I have always been intrigued by the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Most people are aware that, on the sudden death of their father Edward IV, the two boys were ensconced in the Tower, as was tradition, to await the coronation of the eldest boy as Edward V. But, although preparations for his coronation were underway, it was suddenly claimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been bigamous and, therefore, all their children illegitimate.
Since illegitimacy barred the young Edward from the throne, his uncle, Richard III, was, by a statute known as the Titulus Regius, proclaimed as the rightful king and crowned in his stead.
After his coronation in 1483 accounts of the boys’ whereabouts begin to dwindle from the historical record and many believe they never left the Tower alive but were murdered there; suffocated in their sleep with a pillow.
Richard reigned until August 1485 when Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven to claim the throne for himself. After the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor (and his subsequent heirs) did their best to damage Richard’s reputation and since that date it has been widely believed that Richard III was responsible for the boys’ deaths. Thomas More was the first to blacken his name and William Shakespeare, also writing for a Tudor monarch, twisted Richard’s character further. Consequently many later histories are based on a literary play rather on historical record. Most historians now agree that many of the heinous crimes attributed to Richard were, in fact, committed by others.
Tudor propaganda ensured that the surviving accounts of the years surrounding Bosworth are murky to say the least. Early in his reign Henry Tudor ordered all copies of the Titular Regius to be ‘utterly destroyed’ for reasons which may, or may not, appear obvious. You have to dig deep to find unbiased accounts but they do exist and there are several other candidates that fit the ‘murderer’ tag just as well as Richard.
Richard was crowned king in 1483 and would have been aware that his nephews provided a potential target for those wishing to supplant him. A prudent king would have removed them from the picture. Richard was by all accounts a religious man and killing his nephews would have been sinful, even in those days. It would also be disloyal to his brother to whom Richard had been devoted in life. The act would also be a Godsend to any enemy that wished to turn the kingdom against him and, therefore, foolish. Chronicles prove that Richard was neither imprudent, sinful or foolish. So why, when rumours of the death began circulating, did he not just produce the boys? A lot has been read into this and it does seem to suggest that he could not produce them but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were already dead, they could have been sent out of harm’s way.
Many believe Richard ordered that the boys be removed to safety but there are now so many conflicting accounts and theories as to where they may have been moved to, that it is difficult to sift the good from the bad. During Richard’s reign there was a royal nursery at his castle at Sheriff Hutton where his brother George of Clarence’s children, Margaret, and Edward of Warwick, resided, along with Richard’s legitimate son, also named Edward, and his two illegitimate children, John and Catherine. On Henry’s accession to the throne one of his first acts was to secure the persons of the children therein.
IF the boys were found there then, when you consider Henry’s treatment of other surviving Yorkists, then their fate seems sealed. Richard’s legitimate son, Edward died of natural causes during his father’s reign but the other children were still living at the time of Bosworth. Richard’s illegitimate daughter, Catherine, was no longer surviving as early as Elizabeth of York’s coronation in 1487 and her brother John’s fate is less clear but records show that a ‘base sone’ of Richard’s was executed by Henry in 1491. Clarence’s children were also both executed by Tudor monarchs, Warwick was immediately incarcerated in the tower where he remained until accused of plotting with Perkin Warbeck. He was executed in 1499, an act made worse by the fact that the boy appears to have suffered from learning difficulties. His sister Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, managed to survive Henry VII’s rule but under Henry VIII, at the age of approximately sixty-eight, she was executed. But I digress. I will leave that story for another day.
True or not, I like the idea that the princes escaped, not least because of the wonderful array of ‘survival’ theories that it has provoked. Such imaginings are a real gift to historical novelists whichever way they care to play it.
Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was tenuous to say the least, based upon his descent from Edward III, but through his mother's illegitimate Beaufort line. His title was Lancastrian and the House of Lancaster had long been regarded as usurpers and the direct line extinguished. He could never have won the victory nor ascended to the throne as heir of the House of Lancaster if his promise to marry Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV, had not won him the support of a few disaffected Yorkists.
It was imperative that Elizabeth’s illegitimacy was reversed in order to bolster Henry’s position but in legitimising her, Henry also legitimised her brothers, thus placing them before himself in the line of succession. So, IF the boys were still living at this time, they would have been much more of an obstruction to Henry than they ever were to Richard, who already legitimately held the position of king. This, in my view, provides a motive.
Of course, it’s a big IF. In my opinion, a study of the characters of Richard and Henry, make the latter more likely to resort to infanticide. Not that he would have wielded the axe himself, or in this particular case, the pillow.
Far from being the personification of evil as depicted by Shakespeare, Richard did have some qualities that Henry lacked. While Richard, having fought on numerous battlefields since his teens, was an undisputed warrior, Henry was not. At Bosworth he waited on the sidelines and let others do his dirty work for him. While Richard’s life is, with the exception of the puzzling execution of William Hastings, full of loyalty and honour, Henry’s is not. If Richard had wanted the boys killed he would probably have done the deed openly, or wielded the ‘pillow’ himself. Underhanded infanticide does not seem to have been his style.
Henry’s character was far more secretive and underhand. Henry never felt secure on his stolen throne and his court is famous for its intrigue and spies and I believe his reign suffered more uprisings than any other. People just didn’t like Henry and it’s easy to see why.
The first vengeance that Henry Tudor took as monarch was upon the body of the late King. After the battle, in an unprecedented act, the body of Richard III, an anointed king, was slung naked over a horse, arms and legs dangling, a halter was tossed around his neck in symbolism of his defeat. In this indignity, he was taken to the Franciscan Priory church of the Greyfriars at Leicester where, for two days, his body was exhibited for all to see. He was buried at the friary with no ceremony. The church does not exist today – like so many others, when Henry's son ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530’s, the building was destroyed and, rumour has it, Richard's grave was opened and the remains thrown out.
Henry’s next act as King was to date his reign from the day before Bosworth thus rendering as traitors all those who had loyally fought for King Richard, so that they could then be attainted for treason.
England lost much of its nobility during the battle, including men of great wealth like John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Henry appropriated their lands and kept the revenue for the crown. Some he executed for treason, among them William Bracher, Sir John Buck of Harthill and William Catesby of Ashby St Legers. Some, like Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, he imprisoned in the tower.
Those of Richard’s supporters that did survive the battle were attainted and their estates confiscated; this effectively disarmed them and kept them from raising arms against the king. Henry then forbid all nobles to retain their own armies to prevent them from being more powerful than himself and also to deter them from rebelling against him. It was an effective policy and, although Henry did not manage to subdue all opposition, it is a fact that the English nobility, already in decline during the Wars of the Roses, fell rapidly from influence under the Tudors. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I England had just one remaining duke, that of Norfolk, and, after plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots and restore Catholicism to England, he too was executed for treason in 1572.
It was not just the nobility that Henry targeted, indeed they seem to have been lower down on his list than those descended directly from the bloodline of Plantagenet. During the next three reigns the heirs of York were systematically wiped out.
I have tried to be objective in this brief overview but I guess I have failed. I cannot help it. Every time I consider this argument it seems to me that Richard was the guy with the nobler tendencies. While Henry spent his youth skulking around Europe, living off others, emptying gaols in order to come and steal a crown to which he had no right, Richard was aiding his brother, King Edward and proving almost unbelievably loyal despite disagreeing with his policies. In the short years that Richard was king he showed promise of becoming a just ruler, championing the rights of the poor against the rich (imagine that) and inspiring the loyalty in his subjects in the north, who knew him well. He may have been a violent man by our standards but he lived in violent times. Killing on the battlefield was honourable, off the field it was not. He abhorred disloyalty, as is made apparent by his reaction to Hastings’ betrayal, and, given the chance, I believe he would have made a better king than Henry who exploited rich and poor alike to bolster his own bulging coffers.
Throughout his life Henry resorted to devious methods. He lied and cheated his way to the throne and even once he had won it, his insecurities continued to dog him and his unscrupulous practices continued.
The Tudor regime may have put an end to the tumultuous years of the Wars of the Roses but the dying didn’t stop. In Henry VIII’s reign alone it has been estimated that 72,000 people were executed. In 1485 the honourable ferocity of the Plantagenets was replaced by the deceit of the Tudors who, although they brought security and wealth to Britain, did so dishonourably.
You can probably tell which banner I fight under but the subject is just as fascinating from the other side. The years surrounding The Battle of Bosworth have got to be the most intriguing in British History. If my rather biased view of the issues have inspired you to read more, there are countless books on the subject and you will find that historians just cannot remain impartial. There is something about the Wars of the Roses that, even today, forces you to take sides.
You can read more about the Vengeance of the Tudors on my webpage: http://www.juditharnopp.com/vengeanceofthetudors.htm
Pictures: White rose of York, Red Rose of Lancaster.
Right hand picture: Richard III
Left hand Picture: Henry VII