Some time in the summer or early fall of 1483, 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old
brother, Richard of York, disappeared from public view. Their father, King Edward
IV, had died in April, and they had been lodged in the Tower of London since the
end of May by their Uncle Richard. In mid-July, Richard had his nephews declared
illegitimate, which meant that neither boy would be able to become king, and arranged
to have himself crowned Richard III. Two years later, in August, 1485, Richard III
was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Henry Tudor, the victor, became Henry
What happened to the princes? Over the next 500 years, two camps emerged. The first,
the traditionalists, were firm in their belief that Richard III had ordered the murders
of his nephews. The second, the revisionists, maintained that Richard III’s reputation
had been besmirched by his successor, Henry Tudor, the first of the Tudor kings and
father of Henry VIII.
Josephine Tey, in her classic mystery novel The Daughter of Time, represents the
best of the Revisionists artistic treatment of the story. The pre-eminent artistic
rendering of the mystery for the Traditionalists is, of course, Shakespeare’s Richard
III. Since Ms. Tey’s novel, many treatments and interpretations have been published
that, if anything, deepen the mystery.
Discovery in the Tower
Other than the account of Sir Thomas More, often repeated and embellished by other
16th century writers, nothing was known of the fate of the princes. In 1674, 191
years after their disappearance, an interesting discovery was made in the Tower of
London. Assembling the known facts together, one might imagine that the discovery
occurred something like this:
The clanging of picks resounded through the White Tower. The stairs leading up to
the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist had been crumbling for a number of years, and
the king had ordered its demolition and replacement. The large broken stones shattered
under the workmen’s picks, and a large pile of rubble had formed in the open area
leading to the steps. The workmen had reached the floor of the basement and had been
surprised to find a layer of loose stones, rather than a stone floor, as they had
After they had removed about a 10-foot layer of stones, they looked at the top of
a wooden chest. Clearing away the last of the debris, one of them carefully raised
the lid and reached in.
He held up a bone. It was an arm bone. An hour later, the workmen had collected the
bones of two humans.
Charles II, king at that time, ordered that the bones be examined by the royal surgeon,
who was afterwards satisfied that they were the remains of the two princes, Edward
V and his brother.
Four years later, after having lain in a safe place in the Chapel of the White Tower,
the bones were placed in a small marble casket and given a place of honor in Westminster
Abbey. At the service, the Archbishop of London said the prayers, and Charles II
It is right and meet that we commend the bones of these young princes to a place
of final rest. Their fates at the order of Richard III grieves us, and though almost
two centuries have passed, the vile deeds of that villain shall ne’er be forgotten.
The King crossed himself, turned, and led the small funeral procession out of Westminster
Two and a half centuries after the burial ceremony in Westminster Abbey, King George
V in 1933, annoyed by the mounting pressure from supporters of Richard III, gave
his approval for the examination of the bones in the white marble coffin by reputable
scientists. This inquest, intended to resolve the question of whether or not the
princes had been found in 1674, may very well have been similar to this hypothetical
Lawrence E, Tanner, MD, OBE, and Keeper of the Monuments of Westminster Abbey, had
known William Wright, President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain, for over
20 years. He had met Bill Wright under unfortunate circumstances, when Wright, the
pre-eminent dental surgeon of Harley Street, had extracted his wisdom teeth. Tanner
had never forgiven him for that painful experience, even though the two met often
at conferences and dinners, and had been unfailingly polite to one another.
Now, they were thrown together, directed by the king, George V, and the Home Secretary,
to perform an examination of the bones of the supposed princes, Edward V and Richard
of York. Tanner did not look forward to working with Wright, a hearty fellow who
got on his nerves. But, duty called.
Tanner had set them up in a room in the chapter house. A long oak refectory table
had been covered with sheets, and the contents of the Christopher Wren marble coffin
had been spread on the table. The bones, brown with 450 years of oxidation, were
arranged by length.
Quite a few that don’t belong here, wouldn’t you say, Tanner? What do you think?
Pig bones? Sheep?”
“A bit of everything, I’d say. Scraps from the kitchen. Pork, sheep, cattle. Some
scullery lad must have had a rubbish heap under those stairs, and when the chest
was found, the workmen must have thrown every bone they found into it. Quite a mess.”
Tanner lit his pipe.
Well, lets get started, shall we? Why don’t you separate out the animal bones, and
Ill start lining up the young lads. It was just as Tanner thought; Wright would use
him as an assistant.
However, it was Tanner who made the final measurements. After a week of careful sorting
and measuring, they were ready to record. Wright was poised with pen and paper as
Tanner dictated. “So what do we have?” Tanner said. “Two pre-pubertal skeletons of
Wright interrupted. “Most likely male, though, wouldn’t you say?”
Tanner frowned, but replied “Most likely male. One, four feet ten inches tall, the
other just under four feet seven inches—say, four feet six and one half inches tall.
Only a partial skull for the younger. Both have some bones missing, phalanges, metacarpals.”
Wright handed the notebook to Tanner. “Now, for the jaws and dentition. The elder
looks like he suffered from osteomyelitis—quite extensive. Must have been dreadfully
painful. They are no doubt related, as based on the presence of hypodontia—both have
permanent teeth missing. Good thing the younger boy’s skull was the lower half. What
would you estimate their ages, Tanner?”
Well, using your tooth measurements, I’d say the elder was 12 to 13 years old, the
younger—it’s a little more difficult to tell—say, 9 to 11 years old.”
“That pretty well takes it, then, doesn’t it? Edward was 12 years, 10 months old
in September, 1483, and Richard was what?”
“I believe just 10 years old. Yes, I have no doubts. You agree, Wright?”
“Indeed I do. Too many coincidences not to be the princes. Found in the right place—according
to Thomas More. Related, clearly. Right ages. Yes, I have no doubts. Besides, this
stain on the skull of the elder. Blood stain, consistent with suffocation. No, no
doubt about it, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I agree. Well, lets get these boys back in their coffin. This time, we’ll leave
out the animal bones.”
In fact, Tanner and Wright did not resolve the question to the satisfaction of some.
After all, it is argued, Tanner and Wright assumed from the beginning that the bones
in the casket were those of the princes. They merely confirmed their assumption.
No radio-carbon dating (not available at the time) was done. Could these have been
the bones of some children of an earlier era, perhaps Roman? Despite the urging of
Richards present-day supporters, the bones have not been reexamined.
Shakespeare at Work
Where do we get our conception of Richard III, villain and murderer of children?
There is no more profound influence on how we view Richard than the famous play by
William Shakespeare. He, of course, relied on histories that had been written in
the first half of the 16th century. These, most prominently by Hollinshed and Hall,
had been based on Thomas More’s biography of Richard. Shakespeare had already achieved
a certain amount of success with the London theatre public with his three plays on
Henry VI, the last part of which has an appearance by Richard III, then known as
Richard Gloucester. Shakespeare was, after all, a man of the theatre and not an historian.
It is interesting to speculate on how Shakespeare interpreted these sources, and
created the play that has had so much influence over the last 400 years.
It would be fascinating to have been present at the first rehearsal of Richard III,
probably held in mid-1592. What were Shakespeare’s instructions to his leading actor,
Richard Burbage? Did he direct Burbage to act Richard as an attractive villain, so
that he was as much devilish as evil? Whatever the original interpretation of the
role, Shakespeare gives the character of Richard lines that unmistakably reveal his
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I
am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days. Plans have
I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, To set my
brother Clarence and the King In deadly hate the one against the other.
Shakespeare’s Richard is a new kind of complex villain, one who is adept at plotting,
prone to irony, and just as blood-thirsty as the villains who came before him. But,
he is a villain nonetheless.
The Three Kings:
In order to understand the context of the murder of the princes, it’s helpful to
know something about the politics of the second half of the 15th century, particularly
about the three kings that ruled England at that time. The princes, after all, were
pawns in the elaborate game of power seeking, and the players—for the most part—were
those who wanted to be king. Certainly, the personalities of Edward IV, his younger
brother Richard III, and the man who overthrew Richard, Henry VII, are central to
Edward IV (reigned from 1460 to 1483): the father of the two young princes.
Even before he assumed the throne, Edward of York had a reputation as something of
a rake. He stood six feet three and a half inches tall, fully a half foot taller
than the average Englishman of the age, and was, by all reports, remarkably handsome.
Edward did not restrain his interest in women, and enjoyed numerous liaisons. Marriage
to Elizabeth Woodville did not interfere with his sexual adventures. A handsome,
affable, charming man was, it appears, forgiven his appetites. He was, at the beginning
of his reign, a fair and benign ruler, and well liked by his subjects.
Pleasant as Edward was, it didn’t stop him from doing whatever was necessary to secure
his reign. After defeating the forces of Henry VI, Edward had Henrys heir, the young
Prince of Wales, murdered. Allegedly, even Henry VI, a simple-minded and ineffectual
old man who was imprisoned in the Tower, may have also been murdered at Edward’s
Another threat to Edward was the unpredictable loyalty of his other brother, George,
Duke of Clarence, who allied himself with Henry VI’s wife in her attempt to overthrow
Edward. Younger brother Richard played the role of peacemaker in reconciling his
two older brothers, but George remained troublesome, eventually giving Edward no
choice but to execute him for treason. Interestingly, George and Richard had married
sisters. The older of the Neville girls, Isobel, married George, and the younger,
Anne married Richard. Family connections aside, George had to go, and so he met the
usual fate of 15th century traitors.
These relationships—the execution of George, Duke of Clarence, and the marriage of
Richard to Anne Neville—are changed quite dramatically in Shakespeare’s play. According
to Shakespeare, George, a gentle soul slandered by Richard, is drowned in a butt
of malmsey. Most likely, the reference to this comes from his love of wine, and the
drowning in malmsey is a metaphor for his drunkenness leading to his eventual death.
The fascinating courtship of Anne by Richard, her husband’s (Henry VI’s heir, the
Prince of Wales) corpse between them, is pure invention, since Anne never met the
Prince of Wales, her husband, and was still little more than a child when Richard
courted and married her.
During his reign, Edward continued to indulge himself. One of his mistresses, procured
for him by his loyal aide, Lord Hastings, was Jane Shore. As he tired of her, he
turned her over to Hastings. His appetites included not only women, but food and
drink as well, so that by the time of his death at the age of 44, he was grossly
Richard had been a loyal youngest brother. At the age of 18, he performed admirably
at the Battle of Tewksbury against the forces of Henry VI, and for a number of years
thereafter governed the northern counties for Edward with skill.
Edward had married Elizabeth Woodville secretly, over the objections of his mother,
who found Elizabeth, a widow, an unsuitable candidate for a queen. In addition to
her unsuitability, she brought with her a group of relatives, brothers and sons,
who were ambitious and grasping. Edward, as long as he was left to his own pleasures,
did not seem to mind the machinations of his in-laws and stepsons. It was one of
these pleasures that eventually kept his own son from inheriting his throne.
One of the ecclesiastical laws of the time was that the promise of a marriage carried
the legal force of an actual marriage. Edward evidently used the promise of marriage
as a means to entice women into his bed, and by all accounts he used the device successfully.
However, with at least one of these promises, to Eleanor Butler, he made the mistake
of promising it in the presence of a bishop, Bishop Stillington. This was several
years before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (who probably had the same promise
made to her, but made Edward keep it). The net effect of this promise to Eleanor
Butler was, years later, to invalidate his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, rendering
his children from that marriage illegitimate, and hence ineligible to inherit the
In the meantime, throughout the reign of Edward IV, younger brother Richard was a
loyal soldier and administrator. He was so trusted by his older brother that he,
Richard of Gloucester, was named in Edwards will as protector, the guardian of Edward’s
oldest son and heir. Protectors ruled as king until the designated heir reached majority,
which had varied throughout the centuries, but was generally about 14 years of age.
England had experienced political turmoil in the past when the heir had not yet reached
majority, and the naming of a protector was a reasonable practice.
Edward IV died at the age of 44 on April 9, 1483. His son and royal heir, known henceforth
as Edward V, was 12 years old.
Richard III (reigned from 1483 to 1485)
Richard of Gloucester was considerably different from his older brother. What he
actually looked like is in dispute. He was described as almost as handsome as the
charismatic Edward, but smaller and slighter. Others, including Thomas More, describe
him as deformed, with a withered arm and a hunched back.
Almost every actor who has portrayed Richard plays him as deformed. The most recent
production of note, starring Kenneth Branagh as Richard, begins the play with Richard
delivering his famous opening soliloquy on a rack, dressed only in underpants, undergoing
a physical torture evidently intended to straighten his deformed body. A famous production
starring Antony Sher presents Richard as a malevolent spider, skittering across the
stage on insect-leg-like crutches.
Portraits picture him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, but without
any other noticeable deformity. Even the portraits are in dispute, since two of the
three principal ones have been retouched to either accentuate the raised shoulder,
or to paint it out.
It is important to note that two contemporary reporters of the reign of Richard III
do not mention any physical deformity, and both observers certainly saw him at one
time or another. The several reports of Richard’s prowess in battle deny the assertion
that Richard was physically deformed.
One consistent feature is his serious, almost melancholy expression. This mesmerizing
face is the key element that prompts novelist Josephine Tey’s character, a bored,
bedridden detective, to become interested in the case of Richard III and the two
Other contrasts with his brother were made by various authors. Richard was more
puritanical than his sybaritic brother, and, at least with respect to Edward IVs
later years, a benign and efficient ruler. These admirable traits—courage, benevolence,
administrative and legislative wisdom—are in contrast to the historical characterization
of Richard III as a remorseless villain. Still, like most of the rulers of medieval
Europe, there is no question that he was ruthless. Whether he murdered his nephews
or not, he certainly executed a number of political opponents during his brief reign.
Some of these were dispatched because of actual rebellion, but others were killed
because they simply posed a threat to his throne.
It is not surprising that the Tudor appraisal of Richard included charges of more
subtle murders. One particular rumor was that Richard poisoned his wife Anne, who
died in 1484. His motive was, supposedly, two-fold: First, Richard and Anne’s son
had died, and Richard had no direct heir. Another marriage might have provided him
with a male heir. Second, a solution to this was for Richard to marry his niece,
Elizabeth York in order to strengthen his hold on the throne and thwart the plans
of Henry Tudor. (This eldest daughter of Edward IV was a pawn in the power struggle
between Richard and Henry. She had been promised to Henry Tudor by her mother, Elizabeth
Woodville, and she eventually married him.)
Revisionists point out that, to all appearances, Richard and Anne were happily married—she
accompanied him on his many trips to the North—and that both grieved the loss of
their son. They further argue that Richard would have to rescind the judgment of
illegitimacy on Edward IVs children in order to profit from marrying Elizabeth York,
a complicating factor if the princes were still alive. The traditionalists logically
point out that rescinding the illegitimacy would no longer pose a threat to Richard’s
right to the throne if the princes were already dead.
Henry VII (reigned from 1485 to 1509)
Henry Tudor, a descendent of the House of Lancaster, had a tenuous claim to the throne
of England. He was the son of a commoner, Owen Tudor, who had married the widow of
Henry V. However, he had an ambitious mother and a number of significant supporters.
Two of these were Bishop Morton and the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had been the
primary supporter of Richard III during the frenetic period between Edward IVs death
and Richard’s assumption of the throne, but betrayed Richard and joined the cause
of Henry Tudor.
Several reasons are given by different authors for Buckingham’s defection. The first,
and probably the most reasonable, is that Richard reneged on promises to transfer
to Buckingham extensive properties. The second is that Buckingham was repelled by
Richard’s murder of the two princes. Some theorists regard Buckingham as the most
likely murderer of the princes, perpetrated in order to secure Henry Tudor’s claim
to the throne. A variation of Buckingham’s deed by some of the traditionalist’s camp
is that Buckingham was the murderer, following instructions from Richard to carry
out the deed.
Portraits of Henry Tudor present a thin-lipped, sly man, much more likely to evince
a response of distrust in the viewer than the famous portrait of Richard III. Like
all of the English kings during the late medieval period, Henry was ruthless. He
justified the killing of Richard at Bosworth Field by declaring that he had been
declared king the day before the battle, thereby classifying Richard as a traitor
against the crown. He conveniently dispatched to the headsman’s block Sir James Tyrell
after extracting a confession from Tyrell that he and two others were the actual
murderers of the princes. While he solidified the Tudor hold on the crown for his
son, Henry VIII, he was noted for his mean and stingy nature.
When Henry landed in Wales in 1483 with his forces of French mercenaries and English
and Welsh rabble, he had lived half of his 28 years outside of England. In some respects,
he was a foreign invader. But his noble supporters were intent on toppling Richard
and replacing him, even if it had to be with the relatively unknown Henry Tudor.
If the Earl of Stanley had not kept his forces out of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry
might have been defeated, and Richard III would have remained king.
One of Henrys first acts as king was to see that Parliament repealed Titulus Regius,
the act by which Richard had used to declare Edward IV’s children illegitimate. Now,
his future queen, Elizabeth of York, sister of the princes, was legitimate and a
proper wife for a king. However, by repealing the act, Edward V and his younger brother
were legitimate once again. Hence, Henry was acknowledging that the princes were
dead, since, by restoring Edward Vs legitimacy, he was acknowledging that the dead
boy had been the rightful King of England.
Whatever Henrys personal traits, he gave his reign peace and stability, ending the
War of the Roses by uniting, in marriage, the House of Lancaster, his family, and
the House of York, his wife’s family.
Prelude to Murder
The murder of the princes in the Tower of London was, of course, a political act,
and was prompted by the sequence of events that began with the death of Edward IV.
Upon the death of her husband, Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s queen, sought to keep
her family in power by moving swiftly to establish her son, Edward V, on the throne.
To accomplish this, she dispatched her brother, Lord Rivers, and her son from a previous
marriage, Lord Richard Grey, as well as Grey’s chamberlain, Sir Thomas Vaughn, to
bring young Prince Edward from the North. The idea was have Edward crowned as soon
as possible, leaving him free to choose his own advisers, which would, of course,
be his mother, his Woodville uncles and half-brothers, and nobility loyal to Edward
IV. Thus Richard, as protector, would have his power neutralized by Elizabeth Woodville
and her relatives.
Lord Hastings, a close friend and adviser of the dead king (who shared a mistress,
Jane Shore, with him) protested against the size of the escort that the queen intended
to send, and Elizabeth Woodville reduced the size of the force to 2,000 men. In the
meantime, couriers from Hastings informed Richard, who was at York, of these developments,
urging him to put himself at the head of an army and to arrive in London before Rivers
brought the young king from Ludlow.
Richard left York for Northampton with an army of 600 men. At Northampton he was
to join Rivers and Edward V and proceed to London together. By the time Richard arrived,
he learned that Rivers and his troops had passed through the town and were now in
Stony Stratford, some 12 miles closer to London. Rivers traveled back to Northampton
to extend the young kings greetings to his uncle. Richard invited Rivers to stay
for supper, and proposed that the next morning they ride together to meet the king. During
the meal, the Duke of Buckingham arrived.
After Rivers retired for the night, Richard and Buckingham plotted. In the morning,
Rivers was arrested. Richard and Buckingham then traveled the 12 miles to Stony Stratford
and met with the young king. Richard gave his condolences, and then maintained that
the same men who had encouraged Edward IV’s vices were conspiring to ambush the protector.
The interview, according to Thomas More, ended with the 12-year-old king in tears,
and his half-brother, Richard Grey, and his chamberlain under arrest. When the news
reached the queen, she took her remaining children and sought sanctuary in Westminster
Abbey. London was in an uproar, mollified to some degree by a letter from Richard
promising an early coronation for Edward V. Richard, Buckingham, and their retinue
arrived in London, and the young king was safely lodged in the Palace of St. Paul.
All seemed calm, until Richard learned that Lord Hastings had begun to conspire with
Elizabeth Woodville, shifting his loyalty from Richard, probably because he felt
that Buckingham would now have access to the spoils that Hastings felt were his.
Richard summoned the unsuspecting Hastings to a meeting at the Tower, where he asked
Hastings what should happen to those who would conspire against the protector.
Lulled into a sense of relief when Richard seemed to be accusing the Woodvilles,
he started to speak, when Richard slammed his fist on the table, calling Hastings
a traitor. At that sign, armed men rushed into the room, took Hastings away, and,
within minutes, he was (as described by Thomas More) brought forth into the green
beside the chapel within the Tower, and his head laid down upon a log of timber and
there stricken off.
Richard immediately called forth a number of prominent citizens and declared that
Hastings and others had planned to assassinate himself and Buckingham during their
meeting, and that the traitor had to be killed immediately. The other conspirators
were pardoned, no doubt to quiet the fears of the nobility. One of them, Bishop Morton,
was to be kept in the custody of the Duke of Buckingham, and would rise again in
opposition to Richard.
It is probable at this point that Richard decided that if he were to survive, he
must be king. Edward, the boy king, had shown some maturity, and would not be pleased
to be ruled by his uncle, who had imprisoned his mother’s brother, Lord Rivers, and
his half-brother, Richard Grey, and who had driven his mother and younger brother
into sanctuary. Worst of all, his uncle had beheaded his Lord Chamberlain, Hastings,
within sight of the royal apartments in the Tower where young Edward was now lodged.
While Richard began his program to usurp the throne, he had Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan
executed at Pontefract, where they had been kept. Most of the important opponents,
including the powerful Hastings, were now out of the way.
Sir Thomas More’s version
Sir Thomas More gives an account of how the murders were planned. According to him,
Richard hatched his plot while on a royal progress through England, an attempt to
visit regions throughout the land and establish his popularity. More’s description
might be dramatized with the following scene:
Gloucester, July 30, 1483
“Do you understand? You are to hence to the Tower and instruct our Lord Brackenbury
to carry out the deed. It must be done, and done quickly.”
John Green, loyal retainer to a fault, bowed to his sovereign, King Richard III.
“Your Majesty, I will leave at once.”
Four days later, Green was in the small chamber that was used by the Constable of
the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury. He had revealed the purpose of his visit to the
constable, who sat silently after Green had delivered his charge from the king.
In distress, Brackenbury finally said, “Sir, I cannot. I love the king, but I cannot
do this thing that he wishes. It is not within my purview. I have no stomach for
“The king will not be pleased, Sir Robert. It is not a great thing that he asks of
you. The young princes have no future, as you are well aware.”
Brackenbury knelt before Green. “Before our Lady in the Tower, I could never put
the princes to death, though I should die therefore.”
Now at Warwick Castle, Richard awaited the return of Green. “Is it done?”
“Your Majesty, he will not. He says he cannot.”
“Ah, a man of scruples is our Lord Brackenbury. We shall not compromise his loyalty.
Yet, I will have it done. Is there not a man amongst my party who can do this? Ah,
whom shall a man trust? Those that I have brought up myself fail me, and at my commandment
will do nothing for me.”
“There is one,” said Green. “He lies outside your door. James Tyrell. You need only
command him, and the princes will be dead.”
Again, four days passed. At the gate of the Tower wall, Tyrell met with Brackenbury.
“Lord Brackenbury, this is my man, John Dighton, who assists me with this mission.
I have here, m’Lord, a letter from the king, sealed by his hand. It directs you to
deliver unto me the keys to the Tower wherein the princes lodge.”
Brackenbury read the letter. Looking up, he said, “I see. Very well, you shall have
Tyrell took the large ring of keys and said to Brackenbury, “Who is with the princes?
Who waits upon them?”
“There are four.”
“Is Miles Forest amongst their number?”
I suggest that you dismiss all but Forest, and then retire to some place of refreshment
within the city. You shall enjoy a full day’s deliverance from your duties.
Brackenbury sighed. “I see. I will do as you suggest.”
Two hours later, Tyrell, Forest, and Dighton were at a table at the Golden Cockerel.
Tyrell spoke, “It is now going upon nine o’clock. You shall carry out the deed about
midnight. There must be no mistake, no chance that either will survive. I will await
you in the passageway. When you have finished, fetch me and show me that you have
done what the king has commanded. Understood?”
“Aye, m’Lord,” Forest and Dighton both replied.
Sir Thomas More’s version, 1511
Sir Thomas More, basing his account of the murders of the princes on the supposed
confession of Sir James Tyrell, is vivid in his description of the deed. It is worth
quoting directly from his biography of Richard:
Sir James Tyrell devised that they should be murdered in their bed, to the execution
whereof he appointed Miles Forest, one of the four that kept them, a fellow fleshed
in murder before time. To him he joined one John Dighton, his own horse keeper, a
big broad, square, strong knave. Then, all the other being removed from them, this
Miles Forest and John Dighton about midnight (the children lying in their beds) came
into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes so bewrapped them
and entangled them, keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their
mouths, that within a while, smored and stifled, their breath failing, they gave
up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to the tormentors
their bodies dead in the bed.
Sir Clements Markham’s version, 1906:
A popular theory of some of the revisionists is that Buckingham murdered the princes,
either to clear the way for Henrys usurpation, or to gain the throne for himself.
The latter proposition, that Buckingham, also a descendant of Edward III, sought
to be king, is particularly favored. Involved in this version of the murder plot
is Bishop Morton, who appears to have been a very astute politician of the time.
While he was accused of plotting against Richard with Lord Hastings, Morton was spared
and given over to the supervision of Buckingham. Regardless of whichever murder theory
is believed, Morton was instrumental in helping Henry wrest the throne from Richard.
Interestingly, Sir Thomas More spent some of his youth in the household of Bishop
Morton (subsequently esteemed by Henry VII as an important advisor). It has been
assumed that Thomas More obtained some of his information for his biography of Richard
from Morton, who was a very involved participant in the events of 1483 to 1485.
This theory had its most elaborate presentation by Sir Clements Markham. One might
reconstruct Markham’s theory with the following scene:
“It seems your king is not quite the generous benefactor you thought him to be.”
Bishop Morton, both sleek and fat like an otter, smiled at his captor, the Duke of
“No doubt he has his reasons,” said Buckingham.
“Oh, I am sure he has his reasons to go back on his word. Richard—or should I say
King Richard III?—always has his reasons. Devices would be a better word.”
Buckingham paced. “For one who was spared the headsman’s axe, you are forward, my
“Forgive me, m’Lord. It is just that when one such as yourself has the ability to
rule, it seems unfortunate that you would remain here, in Wales, whilst the king
progresses triumphantly throughout his realm, forgetting those who aided him in usurping
the throne of the unfortunate Edward V.”
“You speak treason, Morton. Mind your tongue.”
“I speak only the truth, as you know it to be the truth. Your lineage is as valid
as the kings—nay, more so. You are Chancellor of England, yet you must settle for
second-best. If you had not publicly proclaimed the illegitimacy of the princes,
if you had not assisted the king in ridding him of Woodville opponents, where would
our Richard III be now?”
“Tell me, Bishop. You are versed in the ways of power. What would you have me do?”
“Far be it for me to advise you, m’Lord. You do not need the words of a humble cleric
to see your path. But it does seem to me that once the princes are—ah, how shall
I put it?—removed from the scene, you are the foremost heir to the throne.”
“The princes? But they are bastards. They cannot inherit. Titulus Regius sees to
“But don’t you see? If something should befall our king, surely the act would be
repealed, and then there are two who stand in your way to the throne. Young Edward
and his brother would surely be restored to their rightful patrimony.”
Buckingham was silent. Then, turning fiercely towards Morton, he said, “They must
be done away with. Only the duplicitous Richard would then stand in my way.”
“There is the Earl of Richmond—Henry Tudor. But his claim is weak, and if you were
to join forces with the queen and her Woodville family, it would be impossible to
deny you that which is rightfully yours.”
“We shall see, Bishop. We shall see.”
Robert Brackenbury, summoned from a deep sleep, responded to the pounding at the
North Tower Gate. Who comes?
Opening the gate, he saw the Duke of Buckingham and three men. Lord Brackenbury,
as Chancellor of England, I command you to allow us to enter.
Of course, m’Lord. What is it that you wish?
Summon those who serve the princes. Dismiss them for the night. Take yourself and
your servants to some other place in the city. You may return at dawn.
Brackenbury searched Buckingham’s face for some indication of his intent. Finding
none that he could discern, he bowed and said, As you wish, m’Lord. All of whom you
speak shall be gone from the Tower in an hours time.
Buckingham led his men up the long staircase to the upper level of the East Tower.
Pausing at the door to the chamber of the princes, he said, Do it now, and do it
quickly and quietly. Do not let your hearts be swayed by their pleas for mercy. Dispose
of them in some secret spot where they will ne’er be found. If you fail, you will
forfeit your lives. Come to me when your task is complete. I will be in the constable’s
Bertram Fields version, 1998:
The theory of the murders favored by many admirers of Richard III lays the deed at
the hands of Henry VII. This proposition suggests that the princes were alive at
the time of Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and were not murdered
until more than two years after their disappearance from public view.
Henry VII, King of England for two months, was still insecure. His impending marriage
to Elizabeth York, eldest daughter of Edward IV, was, of course, a necessary political
act. The Houses of Lancaster and York would be joined, and what was left of the irritating
Woodville family would be rendered ineffectual. He cared little for who should be
his wife. Her lineage made her the most acceptable solution to the marriage problem.
Notwithstanding, he was well aware of the tenuousness of his claim to the throne.
The princes still lived, although he could thank Richard for not allowing them to
be visible these past two years. Rumors abounded, and many thought that Richard had
murdered them two years before. But, as long as they lived, his position as king
was weak. Added to that, he had been forced to reverse their illegitimacy in order
to justify his marriage to Elizabeth, and that, in effect, restored the older boy
to his claim to the throne.
Henry enlists Sir James Tyrell, Richard’s loyal friend, to murder the princes and
promises him protection. Tyrell kills the princes.
Tyrell did indeed have the protection of Henry VII, whether this version of the murders
is true or not. For reasons that are not clear, Henry pardoned Tyrell twice over
the next 10 years. The pardons could have been for Tyrell’s service to Richard, or
they could have been for something more mysterious. Whatever the case, Tyrell prospered
under Henry VII until 1502, when he appeared to be involved in a plot against Henry.
The result was the execution of Tyrell, after he purportedly confessed to the murders
of the princes in 1483. No written account of this confession has ever been found,
although Thomas More claimed to have seen it.
Richard III was killed on August 21, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, fighting
valiantly against the forces of Henry Tudor. If he had not been betrayed by Lord
Stanley (who kept his forces out of the battle until he saw his chance to make it
decisive for Henry), Richard would have won. There would have been no Tudor dynasty,
no Henry VIII, no Elizabeth I, and probably no James I.
The noted British historian, A.L. Rowse, described the aftermath of the battle:
Richard’s body was treated with great indignity. Perfectly naked, it was trussed
over a horses back, head and arms dangling on one side, legs on the other.
Passing over a bridge the head was bruised against a stone. It was brought to the
church of the Grey Friars at Leicester, where it was exposed for two days so that
people might see that he was dead. A king’s body would never have been treated in
this way if he had not been what he was.
However, two serious pretenders made their claims during the early years of Richard’s
successor, Henry VII. The first, Lambert Simnel, claimed to be the Earl of Warwick,
son of George, the Duke of Clarence. Then, changing his story, Simnel claimed to
be the younger of the two princes, Richard of York. The mastermind of this plot was
probably John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a nephew of Richard III. Since the Earl
of Warwick, was alive and a prisoner in the Tower, it was clear that Simnel was an
impostor. Henry had George’s son paraded through London in order to demonstrate that
Simnel was a fraud. The plot came to an end at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 where
Henry defeated and killed Lincoln and took Simnel prisoner. In an uncharacteristic
act of mercy, Simnel was put to work in the royal kitchens. He died in 1525.
A more serious impostor was Perkin Warbeck, a pawn of Margaret of Burgundy, a sister
of Richard III. Again, Warbeck claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, and, just as Simnel
had done, then changed his identity to that of the younger Prince, Richard of York.
This imposture became a dangerous threat to Henry, in that French and Scottish supporters
made the Warbeck rebellion formidable. This conspiracy began in 1492 and lasted until
1497, when Warbeck’s invasion force was repelled and Warbeck captured. He was imprisoned,
and, after Henry learned that he planned an escape and intended to resume his rebellion,
executed in November, 1499. On the scaffold, Warbeck confessed that he was not the
son of Edward IV. However, his royal bearing, his resemblance to Edward IV, and his
knowledge of the royal house led many to continue to believe him to be the rightful
heir to the throne of Edward IV.
During the reign of Henry VII, official biographers made certain that Richard III’s
reputation would be that of murderous tyrant. Well into the reign of his son, Henry
VIII, scattered members of the York family (such as the Duke of Clarence’s daughter)
were executed. By the time of Shakespeare’s play in 1592, a number of biographies
and histories, including Sir Thomas Mores, had been published which supported the
idea that Richard was a monster.
It was not until the middle of the 17th century, 150 years after the events of Richard
III’s reign, that a defense of Richard appeared. This was the sympathetic defense
by Sir George Buck, eventually published by his nephew, also Sir George Buck.
As even the most strident defenders of Richard admit, we will never know for sure
what happened to the princes in the Tower. The account of Thomas More, contemporary
accounts by Mancini and certain chroniclers, and the discovery of the bones in the
Tower, tend to support the contention that the princes were dead by 1483. While the
medical evidence is not conclusive, and while the timing does not necessarily mean
that Richard had to be the one who ordered the murders, all of this circumstantial
evidence taken together supports the finding that Richard III was responsible for
the murder of his nephews.
Notes & Bibliography
Prologue: For an overview of the War of the Roses, consult the book by A.L. Rowse
(9). There are numerous biographies of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII in print.
I have consulted in detail those in the bibliography, and examined a number of others
that have sections about these three kings and their predecessors. If the reader
wishes to understand the passions of the traditionalists and the revisionists, the
two artistic works, Josephine Tey’s novel (12), and William Shakespeare’s play (11)
should be read; they are both immensely entertaining. Most novels that deal with
Richard III are not worth the trouble, and I must admit that those I sampled were
Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III requires a great deal of effort. Ones time
is better spent reading one of the biographies of More (such as 6) for this information,
or excerpts from his history that are quoted in biographies of Richard and the Princes.
The Richard the Third Society (the Ricardians) has a website that is prolific in
its postings and enthusiastic in its efforts to rehabilitate his reputation. Many
of the articles on it are interesting and often persuasive. r3.org/intro.html
While the genealogical charts of the Yorks and Lancasters are difficult to interpret,
they are necessary to figure out who the players are. I have not included one, but
I recommend that the reader refer to one of the charts that appear in various works
(such as 7, 13, and 14). Basically, all of the pedigrees begin with Edward III and
his five sons. The Lancastrians are derived from the third son (John of Gaunt) and
the Yorks from the fourth son (Edmund, duke of York).
A Discovery in the Tower: This chapter is based on the description of the discovery
of the bones as presented by Weir (13). The roles of Charles III and the Royal Surgeon
are true, and the facts of the discovery (location, disposition of the bones, their
reburial) are, as far as I can determine from Weirs book and other accounts, accurate.
An Inquest: The work of Tanner and Wright appears in several books. This imagined
description of their examination of the bones in 1933 is based on the presentations
of Jenkins, Pollard, Weir, and Williamson (4, 7, 13, 14). I have not examined their
original paper, published in 1934, since I could not find it in American libraries.
Such items as the presence of animal bones in the Christopher Wren urn, the measurements,
the determination of osteomyelitis and hypodontia, and the stain on the skull of
the older skeleton are all true.
A number of articles have been published by the Richard the third Society that dispute
the findings of Tanner and Wright, and Fields (3) and Williamsons (14) books have
arguments against the Tanner and Wright conclusions.
Shakespeare at Work: Since Shakespeare’s play presents the image of Richard that
most people have, I thought that it might be interesting to speculate how he might
have envisioned his production of it. No records exist, of course, of how Shakespeare
and his principal actor, Richard Burbage, approached the first production of Richard
III, so we have only the text of the play to go on. The date given for the writing
of the play is the one generally agreed upon by Shakespearean scholars. The introduction
to most editions of the play confirm the date, and the contention that Shakespeare
used Holinshed’s History is usually mentioned. I have used the edition of Shakespeare’s
plays published by the Folio Society (11), but any edition of the play is satisfactory,
since it is not a play whose text is in dispute.
Edward IV: The primary source for this section comes from the book by Falkus (2),
although biographies of Richard III contain extensive biographical information about
Edward IV, and supplement Falkus’s treatment.
Richard III: Again, the bibliography contains a number of books about Richard. As
one would expect, those that deal with The Two Princes in the Tower provide a great
deal of information about Richard, and this chapter contains material obtained from
them, as well as the standard biographies. Some are revisionist (3, 5, 14) and some
traditionalist (7, 8, 13). I have tried to be fair, and I have examined both types
of biographies with, I hope, an open mind.
Recent productions of Shakespeare’s play demonstrate how Richard is portrayed. A
famous production with Antony Sher is of particular note, since he has written a
very fine account of his approach to the play in a memoir entitled The Year of the
King. I mentioned the current English production starring Kenneth Branagh because
of his grotesque approach to Richard’s supposed infirmities. Videos of the play starring,
respectively, Laurence Olivier and Ian McKlellan are wonderful ways to experience
Shakespeare’s version of Richard III.
Henry VII: This section is based primarily on the admiring biography by Simon (10).
Again, books about Richard III also discuss Henry VII, and I have used material from
these. If the books are traditionalist, Henry comes off quite well; if revisionist,
he is painted as black a villain as Richard is to the traditionalist.
Events leading up to the murders: This chapter is basically an account of Richard’s
usurpation of the crown. The information in it is taken mainly from Cheetham’s biography
(particularly Chapter 4) and similar sections in Pollard, Rowse, and Weir.
The Plot and the three versions of the murders: All accounts of the murders are based,
ultimately, on Thomas Mores history. The quotation from More is taken from Pollard,
page 115. The second and third versions of the murders come from Williamson and Fields.
Summing Up: Pollard presents the best arguments for the conclusion reached in this
section, that is, that Richard probably ordered the murders of his nephews. Weir
also argues for this viewpoint, although her arguments are vigorously refuted point-by-point
A. Literature Cited
The Richard the Third Society website: r3.org/intro.html
1. Cheetham, Anthony. 1972. The Life and Times of Richard III. Book Club Associates
2. Falkus, Gila. 1981. The Life and Times of Edward IV. Book Club Associates
3. Fields, Bertram. 1998. Royal Blood. Regan Books
4. Jenkins, Elizabeth. 1978. The Princes in the Tower. Hamish Hamilton
5. Kendall, Paul Murray. 1955. Richard the Third. Allen & Unwin
6. Marius, Richard. 1984. Thomas More. Dent
7. Pollard, A.J. 1991. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Allen Sutton
8. Ross, Charles. 1981. Richard III. Eyre Methuen
9. Rowse, A.L. 1966. Bosworth Field and the War of the Roses. Macmillan
10. Simon, Eric N. 1968. Henry VII. Frederick Muller
11. Shakespeare, William. 1985. Histories. The Folio Society
12. Tey, Josephine. 1952. The Daughter of Time. Macmillan
13. Wier, Alison. 1992. The Princes in the Tower. Ballantine Books
14. Williamson, Audrey. 1978. The Mystery of the Princes. Alan Sutton
B. General Sources
15. Hudson, M.E. and Mary Clark. 1978. Crown of a Thousand Years. Crown
16. Morgan, Kenneth O. 1984. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Book Club
C. The Richard III Society Online Library
17. Maurer, Helen. 2000. Whodunnit: The Suspects in the Case
18. Michalove, Sharon D. 1995. The Reinvention of Richard III
19. Murph, Roxane C. 1998. Ricardian Fiction: Trash and Treasures
20. Wigram, Isolde. 1995. Were the Princes in the Tower Murdered?
D. Primary Sources for the Serious Scholar
21. Buck, Sir George. History of the Life and Reign of Richard III (edited by A.N.
Kincaid) Alan Sutton, 1979
22. Chronicles of London (edited by C. L. Kingsford) Oxford, 1905
23. The Croyland Chronicle Continuation, 1459-1486 (edited by N. Pronay and J. Cox)
24. Fabyan, Robert. The Concordance of Histories: The New Chronicles of England and
France, 1516 (edited by H. Ellis) 1812
25. Hall, Edward. The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and
York, 1550 (edited by H. Ellis, 1809) facsimile, 1970
26. Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (edited by H.
Ellis, 1807-1808) facsimile, 1970
27. Mancini, Dominic. De Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium (translated
and edited by C.A.J. Armstrong) Oxford, 1969
28. More, Sir Thomas. The History of King Richard the Third (edited by R.S. Sylvester
and others) Yale, 1963
29. Rous, John. The Rous Roll (edited by C.R. Ross and W. Courthope) Alan Sutton,
Aiuto is a retired educator. He was a college professor of biology, specializing
in genetics, a dean, a provost and a college president. He has a BA in theater from
University of Michigan, a BA in biology and English from Eastern Michigan University
and an MA and PhD in genetics and botany from the University of North Carolina. After
his academic career at Albion College (MI) and Hiram College (OH) he was a division
director at the National Science Foundation, director of research and development
for the National Science Teachers Association, and senior project officer for the
Council of Independent Colleges.
As an author of non-fiction, he has published twelve research papers in genetics,
five science textbooks, a number of articles in science education, literature, and
criticism, and has been the editor of a major national science curriculum revision.
His fiction publications include two short stories, seven plays, and a novel. In
his spare time he enjoys cooking, travel and performing in local theater groups.
He is a contributor to Notable Twentieth Century Scientists and is listed in Who's
Who in America.