Of all the crimes that have stained the pages of English history, none has fascinated amateur detectives more than the mysterious disappearance of the princesses in the Tower.
The fate of 12-year-old Edward V and his nine-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, who disappeared in the summer of 1483, has inspired armchair sleuths from William Shakespeare to classic whodunit author Josephine Tay.
For centuries it was believed that the younger boys were killed at the behest of their usurper uncle, Richard III – the brutal villain in Shakespeare’s play, who was haunted by the ghosts of the murdered boys in his final days.
But exactly 99 years ago, a group of medieval enthusiasts set up the Richard III Society to erase his name, convinced that the last Plantagenet king had been defamed by Tudor propaganda. The Society is still going, and one of its notable victories was reported in the Mail this week. The Tower of London – where the boys’ bodies were found – bears a sign declaring that ‘there is no evidence the princes were killed’ and ‘we will never know what happened’.
So the Ricardians win? A feat to rank alongside the dramatic discovery of their hero’s body under a Leicester car park a decade ago?
Well, not quite. The sign does not absolve Richard; It simply says that we will never know the truth.
Dominic Sandbrook: The fate of 12-year-old Edward V and his nine-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, who disappeared in the summer of 1483, inspired armchair sleuths.
But I think the evidence is pretty clear. And even though the crime was committed more than five centuries ago, I believe the killer’s true identity is staring us in the face.
Like Hercule Poirot, then, let’s invite the skeptics to assemble in the drawing room, lay out the facts and propose some conclusion.
The key to this crime, I think, is fear. Fifteenth-century England was a competitive, violent, anxious place. Men preferred desperate not only because they were greedy and ambitious, but because they were afraid of losing everything they worked for.
Our subjects, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were born in 1470 and 1473 to the Yorkist King Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville.
For 20 years England was scarred by civil war, as rival claimants of the Plantagenet dynasty fought for the throne – a conflict known today as the Wars of the Roses, though no one called it that at the time.
To make a long story short, their father was Edward the Conqueror. An ambitious, handsome, charming and ruthless man, he saw off his Lancastrian rivals and seemed likely to rule England for decades to come.
There was still excitement though. Edward’s chief lieutenant was his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a dutiful, serious young man who ruled the North with great energy and skill.
Unfortunately, Richard did not get along with his brother’s wife, the fiercely ambitious Elizabeth Woodville, or her family, whom he regarded as greedy parvenus. But such family tensions were hardly unknown. And as long as Edward IV lived, it didn’t really matter.
But at Easter 1483, Edward fell ill. Plantagenet England’s Elvis Presley, after years of self-indulgence, became very obese and died aged just 40.
This left his son Edward Jr., just 12, to become king. And at first, everything seemed straightforward. The royal council met at once and agreed that the boy would be crowned on May 4.
The Tower of London has announced that there is no evidence that Richard III killed his princely nephew
Who, though, will take over the young Edward V? Who will oversee his tuition, and act as his right hand?
The obvious candidate was his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, riding south from Yorkshire for the coronation. But where does that leave the boy’s mother and her family, the Woodvilles?
Richard knew the Woodvilles hated him. He also knew that they were very close to his nephew, whom he rarely saw while he was away in the north.
If the Woodvilles win the battle for the boy king’s ear, Richard may lose everything: his position; his land; his wealth. The stakes could hardly have been higher. Richard was due to meet the boy king at Stony Stratford, near modern Milton Keynes. He had already made up his mind before coming. Instead of meekly waiting to lose all, he would roll the dice.
On the morning of 30 April he launched a coup, arresting the Woodvilles for treason and seizing control of the young Edward. But from the beginning his plan failed.
The 12-year-old king refused to swallow Richard’s accusations against his mother’s family. By all accounts he was a clever, serious boy, and when they left Stoney Stratford, Richard must have realized that Edward would never accept life as a docile puppet.
So now – perhaps out of desperation rather than long-cherished ambition – Richard rolled the dice again. He began dismantling the patronage networks of the Woodvilles and demanded the death penalty for his main opponents.
Meanwhile, he postponed his nephew’s coronation, first to June, then to November. And he persuaded the terrified Elizabeth Woodville, who had taken sanctuary at Westminster, to hand over her young son, nine-year-old Richard of York.
Although the two boys were transferred to the Tower of London, there was nothing sinister about it. The tower was a palace as well as a prison. Kings and queens often stayed there before coronations and weddings, so no one thought it unpleasant.
Was their uncle already thinking about usurping the throne? We will never know.
Contemporary accounts describe him as nervous, chewing his lip and complaining of illness. He was clearly under great pressure: a sign, I think, that he was making things up as he went along.
Then, on June 22, came the final gamble. At Richard’s instigation, a preacher named Ralph Shaw delivered a sermon outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, declaring that the younger boys were illegitimate and that Richard should be king.
The crowd cheered – as they must have been paid to do – and the rest fell neatly into place. The boys were swept aside, and, on 6 July, Richard was crowned.
On the face of it, his plan worked. His enemies were defeated, and his position preserved. But there were two very obvious loose ends, still living in the Tower of London.
At first, Richard probably wanted the younger Edward to attend his coronation, which would legitimize his coup. He even seems to have ordered clothes, shoes and spurs for his nephew to wear.
But the coronation came and went, and the boys never showed up.
Perhaps Edward refused to go; Perhaps Richard thought better of it.
Although the sources are vague and fragmentary, there are stories of boys playing in the tower garden in the summer. But the sightings become less frequent before stopping altogether.
The future King Richard III, 1452-83, orchestrates the kidnapping and murder of his two nephews in order to become heir to the throne of England – illustration from The History of England, c. 1850
Unfortunately for the boys, the four were executed for conspiring to rescue them from the tower. And a visiting Italian friend, Dominic Mancini, heard rumors that poor young Edward was ‘preparing himself for sacrifice’ by daily confession.
Mancini left England in July. By then, he reported, whenever he asked about the boys people ‘burst into tears and wails’ and some whispered that they had already been killed.
Other chronicles report similar rumors. And we know that as early as 1484, the Chancellor of France publicly stated that the two boys had been ‘murdered with impunity’ at the behest of their uncle.
Pure hearing, of course – but noticeable, all the same.
So there are the main clues. We need not enter into the elaborate claims of Tudor propagandists such as Sir Thomas More, who wrote a wildly distorted ‘history’ of Richard after he was killed at Bosworth by his Tudor rival, the future Henry VII.
Nor should we think about the four skeletons found by workers at the Tower in 1674 and at Windsor Castle in 1789, which historians want to send for DNA testing. (King Charles is said to be amenable to this idea, but so far there is little sign of this happening.)
Maybe the bones belong to princes, maybe they don’t. Even if they do, they won’t really change the existing narrative. So let’s go back to that tumultuous summer of 1483, and reflect on the sequence of events.
Edward IV dies unexpectedly, and there is a power struggle to succeed him. Desperately improving to maintain his position, Richard rises to the top, although he is not the legitimate heir.
At first, the two boys are alive in the Tower of London and people see them in the garden. There is a plot to rescue them, but it fails. Richard grabs her, and the boys disappear from view, never to be seen again.
Remember the context: an age of bloodshed and treachery, in which Richard’s father, father-in-law, and two of his brothers had already met violent deaths. And remember the mantra of every detective novelist through the ages. A murderer must have three things: motive, means and opportunity.
Among the leading suspects, Richard’s rival Henry Tudor must have had a motive, since his path to the crown would be blocked if the two sons survived. But Henry had neither the means nor the opportunity.
He was in Brittany in the summer of 1483 and did not reach London until the Battle of Bosworth two years later.
Does anyone seriously believe that two guys hung around for two years without people noticing? Why didn’t anyone find them in the tower garden?
Why did no servant, tutor or doctor see them? And if they were alive, why did the French think they were dead?
A second suspect is Richard’s hatchet man, the Duke of Buckingham, who himself has a weak claim to the throne.
He later turned against his master, and was summarily executed in a pub yard in Salisbury.
Again, Buckingham must have had a motive. But the meaning and opportunity? Actually it doesn’t. To gain access to the boys in the tower, he almost certainly needed Richard’s permission.
Regardless, could Buckingham kill them on his own initiative without first clearing it with Richard? The very idea seems incredible.
So that leaves us with the third candidate. A man who proved himself capable of ruthless, decisive action and who had a very clear motive, since he had everything to lose if the boys were out of his hands.
A man with means in the form of his armed guards. And a man with opportunity, since he controlled access to the tower.
That man must be Richard III.
To me, the only real mystery is why its proponents insist on denying the obvious. Why don’t they just embrace it?
Even though Richard orders his nephew’s death, this does not make him a monster. In a cruel age, powerful people often made cold decisions, and her brother’s death left her in an impossible position.
Richard was nothing if not a realist. To quote novelist George RR Martin, he knew that when you play Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
Time and again in medieval history, boy kings were a recipe for disaster. Richard was a fierce warrior and a proven administrator. And in the chaos of the summer of 1483, seizing the throne and getting rid of his nephews must have seemed the only sensible course of action.
Could easily work.
Had Richard won the Battle of Bosworth, seen off the Tudors, and lived to a ripe old age – as he might well have done – posterity would have hailed him as the man who brought stability after years of civil war.
Princes of the Tower will be largely forgotten. Generations of school children will cheer the memory of Good King Richard, who was not afraid to get his hands dirty in the national interest.
And in place of today’s evasive captions, the sign would be satisfyingly straightforward. It will simply be written: ‘He did it — and thank God he did!’
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