Did Richard III murder the princes in the Tower? You debate

It is one of the most hotly debated arguments in history – was Richard III responsible for the death of his nephews, Edward and Richard?

Princes in the Tower – engraving after painting by Paul Delaroche. Getty Images

The boys, who were the sons of Edward IV, were aged twelve and nine respectively when, upon the sudden death of their father in April 1483, Edward was proclaimed king, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, named as protector.

The nephews, declared illegitimate because it was alleged that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, were lodged in the Tower of London. They were never seen again.

But did Gloucester, crowned Richard III in July 1483, murder his nephews? Here, readers Matthew Lewis – who protests Richard’s innocence – and Julian Sutcliffe debate.

Matthew: The primary, and obvious, motive for Richard III to have murdered his 12 and nine-year-old nephews is frequently stated as being the securing of his throne.

This seems a nonsense, given that Richard never publicised their deaths to prevent them from being a threat. Displaying their bodies and blaming natural causes or some traitor would have been a requirement of this plan.

He also failed to kill any of the princes' sisters – one of whom, as a matter of fact, not possibility, became central to the opposition to him. Nor did he remove the children of his other brother, George, who possessed a potentially better claim than Richard.

No contemporary definitively blamed Richard, discussing only rumours that arose – plenty blamed others like [Henry, Duke of] Buckingham. Sir Thomas More, architect of Richard's reputation, reported only rumour.

Only Shakespeare made it fact for his work of fiction – a story that has become the history. The Bard invented facts as well as words.

Julian: In truth, Richard III had to have the princes removed in order to allow his succession to go unchallenged. They were the only possible Plantagenet challengers for his claim, and with them alive his seat on the throne would be most uneasy.

George Duke of Clarence's son, the Earl of Warwick, had been excluded owing to his father's attainting – a judicial process which removed an individuals' right to pass on any titles or land. This included, arguably, their claim to the throne.

Any female child in the Plantagenet line would obviously be passed over for a male claimant, as female heirs were an unprecedented and dangerous idea.

Richard could not have publicly murdered his nephews or Warwick, as to do so would acknowledge his status as a usurper, and remove any legal validity his reign had.

Yet to leave the princes alive would mean his claim would not be the preeminent one – therefore, the only option to a man as ruthless as Richard was quiet murder, in order to remove any chance of grown princes of the blood challenging his seizure of the crown.

Matthew: The Earl of Warwick was not himself a traitor. Attainders could be reversed as easily as passed. When Edward IV took the throne he, his father and his grandfather were attainted traitors.

That didn't stop Edward; he just had parliament reverse all of the Acts of Attainder. Richard's father had acquired his titles from his uncle in spite of his father's attainder, so there was a precendent.

Female claimants may be passed over, but Elizabeth of York was used to bolster Henry Tudor's claim and support as early as autumn 1483, so was a very real, tangible threat, yet Richard did not murder her or her sisters. If he would kill two boys, why not finish the job properly? Having been staunchly loyal to his brother, why kill two of his children?

If it was well known that they were dead at their uncle's hands, why did pretenders trouble Henry VII so much? Why did neither Henry VII nor their mother Elizabeth Woodville ever accuse Richard III of their murder? Why were no (recorded) masses said for their souls?

Julian: Edward IV seized the crown by feat of arms, rendering his attainting moot. No precedent existed for the legal succession of an attainted person, meaning the princes were the obvious rivals to Richard.

Only two pretenders challenged Henry, and neither were credible. He did not need to execute Warwick until the Spanish demanded it, showing the minimal threat he posed.

It hardly seems fair to call Richard loyal to his brother when he disregarded his nephews’ claim to the throne in order to further his ambition. Unless one can claim his seizure of the throne was legal, it cannot be ignored that the princes disappeared in 1583 under Richard’s protection.

It would have been simple to show them to the public when rumours of their disappearance spread – the logical assumption is he had murdered them. They vanished for two years under the power of a man who had removed them, and it is not a leap to suggest quiet murder.

Matthew: The example of Edward IV might have made Richard wary of Warwick, yet he invested in his nephews. It was Henry VII, not Richard III, who immediately arrested Warwick, imprisoned him in the Tower for 14 years, and executed him on flimsy charges.

Richard's loyalty to his brother is well evidenced, and stretched over more than a decade. This cannot be ignored to try to make the murder of his nephews appear to be ‘in character’. If Richard was always so desperate for the throne that he would kill two children, then he played a truly long game with no hope of success or signal of intent.

Disappearance also does not equal murder. If a man in a canoe can disappear for years in this day and age it could not have been hard to secrete two boys in medieval England, especially when Henry VII had a clear, vested interest in maintaining the secret of their survival after 1485.

Richard might ask why he should keep showing the boys on demand. They were legally illegitimate [because it was alleged that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid].

Julian: Richard III had no need to execute Warwick, as Warwick's claim had been discredited by Clarence's treason. The princes' claims were much more powerful, and hence had to be dealt with swiftly. No doubt Warwick would have been removed later, as Richard only ruled for two years.

Loyalty over a long period does not wipe out the fact Richard seized his nephew's throne. If his loyalty was so unquestioned, and he had no desire for the throne, how can one account for the simple fact he took it illegally? This is the crux of the matter – Richard was a usurper, and usurpers have little restraint for doing more illegal acts, like murder.

Comparing an English teacher to a legal monarch and his heir presumptive seems a fatuous association to make, and if it is admitted that Richard caused his heirs to disappear, why on earth were they left alive? If they were no threat they should have kept their liberty! After all, illegitimacy could be removed by parliament just as easily as an attainder – just ask Elizabeth I.

Matthew: Richard didn't take the throne illegally. He was asked to be king by a parliamentary committee, his claim ratified by parliament. His evidence, along with any of the boys' survival, would be lost to us because Henry VII, a true usurper, had an interest in ensuring its loss.

Warwick and Richard's other nephews were at liberty, training for government, not ‘no doubt’ destined to be ‘removed’. It was Henry VII and his son who saw Plantagenet blood as a threat, not Richard.

Any plot by Richard III to murder the princes to remove their threat rested upon publicising their deaths. That he allowed uncertainty strongly suggests that this was not his plan.

If they died, who really benefitted? Buckingham: rebelled, probably aiming for the throne himself. Margaret Beaufort: her son became a contender for the crown from nowhere. Lord Stanley: now stepfather to a claimant to the throne. Plenty won – but not Richard.

I don't see it as fatuous to offer supporting evidence for a hypothesis. I see none in return. Is it not more fatuous to blame a man for a crime with no evidence even of a crime, let alone his guilt, because a playwright says so?

Julian: All historians know that the idea of parliament as an independent body is irrelevant before the 17th century – just ask Geoffrey Elton! It simply cannot be ignored that Edward V was an anointed king, and his uncle deposed.

While parliament may have dressed it up as law, Richard was simply not the rightful king. You seem so sure of Warwick’s threat, yet why was he not crowned if Edward were illegitimate? Richard would not have been the senior claimant, yet he took the throne – there is no denial he was a usurper.

There is no relevance in discussing who else might benefit, as none of them did directly. Henry VII would not have had the resources to pluck the royal princes from their uncle’s care if he desired to keep them alive. Only one man benefitted in actuality: Richard, their uncle, who had seized their throne.

Shakespeare’s accusations have certainly been given more weight, with the discovery of Richard’s scoliosis helping to prove the idea of his ‘hunchback ‘not being a Tudor fabrication.

Three chronicles in the 30 years after Henry’s accession name Richard as the murderer: Robert Fabyn’s, Thomas More’s, and Polydore Vergil’s. We see a motive: solidifying his claim. We see an opportunity: having the princes under his thumb.

Richard had no restraint in butchering the Woodville family, as in Plantagenet England, murder was the order of the day. The evidence and analysis all point to one conclusion: the obvious murderer was indeed the murderer.

What do you think? Do you believe Richard killed his nephews? Share your view by commenting below, or by tweeting @HistoryExtra or posting on our Facebook page.

And is there a historical topic you would like to debate, or see debated on our website? Let us know!

Matthew Lewis writes a history blog, and tweets from @MattLewisAuthor. Julian Sutcliffe is an 18-year-old A Level student whose interests include history, debating, and lacrosse. He tweets from @juliansutcliffe

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