Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Evisceration of Edward V

by Derek Birks

Edward V was, of course, the elder of the two sons of Edward IV known to history as “the princes in the tower.” His reign was very short - indeed his whole life was pretty short – and thus few words are wasted upon him. What’s the point, it might be asked, when he had such little impact on life and politics in fifteenth century England? After all, there are plenty of figures more interesting and influential than young Edward. The only aspect of Edward’s life that has been endlessly debated was the abrupt end to it. In my view this is not the most important thing Edward V has to tell us.

I expect that if you ask most people who Edward was, without mentioning the phrase “the Ps in the T”, they would be hard pressed to identify him let alone tell you anything specific about him. But if they did know one thing about him it might be that he was a poor, innocent child who looked rather like this.

John Everett Millais, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

This painting by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, is one of the most enduring images of the princes, with young Edward V on the right. Here the boys’ youth, innocence and vulnerability are captured very well, but in doing so, Millais has given us only a romantic Victorian representation of this Plantagenet prince and, for me, it eviscerates Edward V, reducing him to a figure of mere pathos.

As I see it, this timid image is a travesty which serves only to obscure further the nature of a boy who has made little enough of an imprint on history.

When I began to research the life of Edward V, I found only a handful of mentions and here they are: he was born in sanctuary in December 1470; he was declared Prince of Wales at the age of 8 months; given his own household at Ludlow where his life was governed by a set of ordinances; he was appointed as Keeper of the Realm in 1475 whilst his father, Edward IV, went to war [sort of] with France; he hosted a banquet, aged 7, at Westminster in 1477; he attended the marriage of his younger brother to Anne Mowbray in 1478; he reviewed the royal fleet in May 1481 with his father at Sandwich; a year later he attended his sister Mary’s funeral at Windsor as chief mourner and finally he spent Christmas 1482 at Westminster with the royal family. And that, until 1483, is pretty much the sum total of what Edward did.

Why have I bothered to list these bald, dry facts? Because there is little else we know about Edward and you’ll notice that most, if not all, of these items chart his presence on state occasions. They are about as useful as a one-liner in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The written record for young Edward is therefore not much more helpful than Millais’s painting if we want to know what the boy was actually like or how he developed.

When, however, I turned my attention to Edward’s household and the ordinances laid down by Edward IV for his son’s upbringing, I struck gold. I stumbled across Nicholas Orme’s informative work on the ordinances in ‘The Education of Edward V’ in the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. LVII No. 136, November 1984.

Orme’s description and analysis of the ordinances - and the context he provides for them – gave me a clearer picture of what this boy, Edward, Prince of Wales, might have been like.

The original set of ordinances was put in place before the prince was three. It laid down a broad range of conditions, requirements and appointments for the upbringing of the prince. It is clear that the study, worship and other activities of his young life were to be closely regulated. Incidentally, Orme makes an interesting point about the increasing importance of clocks in permitting those who had them to order their day more strictly to time - probably worth another post!

An entire household was created for Edward, led by several key Yorkist figures, notably: Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers [the queen’s brother], John Alcock, [Bishop of Rochester at that time], and Sir Thomas Vaughan [a staunch supporter of Edward IV]. Rivers was to be the prince’s governor – a new term for the role. Alcock was to be Edward’s spiritual guide and teacher and also President of his council, whilst Vaughan was his Chamberlain. It is worth mentioning that these same key personnel were still around ten years later when Edward IV died.

Edward, Prince of Wales, St Laurence's Church, Ludlow

As Orme says: “The ordinances for Edward… not only lay down the powers of Rivers and Alcock and some of the matters to be taught, but do so in the framework of a regular daily timetable, explaining the order (and in one or two cases the hours) that things should take place.”So what does all this tell us? It tells us that Prince Edward’s first ten years were closely regulated. Now whilst that might work quite well for several years, it seems to me that as the lad got older so he might begin to resent the endless rigour of his day. I ask myself whether the son of the strong-willed and passionate Edward IV and the equally strong-willed Elizabeth Woodville, might not find this strict regimen a little irritating? But is there any evidence at all that young Edward rebelled against this regime as he neared his teens?

Yes, there is. In February 1483, a revised set of ordinances were issued by Edward IV. Now you might think that this sounds sensible enough because clearly the rules appropriate for a three year old might not be quite so suitable for a twelve year old. But the new ordinances include some clauses that might fit very well into the instructions given by a modern parent to a teenager they have just “grounded”.

For example, the prince was to be accompanied by at least two appropriate people all day every day, and he could not give any orders without the approval of Earl Rivers, Bishop Alcock, or his half-brother, Richard Grey. His servants were given strict instructions not to encourage the prince to act against the ordinances and if he did do so, or acted in an “unprincely” manner, then these three men were to give him a warning and, if he persisted, they were to tell his parents as soon as possible.

The new ordinances seemed to tighten up on access not only to the prince but
 also to his household offices and the men who ran them. In addition, accounting for expenses was to be more rigorous. There was perhaps a concern that the prince had been rubbing shoulders here and there with some untrustworthy folk and that the household had become a little too comfortable for its officials.

As Orme deduces, these new rules “can have been necessary only if Edward did, at times, assert himself and chafe against his tutelage.” What? A twelve year old boy bucking the system? Surely not?

It is fascinating, of course, to read between the lines of such regulations and we must beware of drawing firm conclusions from such tiny fragments of evidence - the fifteenth century seems to be littered with such tantalising fragments! Yet these ordinances are no-one’s opinion and have no bias.

What then do these new ordinances tell us about the prince?

For me, they confirm my opinion of the young lad. I have sometimes pondered the question: if Edward V was such a pathetic little boy, why did Richard of Gloucester bother to take the throne at all? Surely, he could have simply ruled through the child? Clearly Gloucester feared those around the prince because the first step he took was to remove Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. But, having removed them and with the queen in sanctuary and her older son, Dorset, in hiding, what did Richard have left to fear? The answer might be Edward V himself.

We can deduce from the various accounts of Gloucester’s first meeting with the new king at Stony Stratford, that Edward made a spirited protest at the arrest of the close advisers who had managed his household for the past ten years. This was a youth who would not be cowed by his uncle Gloucester.

This was not the boy in Millais’ painting. Edward V, like his father, would respect his opponent’s temporary advantage and then wait for his moment to regain the initiative. I suspect that Gloucester knew this and feared what would happen in a few years’ time when the king ended his minority.

In the years since his death, Edward V has generally been represented as a poor victim, inherently weak and defenceless - in a word, eviscerated. To me, that seems extremely misleading, for what little evidence we have seems to suggest the opposite.


Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa.

Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a four book series, entitled Rebels & Brothers, which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family. Scars From the Past is the first book in a new series featuring the Elders ten years later.





  1. Excellent post! And I loved that you'd portrayed Edward as a spirited and brave boy in your latest book.

    1. I must admit my whole take on Edward changed when I actually looked into it.

  2. Great post, Derek. I've never been a fan of that painting either.

    1. Yes, and of course paintings can have a massive impact on popular perceptions of past figures.

  3. Most interesting! Clearly a young man of spirit who would have been a force to be reckoned with if allowed to mature.

  4. I totally agree with you Derek. Edward had been given a princely, humanist education in preparation for ruling as a king. Gloucester realized this. Also regarding his chafing against the rules: Did you know his father Edward IV and uncle Edmund wrote their father complaining about their tutor when they were young boys? History repeats itself! This is a wonderful article.

    1. Yes, when you think about it, it does seem natural enough yet the popular image of Edward V is very different.

  5. Absolutely love this post. I love the medieval period and the renaissance era. Due to this painting of them, I have been fascinated with Edward's story for as long as I can remember. I actually just wrote a fantasy book, with Edward V as one of the characters.

  6. Enjoyed your post. Edward was strong willed and tall. In another year or two he would have been a force to reckon with.

  7. So interesting. When we visited the Tower of London a couple of years ago - the exhibition about the two princes was very much as you suggested - a lot of pathos. I am pleased that this was not the case and therefore further am saddened by his death. What would England have been with Plantagenet rule?


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