Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  Molinet, an untrustworthy source, says that ‘on the day that Edward’s sons were assassinated there came to the Tower of London the Duke of Buckingham, who was believed, mistakenly, to have murdered the children in order to forward his pretensions to the throne’. Molinet states elsewhere that the Princes were murdered in late July, but according to Croyland they were alive until the first week in September, and Croyland was in a position to state that as a fact. On 2nd August Buckingham went to Brecon where he stayed until October.

  Buckingham, alone, could not have murdered the Princes for several reasons: he was not in the right place at the right time; he had no authority to gain access to them; Brackenbury would not have admitted him to their prison without a royal warrant signed by the King; and if these obstacles had somehow been overcome Richard III would have speedily found out about it and publicly accused Buckingham, in tones of moral outrage, of the murder. But Richard did no such thing, not even later when Buckingham was charged with other kinds of treason and it would have been politically advantageous to have laid the deaths of the Princes at his door, thus diverting suspicion from Richard himself. This in itself is strong evidence that the Duke had no hand in the murder. Even more convincing is Buckingham’s own behaviour after he left Gloucester. According to More, Buckingham himself later declared to Bishop Morton: ‘God be my judge, I never agreed or condescended to it.’

  Richard arrived at Warwick Castle on 8th August. There he received further details of the conspiracies in the South and West, which can only have hardened his resolve to do away with the Princes. In the meantime Queen Anne had arrived with the Earl of Warwick, and she was with Richard when ambassadors from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain came to propose a marriage between Edward of Middleham and a Spanish infanta.

  The King remained at Warwick until 15th August, when he went to Coventry. More states that John Green, returning from the Tower, recounted Brackenbury’s refusal to comply with the order to kill the Princes ‘to King Richard at Warwick’. Richard was annoyed, but his anger was probably superficial, for no open breach occurred with Brackenbury. Not only did Richard know Brackenbury to be an honest man with scruples, qualities that could only reflect upon and benefit the master who had appointed him, but he also could not afford publicly to censure the man or remove him from office because questions would be asked, and Richard did not at that point want public attention focused upon the Tower and its inmates. Before long he had resolved that Brackenbury should be left out of his plans.

  For the present, however, Richard vented his displeasure – according to More, who relished scatalogical details – whilst sitting on the close stool, grumbling to ‘a secret page of his’, who was certainly in Richard’s confidence and probably therefore a spy whose function was to assess the loyalties of members of the royal household.

  ‘Ah, whom shall a man trust?’ sighed the King. ‘Those that I have brought up myself fail me, and at my commandment will do nothing for me.’

  ‘Sir,’ replied his page, ‘there lieth one on your pallet without that I dare well say to do your Grace pleasure the thing were right hard that he would refuse.’ He meant by this Sir James Tyrell who, says More, ‘was a man of right goodly personage and for Nature’s gifts worthy to have served a much better prince. The man had an high heart, and sore longed upward, not rising yet so fast as he had hoped, which thing this page well had marked and known.’

  Tyrell had acted as Richard’s confidential servant for at least ten years. His family hailed from Gipping in Suffolk, and it has been remarked upon that he bore the same name as Walter Tirel who had supposedly murdered King William Rufus in 1100, though no connection can be traced. James was knighted in 1471 after the Battle of Tewkesbury, and in 1473 had escorted Richard’s mother-in-law, the Countess of Warwick, from sanctuary to Middleham Castle, which proves he had already established himself as trustworthy. Thereafter he served his master well in the West and in the North, as constable of Cardiff Castle, and on campaign in Scotland where he was made Knight Banneret. In June 1483 he had briefly acted as gaoler to Archbishop Rotherham, and early in Richard III’s reign had been appointed Master of the King’s Henchmen. In late July he had travelled on the King’s business from London to York and thence to Warwick, where his duties were to serve Richard as a Knight of the Body, which was why he was sleeping on a pallet outside the door to the royal bedchamber, his function being to guard his sovereign and guarantee him a peaceful night’s sleep. More implies that Tyrell had hoped for better rewards for his devoted service, but that Ratcliffe and Catesby stood in his way. The page told the King that Tyrell was so desperate to rise in the world and have his revenge on his rivals that he would agree to do anything, however unpleasant.

  Richard had apparently been unaware of how desperate Tyrell was for advancement, and he decided there and then that he would entrust him with arranging the murder of the Princes. He rose from the privy, pulled up his breeches, ‘and came out into the pallet chamber where he found in bed Sir James. The King, calling up Sir James, broke to him secretly his mind in this mischievous matter, in which he found him nothing strange.’

  While Richard plotted with Tyrell, Buckingham was still travelling to Brecon, which he reached by the middle of August. Vergil says he now deplored his failure to resist ‘King Richard’s evil enterprise’. At Brecknock Castle, his prisoner, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, awaited him. Morton loathed Richard III and regarded him as a usurper who should be eliminated without scruple. He had made no secret of his views and it was therefore natural that Buckingham should confide in him.

  More’s book ends with an account of the conversations between Morton and Buckingham which may have come direct from Morton himself, as no other source gives similar details. The Duke told Morton that after hearing of the King’s resolve to murder the Princes, he ‘abhorred the sight and much more the company’ of Richard. More says Buckingham told Morton he was considering pressing his own claim to the throne, and that Morton told him he had ‘excellent virtues meet for the rule of the realm’. Unfortunately More’s unfinished narrative ends at this point.

  Morton was a shrewd man and his political instincts were sound. He must have been appalled to learn that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes and probably predicted that the usurper would not reign for long after the deed was done. It is likely that he warned Buckingham of what would happen to him if Richard’s enemies succeeded in deposing him: none as yet knew of Buckingham’s disaffection, and he would be dealt with as befitted the tyrant’s chief supporter.

  More states that Buckingham’s conversation with Morton was what persuaded him actively to rebel against the King. It is clear from the attainder later passed on Buckingham that this was to be a separate conspiracy from those in the South and West – one lead by Buckingham and the clever Morton, whose situation was already precarious and who was later attainted with the Duke for plotting treason.

  Buckingham is said by the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall to have not long afterwards met Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond by virtue of her first marriage to Edmund Tudor and now the wife of Lord Stanley, on the road between Bridgenorth and Worcester. She, thinking Buckingham to be still close to the King, begged him to intercede with Richard on behalf of her son, Henry Tudor, an exile in Brittany for many years, telling the Duke she longed to have him home. Henry Tudor was the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, but he was virtually unknown in England and few people took him seriously, except for his mother, who, the evidence suggests, had been involved in the conspiracies against the King. Buckingham may have suspected or known as much and realised that here was a potential ally. He told the Countess what was in his mind and confided that he was considering making a bid for the crown himself, but she, with great firmness, reminded him that both she and her son stood as ‘both bulwark and portcullis’ between him and the throne. Only if he supported Henry Tudor’s claim would she lend him her support. Buckingham, whose chief motive in rebelling was probably self-preser
vation, and who had probably always been a Lancastrian at heart, began then to consider abandoning his regal pretensions and offering his allegiance to Henry Tudor instead. The Countess, he knew, would be a valuable ally.

  Margaret Beaufort was a fervent Lancastrian. For all her small stature she was a formidable woman: highly intelligent, literate, strong-minded, devout and austere in her religious observances. She was the sole heiress of the Beaufort descendants of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. In 1455, at the age of twelve, she had been given in marriage by Henry VI to Edmund Tudor. He was one of the sons of Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, and her Welsh clerk of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor, who may have been her husband, although there is no evidence to prove it. In 1452, however, Parliament had declared Edmund and his brother Jasper legitimate, and Henry VI had created them earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively. Edmund’s marriage to Margaret Beaufort was highly advantageous to him, but in 1456 he was captured and imprisoned by the Yorkists in Carmarthen Castle, where he died later that year. Twelve weeks later, in January 1457, his widow, aged only thirteen, bore a son, Henry Tudor, at Pembroke Castle. He was to be her only child, her ‘own sweet and most dear son’, and would all his life excite in her the deepest maternal sentiments and ambitions.

  Henry was Earl of Richmond from his birth. His early years were spent at Pembroke in the care of his mother and his uncle Jasper. Between 1459 and 1464 Margaret married the Lancastrian Sir Henry Stafford, who later switched his allegiance to Edward IV, thus allying his staunchly Lancastrian wife with her enemies. In 1461 Jasper fought for the Lancastrians against Edward, and when the latter became king that year Jasper was forced to flee abroad. The new King made Henry the ward of Lord Herbert, a loyal Yorkist to whom had been granted the ownership of Pembroke Castle, and in whose custody the boy spent his formative years. King Edward undoubtedly hoped that being brought up in a good Yorkist family would preclude Henry from having any ideas about pressing his somewhat tenuous claim to the throne or developing strong Lancastrian sympathies. Certainly he did not see his mother after 1461, and before 1462 he was deprived of the earldom of Richmond, which was given to Clarence.

  During the brief restoration of Henry VI in 1470–71 Jasper Tudor returned from exile and presented his nephew at court, on which occasion Henry VI is said to have predicted that Henry Tudor was ‘he unto whom both we and our adversaries must yield and give over the dominion’. Henry and Jasper then returned to Wales. After the deaths of Henry VI and his son the House of Lancaster’s claim to the throne became vested in Henry Tudor, the only viable claimant. However, he was only fourteen at the time, unknown and penniless, and, since he was unlikely to be more than an irritation to Edward IV for some years to come, few took him seriously as a pretender. The King, nevertheless, would dearly have loved to get his hands on him, and therefore Henry and Jasper were obliged to flee in 1471 to Brittany, where they remained for the next thirteen years. Francis II, Duke of Brittany, offered them a refuge, refusing to surrender them to Edward IV, despite the latter’s demands, but promising instead not to let them leave the duchy. In the end Edward was paying Francis II to keep them there and Henry chafed against his lack of freedom, complaining to Commines that ‘since the age of five he had been guarded like a fugitive and kept in prison’, though Commines adds that Duke Francis treated him ‘reasonably well’.

  Margaret Beaufort, meanwhile, had married a third husband, Lord Stanley, a prominent Yorkist, and had become a frequent visitor to the court of Edward IV. Before the King died she had almost managed to persuade him to agree to a reconciliation with her son, which indicates that Edward no longer considered Henry a serious political threat, but the King’s death put an end to the Countess’s hopes. At least now Henry was allowed more freedom by Duke Francis, even if he was desperately short of money.

  From 1471 onwards the only people who supported Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne were his mother, his immediate kinsmen, and his friends in exile, of whom the most prominent were Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Oxford. Henry’s claim derived from his mother, to whom he always deferred as the lawful heiress to the House of Lancaster. There was nothing in law to prevent Margaret Beaufort from claiming the crown herself, but in the political climate of the late fifteenth century she would have found very few supporters because of her sex. However, the crown had passed by descent through a woman on several occasions: King Stephen, Henry II and the Yorkist kings were notable examples of monarchs whose claim to the throne came via a female line.

  There were, in fact, descendants of the House of Lancaster with a better claim to the throne than Henry Tudor, namely the King of Portugal and the Queen of Castile, both descended from John of Gaunt by the lawfully-born daughters of his first and second wives. The Beaufort descendants of Gaunt, as we have seen, were barred from the succession, although it was widely felt that this had no basis in law. In any case the House of York had by far the best claim to the throne. On the face of it Henry Tudor’s prospects of wearing a crown seemed quite remote.

  Richard III was not to begin with troubled by Henry Tudor’s pretensions. He was still on progress, and had travelled from Coventry, via Leicester, Nottingham and Doncaster, to Pontefract Castle, which he reached on 27th August. Here he was greeted by his small son Edward, who had been created Prince of Wales the day before and had just travelled over by chariot from Middleham. It was probably at Pontefract that Richard issued orders for the appointment of commissioners to deal with those arrested in connection with the conspiracies to restore Edward V.

  Crowds were out in force to see the King and Queen make their ceremonial entry into York on 30th August. This was not entirely spontaneous because a week beforehand the King’s secretary, John Kendal, had sent, on Richard’s command, a letter to the City fathers commanding them ‘to receive his Highness and the Queen as laudably as your wisdom can imagine’. They should be ‘worshipfully received with pageants’ and other celebrations – guaranteed crowd-pullers. ‘Many southern lords and men of worship are with them and will greatly remark you receiving their Graces.’ The civic authorities had risen magnificently to the occasion, determined to impress the southerners, and Kendal’s assurance that the King intended to have ‘his lords and judges in every place sitting, determining the complaints of poor folks with due punishment of offenders [against] his laws’ brought many hopeful people to the streets to see the King welcomed by the Mayor and aldermen outside the Micklegate Bar and entertained inside the city walls with three spectacular pageants. If Richard was popular anywhere it was in York, and there were cheers for him that day.

  Shortly afterwards Thomas Langton, who had the King to thank for his promotion to the See of St David’s and would soon receive an even richer see, that of Salisbury, when Lionel Wydville fled into exile, wrote of Richard:

  He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince, for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my truth, I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his; God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.

  For all the sycophancy implicit in this letter, it is clear that Richard was doing his best to win the support and approval of his subjects by demonstrating his resolve to restore law and order and firm government to the benefit of even the poorest members of society. A cynic might say that this was an overt bid for popularity that was ultimately for Richard’s benefit, but it was also a placatory and conciliatory measure meant to restore the public’s confidence in him.

  Yet at the same time the King had other, darker deeds on his mind. More states that on or before 15th August, 1483, Richard III despatched Tyrell from Warwick ‘to Brackenbury’. Vergil, however, implies that Tyrell was actually sent from York, and the Wardrobe Accounts corroborate this with evidence that Sir James left York for London on 30th–31st August 1483 with orders to collect robes and w
all-hangings for use at the investiture of the Prince of Wales, due to be held in York on 8th September. These accounts also show that Tyrell obtained cloth for himself and the King’s henchmen at this time. This provided perfect cover for Tyrell’s more important business in London.

  Back in June, Richard Ratcliffe, on urgent business, had ridden from London to York in four days. Tyrell, who needed to be back by 8th September for the investiture, probably took the same length of time, arriving in London around 3rd September. More portrays Tyrell as keen to carry out his sovereign’s orders, but Vergil says he felt he had been ‘forced to do the King’s commandment’ and ‘rode sorrowfully to London, very unwillingly’. Maybe Tyrell, desperate for promotion, was now wishing it could be achieved through any task other than this. It is perhaps significant that he would not be in the room when the murder was carried out.

  With Tyrell rode a man whom More describes as Sir James’ ‘own horsekeeper, a big, broad, square, strong knave’ called John Dighton. Asa groom he may well have known John Green, who helped look after the royal horses. All we know of his background is that he may have been the John Dighton who was bailiff of the manor of Ayton in North Yorkshire, which was owned by the Earl of Northumberland, Richard’s ally.

  More states that Tyrell carried a letter from the King to Brackenbury, ‘by which he was commanded to deliver Sir James all the keys of the Tower for one night, to the end he might there accomplish the King’s pleasure’. It is probable that Richard’s mandate was worded in such a way as to absolve Brackenbury from all responsibility in the matter. Giving up the keys of the Tower to Tyrell did not in itself constitute mortal sin: Brackenbury may have accepted that it was necessary for the Princes to be eliminated, though he did not want to be the man to do it, or he may have believed the knight had come to take the Princes away, either abroad or into hiding in England, to foil any future conspiracies. On the other hand the mandate might equally well have contained a warning to Brackenbury not to oppose his sovereign’s wishes. Brackenbury had now had leisure to ponder his earlier refusal, knowing whence he had derived his good fortune, and his loyalty to Richard III was never thereafter in doubt. The fact that he had had to be so delicately cozened in the matter is proof that no-one without a warrant from the King would have been able to gain access to the Princes.

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