Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  This re-writing of history meant that Eleanor Butler’s name disappeared from the records for more than a century. More knew of the precontract story but he was under the impression that Edward IV’s partner in it had been Elizabeth Lucy, his mistress for a time. But in 1533 the Spanish ambassador to England, Eustache Chapuys, told the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V: ‘People here say you have a better title than the present king [Henry VIII], who only claims by his mother, who was declared, by sentence of the Bishop of Bath [sic], a bastard, because Edward IV had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York.’ Chapuys may well have received his information from Yorkist families with long memories and a grudge against the Tudors.

  During the early seventeenth century the historian George Buck unearthed the only surviving copy of the Croyland Chronicle, and for the first time in over 130 years the contents of ‘Titulus Regius’ were revealed to the public in print. Buck’s discovery brought to his attention the fact that certain details, such as the identity of Eleanor Butler, had been censored by Henry VII, and he mistakenly concluded that this was because the contents of the Act were the true record of the facts. He did not view his discovery in the context of Henry VII’s tenuous hold on the throne in 1485 when it was first suppressed and when most people believed that marriage to Elizabeth of York would ensure Henry’s security as king. Buck did not realise that it was hardly surprising that Henry should wish to destroy such sensitive material, given that he might not be able to disprove its veracity without raising a dangerous debate or providing his enemies with grounds for rebellion. Upon such misconceptions was the revisionist movement founded.

  Henry VII was resolved to have his predecessor attainted by Parliament even though it was not legally possible for an English monarch to be convicted of treason: to attaint Richard III would be to accuse him of committing a crime against himself. To circumvent this anomaly, Henry announced that he was dating his reign from the day before Bosworth. Eyebrows shot up and many members registered their opposition to such a move. ‘Oh, God!’ exclaimed Croyland, ‘what security shall our kings have henceforth, that in the day of battle they may not be deserted by their subjects?’ But Henry was adamant. Parliament calmed down and did as it was bid, then obligingly attainted ‘Richard, late Duke of Gloucester, and 28 others’, most of whom had died at Bosworth.

  The attainder against Richard was not specific when it came to detailing his crimes, which were listed as ‘unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders in shedding of infants’ blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations, against God and man’. The Princes in the Tower were not mentioned by name, nor was Richard directly accused of their murder.

  When Henry VII came to the throne, he might have been expected to expose the true facts about the murder of the Princes and to blazon Richard III’s guilt before the world. It would have made good political capital to do so. However, he did nothing of the kind. After his accession, says Rous, ‘the issue of cruel death of the sons of King Edward flared up again’. Henry himself was aware of this and it seems that, very early on, he ordered a ‘diligent search’ to be made in the Tower and elsewhere for the bodies of the Princes. John Rastell, writing in 1529, says the King had ‘all places open and digged [but] the bones of the said children could never be found buried, neither in the Tower nor in none other place’. If Sir James Tyrell was questioned – and there is no evidence that he was, although it would have been logical to do so – he could either have denied any involvement with the murder, or he could have answered truthfully that he did not now know where the bodies were – the last he had heard was that Brackenbury had had them reinterred. For Henry to admit publicly that there was no trace of the bodies could only have had adverse effects: either it would have given rise to speculation that the Princes still lived, or it would provoke uprisings on behalf of imposters. Either way, Henry’s throne would be placed in jeopardy.

  Thus the King extended his policy of ‘least said, soonest mended’ to the Princes. He and many others involved in Buckingham’s rebellion of 1483 had received intelligence that the boys had been murdered, and their subsequent disappearance coupled with the rumours circulating that year had been taken as confirmation of that information. Confident that they were dead, Henry had sworn to marry their sister and claim the crown through her, and in 1485 he had declared her and her siblings legitimate, something he would never have dared to do had he any suspicion that the Princes might be alive, for if so, Edward V would be the rightful king and York his heir. Henry believed that the Princes were dead, but he could not prove it: there were no bodies.

  This placed the King in a dilemma. Had the bodies been found, he could have exhibited them, provided them with honourable royal burial and denounced Richard III as their murderer. Without the bodies he could do none of these things; instead, he was to be haunted throughout his reign by the fear that perhaps the intelligence fed to him in 1483 had been false or inaccurate, and that one or the other or both the Princes would turn up alive somewhere, or that some clever imposter would successfully impersonate one of them and wrest his crown from him.

  Because of these factors, Henry never directly accused Richard III of murdering the Princes, nor could he be specific when it came to the wording of Richard’s attainder: the phrase ‘shedding of infants’ blood’ was a stock one in such documents, and the rumours about the Princes’ fate were so notorious that it was doubtless assumed by Henry that people would know to what it referred and that no qualification was necessary. The King felt it was time that this old scandal died the death – brought to public debate, it might easily ruin him. There was to be no official Tudor version of the fate of the Princes, just a tacit assumption that rumour spoke the truth. Thus, when Henry VII addressed his troops before the Battle of Stoke in 1487 and told them, according to André, that Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, was ‘not unaware that her dynasty had been destroyed by her brother Richard’, his remark could be taken to refer either to the House of York generally or to the Princes.

  Many writers over the centuries have viewed Henry Tudor’s silence on the matter of the Princes with suspicion, and concluded that he himself was responsible for their murder. There is, however, no evidence to support such a theory. Henry’s behaviour convincingly suggests that he did not know what had happened to the Princes. He chose to play down the scandal of regicide that had tainted his future wife’s family in the interests of hoped-for alliances with foreign powers, though this left him vulnerable to the threats posed over the next decade by a succession of pretenders purporting to be one of the Princes. As Yorkist malcontents regrouped and conspired against the new régime, Henry’s inability to prove that the Princes were dead lent plausibility to their claims and his frantic efforts to trace the real identities of each of these pretenders is confirmation that he did not know for certain what had befallen the sons of Edward IV.

  Nor did Henry go out of his way to blacken Richard’s reputation – he did not need to. Much that is written about so-called Tudor propaganda is a myth. In modern times, when reviewing written accounts of recent history, such as the two World Wars or the lives of members of the present British royal family, we can clearly perceive what was originally written under strict codes of censorship and the authors’ own discretion because changing times have enabled us to see earlier events in a new perspective, and the constraints of the past are no longer relevant. How much greater then would the constraints have been in an age when kings were all-powerful and ‘ira principis mors est’ (the wrath of the prince is death)? Nowadays we expect history books to be objective and to cast new light upon a subject, revealing it ‘warts and all’. Thus it was after Bosworth, when the constraints of a tyrannical régime were lifted and men were at last free to speak and write the truth as they perceived it. There was certainly a good deal of evidence and opinion derogatory to Richard III that was never committed to paper during his lifetime, but now it was possible for people
to express the moral outrage they had for so long been obliged to keep to themselves. There is plenty of evidence that Richard’s reputation was bad two years before his death, when his deeds were already notorious. Much of what was written under the Tudors certainly served as propaganda against Richard, but for propaganda to succeed it must be believable: it only works if it is based on fact, and there were many people still living who had known Richard III well.

  From 1483 onwards rumour had nourished the belief, at home and abroad, that Richard III had murdered his nephews. By January 1486 this belief was accepted as the truth by most people, and Richard’s death at Bosworth was seen by his contemporaries as a divine judgement. No Tudor propaganda could have fostered such widespread acceptance of Richard’s guilt in the four months after Henry Tudor’s accession. The fresh spate of rumours that followed that event was fuelled by stories already circulating before Richard’s death. The difference now was that people were no longer afraid to speak the truth.

  Late in 1485 King Henry rewarded those who had supported him: Morton, who later became Lord Chancellor of England and a cardinal; Stanley, who was created Earl of Derby; Jasper Tudor, who was created Duke of Bedford and married to Buckingham’s widow, Katherine Wydville. Dorset, Sir Edward and Richard Wydville were all restored to their lands and honours, and Elizabeth Wydville had her widow’s jointure and the rights and privileges of a dowager queen restored to her. The Act of Parliament confiscating her property was repealed, but Henry VII did not immediately return it to her; instead, he granted her an income of £400 per annum from more than seventy manors.

  On 10th December, the day before Parliament went into recess for Christmas, the Commons petitioned the King to unite ‘two bloods of high renown’ and marry Elizabeth of York without further delay, ‘which marriage they hoped God would bless with a progeny of the race of kings for the comfort of the whole realm’. The Lords seconded the request and the King was pleased to consent. A papal dispensation had already been applied for.

  Since Henry’s accession Elizabeth had been deferred to as the future Queen of England. On 11th December the King gave orders for the wedding preparations, including a great tournament, to be put in hand. It seems likely that Henry and Elizabeth were already sharing a bed: their first child was born eight months after their wedding, seemingly a full-term baby, whose early arrival excited comment.

  In January 1486 the papal legate in England advised the King that the dispensation was on its way and that the marriage might go ahead. The famous union of the red and white roses took place on 18th January at Westminster Abbey amidst great celebrations and rejoicing and a welter of propaganda about the significance of the event. The marriage brought Henry the support of all but the most committed Yorkists as well as the indisputable right to the crown, and the rejoicing of the people at the marriage was proof indeed that few had ever doubted that the new queen was the true representative of the Yorkist line. And great was the King’s satisfaction when he received the Pope’s dispensation and found that His Holiness had threatened with excommunication any person daring to challenge his title.

  Little is known of the relationship between Henry and Elizabeth. Henry was a faithful husband but apparently reserved and distant. Bacon says ‘he showed himself no very indulgent husband towards her, though she was beautiful, gentle and fruitful. But his aversion towards the House of York was so predominant in him as it found place not only in his wars and councils but in his chamber and bed.’ This aversion may have had its roots in Henry’s awareness of Elizabeth’s earlier infatuation with Richard III. She, continues Bacon, ‘could do nothing with him. To her he was nothing uxorious. But, if not indulgent, he was companionable and respective, and without personal jealousy.’ The Spanish ambassador was of the opinion that the Queen was in need of ‘a little love’. He noted that she resented the influence wielded over the King and the royal household by her mother-in-law, the Lady Margaret Beaufort. The Prior of Santa Cruz states that because of this Elizabeth ‘suffered under great oppression and led a miserable and cheerless life’. Nevertheless there developed over the years a certain affection between the royal couple, as evinced in 1502 when they consoled each other most movingly after the death of a child.

  Both were good and loving parents. Vergil states they had eight children, four boys and four girls. Only three lived to adulthood: the future Henry VIII, Margaret, who became Queen of Scots, and Mary, who became Queen of France. Arthur was the eldest child, born, says Bacon, ‘in the eighth month, as the physicians do prejudge’, but ‘strong and able’. Fuller, in his Church History, says Arthur was ‘partus octomestris, yet vital and vigorous, contrary to all the rules of physicians’. His father created him Prince of Wales and spent many years negotiating a brilliant marriage for him with Katherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella.

  Busily occupied with successive pregnancies and her children, Queen Elizabeth took no part in political life. ‘The Queen is beloved because she is powerless,’ observed the Spanish ambassador; ‘she is kept in subjection by the mother of the King.’ This was a deliberate policy of Henry VII, designed to keep Elizabeth from meddling in politics as her mother had done. He endowed her with a mere two-thirds of the estates Elizabeth Wydville had enjoyed, and kept her pitifully short of money, so that she was always in debt and was forced to pawn her plate or borrow funds from her servants. Her household accounts bear witness to the fact that her gowns were repeatedly mended, turned and re-trimmed, and her shoes adorned with cheap tin buckles. Evidence in royal letters shows that Margaret Beaufort even made all the important decisions concerning the royal children. Small wonder that Elizabeth of York chose as her motto the legend ‘Humble and Penitent’, or that her innate sensuality was dissipated by a passionless marriage, religious observances and charitable works. She had achieved her ambition to become queen, but it is doubtful if she had much joy of it.



  HENRY VII’S OBVIOUS alarm at the advent of successive pretenders to his throne in the course of his reign is evidence enough that he did not know the details of the Princes’ fate. He had believed them to be dead – but was it just possible that one of them had survived?

  Had Henry been able to parade the Princes through London, as he once did with the Earl of Warwick after the pretender Lambert Simnel had claimed to be Clarence’s heir, then he would have effectively crushed all such pretensions. Instead, the King and his advisers spent considerable time and effort in painstakingly tracing the identity of each of these pretenders, of whom the most prominent were Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

  Lambert Simnel’s origins are still shrouded in some mystery. André says that when the rumours about the Princes flared up again, ‘seditious men hatched another novel evil. They maliciously put up a certain boy as the son of Edward IV.’ This conspiracy was hatched in the summer of 1486 in the vicinity of Oxford, and was almost certainly the brainchild of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who lived at nearby Ewelme, not far from Minster Lovell, the seat of the fugitive Lord Lovell, who became a party to the conspiracy. Both men had little cause to love Henry VII. It appears that they had made contact with an Oxford priest of lowly birth, one Richard Symonds, who had in his care a boy of about eleven allegedly called Lambert Simnel. The priest had reared and educated the boy and instructed him in courtly manners.

  Symonds’ loyalties were with the children of Edward IV. Vergil hints that he had purposed to ‘represent the lad as being born of royal stock’ during Richard III’s reign. Now Symonds conspired with Lincoln and his associates to present Simnel to the English people as the younger of the two Princes, Richard, Duke of York. It is probable, however, that Lincoln’s true intention was to seize the crown for himself, as the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, once the planned coup met with success.

  Simnel was duly coached in his role and prepared to impersonate York. Late in 1486 he was sent to Ireland where many people were sympathetic to
the Yorkist cause: for thirty years members of the House of York had served as Lieutenants of Ireland, and their rule had brought benefits to the Irish. At the same time, doubtless prompted by an urgent request from Lincoln, Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV and Richard III, began raising money and troops in the Low Countries in support of the conspiracy.

  By early 1487 Henry VII had learned what was happening, but by then Simnel was no longer pretending to be York. He now claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, who was, of course, a prisoner in the Tower. Henry and his advisers rightly regarded Simnel, young as he was, as a dangerous threat to the throne and the security of the realm.

  On 2nd February the Council met to discuss the crisis. Amongst other matters the affairs of Elizabeth Wydville also came under scrutiny and, says Vergil, it was resolved ‘that [she] should lose and forfeit all her lands and possessions because she had voluntarily submitted herself and her daughters to the hands of King Richard, whereat there was much wondering’ – understandably, since she had committed this misdemeanour three years before and Henry had made no move against her for eighteen months: indeed, up to now he had behaved towards her with courtesy and respect and had chosen her as a sponsor for Prince Arthur. Certainly her surrender of her daughters to Richard III had been a major setback to Henry Tudor’s cause, but she had had no choice at the time. Henry must have known this, and it is likely that the real reason for Elizabeth Wydville’s disgrace was something quite different. What this was has been the subject of considerable conjecture.

  Bacon says that Elizabeth was ‘at this time extremely discontent with the King, thinking her daughters not advanced but depressed’. This attitude may have communicated itself to Henry VII who, ever suspicious, became convinced that the Queen Dowager was plotting against him, or was even involved in the Simnel conspiracy. As Bacon observed, ‘None could hold the book so well to prompt and instruct this stage play as she could.’ Yet there is no evidence that Elizabeth Wydville was an accomplice in the Simnel rebellion. She was hardly likely to espouse the cause of the son of Clarence or take any action that might prejudice her daughter’s position or the future of her grandson.

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