The Princes in the Tower: Britain’s most famous missing persons case

The unexplained disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, aka 12-year-old Edward V of England and his nine-year-old brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, is one of Britain’s coldest cases. Five and a half centuries on, it remains the subject of debate and conspiracy theory. But are we any closer to the truth?

When King Edward IV of England died on April 9th 1483, his son, also Edward, succeeded him as Edward V. Because he was only 12, his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was supposed to act as Lord Protector of the Realm till he came of age. This didn’t quite go to plan. Richard sent both Edward and his younger brother to the Tower of London, supposedly in preparation for Edward’s coronation. But the coronation never happened. Instead, Richard took the throne for himself and the little princes disappeared.

A game of thrones

On his deathbed, Edward IV named his brother, Richard of Gloucester, Lord Protector of the Realm until his son reached maturity. However, Elizabeth Woodville—Edward IV’s wife and queen consort and Edward V’s mother—wasn’t too thrilled about this. She and her family either didn’t trust Richard or wanted to seize power for themselves in the wake of the king’s death (or both).

In any case, Elizabeth ordered her own brother, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, who was looking after Edward V at Ludlow Castle, to bring the boy king to London immediately to be crowned. And she told him to bring an armed escort of 2000 men. Whatever her motive, it certainly looked like Elizabeth was preparing to do battle with her brother-in-law.

But Richard, aware of what was going on, intercepted Edward V and Anthony on their way to London. Also present was Richard Grey, Edward V’s half-brother (the product of Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage), and Thomas Vaughn, Edward’s chamberlain. Richard met them at Stony Stafford and dined with them, lulling them into a false sense of security before arresting all three men for treason the following morning. (They were later beheaded at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire.) When the boy king protested the arrests, Richard told his nephew of a plot to deny him his role as Lord Protector, and that his guardians had been a part of it. He then escorted Edward V to London himself.

On hearing of her brother and second-eldest son’s arrests, Elizabeth Woodville fled into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her daughters and nine-year-old son, Richard of Shrewsbury.

Edward V and Richard of Gloucester arrived in London together. At the time, Richard still promised his nephew he would be crowned, but postponed the date from 4th May to 22nd June. On 19th May, Richard sent Edward to the Tower of London because, at the time, the Tower was the traditional residence of monarchs prior to their coronation.

In early June, Richard wrote to a number of important lords asking for their support against “the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity” because he suspected Elizabeth Woodville and her cohorts of plotting his murder. At a Privy Council meeting on 13th June at the Tower of London, Richard accused Lord Hastings of conspiring with the Woodvilles against him. It is said that Hastings was dragged out of the Council chambers and immediately beheaded in the courtyard.

Then, on 16th June, Richard decided he wanted both his young nephews in the Tower. Still in sanctuary, Elizabeth Woodville was persuaded (or forced) to hand over her youngest son. She was told that Edward was lonely and wanted his brother, and if little Richard was allowed to go to the Tower to be with him, he’d be able to attend the coronation as well. At this point, Edward’s coronation was still planned for 22nd June.

But as soon as nine-year-old Richard was lodged in the Tower, all plans for Edward V’s coronation were abandoned. It is said that a clergyman called Robert Stillington informed Richard of Gloucester that Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage was invalid and the Princes in the Tower were, as a result, bastards. On 22nd June, a sermon was preached at St Paul’s Cross proclaiming Richard of Gloucester as the only legitimate heir to the House of York. Then, on 25th June, “a group of lords, knights and gentlemen” petitioned Richard to take the throne and he accepted. On 6th July, he was crowned Richard III at Westminster Abbey.

The princes vanish

The princes were seen playing together in the Tower grounds shortly after Richard joined his brother. But Dominic Mancini, an Italian friar who was in London during the spring and summer of 1483, wrote that after Richard III seized the throne, the princes were taken into the “inner apartments of the Tower” and seen less and less. There are no recorded sightings of either boy after the summer of 1483.

Many historians believe that the Princes in the Tower were murdered towards the end of the summer. In 1674, the skeletons of two children were discovered buried under a staircase in the White Tower during renovation works. However, the bodies couldn’t be identified at the time and were buried at Westminster Abbey. Still no one knows if the bodies were the princes or not. There’s been renewed interest in excavating them and doing a DNA analysis since Richard III’s remains were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012. However, the Queen needs to grant permission to dig them up. She hasn’t.

Nevertheless, the most likely explanation for the disappearance of the princes is murder. The question is, by who?

Was Richard III clearing his path to the throne?

The basic facts make it look like Richard III was stopping at nothing to get his grubby hands on the English throne. He’d had both his nephews lodged in the Tower, two boys with better claims to the throne than him. He’d arrested and executed his nephew’s guardians and allies. He’d had his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville declared invalid to make his nephews illegitimate. He’d made a path to the throne clear of obstructions and in short order he was king.

Of course, two boys holed up in the Tower with claims to the English throne that might forever be debated were a permanent threat to his power. The prevailing view is that he ordered their murder to secure his hold on the crown.

It’s believed that Sir James Tyrell, a trusted servant of Richard III, was the one who did the deed. This is based on evidence that he confessed to smothering the princes to death, a confession he made during the reign of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Henry VII succeeded Richard III after defeating him at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Were the princes smothered to death?

Sir Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III” records that Tyrell confessed to the murders in 1501 while on trial for treason, and named John Dighton as a co-conspirator. According to More, Dighton confirmed his and Tyrell’s parts in the plot to kill the princes.

The problem is, we only have Thomas More’s word for this. No record of Tyrell’s confession to the murders has ever been found. And Thomas More wasn’t writing at the time, but between 1512 and 1519 during the reign of Henry VIII. The Tudor dynasty widely portrayed Richard III as a villain and a tyrant, but they had a motive for doing so—they’d snatched his throne. They wanted to legitimise that snatching.

Having said that, historian David Starkey believes he’s discovered evidence that Tyrell did indeed confess to the princes’ murders. Namely, royal records that Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, were present throughout Tyrell’s trial. Why is this evidence that Tyrell confessed? Because Elizabeth of York was the princes’ older sister. There would be no reason for her to be present at Tyrell’s trial, unless she was there to hear him confess to her brothers’ murders.

It’s hardly definitive, but Starkey believes that it’s enough to prove Thomas More’s account of Tyrell’s confession correct, and by extension, that Richard III was responsible for the princes’ murders.

Was Richard III a true villain?

There are plenty of Richard III sympathisers out there—notably the Richard III Society—who believe that the king’s villainy and tyranny have been overstated, mostly because of Tudor bias. It was in the Tudor interest to make Richard a villain, so they spread lies and exaggerations about him—Thomas More being a chief culprit. It was his unflattering account of Richard III that led to William Shakespeare portraying him as a ruthless, devious murderer in his play, Richard III. Shakespeare accused Richard not only of murdering the Princes in the Tower but also previous king Henry VI, his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, and his own wife.

Richard III

The arguments put forth by the Richard III Society are that Richard was faithful to his nephews. That he had every intention of seeing Edward V crowned until information came to him that both Edward and his brother were illegitimate. That Richard had widespread support when he took the crown, and that his actions in the lead-up to his succession were in part because he justifiably believed that the Woodvilles were plotting against him.

SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 1 AHEAD

Do you remember the scene in season 1 of Game of Thrones when Ned Stark, named Lord Protector during the minority of Prince Joffrey by King Robert on his deathbed, came into the throne room to assume his role as Protector? It’s the scene where Cersei Lannister rips up the piece of paper Robert had written declaring Ned Protector and says, “We have a new king now.”

Now, imagine Ned Stark as Richard III and Cersei Lannister as Elizabeth Woodville and you can see what may have happened between the two of them. Contemporary evidence does suggest that Elizabeth and her supporters sought to have Edward V crowned immediately, before Richard could assume his role as Protector. No one in the Queen’s party informed Richard of his brother’s death or of his legal right to be Protector, and the armed escort of 2000 men that Elizabeth sent to accompany Edward suggests that she was preparing for war with Richard. And since the addendum to Edward IV’s will naming Richard as Lord Protector has never been found, there are rumours that Elizabeth Woodville destroyed it, à la Cersei ripping up the paper in GOT.

To me, though, the bare facts speak for themselves. Elizabeth Woodville may have been up to something, but there is no real evidence of any treason committed by her son’s guardians—Anthony Woodville, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughn—all of whom were beheaded on Richard’s orders. And even the sympathetic Richard III Society accept that the summary execution of Lord Hastings immediately after that Council meeting “remains a blot on Richard’s reputation”. Most historians also agree that the invalidity of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage—making the Princes in the Tower bastards—was a fiction made up by Richard to justify his seizure of the throne.

And if he was capable of that—and all those unjustified beheadings—couldn’t he also be capable of his nephews’ murders?

Could Henry VII have been responsible?

Henry VII

While the prevailing view is that Richard III killed the Princes in the Tower, some have accused Richard’s successor, Henry VII, of doing the deed. Henry VII had married the princes’ sister, Elizabeth of York, in order to unite the factions of Lancaster and York, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses. He wanted both his and his wife’s claims to be secure, so he repealed the Act of Parliament that had declared the princes (and Elizabeth) illegitimate.

Of course, if the princes were still alive, that would mean they had better claims to the throne than Henry. The new king wouldn’t want that hanging over him, so…

Still, there’s no evidence for any of this. Plus, this theory suggests that the princes were still alive for several years after they disappeared, since Henry was out of the country and couldn’t have murdered them in 1483.

The most likely culprit on the evidence we have available is still Richard III.

Did the princes even die?

Some writers have suggested that at least one of the Princes in the Tower escaped death. Typically it is said to have been Richard. During the reign of Henry VII, two individuals—Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck—claimed to be Richard and were formally recognised as Richard by supporters. However, both eventually retracted their claims, and Warbeck was executed. Some historians believe that Warbeck was the real deal, but most accept that both boys were imposters.

The Princes in the Tower continue to intrigue us simply because nobody knows for sure where they went. No bodies have been identified, and no contemporary accounts record their fate.

Could they have been abducted by aliens? Could they have travelled in time?

Unlikely…

… but you never know.

The mystery of the Princes in the Tower takes centre stage in my forthcoming novel Million Eyes, for which I am currently seeking a literary agent. Stay tuned for news and updates about my search.

Next week: a review of ITV conspiracy thriller Fearless

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