This blog post is by Amber Millard, submitted last year as a coursework assignment for the module The Wars of the Roses. Now it’s marked and deanonymised we can share it with you!
One of the most debated topics in Medieval English history focuses on the case of Richard III and the untimely disappearance of his nephews, King Edward IV’s sons. (Thornton, 2021, p. 12) The mystery surrounding what happened to the young princes; Edward V and Richard of York has intrigued both contemporaries and historians alike. Whilst many have chosen to blame Richard III for the young boys’ deaths, over the years no definitive proof has been dug up that can be attributed to Richard III, or anyone for that matter, as being responsible. It has now come to the understanding of many historians that Richard III may not be the one to blame.
For many years, what we knew of Richard III and the fate of the princes came from the writings of Thomas More and then, from William Shakespeare. Thomas More, writing under Henry VIII, argued that Richard III was a villainous, unlawful king who did away with his nephews in order to claim the throne for himself. More’s account is increasingly important in the history of Richard III and the princes, as it was the first written documentation that placed blame and responsibility for the deaths of Edward V and Richard Duke of York on Richard III. (Thornton, 2020, p. 3) It was also More’s work on Richard III that influenced Shakespeare’s play by the same title. In this, he follows More’s interpretation of Richard III, describing him as an ‘evil murderous uncle’. Writing years later, in 2019, Michael Hicks in his book Richard III: The Self-Made King argues that there is no mystery surrounding the case of who killed the princes, because there was simply no opportunity for anyone else to have committed the crime, thus Hicks puts forward that no other suspect can be credible. (Thornton, 2021, pg. 14)
However, in recent years, a number of historians have criticised both More’s and Shakespeares account, discounting them as Tudor propaganda written over 20 years after the events were supposed to have taken place. (Hicks, 2003, p. 247). With both of these authors writing under Tudor monarchs, it is easy to see how their writings were not built on fact alone. Vested interests in presenting Richard III as evil, unlawful and murderous were paramount during this time in order to convey the current reigning monarchs as legitimate in their right to the throne.
As well as this, historians today have pointed out that there is no sufficient evidence, both from the time and at current, to prove that Richard III was guilty of the crimes he was accused, and that all accusations made at that time were simply based off of rumours and hearsay. ( M.R. Horowitz, 2018, p. 8) To support this, they often refer to the ignorance of the supposed confession of Sir James Tyrell in committing the murders on Richard III’s behalf. If he provided solid evidence that it was Richard to blame, then why was his confession not mentioned beyond a slight referral, including when looking at the work of Vergil and Fabian? Furthering this, they have drawn upon the lack of a public statement until after Richard’s death. The first public statement made about the princes deaths was made by Henry VII in 1486, the year after Richard III’s death. Why was this? Some historians have noted that this was because the princes hadn’t been murdered until after this point. So if Richard wasn’t responsible for their deaths than who was? Suspects have ranged from the Duke of Buckingham, Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort, all having a motive to be rid of the young princes and to gain power. The idea of Richard III’s innocence has become one of significant prevalence in recent years, and has made its way into popular culture today, influencing the views and perceptions of his character on a larger scale.
In 1674, it was reported that the bones of two young children, of similar ages to the princes, were found underneath the staircase of the White Tower in the Tower of London, where it was argued that they were last seen. Following an eyewitness statement which declared that there were pieces of velvet clung to the bones, they were declared to be the bodies of the royal princes, seeing as only royals could wear such high quality fabric. In 1933, these bodies were further examined and it was determined that they were the bodies of two boys, aged around 10 and 12 years old.
However, since then there has been a number of doubts about the reliability of the 1933 forensic investigation, following on from the discovery of Richard III body in a Leicester car park. Work done by Dr. Ashdown-Hill and Philippa Langley in their Missing Princes Project have found the 1933 investigation to have been flawed. They pick out mainly that the sex of the bones and the historical period in which the bones are from is actually unknown to us. As well as this, they actually claim that the bones found in this investigation came from more than two individuals. In this, they almost completely disprove the, up until now, well-known notion that these bones belonged to the princes in the tower. They also push for the DNA evidence that has been used to prove the bones of Richard III to be him, to be tested against the bones found in the tower.
So, if there is DNA evidence available that can prove or disprove the bones to be that of the princes in the tower, then why hasn’t it been used to help us figure out this centuries old mystery? Were the princes even murdered? Perhaps this is the debate that needs to be discussed more by historians. All in all, in the case surrounding the death of the princes in the tower and Richard III, whilst there may never be a definitive answer on what really happened to the princes, the road to clearing Richard’s name seems to be one we are getting closer to.
Brigden, James, ‘The Mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’: What really happened?’ In Sky History, <https://www.history.co.uk/articles/the-mystery-of-the-princes-in-the-tower-what-really-happened> [accessed 17 November 2021]
Editors of bl.uk, ‘Thomas More’s History of King Richard III’ in bl.uk, <https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/ thomas-mores-history-of-king-richard-iii> [accessed 17 November 2021]
Editors of Historic UK, ‘The Princes in the Tower’, in Historic UK, <https://www.historic-uk.com/ HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Princes-in-the-Tower/> [accessed 17 November 2021] Editors of Historic Royal Palaces, ‘The Princes in the Tower: What happened to Edward and his younger brother Richard’, in Historic Royal Palaces, [accessed 17 November 2021]
Editors of the University of Essex News, ‘Research reveals DNA of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, in University of Essex News, (July, 2018) <https://www.essex.ac.uk/news/2018/07/11/research-revealsdna-of-the-‘princes-in-the-tower’> [accessed 23 November 2021]
Hicks, Michael, Richard III and His Rivals: Magnates and Their Motives in the Wars of the Roses, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2003)
M.R. Horowitz, Daring Dynasty: Custom, Conflict and Control in Early-Tudor England, (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018)
Lower jaw with molar, thought to be the remains of Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the tower. https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-princes-in-the-tower/
Richard III, arch-topped painting, c. 1510-40. Artist unknown. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/ richard-iii-arch-topped-portrait-c-1510-40
Sweet King Richard III, Horrible Histories, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XL2se6BzIHk
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, painted by Sir John EvereM Millais, 1878, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princes_in_the_Tower
Thornton, Tim, ‘More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII’ in History, (London: Historical Association, 2020)