The Princes in the Tower is one of British history’s greatest tragedies and has long been a spectre looming large over the English Middle Ages in particular. Two young brothers, one 12-years-old and the other just 10, were forcibly removed from public view shortly after their father’s death and were never seen again. The reason this story has resonated through history is for the fact that these two children happened to be Royal Princes; in fact, in the case of the elder child, Edward, he was no longer a Prince but a King. As the only male children of King Edward IV, upon their father’s death at Westminster in 1483 they became the highest ranking nobles in the realm, Edward ascending to the throne as King Edward V whilst his brother becoming the Heir presumptive and maintaining his status as the dual Duke of York and Norfolk. Although still children, the foundations had been set for their dominance of the Kingdom’s governance for the foreseeable future and undoubtedly there were great hopes for these sons of York.
This golden future however would never materialise for the Princes. Shortly after young Edward’s ascension and traditional acknowledgement as King, he was imprisoned by his Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester who surreptitiously seized the throne from his nephew. Richard alleged that the brother he had loyally served for the entirety of his reign was in fact illegitimate, thereby rendering his sons not of the true royal line. Further to that, Richard official allegation was that his brother Edward IV had been previously betrothed before his marriage to the Princes’ mother Elizabeth Woodville, thus ensuing any offspring betwixt the two were bastards by the law of the church. It was an act that would become known as Titulus Regius and ensured Richard himself was able to seize the crown as Richard III. It was a controversial move but as the Duke was in all probability the most powerful magnate in the realm and had support amongst other nobles whom were in opposition to the detested Woodville faction that compromised the Princes maternal family, he was successful in his coup.
After their imprisonment in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, although initially spotted playing in the grounds of the Royal fortress they were never seen again and their ultimate fate has endured as one of England’s great mysteries. As a royal murder intrigue, many have resolved to appropriate blame towards various persons of the period, most notably their Uncle Richard III and his successor Henry VII. Other suspects have included the Duke of Buckingham and a Yorkist Knight James Tyrell. Although the case will never be given a conclusive answer, I feel the recent rise in those finding Henry Tudor guilty in spite of the lack of compelling evidence needs to be addressed in a coherent manner. Guilt in a British court can only be ascertained if the defendant has been proved to have committed the crime and not on circumstantial evidence and as such it will be impossible to prove guilt in this case. That said, it is possible to argue the case for a not guilty plea.
Henry Tudor had never met the Princes in question as their paths had never had reason to cross. Henry came from a staunch Lancastrian family; His father Edmund Tudor and uncle Jasper Tudor were the half-brothers to King Henry VI and had therefore valiantly fought for the House of Lancaster until its eventual demise with Henry VI’s death in 1471, possibly at the behest of the aforementioned Richard of Gloucester. As a result of the fall, Henry was exiled from the Kingdom the same year with his Uncle Jasper and spent his formative years in the Duchy of Brittany. He was 14 when he left and would not set foot in England until a few days prior to the Battle of Bosworth where he defeated Richard III. He was 28 by this point.
Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was weak to say the least. At time of his ascension there were an estimated 29 other nobles with a greater claim to the throne than his. Henry’s claim came through his mother Margaret Beaufort whom was the sole inheritor of the illegitimate Beaufort line, offspring of John of Gaunt at the end of the 15th century. Directly related from King Edward III through this line, it gave Henry Tudor a slight claim to the throne but due to the plethora of other, legitimate claimants ahead of him this claim remained insubstantial to covet the crown. That is, until Richard III seized the throne from his nephews and targeted any Yorkists whom refused to transfer their allegiance from the young boys to him. The result was that Henry suddenly became the person that both exiled Lancastrians and disenfranchised Yorkists flocked towards in order to relieve them from the reign of Richard. The consequence was of course that Henry would mobilise this support and eventually claim the Crown of England through the right of conquest if not predominantly through right of bloodline.
Henry naturally would not have been able to become King of England if the two Princes were still alive, the same issue that Richard faced as King. If Richard was a usurper, then Henry was usurping the usurper and his position was even weaker. The accusation from Ricardian supporters is that once Henry was King, he killed the Princes in order to secure his throne and then married their sister whom was now considered the true heir following their death. Henry was now King through right of conquest and through his wife’s legal claim to the crown. Supporters of Richard III thus consider Henry Tudor most likely to be the monster whom committed the atrocity against the two Princes, pointing to the ruthlessness of the Tudor dynasty as a whole for supporting this act. But what of the evidence…well, quite simply, there isn’t any.
i) The two Princes were last seen in public around June 1483. They had been noted as playing in the grounds of the Tower of London shortly after imprisonment, presumably content and unaware of their impending fate. Their Uncle had been named their protector and it is probable they felt no harm came to them. With regards to Henry Tudor, without the possibility of a flying visit in 1471 as a teenage boy to visit his half-uncle King Henry VI during the short Readeption, Henry Tudor did not step foot into England until August 1485, two full years after the Princes were last seen. Henry had spent the entirety of their imprisonment as an exile in Brittany, spending his time as a virtual prisoner of the Duke of Brittany and evading capture by King Edward IV. His influence in England was non-existent and in fact many were not even aware of him or his claim. The idea that Henry Tudor had arranged for the death of the Princes from his base in Brittany is absurd to say the least. No man within Richard’s retinue would seriously consider killing the Princes at the behest of some distant Welshman in a foreign land with no money and no apparent prospects.
ii) If Henry was unable to murder the children through orders from afar, then supporters of Richard III gleefully point out that he certainly could have killed them upon his ascension to the throne of England. As all-powerful King, the Tower of London would have come under his jurisdiction and all prisoners within the walls would fall within his remit. Henry would have jealously guarded his throne and it is an historical fact that both he and his son systematically wiped out the remaining Plantagenet claimants throughout their reigns. One only needs to consider the executions of Edward Plantagenet in 1499 and his sister Margaret Pole in 1541 for evidence of this. However, once again one must wonder why the Princes had not been released by those in the Tower after learning of Henry’s victory in the ensuing weeks before the victor’s arrival in London. Is it likely that the boys were still alive a full two years after their disappearance just for Henry Tudor to finally kill them? Surely someone, somewhere would have released details of this. Many consider Henry VII to be so powerful once he took over that he instantly began rewriting history and destroying the remnants of the Yorkist regime, yet is it not true that Henry faced almost continuous rebellions in his early reign from outcast Yorkists eager to recapture the throne? Surely someone would have made public that Henry was responsible for the deaths of the boys if that was the case. Their silence is in itself telling…the boys had been murdered under the previous Yorkist regime.
iii) If the children had not survived until 1485 when Henry Tudor took the throne and thus was able to have access to them, one wonders why had the previous King, Richard, failed to publically display the children in the aftermath of their disappearance two years earlier. Suffering damaging accusations from disenfranchised Yorkists and Lancastrians alike over his role in their disappearance and probable death, if this was not the case then surely it would have been easier to Richard to produce them publically to redeem his reputation somewhat, a reputation don’t forget that arguably cost him his life.
iv) Henry Tudor never sanctioned an official public version which some use against him as an admission of guilt. Of course, it was not in Henry’s interests to dwell on the murder of his brothers-in-law as it merely reminded the people that he had come to the throne because of their tragedy. Another idea that he never revealed their fate is because, as a stranger to the land, he simply did not know. Their fate was clearly a closely guarded secret and is possible that it was taken to the grave by the few who would have been involved in their disposable. If no one qualified their fate to the King, then it was not possible for him to reveal their whereabouts. In the Bill of Attainder that Henry brought against Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth, specific reference to the Princes was omitted although it did carry an obscure mention of Richard’s “shedding of infant’s blood”. This was the closest the Tudor regime officially came to accusing Richard of involvement in the deaths.
v) Although Henry Tudor had as much to gain as King Richard from the deaths of the children, in 1483 Henry was not necessarily a genuine contender to the throne. He was a partner in the so-called Buckingham conspiracy but his prospects as an alternative King to Richard were not particularly promising. Richard however had a great deal to gain in the short term from their deaths and in order for him to secure his crown he had to ensure the Princes could not be used against him. It follows that he was responsible, or at least knowledgeable, of their disappearance after 1483.
vi) James Tyrell was a York loyalist whom once confessed to committing the murders on behalf of his patron, Richard III. His evidence is interesting in that he appears to be the only such person to have admitted to the crime although this confession did come under torture by the Tudor regime and therefore considered inadmissible. That said, it is the closest we have come to a confession of any kind and clearly exonerates Henry Tudor from wrongdoing. That is, if one believes Tyrell’s story.
vii) Various contemporary chronicles from the period refer to rumours about the disappearance and murder of the Princes, notably the Croyland Chronicle and the raconteurs Dominic Mancini ad Philippe de Commines whom report on rumours of the Princes deaths as early as winter 1483, a date as stated above logistically near-impossible for Henry to have an involvement. Chronicles were never consistent in their reporting and much of what has been said would be disproved by later antiquarians but nonetheless they remain important insights into the lives of the period they cover and the public feeling.
viii) One primary reason it is unlikely that Henry Tudor was involved in the slaying of the Princes is the very fact that not only did he marry the boy’s sister, but their mother was instrumental in the politicking that brought him to the crown. Elizabeth Woodville was drastically removed from power after the death of her husband and although expected to remain the premier female in the realm through her son, once he had been imprisoned by her brother-in-law Richard her very existence was under threat. By the end of 1483, often considered the period the Princes were done away with, Elizabeth Woodville began conspiring with Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort to put Henry Tudor on the throne of England. The provision of this of course was that Henry would have to marry the Princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York, a concession that Henry was only too happy to agree too. The Yorkists loyal to the deceased Edward IV and by extension his sons Edward and Richard quickly defected to Henry Tudor’s cause, led by Elizabeth and the Woodville faction. It is almost impossible to believe that this family would agree to join the cause of Henry Tudor if he was responsible for the deaths of their beloved Princes, or equally if they believed them to still be alive. The Woodville faction allowed the Tudor claim to be realised through Elizabeth of York as they were certain that her brothers were dead and understood they would only remain a degree of power by inserting Elizabeth as Queen. This was duly done and the Woodville’s never regained the power they had enjoyed under Edward’s IV and V.
ix) Henry, as shown, may not have known the fate of the Princes as he had been exiled from the country at the time they disappeared from view. Throughout his early reign Henry was beset with uprisings and rebellions, none more so than the revolt that appeared under the leadership of Perkin Warbeck whom claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger Prince. Henry’s behaviour during this rebellion was certainly of a nervous nature, unsure who this man was and determined to investigate further. Henry’s alarm at the rising of this “Richard” certainly points to his innocence regarding the murder of the Princes. If he had committed or ordered the act himself, he had no need to become so worried over the rebellion for he would have known the Prince was dead. In reality, Henry was suitably worried enough to crush the uprising with full military strength.
With this in mind, Henry Tudor at best is a minor suspect in the case of the Princes deaths and not a serious one. He was accepted as a family member by the Princes’ own sister and mother, was not in the country at the time of the death and won the loyalty of men whom would never disassociated themselves with the Princes had they believed they still lived. As for the real culprit, the jury still remains undecided. From Richard III to the Duke of Buckingham, and from James Tyrell to perhaps another unidentified suspect, there remains a lack of prove to satisfactorily close the case. In my opinion ultimate responsibility would fall on the shoulders of Richard III. His dying brother’s wish was for his loyal and hardy younger Richard to be Protector of his young sons, both in official office and in a familial capacity. Whether Richard ordered the killing himself or not, the fact remained that the Princes did not receive the protection of his uncle and their tragic death by an unknown source remains something that ultimately he must be held accountable for. No amount of revisionism by the Richard III society will be able to undo this blemish against the character of Richard. Henry Tudor…we therefore find you Not Guilty.
Bosworth. A name that is firmly entrenched in the lexicon of England’s history as bridging point between the Medieval and Modern eras, a location where one King was slain and another was made. The wailing death throes of the Plantagenet dynasty was heard around these fields and equally so was the birth cries of their successor family, the Tudor’s. This fact alone makes the area a shrine for enthusiasts of both Royal houses. Bosworth and the battle that was pitched in these parts on a summer’s day in 1485 is rooted in the consciousness of the nation and certainly a place that deserves a visit every once in a while.
With such a prestigious history in its arsenal, a trip to this location is imperative if one wishes to transport themselves back to the beginning of the Tudor era and cast their own eyes over the very same landscape that would have greeted those involved 500 years earlier. The battle has always been known as “The Battle of Bosworth”, adapting the name of a near settlement in the traditional way that battles became known as, albeit two things need to be noted straight away. The Battle of Bosworth Heritage Visitor Centre is not located in Market Bosworth itself and after recent investigations it turns out it isn’t even the real battle location anyway. The Lottery-funded study a few years ago uncovered the most likely site a few miles in a south westerly direction towards Fenny Drayton but ultimately it is an irrelevant outcome to those of a non-archaeological background. The Visitor centre is built next to the previous battlesite candidate of Ambion Hill and is certainly set in one of the most rural and picturesque parts of England. The drive involves sweeping country lanes after leaving the Watling Street A5 with fields all around, many that would have been trampled across by hundreds of hooves and soldiers in 1485 on their way to and from the fighting. As you turn from the road and drive along the path you will notice to the right on the field an enormous flag blowing proudly in the wind, the banner being the very image of the one raised aloft at the head of Richard’s army on that fateful August morn.
When you arrive at the Visitor Centre itself the first thing that will attract your gaze is the large Coat of Arms of King Richard III on the brick wall, his White Boar emblem distinctive and quickly giving you an idea as to who truly is the King and centre of attention at this centre. As you walk through the gates on your left is a gathering of medieval devices in a small arena termed “Ambion Village”, a reconstruction of sorts and a taster of life for the peasant class of the locality. As you turn into the courtyard of sorts immediately on your right is the glass entrance to the “Tithe Restaurant”, a typical café/restaurant type structure in which the main selling point is the authentic barn it has been constructed in, complete with atmospheric wooden beams along the roof. The Jacket Potatoes are certainly worth a try too! As you enter the courtyard proper you will notice on your right a pair of stocks for the perfect photo opportunity and around the corner the standard Gift Shop and two more reasonable photo opportunities. It is here that “Richard’s Stone” is kept, a large boulder that used to be located in the field where it was previously thought the last Plantagenet King was killed and also an empty stone coffin in which it is thought his remains were at one time kept. Going indoors you are met with the ticket desk and the beginning of the impressive exhibition, with an interactive screen introducing you to a myriad of characters whom educate you about their daily lives as you make your way through the maze of information in the exhibition itself. The Exhibition itself begins when you walk through a faux field tent into the first room which educates you with a simple explanation of the Wars of the Roses as well as 15th century home furniture and tools including a cutlery knife and a wooden barrel for storing ale.
The next room gives you details about the preparation for battle and more information on Henry Tudor and where his claim and forces came from, complete with large portraits of both men. Moving onwards, the largest room in the display has one wall covered with the weaponry of the age including pikes, axes, swords and crossbows, giving an insight into the barbarity that existed during medieval warfare. To further enhance this mental image, there are two life size mannequins kitted out in the full armoury of a foot soldier, including chainmail and helmet. As well as heraldry practice for the children and the possibility to try on various pieces of armour in front of a mirror in the circle centrepiece of the exhibition is large screens playing a recurring video of the events of the battle complete with animated side panels offering further information. This room also offers you the opportunity to try a bow and arrow to see how far you can shoot this ancient weapon, myself of course scoring the highest of 240m and “losing an arrow” as I overshot the enemy! Whilst two large statues of the rival combatants look on, the atmospheric video room also has a side room entitled “The Surgeon” with a reconstructed skull displaying gruesome war injuries as well as a display case showing the horrendous tools available to an injured soldier, think of knifes, tweezers and hooks and you’re on the right lines.
In the room titled “Aftermath” we are given brief descriptions of how Henry Tudor quelled the wars itself by marrying Elizabeth of York albeit it does touch on the uprisings he suffered early in his reign. It also gives further information about the rest of the victorious dynasty including a statue of Henry VIII and details on Tudor artefacts and architecture. The final room is a recent inclusion and is dubbed the “BFI Lab”. It is here where the latest findings from extensive battle field investigations are stored, including a skeleton complete with war wounds and display cases with real finds including coins, horse pendants and belt buckles that would have fallen from the slain soldiers or fleeing Yorkists. Exiting through the gift shop you find yourself at the starting point of a roughly 2mile walk through around the battlefield path, the first section taking you up past the enormous Yorkist banner of Richard III to the remembrance sundial, two large wooden chairs representing each monarch. The path also takes you down to a well christened “Richard’s Well” and where he apparently took a drink before battle and which is now a popular spot for visitors. All in all, the walk is a pleasant stroll in the summer and the surrounding fields allow a perfect place to sit and enjoy a picnic. The Battle of Bosworth may no longer be accepted as being in this particular location but the centre is vital in not only providing detailed analysis and education to visitors it also allows the visitor to mentally revisit one of this country’s most infamous events with their own eyes. Set in an idyllic and rural part of Middle England, even without a passing interest in the topic should not stop you from visiting.