The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


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  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

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  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.

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  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

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  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 wall-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. As a groom he may well have known John Green, who helped look

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  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.

  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.

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  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. Andre says the Princes were put to the sword, while The Song

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  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

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  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

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  the 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.

 
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