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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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 who 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.