The Mystery of the Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower (1878) by John Everett Millais (oil on canvas, 36 x 58 inches)

John Everett Millais
The Princes in the Tower
Oil on canvas 36 x 58 inches

Unless new information is found, we shall never know the truth about Richard’s nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York (ages 12 and 9) who were not seen after the autumn of 1483. William Shakespeare based his play on the account written by Sir Thomas More, who was himself repeating hearsay from one of King Richard’s greatest enemies, the Cardinal John Morton:

“For Sir James Tyrell devised that they should be murdered in their beds. To the execution whereof he appointed Miles Forest, one of the four that kept them, a fellow fleshed in murder before time. To him he joined one John Dighton …about midnight (the innocent children lying in their beds) came into the chamber, and suddenly lapped them up among the bedclothes–so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, 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…to bury them at the stair-foot, meetly deep in the ground under a great heap of stones”.

The lodging of the boys in the Tower of London is not as sinister as it sounds. It was common practice for the uncrowned king to reside in the royal chambers in the Tower before a coronation.

Once the sons of Edward IV had been declared illegitimate by Parliament, Richard had no need to seek their death. He was, however, responsible for their protection and it is possible to surmise that they were removed to some secret location, perhaps in the north of England or on the Continent. This might explain why their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, so readily released herself and her daughters into Richard’s care. If he had murdered her sons, would she have been so willing allow her daughters to attend Richard’s court?

However, there were others who also had motive and opportunity to murder the Princes:

Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham – he had a blood claim to the throne, and rebelled against Richard in the autumn of 1484 – perhaps he favoured his chances as king? Buckingham was in London at the time of the boys’ disappearance, and as Constable of England he had access to the Tower, and the Princes.

Henry VII – By repealing the act of Titulus Regius that appointed Richard as king, Henry thereby re-legitimized the children of Edward IV, including his own wife, Elizabeth of York and her brothers, the Princes. If the boys were alive, their right to succession would supersede Henry’s claim.

Henry insisted that all written copies of Titulus Regius be recovered and burned, and forbade the reading of the act in Parliament before enacting its repeal.

Once he was king, Henry made no attempt to investigate the rumours that the Princes were dead. However, the later appearance of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, both of whom claimed to be one of the Princes, further questioned the boys’ fate and raised the possibility that they had been taken from the Tower to a safer life in the Low Countries.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1502, Sir James Tyrell , who had served Henry VII as faithfully as he had Richard III, was arrested on an unrelated charge of treason and executed. After his death, a “confession” was published, in which it is claimed that Tyrell was responsible for the deaths of the Princes on the orders of Richard III.

In the 800-year history of the Tower, human remains have been unearthed on a number of occasions. In 1674, two such skeletons were discovered in a chest, by workmen effecting repairs. At first, the bones were cast unceremoniously out with the rest of the rubbish. But someone recalled More’s old story, so the remains were retrieved, “identified” as those of the missing Princes, and interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1933, the urn was opened and found to contain a mixture of human and animal bones, but precise identification as to age and sex of the deceased was impossible. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, currently will not permit another examination using modern forensic testing methods.