Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  William Slaughter, whose nickname ‘Black Will’ may have derived from his appearance or, more ominously, his character, was both gaoler and servant to the Princes. More, in a later passage, reveals that the number of attendants was soon increased to four, and that ‘one of the four that kept them’ was Miles Forrest, ‘a fellow fleshed in murder before his time’. No record exists of Forrest’s crime(s), but it is thought that he was a northerner; a Miles Forrest had been keeper of the wardrobe at Barnard Castle in Yorkshire, a residence owned by Richard III since his marriage. This was almost certainly the same man, and he was undoubtedly known to the King. It is typical of Richard that he should entrust such a task to one of his loyal northerners.

  Meanwhile the King, taking no chances, was still heaping rewards on Buckingham, who was given even more honours and wider powers to ensure his support. On 13th July Richard issued a provisional grant naming the Duke rightful heir to the disputed Bohun inheritance, this grant to be confirmed by Parliament, which would reverse a former grant giving some of the Bohun estates to Elizabeth Wydville. On 15th July Buckingham was appointed Lord High Constable of England, an office which made him chief commander of the army and gave him jurisdiction over military offences, control of all matters relating to heraldry and chivalry, and responsibility for fortifications and defence. In this latter capacity the Tower of London, the chief military stronghold of the capital, came under his jurisdiction. However, contrary to what several writers have asserted, his office did not give him the right to demand entry to the fortress without the permission of its Lieutenant or Constable, who, although they were subordinate officers, were not empowered to obey orders from the Lord High Constable unless they came direct from the King, under his seal.

  The Tower records for the beginning of Richard III’s reign are no longer extant, and therefore we do not know who occupied the offices of Lieutenant and Constable. The Lieutenant was the officer with overall charge of and responsibility for the Tower, and had a lodging there. There are indications that Lord Howard may have acted as Lieutenant for a time: the entries in his account books, already referred to, and the fact that it was he and his son who obtained barges and escorted York to the Tower.

  The Constable was subordinate to the Lieutenant and had charge of any prisoners and the day to day running of the Tower. In July 1483 the office of Constable was held, nominally, by John, Lord Dudley, an old man; after him, Lord Dacre had the reversion, and after him John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. There is no evidence to show that either Dudley or Dacre took an active part in the affairs of the Tower. Rivers had been deputy constable but that appointment had lapsed when he was arrested.

  Obviously this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, especially since the Tower now housed the Princes, two state prisoners of the utmost importance. Hence on 17th July the King appointed another northerner, Sir Robert Brackenbury, as Constable of the Tower, with special responsibility for the safe-keeping of the Princes. Brackenbury came from Selaby, County Durham. He had entered Gloucester’s service some years previously and risen to the rank of treasurer of his household in the North. In those years he had conceived great respect, devotion and loyalty for his master, and had accordingly been taken into Richard’s confidence, becoming one of his most trusted servants. Brackenbury himself was a well-intentioned if naïve man of kindly disposition, who was popular at court. The Chronicle of Calais calls him ‘gentle Brackenbury’ and Polydore Vergil stresses his integrity. As far as Richard was concerned Brackenbury was the ideal man for the job of Constable. He was utterly loyal, could see no wrong in his master, could be fully trusted with state secrets, and was known and respected as a man of honour. No-one would suspect Brackenbury of ill-treating or harming his prisoners. He was also well aware of the high-security risk posed by the presence of the Princes in the Tower, for they were a potential focus for rebellion and the King’s enemies might try to spirit them away. But no-one would get past the staunch Brackenbury without a King’s warrant. Thus, says Croyland, ‘the two sons of King Edward remained in the Tower of London in the custody of certain persons appointed for that purpose’ – a reference to Brackenbury and the four attendant-gaolers, Slaughter, Forrest and two unnamed others, referred to by More.

  On the day after Brackenbury was appointed Constable, a royal warrant was issued authorising payment of wages to thirteen men for their services to ‘Edward, bastard, late called King Edward V’. These were the servants whose dismissal after the death of Hastings was recorded by Mancini.

  Preparations for the royal progress were completed that July. On the day before he was due to set out, Richard appointed his seven-year-old son, Edward of Middleham, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a title customarily borne by Yorkist heirs to the throne. Then, on 20th July, the King left Windsor, leaving Queen Anne behind, for it had been arranged that she should join him later. He went to London, and two days later rode out westwards at the head of a great procession, accompanied by his nephew the Earl of Lincoln and probably by Buckingham. Both Vergil and More say that Buckingham rode with the King as far as Gloucester, where they parted. Rous gives a detailed description of the royal retinue but fails to mention Buckingham: this is probably accounted for by the fact that Rous lived at Warwick, which Richard visited after Buckingham had left his train. It may seem strange that Buckingham’s name had earlier been omitted from a list of those present at a dinner given in the King’s honour by Magdalen College, Oxford, but it is not necessarily proof that the Duke remained in London, as some have alleged.

  Richard spent this first night of his progress at Reading. There, on 23rd July, he issued a grant pardoning Lord Hastings’ ‘offences’ and promising ‘to be a good and gracious lord’ to Hastings’ widow, Katherine, who was granted the wardship and marriage of her son Edward, possession of her late husband’s moveable property, and custody of his estates during her son’s minority. Hastings’ high offices had been shared between Buckingham, Catesby and Lovell. Richard displayed similar generosity to the widow of Lord Rivers. He was anxious to convince his subjects that he was not the tyrant they believed him to be, that he only punished traitors when he had to, and that his vengeance did not extend to their families.

  On 24th July the King reached Oxford, where he dined at Magdalen College, stayed the night, and spent much of the following day. Then he rode to Woodstock Palace nearby where he piled further honours upon Norfolk, appointing him Lord Admiral of England, Surveyor of Array in thirteen counties, Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, and a member of the Council. He also granted him forty-six manors in East Anglia and the rents from twenty-five others, all the former property of Lord Rivers. Three days later Norfolk received twenty more of Rivers’ manors. Next to Buckingham, he was now the most wealthy and powerful subject in the kingdom.

  Richard spent another day at Oxford on 26th July, inspecting the colleges, then stayed for a few days as the guest of Lord Lovell at his nearby house, Minster Lovell. But while he was there the tranquillity and apparent success of the progress so far was disturbed by the arrival of alarming news that would have a direct bearing on the fate of his nephews in the Tower.

  For all the magnificence of his coronation, his cultivated display of majesty and his attempts to buy the loyalty of his magnates, Richard III knew his position to be insecure. Many of his subjects, particularly the gentry in the South and West, felt nothing but odium for the way in which this near northerner had set aside the rightful King and usurped the throne. His blatant acts of tyranny had alienated many of those who might have supported him, and there was a hard core of gentlefolk who were ready and willing to take action to restore Edward V to the throne. The popular view seems to have been that Richard’s claim was based on a tissue of lies and that Edward ought never to have been deposed.

  The only informed account of what happened next comes from Croyland, who says that while the coronation and progress ‘were taking place, King Edward IV’s two sons were in the Tower of London under special guard. In o
rder to release them from such captivity, the people from the South and the West of the kingdom began to murmur greatly and to form assemblies and confederacies, many of which worked in secret, others openly, with this aim.’ The conspirators appear to have been disaffected Yorkists, loyal to the line of Edward IV but not to Richard III, as well as Lancastrian dissidents and the Wydville faction: the Queen’s three brothers, Lionel, Edward and Richard, were all involved. Some of the plotters appealed to Buckingham to join them, but he rejected the offer out of hand.

  Very few details of these conspiracies are known. The Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow wrote in 1580 of a plot in July 1483 to secure the release of Edward V from the Tower by diverting his gaolers with a blaze. This may indeed have been the object of one of the conspiracies, but there is no other evidence for it. What we do know is that a plot was hatched in the Sanctuary, not to rescue Edward V – which the intriguers must have realised was impossible, but to spirit his sisters overseas. This plot seems to have originated, according to Croyland, with ‘those men who had taken refuge in the sanctuaries’, a possible reference to the Queen’s brothers. There can be little doubt that Elizabeth Wydville herself was involved: her co-operation would be vital in such a plan. Like many people, she feared for her sons’ safety, and when it was put to her ‘that some of the King’s daughters should leave Westminster and go in disguise to parts beyond the sea’, she perceived that this would guarantee some measure of safety to all her children. If anything happened to Edward and Richard, the Lady Elizabeth would in the eyes of many be the rightful Queen of England; abroad, she would be free to make a strategic marriage with one of a number of foreign princes who would be willing and eager to take up arms to restore her to her inheritance and so gain a crown. Wrote Croyland: ‘If any fatal mishap should befall the male children of the late King in the Tower, the kingdom might still, in consequence of the safety of the daughters, some day fall again into the hands of the rightful heirs.’ And the fact that Edward IV’s daughters were abroad and able to challenge Richard’s title might make the usurper think twice about doing away with his nephews, which is what people feared he would do. In agreeing to participate in this conspiracy, the Queen was not only attempting to safeguard the legitimate Yorkist succession but seeking to preserve her own political influence.

  The King, however, had his spies, who discovered what was going on and reported it to him at Minster Lovell in late July. He may also have learned from Buckingham of the conspirators’ bid to gain his support. He certainly had intelligence of the embryonic conspiracies in the South and West, but it was the Sanctuary plot in Westminster that took Richard by surprise and caused him the deepest concern and anxiety. These conspiracies were incontrovertible evidence that, while the Princes lived, he would never be secure on his throne. Nor, it seemed, would the Wydvilles ever stop plotting against him and stirring up rebellion.

  On 29th July, the King issued a warrant under his privy seal to Lord Chancellor Russell in London:

  Right reverend Father in God, right trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well. And whereas we understand that certain persons of such as of late had taken upon them the fact of an enterprise, as we doubt not ye have heard, be attached, and in ward, we desire and will you that ye do make our letters of commission to such persons as by you and our Council shall be advised for to sit upon them, and to proceed to the due execution of our laws in that behalf. Fail ye not hereof, as our perfect trust is in you.

  Because this warrant is referring to a matter on which Richard expected Russell to be well informed, much has been left unsaid. The enterprise undertaken by certain persons now ‘in ward’ must refer to the Sanctuary conspiracy. Croyland states that after this conspiracy was uncovered ‘the noble church of the monks at Westminster and all the neighbouring parts assumed the appearance of a castle and fortress, while men of the greatest austerity were appointed by King Richard to act as the keepers thereof. The captain and head of these was one John Nesfield, Esquire, who set a watch upon all the inlets and outlets of the monastery, so that not one of the persons shut up could go forth, and no-one could enter without his permission.’ Thus the inmates of the Sanctuary could be truly said to be ‘in ward’.

  The latter part of the warrant implies that the King wished the conspirators to be questioned by the Council and afterwards prosecuted. But there is no record of any such proceedings, and it may be that the councillors were prevented from carrying out their master’s orders because some conspirators had gone to ground or even fled abroad, and some, such as the Queen, were beyond their reach in sanctuary. But whatever the case, this conspiracy had failed. The daughters of Edward IV remained in sanctuary and his sons remained in the Tower.

  Ironically, by seeking to ensure the boys’ safety, the conspirators – including their own mother – had sealed their fate.


  The Princes in the Tower

  RICHARD III LEARNED of the Sanctuary plot before 29th July. On that day, or shortly afterwards, he arrived with his train at Gloucester. More says that ‘on his way’ there he ‘devised as he rode to fulfil that thing which he before had intended. For his mind gave him that, his nephews living, men would not reckon that he could have right to the realm; he thought, therefore, without delay to rid them, as though the killing of his kinsmen could amend his cause and make him a kindly king.’ It was an opportune time to act: the magnates had left London, he himself was nowhere near the City and hopefully beyond suspicion, and the initial alarm over his usurpation seemed to have died down.

  More and Vergil say that when Richard arrived at Gloucester he sent for a man called John Green, ‘whom he specially trusted’. John Green can be traced; he had been employed, in various capacities, by Richard when he was Duke of Gloucester, and by Sir James Tyrell, Richard’s faithful retainer. He may well have been the same John Green who is recorded in the Calendar of Patent Rolls for 1474–5 as working in Edward IV’s household. On 30th July, 1483, John Green signed a warrant appointing one John Gregory to take hay, oats, horsebread, beans, peas and litter for all the expenses of the King’s horses and litters for a period of six months.

  The King, says More, sent Green ‘unto Sir Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower, with a letter and credence that the same Sir Robert should in any wise put the two children to death’. It has been argued that Richard III would never have committed such an order to paper, but it is nevertheless plausible that he did so. His letter, like the one he sent from Minster Lovell, is likely to have been discreetly worded so as not to compromise himself. Green was to supply the ‘credence’, the unwritten, explicit details, to Brackenbury, and both were men trusted implicitly by Richard.

  Continues More: ‘This John Green did his errand unto Brackenbury.’ But Brackenbury was not of the stuff of which murderers are made. Vergil says he feared the consequences to his own reputation and safety should his complicity in what More calls ‘so mean and bestial a deed’ ever be made public. In Green’s presence, he knelt ‘before Our Lady in the Tower’ and ‘plainly answered that he would never put [the Princes] to death, though he should die therefor’.

  Believing that his orders would be carried out within a few days, the King rested at Gloucester until 2nd August. The Duke of Buckingham was with him but this would be the last time they saw each other, for before 2nd August Richard had managed somehow to alienate Buckingham. What caused this has been a matter for some speculation. Vergil says ‘dissension sprang between the King and the Duke’ because Richard would not grant Buckingham the Bohun inheritance. But Richard had already made a provisional grant of it on 13th July, so this cannot have been the reason for Buckingham’s sudden disaffection. More was probably nearer the truth when he conjectured that although Buckingham had supported Richard’s plan to usurp the throne, when the King revealed to him at Gloucester that he had given the order for the killing of the Princes, Buckingham realised that things had gone too far and wanted to dissociate himself. There is no other logical reason f
or his alienation, only something as cataclysmic as this could have provoked it. Buckingham owed all his vast wealth and political influence to Richard, and if he defected he would be placing all that, as well as his own life, at risk.

  Buckingham left the progress at Gloucester, pleading pressing business on his Brecon estates, and the King, suspecting nothing, bade him farewell and rode to Tewkesbury. For some time afterwards he would continue to write to Buckingham as though their alliance was as strong as ever. But, says More, the Duke, on his way home, considered how best to remove this ‘unnatural uncle and bloody butcher from his royal seat and princely dignity’.

  Many revisionists still adhere to the theory that it was Buckingham who murdered the Princes. This theory rests on the evidence of four slightly later sources. Commines states that the Duke ‘caused the death of the two children’, and later that he had acted on Richard’s orders. The manuscript fragment in the College of Arms says the Princes were ‘murdered on the vise [advice]’ of the Duke of Buckingham, and another in Ashmole MS. 1448.60, dating from c.1490, states that Richard III killed his nephews ‘at the prompting of the Duke of Buckingham, it is said’. There is no contemporary evidence for the Duke’s involvement in the plot to kill the Princes. The sources quoted above appear to have reported the gossip then circulating both in England and abroad, gossip which perpetrated many far-fetched theories as to what had happened to Edward V and his brother.

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