase.
Up that spiral, and on the then-top floor, was the king’s council chamber. Richard attended or held a number of meetings here, and it was from the council chamber that William, Lord Hastings, was reportedly dragged downstairs to his death.
When the White Tower was built, there were only two full upper floors. Today there are three. In Richard’s time the third floor was just a surrounding gallery. We do not know for certain when today’s top floor was inserted. There is a record of a new floor being built in 1603 to 1605, and that is presumably it.
We’ll come back to the White Tower later, but let’s take a diversion to talk about George, Duke of Clarence.
At the north, behind the White Tower and at the “back” of the Tower complex, we find the Bowyer Tower. As the name implies, it housed at some early stage the residence and workshops and stores for the royal bowyer or bowmaker.
And it’s here, supposedly, that Clarence was locked up by Edward IV, until he was fatally upended into a barrel of Malmsey wine in February 1478.
Now, this barrel-of-Malmsey story has long been accepted as the next best thing to gospel. But it’s passed down only by tradition; there is nothing on record. And we have to ask here: Why on earth the Bowyer Tower?
Wealthy state prisoners of the day were not locked up in rat-infested dungeons — or in armourers’ workshops. They lived in some comfort, with staff and servants. Henry VI, for example, was kept royally, in the royal apartments, a home of considerable luxury.
So why, for George, the Bowyer Tower, isolated from the royal residences on the south side of the White Tower? Why in a tower that was not noted as a prison, and was part of a range of towers normally associated with armour and weapons work, and later ordinance and munitions?
Let us look for an answer. You can still see today, by the southwest corner of the White Tower, the last traces of something called the Coldharbour Gate. It was in Richard’s time the entry to the main Inmost Ward area, south of the White Tower.
We know from records that in the 1330s, Edward III had his own royal apartments in this Coldharbour Gate. And that in 1341, these were taken over by the queen and their son, the future Black Prince. Edward had apparently moved his quarters to the south side of the Inmost Ward, to the Lanthorn Tower.
The Nun’s Bower
So we know the Coldharbour gate was not just a simple gate. It offered quarters of some luxury; and conveniently next to the royal centre of the residence and White Tower. We also know that the upper floor of this Coldharbour Gate tower did become a prison at some stage, and was called “The Nun’s Bower.”
So here’s a new pet theory: George, Duke of Clarence, was not held in the Bowyer Tower at all, but in the Nun’s Bower.
And some later historical misquote of “Bower”, perhaps, began the belief that George met his end in a barrel in the Bowyer Tower.
Credit where credit is due, and it was a suggestion from Yeoman Warder Brian Harrison, an unofficial archivist of the Tower, that developed this theory.
Let’s go, at last, to the famous Bloody Tower, popularly described as the place where the Little Princes, Edward V and Richard Duke of York, were brutally murdered at the behest of Richard III.
The Bloody Tower, rectangular and rather squat, was originally built by Henry III in the 1220s, right on the River Thames. Before new walls and towers were built to the south in 1275-1285, the Bloody Tower was the main water entrance to the Tower. You can still see the iron ring to which boats were secured.
The Bloody Tower gateway was guarded by the substantial Wakefield Tower. They are attached but, as far as we know, there was no direct passage between them in Richard’s time.
If you go into any old bookshop today, you’ll probably find a copy of a famed Victorian novel, The Tower of London, by William Harrison Ainsworth. He finished it in 1843, in a campaign to save the decaying Tower, and to have it opened to the public. A great read, its story is set in 1553, only 70 years post-Richard.
Ainsworth’s book is riddled with novelist’s licence, and some historical errors. But Ainsworth does include much accurate information on the architecture and history of the Tower.
And Ainsworth carefully calls the Bloody Tower “the supposed scene of the murder” (my italics) of the princes and adds: ” Tradition assigns it to this building.” Later on, he says: ” . . . The tradition is more than doubtful”.
It certainly is.
For a start, this tower during the Ricardian era was known as the Garden Tower, and it was still being called the Garden Tower some 50 full years after the Princes disappeared. The name was not given as the Bloody Tower until at least 1597.
In 1604, in a speech of welcome to James I, the chaplain of the Tower, William Hubbocke, referred to it as the tower that “our elders termed the Bloody Tower, for the bloodshed, as they say, of those infant princes of Edward IV.”
But the Tower’s official guidebook of 1975 suggested that the change of name had nothing to do with the princes. Rather, the book says, the name stems from the suicide there, in 1585, of Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland; and that was 100 years after the Princes disappeared.
Ainsworth is certainly more cautious than most authors before and since, who simply state as a bald fact that the princes were murdered in the Bloody Tower.
One such writer in more modern times was Major-General Sir George Younghusband, keeper of the Jewel House at the Tower. He wrote in 1926: “The chamber in which this murder was committed has been roughly reconstructed, and may be seen on the upper floor.”
That is, on the third floor of the Bloody Tower building: gatehouse on the first level, portcullis mechanism and a chamber on the second level, and the “murder scene” above that on the third.
In 1950, the resident governor of the Tower, Colonel E. H. Carkeet-James, wrote a new history. He, too, refers to the two storeys above the gate passage, and the Princes’ murder on the upper of those two storeys; i.e. on the third level.
And this is what the Yeomen Warder tour guides will tell you today.
Problem is: In 1483, when the Little Princes were supposedly there, the Bloody Tower was only a two-storey building: guardpost at ground level, and then only one level above the archway. There was no third floor and there was no upper chamber.
Early Tower records are pretty rare and full of gaps, but we know with certainty when the entire Garden Tower building was increased in height, and the third floor inserted: in 1605 and 1606, to accommodate the imprisoned Sir Walter Ralegh and party.
That is, not until 120-plus years after the Princes disappeared.
In the chamber that did exist in the Princes’ time, we can imagine today’s bare stone walls covered in heavy plaster, whitewashed, and perhaps painted decoratively. Some wall hangings, too. The floor (as we now know) tiled in green and yellow, with patterns on the tiles that included flowers and fleurs de lis. A fire in the fireplace, fresh bread baking in the small oven. Quite fit for a royal prison. . . .
Well, maybe. This chamber was indeed used as a prison in later years. But we have no evidence that this chamber, next to the portcullis mechanism in the Garden Tower, was used as a place of confinement in the princes’ time.
And the Bloody Tower gateway — the key entrance to the outer ward and indirectly to the inmost ward — must have been an area of very heavy traffic, hardly suited for a royal prison.
It’s the same argument as for George: Surely it’s more likely the princes were held, in some luxury, in or closer to the royal apartments.
And there are indeed some clues that indeed point in other directions for the princes’ final accommodation:
The Great Chronicle of London, written in the early 1500s, notes that the boys had been seen shooting and playing in the Garden of the Tower.
The Bloody Tower, as we have seen, was initially called the Garden Tower after the nearby Constable’s Garden. It’s easy to conclude the Great Chronicle meant that garden.
But the Great Chronicle also says the boys were “within the king’s lodging”. At that time the king’s lodging was in the Lanthorn Tower. And in that area was “The Privy Garden”.
A more likely garden, and a more likely area, I suggest, in which to house royal state prisoners.
Younghusband’s book tells a different story: That after the Princes were slain in the Bloody Tower, they were “dragged down the narrow spiral stone stairs, which still may be seen, and which lead to a large vaulted dungeon beneath the Wakefield Tower.”
And later in his book Younghusband repeats that the Little Princes were buried in the basement of the same Wakefield Tower.
Carkeet-James, too, gives the same popular version: The bodies were taken down the stairs from the Bloody Tower and buried in the basement of the Wakefield Tower.
More bunkum! And, from Tower officials, quite inexplicable.
The stairs from the Bloody Tower do not go down to the east to the basement of the Wakefield Tower, or, indeed, to any large vaulted dungeon. Instead, they descend to the small guardroom of the Bloody Tower, cut into the west wall of the Wakefield Tower.
And there is no evidence of any entrance, through which bodies could have been carried, from that guardroom to the basement of the Wakefield.
In addition, it hardly seems likely that two bodies could have been buried under the stairs in the duty-guardroom without the next shift of guards noticing fresh digging and asking awkward questions.
[This staircase, by the way, has long been filled in, and the stair used by Bloody Tower visitors today comes out to the west, onto “Ralegh’s Walk”.]
In a list of buildings and their names that was prepared in 1641, by Yeoman Warder William Franklyns, this entry appears:
“The Wakefeld Tower, or Bluddy Tower, against the Watergate, a prison lodging”.
It looks from that as if Franklyns viewed the Wakefield Tower as the Bloody Tower; and what we now call the Bloody Tower as the Water Gate.
So there’s a good question: Were The Princes, at the end, imprisoned not in what we call the Bloody Tower today, but actually in the Wakefield Tower where Henry VI was murdered?
The basement of the Wakefield Tower could indeed be described as a large vaulted dungeon, and is served by stairs from above in the Wakefield Tower. So perhaps this is where the Princes’ bodies were first buried, as Younghusband says.
If so, not for very long, I suggest. This basement still floods when there’s a good high tide in the Thames a few feet away.
Thomas More says this is how the princes were buried:
“After the wretches perceived them . . . to be thoroughly dead, they laid their bodies naked out upon the bed and fetched Sir James to see them. Who, upon the sight of them, caused those murderers to bury them at the stair foot, meetly deep in the ground under a great heap of stones.”
But More does not specify in which tower or towers they were held prisoner, or murdered, or buried, or reburied by his anonymous priest. Nor does any other near-contemporary writer.
Dominic Mancini says: “But after Hastings was removed, all the attendants who had waited upon the king (Edward V) were debarred access to him. He and his brother were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper . . . ”
Those are my italics, and to me it all suggests that immediately before their fateful disappearance, the Princes were held somewhere in the Inmost Ward of the Tower. They may perhaps have been in the Bloody Tower briefly, but, wherever they were, they were moved into the Inmost Ward before their deaths.
On the south face of the White Tower today are wooden stairs up to the southern entrance door. There were wooden stairs there in William and Rufus’s time, too. But not in Richard’s era.
Then, there was a stone forebuilding, which contained stone stairs that went up to the White Tower door. And it was under these stairs, in 1674, that the bones of two smallish bodies were found.
These, of course, are the bones now buried in Westminster Abbey under the names of the Little Princes.
The identification in 1674 was highly dubious. And the so-called “expert” re-examination of these bones in 1933 leaves a lot to be desired.
The 1933 investigators used the best medical knowledge then available to conclude that, if these were indeed the princes, they must have died during Richard’s reign.
To quote one of the investigators: ” . . . We can say with confidence that by no possibility could either, or both, have been still alive on the 22nd August 1485, the date of Henry VII’s accession.”
Now, however, we have much better forensic knowledge of bone development, and instead can say that if these were the bones of the princes, they could very well have been alive when — and for some time after — Henry VII took the throne.
You may find it hard to ignore the coincidence of More’s story that the princes were buried under a staircase, and the discovery in 1674 of these bones, under a staircase. On the other hand, More was the only one to speak of burial under a staircase. And there is one old report that the bodies were sunk in the Thames.
Now, we also have a strange report, dated in 1647 (i.e., before 1674), of the discovery of the bones of two children at the Tower, in a sealed-up room off a passage to an area described as “The King’s Lodgings”.
That unauthenticated account was accompanied by a map, showing the sealed room. But, as Helen Maurer noted in two excellent articles in The Ricardian some years ago, this map fits with nothing we know today about the Tower.
The stairs drawn on the map are labelled as “stairs leading out of Coldharbour to the King’s Lodgings”. But the map does not fit Coldharbour Gate. Nor does it seem to match the outline of the old forebuilding that contained the stairs under which the bones were found in 1674.
The forebuilding actually gave access to two sets of stairs: One to the main entry door to the White Tower. And a tiny, private staircase that went to the Chapel of St. John. This small stair is cut into the 11th century wall.
Some confusing early reports suggest the bones were found under these latter stairs, but it would truly have been impossible to bury anything under them, so the bones are invariably presumed to have been under the main stairway.
Where were these “stairs leading out of Coldharbour to the King’s Lodgings”? We do know that in the late 1500s, the whole Inmost Ward area was all referred to generically as “Coldharbour”. But if anywhere there used to fit that map of the sealed room, we have today no idea what, or where, it was.
Whose bones these were in the little sealed room, and what became of them, we know not. And there have been other discoveries of bones and reports of bones over the centuries in the Tower, and, again, we have no idea of whose they were either.
One possible clue, though horribly slim, is a part of the discovery of the bones under that White Tower staircase in 1674.
One account, of unknown reliability, says pieces of velvet were found with these bones. And even in that era, velvet was not owned by your average Londoner. Velvet meant money; and that implies the bones were of two people of status.
If these were the bones of the princes, the discovery under the staircase suggests they might well have been imprisoned in the White Tower itself. And that’s entirely possible. It, too, was called on to serve as a state prison.
Alison Weir, in her 1992 book The Princes in the Tower, says: “Contemporary sources indicate that the Princes were imprisoned in the White Tower.”
Again, that’s bunkum: No contemporary sources indicate any such thing. They are all silent on which tower.
Bloody Tower, Wakefield Tower, White Tower, Lanthorn Tower, somewhere in the Inmost Ward?
We have no definitive answers. But don’t bet on the traditional Bloody Tower. Or on the stories of those Yeomen Warders. . . .
[Donald MacLachlan is a Ricardian in British Columbia. This article is based on his presentation to the Richard III Society of the U.S., in Seattle, in September 1995.]