Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  It is hardly conceivable that Warbeck could have been York. He, himself denied it with his dying breath, and his earlier account of his escape from his brother’s murderers does not bear close scrutiny. Nor is it likely that he was a bastard son of Edward IV conceived during the King’s exile in the Low Countries in 1470–71 and fostered with the Warbeck family, as Margaret of Burgundy, in 1498, and Warbeck himself, in 1497 and 1499, admitted that he was not the son of Edward IV. The future Richard III was also in exile in Flanders in 1470–71 – he could conceivably have fathered Warbeck, who claimed first of all to be his bastard son.

  The Calendar of State Papers in the archives of the Spanish government states that the Archduke Maximilian alleged in later years that Warbeck was actually the bastard son of Margaret of Burgundy by the Bishop of Cambrai. In 1492 Margaret had done her utmost to convince ‘all that he was indeed Richard, son of her brother Edward’. She would have been able to do this with plausible conviction in the knowledge that the boy was of Plantagenet blood, and it is true that the people of Flanders and many others believed her. But in 1498, when Margaret learned that Warbeck had sworn that she knew as well as himself that he was not the son of King Edward, the Duchess wrote in secret to Henry VII and craved his pardon for having supported the pretender, whom she now acknowledged an imposter. Her emissary was the Bishop of Cambrai, who, by a series of diplomatic manoeuvres, managed to negotiate a reconciliation. During his visit he asked to see Warbeck, who was by then a prisoner in the Tower, and was appalled at the change in the young man, who might have been his son.

  In his confession of 1497, Warbeck himself declared he was the son of John Warbeck, or Osbeck, and Katherine de Faro, his wife, both converted Jews living in Tournai where John was a minor official. When Peter (or Peterkin, as he was known) was small, the family had lived for a time in London, where John Warbeck earned a living by supplying carpets to the royal court, by means of which employment he may have gained information that his son would later find useful.

  In 1484–5, according to his confession, Warbeck was sent to Antwerp to learn Flemish. After war forced him to return home to Tournai for a time, he went back to Antwerp to look after the market stall of a local merchant, but was struck down by illness for five months. His career as a salesman then continued until the summer of 1487, when he agreed to escort the wife of Sir Edward Brampton, a prominent Yorkist exile, to Portugal. He stayed there a year in the service of a knight before leaving of his own accord to see the world. A few months later he entered the employ of a Breton merchant called Pregent Meno. Meno dealt in luxury fabrics and Warbeck’s job was to model these for customers. This was how he came to be in Ireland in 1488–9. Shortly afterwards, the plot to impersonate Warwick was hatched.

  By his own admission, Warbeck was not Richard of York. Margaret of Burgundy admitted he was not the son of Edward IV. He could, conceivably, have been her bastard son or Richard III’s. But most probably he was the son of John and Katherine Warbeck of Tournai, a man of straw used by unscrupulous men for their own ends.

  Significantly, none of the pretenders in Henry VII’s time – and Simnel and Warbeck were by no means the only ones – ever claimed to be Edward V. This was not so much because rumour had long proclaimed him to be dead, but because he was too well-known both at court and in London to be successfully impersonated. York was not well-known at all, and was a far safer target for imposters.

  After the execution of Warbeck, no-one else claimed to be one of the Princes. Henry VII’s summary justice had ensured that, and even if it had not, the King would soon have been able to deal with such persons speedily and effectively, for in 1502 Henry discovered the truth about the fate of the Princes.


  Tyrell’s Confession

  SIR JAMES TYRELL was in France when Bosworth was fought. Henry VII, on his accession, deprived him of his offices and Welsh estates, but restored them in February 1486, by which time Tyrell had crossed from Calais to offer the new King his allegiance.

  He fared much better than most of those who had faithfully served Richard III. In the summer of 1486 the King, of his own volition, ordered two pardons to be issued to Tyrell; there is no evidence that these related to the murder of the Princes, as has sometimes been suggested, and they were probably concerned with his misplaced loyalty to Richard III. In July Tyrell was reappointed Governor of Guisnes in the Pale of Calais and left England, having accepted lands in France in lieu of his Welsh estates.

  He remained in Guisnes for sixteen years, rendering faithful service to the King. He served as Henry’s emissary on several diplomatic missions to the courts of Europe, and was created a Knight of the Body, a royal councillor and Constable of Guisnes. He visited England on occasion and took part in a tournament held in 1494 in celebration of Prince Henry’s creation as Duke of York. Tyrell also refused to become involved with any pretender, and was praised by the King for his faithfulness.

  But in the summer of 1501, Tyrell stepped out of line. The late John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who had died fighting at Stoke in 1487, was the eldest of several sons born to Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister of Edward IV and widow of the Duke of Suffolk. Lincoln’s next brother, Edmund, was allowed by Henry VII to inherit the earldom of Suffolk but not the dukedom, because he had not the means to support it, and this rankled. The new Earl was a hot-headed, impetuous fool with grand designs on the throne of England, and in July 1501 he went voluntarily into exile in Flanders with his brother Richard, hoping to obtain support for their cause from Maximilian. On their way they visited Sir James Tyrell, who had probably known them as children during Richard III’s reign and earlier and he unwisely offered them assistance.

  Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy Lieutenant of Calais, found out what Tyrell had done and that he had done it in the full knowledge that Suffolk was planning to overthrow Henry VII. This was treason of the first order and Nanfan duly reported what he knew to the Council in London, though Henry VII at first refused to believe it and others accused Nanfan of maliciously seeking to do Tyrell harm. However, when Sir Robert Curzon, described by Vergil as an agent of the King, laid before the Council information which corroborated Nanfan’s allegations, Henry had to accept that Tyrell was guilty, and not only Tyrell, because there was now evidence that Lord William Courtenay (husband of the Queen’s sister Katherine), William de la Pole (Suffolk’s brother) and others were involved. The King suspected a far-reaching conspiracy against him, and in October 1501 ordered the arrest of all concerned, who were then publicly proclaimed traitors. Suffolk and his brother Richard were out of reach: Suffolk was not arrested until he was extradited to England in 1506, and not executed until 1513, and Richard de la Pole remained abroad, a thorn in the side of the Tudors until he was killed at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. But William de la Pole was incarcerated in the Tower and remained there, in relative comfort, until his death thirty-eight years later. Other conspirators, including Courtenay, were also imprisoned. A luckless few were executed.

  Early in 1502 Henry VII, angry because Tyrell was still at liberty in Guisnes Castle, insisted that he be apprehended without delay. Tyrell refused to surrender to the King’s officers and began to prepare the castle for a siege as the Calais garrison, loyal to Henry VII, took up its position outside the walls. Then Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Privy Seal, asked to speak with Tyrell, and was admitted to the castle, where he promised him, in the King’s name, a safe-conduct to England, assuring him he was in no danger. Tyrell at length agreed to go with him, but he refused to surrender the castle, leaving his son Thomas to hold it against the King’s force.

  In Calais harbour a battleship waited to convey Tyrell to England. He boarded it under escort and was soon in conversation with John, Lord Dynham, the Lord Treasurer, when the Captain of the Guard informed him that, unless he ordered his son to surrender Guisnes Castle, he would be thrown overboard without delay. Tyrell complied, and both he and his son were arrested on board ship and put in chains. On arrival i
n England both were sent to the Tower.

  ‘Very truth it is,’ writes More, ‘and well known that at such time as Sir James Tyrell was in the Tower for treason, both Dighton and he were examined and confessed the murder [of the Princes], but whither the bodies were removed they could nothing tell,’ for they too had been misled by tales of a reburial.

  No official record or transcript of Tyrell’s confession survives today, but it must have existed at one time because More describes it as his chief source, implying that he had seen it, and the details in his account, which occur nowhere else, argue its authenticity. More may also have obtained some information from Mary Tyrell and other inmates of the Minories and from John Dighton. Bacon says that, after being interrogated, Dighton was set at liberty and granted a pension on condition that he left England and took up residence in Calais. He also states that Dighton was ‘the principal means of divulging this tradition’. More, writing in the reign of Henry VIII, seems to have traced Dighton, for he knew he ‘yet walks alive and in good possibility to be hanged ere he die’, which suggests he had either returned from exile without permission, or was living a life of crime. Dighton’s interrogation could only have taken place if Tyrell had revealed details of the murder and his accomplices under questioning. Otherwise, why would the government have gone to the trouble of tracing and examining Dighton also?

  More implies in his account that Henry VII himself had divulged the contents of Tyrell’s confession and had disclosed that Dighton was still alive and free. Bacon says the King ‘gave out’ that the statements of Tyrell and Dighton corroborated each other. However, there is no extant record of any public statement being made by the King about the death of the Princes, which argues that Henry VII probably ‘gave out’ his information to his trusted advisers only, many of whom were known to More.

  More’s account became accepted as the truth by every Tudor writer on the subject. Thanks to More, we have a good idea of what was in the confession, and the striking thing about More’s account is that it substantiates many of the rumours, from as far back as 1483, and also the circumstantial evidence dating from Richard III’s reign.

  The revisionists have frequently disputed the fact that Tyrell ever made such a confession, but without backing their claim by convincing arguments. Here, after all, was an eye-witness account of the murder of the Princes, and it was believed to be the truth by a man of great learning and integrity who was in a position to check its veracity. Such powerful evidence cannot easily be ignored. It has been suggested that Tyrell was forced into making a confession to suit Henry VII’s purposes. If so, why did he involve Dighton? It is far more likely that Tyrell, facing death, with nothing to lose and the hope of absolution and thereafter Heaven, was only too relieved to unburden himself. He was not necessarily looking for a reward, nor coerced by fear, but perhaps seeking the salvation of his soul. It is also significant that he was never charged with collusion in the murder.

  It has been suggested that Henry VII fabricated this confession. If so, why did he not use it for propaganda purposes? Why bother to go to such trouble for nothing? There are very good reasons for accepting Tyrell’s confession as genuine, but the fact remains that Henry VII did not publicise or make use of it. It would seemingly, for many reasons, have been to his advantage to accord the widest publicity to the information he had received, which he had after all been seeking for years: nevertheless there were equally compelling reasons why the confession should be suppressed.

  Firstly, it would be in keeping with Henry’s general policy of ‘least said, soonest mended’ with regard to the history of the House of York. Secondly, the King was hoping to preserve the precious alliance with Spain. Prince Arthur had just died and Henry was hoping to marry his widow, Katherine of Aragon, to the young Duke of York, now heir to the throne. But her father, King Ferdinand, had in the past expressed deep concern over the insecurity of the English crown; it was because of this that Henry had had Warwick executed. Therefore in the spring of 1502 the last thing that Henry wanted was adverse publicity about the fate of the Princes, especially since his son was not yet eleven and he himself was beginning to suffer symptoms of the disease, either cancer or tuberculosis, that was later to kill him.

  Thirdly, the murder of the Princes had been very much to Henry’s own advantage. Should he publicise Tyrell’s involvement, people would view Tyrell’s previous steady advancement under Henry VII as highly suspicious, seeing it as a reward for carrying out the murder on Henry’s behalf. Henry had suffered enough public opprobrium for the killing of Warwick, and he dared not now accuse Tyrell, his faithful servant for sixteen years, for fear that people would lay the murder at his own door. He had seen what such rumours had done to Richard III’s reputation. It was one thing to learn that the Princes were really dead, but quite another to be known to have favoured their murderer.

  Lastly, Henry’s chief motive in having Tyrell questioned had probably been his desire to trace the bodies of the children. Had he been able to do this he could have made out that the discovery of their remains had resulted from a search that he himself had ordered, and Tyrell’s involvement need never have been referred to. But Tyrell, of course, firmly believed that the bodies had been removed to an unknown grave or even, if rumour spoke the truth, buried at sea. It is unlikely, therefore, that Henry ordered a search to be made at the original burial site, as the bodies of the children were not found. Hence the confession was virtually worthless to Henry – without the bodies he was still no further forward.

  The fact that Henry VII made no use of Tyrell’s confession therefore argues its authenticity. Its absence from official records and Vergil’s history proves how politically sensitive the issue still was. Only years later was More able to find out the truth about it, and even then his sources were reluctant to be identified. Clearly the issue was still a sensitive one when More’s book was written, and this may well be the reason why it was written for private circulation only.

  On 2nd May, 1502, Sir James Tyrell was arraigned on a charge of high treason; his indictment specified that his crime was his traitorous association and correspondence with Suffolk. No mention was made of the murder of the Princes. Tyrell was found guilty, and on 6th May was beheaded on Tower Hill, apparently without making any speech to the watching crowd. A day later his son Thomas was also condemned to death, though Henry VII was merciful and spared his life. Three years later Thomas Tyrell managed to secure the reversal of the attainder on his father and himself.


  The Skeletons in the Tower

  BECAUSE TYRELL’S CONFESSION was suppressed and More’s account of it remained long unpublished, the fate of the Princes in the Tower remained a matter for speculation during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. More himself says that their deaths had ‘so far come into question that some remain yet in doubt whether they were in King Richard’s days destroyed or no’. It appears then that there were some who believed that the Princes were not dead and others who believed that Henry VII had murdered them. As we have seen, More, who had no reason to like Henry VII, was firmly of the opinion that Richard III was the guilty party. After More’s book was published it rapidly gained acceptance as the most veracious account of what had actually happened and became the basis of all subsequent memoirs on the subject of the Princes written during the Tudor and early Stuart periods. Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, derived its plot from Holinshed, who based his chronicle on Hall’s, who used More’s history almost word for word in his own chronicle.

  Between them, More and Shakespeare did more than any other writers to publicise Richard III’s evil reputation. By Shakespeare’s time Richard had become the arch villain, capable of any crime, however terrible. More’s history is a moral tale about tyranny; Shakespeare’s play is a study of evil.

  No further searches were made in the Tower for the bones of the Princes. Yet Edward V and York were not the only children to disappear in that grim fortress during a turbulent age. In November
1539, when Henry VIII sent his cousins, Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, and Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, to the Tower on a charge of conspiring to overthrow him, he ordered also the imprisonment of all the other members of their families including their sons, Edward Courtenay and Henry Pole, both aged twelve. Both Exeter and Montagu went to the block. Afterwards, the King ordered that Lady Exeter, her son Henry Pole and Henry’s aged grandmother, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury – daughter of Clarence and mother of Lord Montagu – remain in the Tower.

  His Yorkist cousins had been a thorn in Henry’s side for many years, and his former warmth towards the family had changed rapidly to bitter loathing after Cardinal Reginald Pole, Montagu’s brother, had written a virulent tract denouncing his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Where the Pole family was concerned, Henry VIII now acted like a man obsessed, and this explains why he extended his vindictiveness to the innocent sons of Exeter and Montagu, who had played no part in any treasonable conspiracy, and why, because he was a Pole, young Henry fared worse than Edward Courtenay.

  In 1541 a northern rebellion against the King gave Henry the excuse he needed to execute the ageing Countess of Salisbury, who was informed of her impending doom only a short time beforehand and whose sentence was carried out with horrific butchery. Henry Pole, then aged fourteen, was expected to follow her to the block, but even Henry VIII dared not risk alienating public opinion – already shocked at the fate of Lady Salisbury – by putting so young a person to death. Instead he ordered that the boy be placed in solitary confinement, and refused to allow him a tutor, although his cousin Edward Courtenay enjoyed such a privilege. The King intended that Henry Pole be ‘poorly and strictly kept, and not desired to know anything’. Such treatment was not dissimilar to that meted out by Henry VII to Warwick half a century earlier.

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