Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  Croyland states authoritatively that the Princes remained in the Tower while the coronation, the royal progress and the investiture of Prince Edward on 8th September were taking place. After that he does not say what happened to them, and his silence is most eloquent, for a man in his position must have known or guessed something about their fate. In fact the Princes must have been murdered before 8th September, for Tyrell would have had to leave London on 4th September at the latest to get the Wardrobe materials back to York in time for the investiture. If he left York on 30th August and the journey took four days, the likeliest date he was in London was 3rd September, and that was the night on which the murders almost certainly took place.

  More’s account of the killing of the Princes is unique: no other writer offers as much detail, and it is its very detail that argues its authenticity. It is true that More asserted that the killings took place on 15th August, but this could have been due to the faulty memories of those who gave him his information: while people remember events with clarity, they often have trouble recalling dates accurately.

  More says that after the King’s letter had been handed by Tyrell to Brackenbury at the Tower ‘and the keys received, Sir James appointed the night next ensuing [i.e. that night] to destroy [the Princes], devising before and preparing the means’. The plan was ‘that they should be murdered in their beds. To the execution whereof he appointed Miles Forrest [and] John Dighton.’ Next, he removed the Princes’ three other attendants, including William Slaughter, of whom no more is recorded. It may be that these men were dismissed on the pretext that the Princes were being removed elsewhere. Slaughter, in any case, may have become too attached to his charges: it is significant that of the four attendants only Forrest was chosen to assist in the murder, and it may have been he who warned Tyrell that Slaughter was not to be trusted.

  At midnight that night, ‘the silly [i.e. innocent] children lying in their beds’, Tyrell positioned himself outside their bedchamber, while Forrest and Dighton ‘came into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes, so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather bed and pillows hard into their mouths, that within a while smothered 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. Which after that the wretches perceived, first by the struggling with the pains of death, and after long lying still, to be thoroughly dead, they laid their bodies naked out upon the bed’ – an authentic detail, for most people slept naked – ‘and fetched Sir James to see them. This traitorous death,’ concluded More, ‘delivered them of their wretchedness.’

  Vergil records none of these details: despite his intensive research he had to admit that, although he knew that Tyrell ‘murdered those babes, with what kind of death these children were executed is not certainly known’. Of course, he had not had access to More’s sources. He did, however, point out that Tyrell could, that night, ‘without danger to his life, have spared the boys, rescued them from death, and carried them to safety, for without doubt all the people would have risen in arms to save them’. But Tyrell had done no such thing. He wanted preferment without further risk to himself.

  John Rous states it was ‘afterwards known to very few by what manner of death [the princes] had suffered’, and other writers gave different versions of the murders which doubtless derived from rumour. André says the Princes were put to the sword, while The Song of the Lady Bessy alleges they were drowned in wine, echoing a rumour recorded in the Great Chronicle of London for the year 1484, when people were surmising that the boys suffered the same fate as their uncle Clarence. Molinet says they were walled up in a chamber in the Tower and left to starve to death. Finally John Rastell, More’s brother-in-law, writing in The Pastime of People, published in 1529, gives two versions of the Princes’ fate; firstly he says that a grave was dug and the children, in response to a cry of ‘Treason!’, were coerced into a large chest, in which they were buried alive. Here Rastell appears to be reporting a rumour which may have been circulating for more than forty years, while his second version of what might have happened is drawn in part from More’s Richard III, with added detail – again, probably derived from popular rumours – for dramatic effect:

  But of the manner of the death of this young king and his brother there were divers opinions; but the most common opinion was that they were smothered between two feather beds, and that in doing the young brother escaped from under the feather beds and crept under the bedstead, and there lay naked awhile till that they had smothered the young King so that he was surely dead. And after that one of them took his brother from under the bedstead and held his face down to the ground with his one hand, and with the other hand cut his throat-bole with a dagger.

  After the murder, More says, Tyrell, ‘upon the sight of [the bodies], caused those murderers to bury them at the stair foot, meetly deep under the ground, under a great heap of stones’. Dighton, a strong, brawny man, would have been capable of this heavy work and we may assume that Forrest was similarly strong and tough. Forensic evidence which will be discussed in depth later on confirms More’s account of the Princes’ burial. Rastell, however, says their bodies were put in a chest and loaded on to a ship bound for Flanders. When the ship reached the Black Deeps at the mouth of the Thames the chest was thrown into the sea. Rastell thought this story must have been true because ‘the bones of the said children could never be found buried, neither in the Tower nor in none other place’.

  With the Princes murdered and buried in the space of one night, Tyrell relinquished the Tower keys to Brackenbury and rode to York where he saw the King, ‘who gave him thanks and, some say, made him a knight’. In fact, Tyrell had been knighted in 1471. What Richard did by way of reward was to ensure Tyrell’s rise to prominence by appointing him to a succession of lucrative offices over the next two years, thus guaranteeing that he would enjoy the status at court he had so avidly sought. Tyrell also amassed considerable wealth, so that his annual income rapidly became equal to that of some barons. In 1483 he became Master of the King’s Horse and between November 1483 and April 1484 was given prominent posts formerly occupied by convicted traitors, whose estates he was commissioned to administer. He received a number of stewardships and was made Sheriff of Wenlock in 1484 and Chamberlain of the Exchequer. In 1485 he was sent on a secret mission concerning ‘the King’s weal’ to Flanders, and then appointed Captain of Guisnes Castle, which guarded the Pale of Calais, the last English possession remaining in France.

  As for those others who assisted Tyrell with the murder of the Princes, Forrest and Green both received grants from the King late in 1483, and Green was appointed to several offices: Receiver of the Isle of Wight and overseer of the Port of Southampton on 14th December 1483, and Escheator of Southampton in December 1484. On 20th September 1483 he was granted a general pardon for all offences by the King, and in order to avoid questions being asked about his activities, his neighbours in Warwickshire were all granted one too. Such pardons were not unusual during the aftermath of conspiracies. Forrest was rewarded with a post at Baynard’s Castle, but did not fare so well. It seems he was overcome by the enormity of what he had done for, says More, he sought sanctuary at St Martin le Grand in London, where he ‘piecemeal rotted away’ and died before September 1484, when the King granted his widow a pension of five marks, which was quite usual in such cases. As for Dighton, he was given a pension but seems to have taken to a life of crime, of which we shall hear more in due course. Slaughter, perhaps tellingly, received no reward.

  Brackenbury was rewarded by the King for his co-operation, being given several grants and appointments later that year, some of which were lucrative offices once occupied by Hastings. The Constable was also granted some of the forfeited estates of Lord Rivers and others.

  More, and other later writers, all claimed that the Princes’ bodies were afterwards dug up and reburied. There is no evidence to support th
e allegations made by Rastell, Hall, Grafton and Hardying that they were reburied at sea in the Black Deeps. Grafton and Hall say that King Richard ordered one man, a priest, to disinter the chest from its burial place under several feet of rubble, remove the corpses and place them in a lead coffin punctured with many holes, and cast them into the sea. The priest is supposed to have died soon afterwards ‘and disclosed it never to any person that would utter it’. But then how did the chroniclers know of it? In any case it is hardly likely that a solitary priest could have successfully undertaken such a task.

  More, whose sources were much sounder, states that Richard III, after learning how the Princes’ bodies had been disposed of, ‘allowed not, as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying he would have them buried in a better place, because they were a king’s sons. Lo! The honourable heart of a king, for he would recompense a detestable murder with a solemn obloquy! Whereupon, they say that a priest of Sir Robert Brackenbury took up the bodies again and secretly interred them in such place as, by the occasion of his death, which only knew it, could never since have come to life.’

  Once again, we have a tale of a solitary priest disinterring bodies that had been buried deep under rubble by two brawny men, though of course he may have had help from Brackenbury, who employed him. It is characteristic of Richard III that he should contemplate the reburial of his nephews. As a youth he had witnessed the reinterment at Fotheringhay of his father and brother Edmund, and in 1484 he himself ordered the reburial of Henry VI, whose bones were moved from Chertsey to Windsor. It was therefore plausible that he had ordered the reburial of the Princes, but it is unlikely in view of the forensic evidence discovered two centuries later in the Tower.

  What is possible is that one of More’s sources deliberately gave him the wrong information in order to avoid a search being made for the bodies and the uncovering of incriminating evidence. Or More may have simply reported what people had supposed had taken place, in view of the fact that no bodies had been found up to that time, despite several searches. It may even be that Richard III ordered a priest to perform obsequies over the grave, and that More and others assumed, in view of the mystery surrounding the bodies’ whereabouts, that he had also ordered the Princes’ reburial.

  From Richard III’s point of view, if it was necessary that the Princes should die, it was also necessary that people should know they were dead, in order to put an end to speculation and confound those who might plot to restore Edward V. According to Vergil, ‘King Richard kept the slaughter not long secret, who within few days after permitted the rumour of their deaths to go abroad to the intent that, after the people understood no male issue of King Edward to be now left alive, they might with better mind and goodwill bear to sustain his government.’ It is unlikely that these rumours spoke of the Princes being murdered – just that they had died. As it was widely accepted by the beginning of October that they lived no more, and the rumours would have had to be in circulation for at least a fortnight to be this effective, it is quite likely that it was indeed Richard himself who instigated them. When, on 8th September, he walked hand in hand with his son and his wife into York Minster for young Edward’s investiture as Prince of Wales, the King did so in the belief that he had removed the last dynastic threat to his throne and put an end once and for all to the conspiracies that had overshadowed his reign.


  The Wicked Uncle

  IT HAS BEEN stated many times, in many books, that there is no proof that Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, and very little likelihood that the full facts about their disappearance from the pages of history will ever be known. That it is impossible, 500 years after the event, to prove beyond reasonable doubt who murdered them or, indeed, that they were murdered at all.

  But is it? Most of the facts of the matter are recorded in the surviving contemporary sources, and beyond this there is a vast amount of compelling circumstantial evidence that substantiates the known facts and leaves no room for any alternative theories.

  It has often been said that the evidence available to us would not be sufficient to secure the King’s conviction in a modern court of law, and this claim appeared to have been vindicated by the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict that resulted from Channel 4 Television’s ‘The Trial of Richard III’ in 1984. However, the fact is that some of the most pertinent evidence was not offered at that ‘trial’. Historians, moreover, are not, and should not, be bound by the same rules as juries. The historian will be more familiar with the bias of contemporary material and is able to take far more evidence into account than would be allowed a jury. A jury must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that a person is guilty of a crime; a historian constructs his theory on a balance of probabilities. In this case there are facts and the testimony of witnesses as well as probabilities, and the historian is perhaps therefore in a better position than a modern jury to arrive at the truth.

  So what is the case against Richard III? The most damning evidence is the simple fact that the Princes disappeared for good whilst they were being securely held in the Tower under the King’s protection, as prisoners, and that Richard gave no explanation of what had happened to them nor made any reference to their continuing existence after this time. Nor did he produce them alive to counteract rumours deeply damaging to his reputation as king, or, later, to confound once and for all the treasonous designs of a Lancastrian pretender. Not to have produced the Princes when it was to his distinct advantage to do so is strong evidence that he was guilty of having had them assassinated.

  It is highly unlikely that any third party could have gained access to the Tower to carry out the murder without the King’s knowledge. We have already seen how securely the Princes were confined and how loyal to Richard was Constable Brackenbury, who had charge of them. Even had these stringent security precautions been breached and another person succeeded in killing the boys, Richard III would have found out about it almost at once, and it would have been in his interests to name and prosecute the culprit, since the children, although declared bastards, were still his nephews and the sons of a king; people had an interest in them. But Richard did no such thing. The fact remains that he himself was the only person with the authority and obvious opportunity to dispose of the Princes. He also had several powerful and compelling motives for wanting them out of the way.

  He was insecure on his throne. He was not popular, and the basis of his title to that throne was precarious, since few believed in the precontract story. His future security depended largely on him retaining the loyalties of his magnates, and there were many of them who resented him because of his northern affiliations. While Edward V lived he remained a focus for rebellion; Richard had seen alarming proof of that in the recent conspiracies on Edward’s behalf. He had also seen enough treachery during the Wars of the Roses to convince him that self-seeking, power-hungry nobles would readily espouse the cause of a would-be king if there was hope of rewards for themselves, and he was well aware that any legislation bastardising the Princes could always be reversed by Parliament in the event of a successful coup on their behalf. Then would follow the triumphant return to power of the Wydvilles, who would not hesitate to destroy the man who had executed Rivers, Grey, Haute and Vaughan, insulted the Queen, and deposed and disinherited her children. The revisionists have often argued that, once the Princes had been declared illegitimate, they posed no further threat to Richard, and that he had no motive for killing them. This argument does not take account of the realities of fifteenth-century politics, the fact that Richard himself viewed the Princes as a danger (otherwise he would never have kept them in such strict confinement), and the fact that there had already been several plots to restore Edward V. It was these, undoubtedly, that spurred the King to the realisation that the former King and his brother must be removed beyond the reach of any conspirators as soon as possible.

  There were several historical precedents for the murder of a deposed monarch or of persons whose existence threaten
ed the security of a reigning king. Every deposed monarch so far – Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI – had been assassinated on the orders of the men who had overthrown and succeeded them. Arthur of Brittany, Thomas of Woodstock, Humphrey of Gloucester and George of Clarence had all posed a threat to the crown at one time or another, and had all been eliminated. Richard III himself had early on learned a lesson in ruthless pragmatism from the deaths of Henry VI and Clarence, and he had excellent reasons for following precedent.

  The House of York had a history of employing violence for political ends. Richard’s previous acts of tyranny, such as the executions of Hastings and Rivers, prove that he was a ruthless man who did not shirk from using violence as a means to an end. He was no respecter of the law and was undoubtedly capable of cold-blooded murder. Nothing we know of his early-life experiences and character is at variance with this conclusion. Given that the victims in this case were two children aged twelve and ten, his own nephews, we may assume he felt he had no alternative but to get rid of them; he may even have been reluctant to take such a step, but his reasons for doing so were sufficiently compelling for him to risk both his popularity and his future security as king, should the truth ever come to light.

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