One of the most tragic stories of the English monarchy – and one that has captivated people for centuries – is that of the two Princes in the Tower. The two Princes in question were Edward V of England and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. When they were 12 and 9 years old, they were taken to the Tower of London, ostensibly to prepare for Edward V’s coronation. However, not long after, the two boys disappeared and their uncle Richard III seized the throne. The question of what happened to the two boys has fascinated the public ever since – it is still being reported on to this day. But who were these boys, and why all the interest?
The Princes in the Tower, imagined by John Everett Millais, 1878.
To start with, we need to go back a few decades. In the early 1450s, Henry VI was ruler of England, but by 1455 Richard, Duke of York (senior) decided he wasn’t happy with Henry and Margaret of Anjou’s rule and the dominant factions at court. Thus began the Wars of the Roses, a series of English civil wars which lasted until 1487 (and complicated enough to warrant its own blog post at a later date). In 1461, Richard’s son Edward finally overcame the forces of King Henry, and managed to get himself crowned as Edward IV of England. Barring a brief period at the end of 1470 to early 1471 when Henry VI was put back into power, Edward remained King of England until his untimely death in 1483 at the age of 40.
Edward’s death was exceedingly inconvenient. Not only had the kingdom only just began to stabilise, but his heir was not yet 13 years old. Ordinarily, this may not have been much of a problem; indeed, Henry VI had become king when he was just 9 months old, and others had kept hold of power for him. But England was in a very different situation to the start of the fifteenth century, and the series of civil wars had destabilised the kingdom and meant that a child king was far less secure. Especially when his uncle Richard of Gloucester – who should have been his greatest ally – was possibly already casting his eye at the throne for himself.
Edward IV’s will had stipulated that his trusted brother, Richard, was to act as Protector during the minority of his son. Now that Edward V was king, preparations needed to be made for his coronation to secure the throne. Thus, Edward and his men, and Richard and his men, set out for London. The two parties met in Buckinghamshire where they dined amicably. But the following morning, some of Edward’s men – including his relatives from his mother’s side – were arrested and sent north. The men were then executed without proper trial and authorisation. A coup was in motion.
Richard III, c. 1520 painted after a lost original.
Edward V and Richard continued their journey to London, although the rest of Edward’s entourage had been dismissed. On 19th May 1483, Edward V took up residence in the Tower of London. At this time, the Tower was still a royal residence, so from the outside this does not look as suspicious as it would today. When Edward arrived in London, though, things would not have seemed too friendly. His mother, Elizabeth Woodville, had fled to sanctuary with her daughters and her younger son, Richard of York. Richard of Gloucester had proclaimed that Elizabeth and her followers had plotted to kill him – and he had already had her brother and son executed. It is no wonder then that Elizabeth sought the sanctuary of the Church to protect the lives of the rest of her family.
Sadly, for Elizabeth, Richard and his supporters convinced her to allow her son Richard of York to join her brother Edward V in the Tower, again supposedly to prepare for Edward’s coronation. Richard joined his brother on 16th June 1483, and neither boy would be seen outside the Tower walls alive again.
To the right of the picture, Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, and their son Edward V. From ‘Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers’ c. 1480.
Richard had repeatedly delayed Edward’s coronation, and now that he had both of his brother’s male heirs in his hands, he finally made his move. An act of Parliament, Titulus Regius, was passed which proclaimed Richard of Gloucester as the new King of England. This act declared that Edward IV’s children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate, listing numerous flimsy arguments. It was said that Edward was already pre-contracted to another woman – which in English ecclesiastical law meant that any subsequent marriage was invalid – and also that Elizabeth and her mother had used witchcraft in order to seduce Edward into marrying her. If Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage was invalid, then any children were therefore debarred from taking the throne through bastardy. Richard was now King Richard III of England, and Edward V and Richard of York were inconvenient problems who could grow up and try to reclaim the throne.
Dominic Mancini, an Italian who visited England at the time of Richard’s coup, records in chilling detail what happened next:
“After Hastings was removed, all the attendants that had waited on the king were debarred access to him. He and his brother were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether. A Strasbourg doctor, the last of his attendants whose services the king enjoyed, reported that the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him … I have seen many men burst forth into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there was a suspicion that he had been done away with. Whether, however, he had been done away with [Mancini is writing in December 1483], and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered.” (Quote from Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney)
‘The Children of Edward IV of England’ imagined by Pedro Américo, 1880. It is believed by many that the boys were suffocated with a pillow.
It is still not known to this day what happened to the two boys. Indeed, they were never again seen in public, but no announcement was ever made to account for their whereabouts. It was largely assumed, both at the time and now, that they were murdered because they were inconvenient obstacles to Richard III’s legitimacy (as it is also believed Henry VI was murdered to secure Edward IV’s claim to the throne). Many believe that it was done under the orders of Richard III, others that whilst he may not have issued the order he certainly did not stop it.
There are a couple of alternative theories. It is known that Edward V was regularly visited by a doctor whilst he was in the Tower, leading to the suggestion that he died of an illness – and the question of why Richard would provide a doctor if he was planning on murdering him. However, this is questionable; if Edward had died of an illness, why was it not announced, and the body put on show to remove doubt of foul play, and instead was covered up? And then what of his younger brother, Richard?
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A second theory is that Perkin Warbeck – a man who, during the reign of Henry VII in 1497 claimed to be the younger Richard of York – was indeed who he said he was. It is suggested that he had managed to flee to the continent instead of dying in the Tower. Indeed, Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV, publicly recognised Warbeck as her nephew. However, he later confessed to being an imposter, and some suggest he was potentially one of Edward IV’s illegitimate children. Very few support the idea that Warbeck was indeed Richard of York, however.
Perkin Warbeck, from a 15th century drawing.
In 1674, workmen rebuilding a stairway in the Tower of London discovered bones belonging to two children. It was widely believed at the time that these must be the bones of the two Princes. On the orders of Charles II, the bones were interred in Westminster Abbey. They were left there until 1933, when they were re-examined and it was discovered that the skeletons were incomplete and had been interred with animal bones. Any subsequent requests for examination have been refused.
The Urn at Westminster Abbey containing the remains found at the Tower believed to be those of the Princes.
The fate of the two boys still captivate the public today. Books have been written about it, theories still circulate, and those who believe Richard III has been vilified by history and seek to clear his name still proclaim his innocence. Just a few months ago, York Dungeon started a petition in order to get Parliament to debate whether the remains of the skeletons in Westminster Abbey should be re-examined with modern forensic knowledge to confirm their identity. In all likelihood, whether the remains are theirs or not, these two young boys were almost certainly murdered in 1483 simply because they were an inconvenience. And that is why they still capture imaginations today.
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