Wednesday, 6 February 2013

King Richard III: What Happened to the Princes in the Tower?

Reconstruction of Richard III -  from his skull.
This week it was confirmed that the remains of King Richard III had been discovered beneath a car park in Leicester. Richard is arguably best known for his role in the murder of the princes in the Tower: but why was he driven to such an unholy act? Why would a man order the death of his own cousins? Read on to find out.
Richard was a controversial monarch, regarded as either "Crook back Dick" who caused flowers to wilt when he breathed on them, or "Good King Richard" - a near saintly figure slandered by history. The problem with Richard's reputation lies in two things: Tudor propaganda [Richard's reign was brought to an end by defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, by Henry Tudor] and Richard's link to the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Richard III's skeleton in situ.
Photo: University of Leicester.
Our tale begins in 1483 with the death of Richard's brother, King Edward IV. As far as Edward was concerned, Richard was unquestionably loyal and so named his brother as regent to the 12 year son and heir, Edward V.

However, Richard mistrusted the late king's wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and suspected her family of wanting the throne for themselves. A wily character, Richard played along and lulled the Woodville's into a false sense of security. When Anthony Woodville took the young Edward taken to an Inn, the boy's uncle Richard acted and arrested Woodville for treason. Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers was sent north and then executed without trial.

This treachery gave Richard the excuse to have the young King Edward V taken to the Tower of London ostensibly because this was where a king prepared for his coronation, but also for the boy's own protection.  Meanwhile, Edward's younger brother, Richard, remained with his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, who fearful of Richard's motives had sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.
The monument on Tower Green, marking the site of executions,
including Lord Hastings.
However, a small group of men headed by Lord William Hastings, were uneasy about Richard's manoeuvrings and remained fiercely loyal to the princes. Richard's answer was to manufacture trumped up charges of treason against Hastings, have him dragged out onto Tower Green and summarily beheaded on a lump of wood left by builders.

Richard needed to have access to the 'spare heir' and so demanded Elizabeth release her son/ his nephew, Richard, on the excuse that young Edward needed a playmate at the Tower. Under likely threat of her own life and that of her daughter's, Elizabeth reluctantly released her son. He was taken by boat along the Thames to enter the Tower at Traitor's Gate and installed with his brother in the Garden Tower (later renamed, the Bloody Tower).
Traitor's Gate.
To place himself as heir to the throne, Richard then accused his own mother of adultery and claimed her son, his brother Edward IV, was illegitimate. Not only that but he claimed Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was invalid and his sons declared bastards. To emphasise the point Richard had a prominent cleric, Dr Shaw, preach a sermon naming the princes in the tower as illegitimate 'bastard slips'.
In a public relations coup, Richard presents himself as rightful king and on June 25th a parliamentary delegation led by Lord Buckingham petitioned Richard to take the crown. Richard promptly spat on his late-brother's memory and called him a licentious, rapist. On June 26th Richard was made protector and "Edward Bastard, late called Edward V," was dethroned.

Earliest surviving portrait of
Richard III
Now whether Richard truly intended the princes to die, or thought that proclaiming them bastards was sufficient, is conjecture coloured by Tudor propaganda, but the facts are these:

Richard's coronation took place on July 6th. Only one recorded sighting of the princes after they were reunited on June 16th. "Seen shooting [arrows] and playing in the garden of the Tower sundry times."
By July 6th the princes had been withdrawn to the:
"inner apartments of the Tower proper…and seen more rarely behinds the bars and windows", and their personal servants were dismissed.
The last independent witness to see the princes alive was the royal physician, Dr John Argentine, who was summoned to the Tower to treat Edward for tooth ache. By all accounts Edward was extremely depressed and in a lot of pain. [The skull presumed Edward's, found in the 1930's, does indeed show the bone disease osteomyelitis, affecting the jaw bone.]

Richard III
Richard went on progress on 20 July and sometime during September, chronicles by Sir Thomas More have it that two henchmen entered the boys' chambers and suffocated them with pillows…leaving Richard unchallenged as King of England.

And finally:
Two centuries later in 1674 during renovation work at the Tower a buried chest containing the skeletons of two boys was discovered. In the 1930's forensic tests backed up the suspicion these were the remains of the missing princes; from their age, to Edward's dental disease, to the scraps of costly velvet clinging to their bones.


  1. Wow! Thank you for that. It was a fine potted summary!

  2. You realise that Thomas More was still a child (aged 7 or 8) when the Princes were allegedly smothered? And that there was a week between Hastings' arrest and execution? Lots of holes here, sorry. However, I was interested to learn who had last seen the boys alive.

    1. Yep, no one was saying Thomas More was a witness!!! It was just his version of events, heavily influenced by Tudor propaganda, written decades later.

  3. Have you read Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey? Excellent arguments in it to suggest Richard III was innocent of the murder of the Princes.

    1. Definately off to look that up. I think this is why the whole 'princes in the Tower' captures the imagination one can say for sure what happened.

  4. Very interesting. I had not hear of this before. A sad story in a dark time.


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