Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


  Thus the murder had to be carried out in the strictest secrecy. The King took only a select few, who were unlikely to talk, into his confidence. Afterwards he adopted a policy of ‘least said, soonest mended’. Even high-ranking courtiers did not know what had happened. But the disappearance of two royal children, one a former sovereign, raised questions in many people’s minds, questions that many must have been too scared to voice. It was only later, when the threat of reprisals had been removed, that people began to ask those questions openly, or to speak of what they knew.

  After the murder, Richard III may have remained officially silent on the subject of the Princes, but his behaviour is indicative of a man with a guilty conscience. His personal prayer in his Book of Hours, dedicated to St Julian who murdered his parents and then obtained God’s forgiveness, perhaps held a special significance for Richard. He also planned to found a chantry at York served by no less than 100 priests who would offer masses for the salvation of his soul; enlisting the prayers of so many priests, unprecedented in England, is a strong indication that Richard felt he had some serious sins to expiate.

  Sir Thomas More says he ‘heard by credible report by such as were secret with [Richard’s] chamberers’ that the King ‘never had quiet in his mind; he never thought himself sure. He took ill rest at night, lay long waking and musing, sore wearied with care and watch, rather slumbered than slept, troubled with fearful dreams. His restless heart continually tossed and tumbled with the stormy remembrance of his abominable deed.’ Croyland also refers to Richard having bad dreams on the night before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, while Vergil states that the King’s conscience began to trouble him after the death of the Princes.

  This evidence is, of course, all circumstantial, but even without the further evidence in contemporary sources it is the basis of a formidable case against Richard III. There is plenty of evidence that Richard’s contemporaries believed him guilty of murdering the Princes, and that the ‘Black Legend’, alleged by the revisionists to have originated with later Tudor chroniclers, was already established in Richard’s own lifetime. It was only elaborated upon after his death because men felt able to speak more freely about him. Evidence for this is to be found in nearly every source.

  Mancini, writing in December 1483, refers to ‘the Duke of Gloucester, who shortly after suppressed Edward’s children’. The verb used is ‘oppressis’ which has sometimes been incorrectly translated as ‘destroyed’, but it is likely that Mancini was implying the same thing because rumours that Richard had murdered his nephews had reached France by the time Mancini was writing. Even before the coronation, he records, men had feared the worst. Mancini would not have been surprised to learn that it was widely believed to have happened.

  Croyland, astonishingly, is silent on the fate of the Princes, and yet he, of all people, must have had some knowledge or suspicion of the truth. Quoting ‘a certain poet’ on the three King Richards of England, he refers to ‘the third, [who] after exhausting the ample store of Edward’s wealth, was not content until he suppressed his brother’s progeny’. Again, this ambiguous word ‘suppressed’, which could refer either to disinheritance or to murder, or even imprisonment. Croyland wrote his chronicle after Richard’s death and therefore his reticence on the subject argues either that, not being favoured with the King’s confidence, he really did not know what had happened to the Princes and considered it frivolous to speculate, or he wished to cover up his own complacency in the matter, or even that he felt he ought to be discreet until Henry VII’s policy on the subject became clear, or until new and conclusive evidence came to light.

  Two contemporary manuscript fragments, one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and one in the College of Arms, London, accuse Richard III of the murder of his nephews, and on 1st March, 1486, a Spanish envoy, Diego de Valera, who obtained much of his information from ‘trusty merchants who were in England at the time of the battle’ (of Bosworth, in August, 1485), observed in a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain:

  It is sufficiently well known to your Royal Majesties that this Richard killed two innocent nephews of his, to whom the realm belonged after his brother’s life. It is alleged that he had them murdered with poison.

  Dafydd Llywd ap Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, a Welsh bard of Martharfan, wrote in c. 1485–6 an ‘Ode to King Richard, who destroyed his two nephews’, calling him ‘a servile boar [who] without penance’ murdered ‘Edward’s sons in his prison. He slew without favour of the Bench his two young nephews. He caused disgrace, the bravery of cruel Herod.’

  More contemporary evidence is to be found in some Flemish wall paintings in Eton College Chapel. They were begun before 1479–80 and were complete before the end of 1487, but were covered up in the Reformation and only rediscovered in 1847. They portray, in allegorical guise, the usurpation of Richard III, who is represented as the evil brother of an emperor. This villain is shown wearing a collar with the Yorkist emblem of the Sun in Splendour and a crescent similar to a crescent pendant found near Middleham Castle and linked to Richard III and Anne Neville by the engraved initials ‘R’ and ‘A’. The paintings show that the emperor entrusted his family to his brother, who betrayed that trust and murdered his nephew, then accused the empress of the deed. She is shown retiring to a convent, as did Elizabeth Wydville in 1487. The parallels with Richard III are obvious, as they were intended to be. This work could not have been merely Tudor propaganda. It was in a public place within a royal foundation, and what it portrayed had to be entirely credible to onlookers.

  We come now to what the Tudor chroniclers had to say about the fate of the Princes. John de Giglis, papal collector in England, and Pietro Carmeliano, both writing in 1486 under the patronage of Henry VII, predictably portray Richard III as a tyrant who murdered his nephews. And Rous, writing in 1490, states firmly that Richard ‘killed Edward V, together with his brother’. William Parron, court astrologer to Henry VII, makes the same accusation in his work De Astrorum vi fatale, written in 1499. Bernard André, a few years later, says that Richard III ordered the Princes to be put to death secretly. Not surprisingly, The Song of the Lady Bessy alleges much the same thing.

  These works were naturally biased in favour of the régime that had replaced Richard, yet they were circulated amongst men who had known him well and would instantly recognise any jarring inconsistencies. They also refer to the murder of the Princes in such a way as to imply that they are not informing their readers of some sensational piece of news but stating a well-known fact.

  One striking piece of evidence comes from Philippe de Commines, who in his memoirs states that the ‘wicked’ and ‘cruel’ King Richard ‘arranged the death of his two nephews’. He then tells us that Louis XI of France, a crafty and unscrupulous monarch known as the ‘Universal Spider’ because of his intrigues, believed that Richard III was responsible for having ‘the two sons of his brother King Edward put to death’, and would have nothing to do with him because, he said, he was ‘extremely cruel and evil’. Louis XI died of the effects of a stroke on 30th August, 1483. For a week beforehand he had been unable to speak. Yet at the beginning of July he had written a most courteous letter to Richard III, congratulating him on his accession and offering to do him any service, ‘for I desire to have your friendship’. Within six weeks Louis’ attitude had changed dramatically, and it is likely that his spies in England had heard the same kind of speculative rumours that Mancini had heard in early July. It is worth noting that every contemporary European chronicler believed in Richard’s guilt.

  In the early 1500s, in England, Robert Fabyan wrote, ‘It was common fame that King Richard had within the Tower put unto secret death the two sons of his brother Edward IV.’ The London Chronicles all make similar accusations and some date the event to 1483.

  All of this evidence is circumstantial, but it reflects the weight of public opinion at the time. For the best evidence, that of actual witnesses, we must turn to Sir Thomas More’s biography of Richard I
II, spurned by most revisionists and some serious historians but now, in the light of recent discoveries and study, beginning to be respected once more as a key source for the death of the Princes, and with good reason. More’s book contains the earliest account of the murder. He supplies numerous details that are nowhere else recorded, saying: ‘I shall rehearse you the dolorous end of these babes, not after every way that I have heard, but after that way that I have heard by such men and such means as me thinketh it were hard but it should be true.’ He tells us he got his information from ‘them that knew much and had little cause to lie’.

  It seems highly likely that More’s account came very near to the truth. He himself believed it to be true, and he had plenty of means of searching out and verifying the facts, having been moved to do so by the realisation that the deaths of the Princes had ‘so far come into question that some remain yet in doubt whether they were in Richard III’s time destroyed or no’.

  We should now pause to consider why the account of the murder given by Sir Thomas More, on which the reconstruction of the events in the previous chapter is based, should be accepted as an authentic record of the facts. More himself claims to have relied greatly upon the confession said to have been made in 1502 by Sir James Tyrell, the man allegedly chosen by Richard III to arrange the murders. This confession was never published but there are good grounds for believing it to be genuine, which will be discussed in Chapter Twenty. More, however, almost certainly used other, equally important sources. One was John Dighton, an associate of Tyrell’s and, according to Francis Bacon, ‘the principle means of divulging the tradition’. More knew of Dighton’s whereabouts at the time he was writing because he states he was still alive and ‘in good possibility to be hanged’, and we may therefore suppose that he had contacted him and obtained information from him. But More had other, perhaps better, links with those who were in a position to know about the Princes’ fate.

  At New Year 1505, More dedicated his first book, his Life of John Picus, to his ‘right entirely beloved sister in Christ’, Joyeuce Lee or Leigh, a Poor Clare nun and the sister of his friend Edward Lee. More had been friendly with the Lee family, prosperous London grocers, for some years, and often visited Joyeuce after she became a nun at the Minoresses’ convent in Aldgate, which stood outside the City wall and opposite the Tower of London. Here she lived in ‘the great house within the close’ with a group of well-born ladies who, for reasons of their own, had chosen to retire behind convent walls. Between them, these ladies could have imparted a great deal of information about the Princes in the Tower.

  One was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower at the time of the Princes’ disappearance. Sir Robert had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and in 1504–5 Elizabeth was living in penury at the Minories. With her lodged Mary Tyrell, a sister or cousin of Sir James Tyrell, and Mary’s aunt, Anne Montgomery, whose husband Thomas had been an executor of Edward IV’s will and an adherent of Richard III. Finally there was Elizabeth Mowbray (née Talbot), Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, a relative of Eleanor Butler, and mother-in-law of Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes; she had retired to this house at the beginning of Henry VII’s reign and later invited the other ladies to join her. She, above all, would have had a keen curiosity about the fate of her son-in-law. It is inconceivable that the Princes’ disappearance would not have been discussed by this group of ladies, who all had good reason to know something about it, and even more inconceivable that More, on his visits, did not obtain information from them. Indeed, the possession of such unique information may have been what inspired him to write his book and so put an end to the rumours then in circulation.

  Sir Thomas did more than any other writer, except Shakespeare, to publicise the ‘Black Legend’ of Richard III. Erasmus tells us that More particularly loathed tyranny, and it may be that he wrote his biography primarily as a moral tale to illustrate the nature and consequences of tyranny. Certainly he himself believed Richard to be guilty of many crimes, though he did try to be fair to him, praising his courage and his qualities as a military leader. And while his descriptions of Richard’s deformities are exaggerated, they were drawn from earlier sources and used by More, in the fashion of his time, as outward manifestations of villainy to underline the moral thrust of his work.

  As has been demonstrated to striking effect, More’s account fits in almost perfectly with the known facts of the Princes’ disappearance and the events of late summer 1483. Croyland informs us that the sons of Edward IV remained in the Tower under guard while events such as the coronation, the progress and Edward of Middleham’s investiture as Prince of Wales on 8th September were taking place. He does not refer to them being alive after this date, which is probably significant. Croyland speaks with the authority of one who knows what is going on; as an historian he was a man of caution, and therefore it is likely that his information is trustworthy.

  John Rous, however, implies that the Princes were already dead by the time of Richard’s usurpation, saying ‘he ascended the throne of the slaughtered children, whose protector he was himself’. Elsewhere, he says of Richard that, as Duke of Gloucester, he ‘received his lord, Edward V, with embraces and kisses, yet within about three months he killed him, together with his brother’. This would place the murder before the end of July, and neither date ties in with the evidence of Croyland, More and Vergil. Nor, by the same token can we trust the evidence of Molinet, who states that the Princes were murdered five weeks after they entered the Tower. As York joined his brother there on 16th June, this would argue a date in late July, which is not borne out by the other evidence.

  We do not know when Richard III first conceived the idea of murdering his nephews. There is no evidence that his decision to do so was made before Edward V’s accession. The idea was probably born after Richard realised that his power might not last beyond the coronation, which was in May 1483. He had probably made up his mind by the time he was plotting against Hastings, for it is known that he had already decided to move York from sanctuary to the Tower. The transfer of both princes to high-security quarters, and the removal of their servants, were arguably the first premeditated steps towards actually carrying out the deed, an event that must have, of necessity, to await a propitious moment. This would preferably be when the furore over Richard’s accession had died a natural death and he himself was away on progress.

  What probably spurred Richard III into actually committing the murder was news of the conspiracies to restore Edward V, proof enough that the deposed king posed the deadliest of all the threats to Richard’s security. Fortunately for Richard, that former king, a helpless child, was in his power.

  It has often been suggested that either Buckingham or Norfolk were somehow involved in the murder of the Princes. The case against Buckingham will be examined in the next chapter, where it will be shown to be unsubstantiated. Norfolk, meanwhile, stood to lose his dukedom if ever Edward V was restored to power, but there is, however, no evidence to support the theory that Norfolk was Richard’s accomplice.

  Nor is there any evidence to substantiate the claim, made by Sir George Buck and based on information in ‘an old manuscript book which I have seen’, that ‘Dr Morton and a certain Countess, contriving the death of Edward V and others, resolved it by poison’. This countess was presumably Morton’s friend and confidante, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, but she would not have been able to gain access to the Tower. Morton himself was a prisoner of the Duke of Buckingham at Brecknock Castle at the relevant time. Apart from the practical difficulties involved, there is no contemporary evidence of any such plot.

  Some revisionists, among them Mr Jack Leslau and the late Audrey Williamson, have claimed that the Princes were not murdered in the Tower in 1483 but were secretly moved by the King to a safe haven in the country in order to confound future conspirators. Rumours that they were still alive were current for years after their disappearance, and Vergil records a
popular theory that they had been spirited abroad. Such theories are easily understood, given that the alternative was too dreadful to contemplate: even in that violent age, child murder attracted the deepest revulsion, and still, today, we look for evidence that would reassure us it never took place. Alas, there is none. When the Princes were alive people knew of their existence and referred to it. After the late summer of 1483 – silence. Had they survived they would have left traces. There are none anywhere.

  Some revisionists, notably Sir Clements Markham and Jeremy Potter, have asserted that, when Richard III established a household at Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire, in 1484 for his nephew John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln and newly-appointed President of the Council of the North, the Princes were still alive and were secretly moved there. This assertion rests on the evidence of two warrants in Harleian MS. 433 in the British Library. One, dated 23rd July, 1484, refers to Lincoln and Lord Morley being at breakfast with each other and ‘the children together’ at another breakfast. The second, dated 9th March, 1485, is a warrant to Henry Davy to deliver two doublets of silk, one jacket of silk, one gown, two shirts and two bonnets to ‘the Lord Bastard’, a title used for the deposed Edward V in the Wardrobe Accounts. Elsewhere in official documents the former King is called ‘Edward Bastard’.

  There were royal children at Sheriff Hutton: the King had sent young Warwick there and probably his sister Margaret also. It is possible that the four younger daughters of Edward IV were at some time in residence too, as well as the King’s bastard son, John of Gloucester – to whom the second warrant most probably refers. John was not a lord in the official sense, but as the King’s natural son he was styled as such out of courtesy. There is nothing to suggest that the Princes were ever at Sheriff Hutton. If they had been, many people would have known about it.

 
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