Did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower?
For centuries, received opinion has had it that the Yorkist king ordered the murder of his young nephews, Edward and Richard, in a ruthless bid to secure his throne. But might the two princes instead have lived on into the Tudor era? Matthew Lewis and Nathen Amin debate the issue
It's one of the most notorious episodes in all of British history, but one that stubbornly refuses to give up all its secrets. When Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, disappeared into the Tower of London in 1483 – where, many believe, they were murdered – the finger of blame for their fate soon alighted on their uncle, Richard III. And there it has stayed for the past 500 years. But proving Richard's guilt has proved fiendishly difficult, and throughout those five centuries a strand of opinion has advanced the case for Richard's innocence.
Here's what we know: in April 1483, Edward IV died suddenly at the age of just 40. Edward's eldest son was proclaimed king (as Edward V). But the young Edward was just 12 years old, and so a lord protector was required to help him through his minority – that role fell to the new king's uncle, Richard.
Browse and listen to all episodes in our podcast series which delves into the medieval murder mystery of the Princes in the Tower
Edward's coronation was set for 22 June, but soon events had taken a dramatic turn: Edward IV's marriage was declared bigamous, Richard was himself declared king (as Richard III) and then young Edward and his brother vanished into the Tower, apparently never to be seen in public again.
Richard arguably had the most to gain from eliminating the young princes but he wasn't the only king to be menaced by rival claims to his throne in the late 15th century. After defeating Richard at 1485's battle of Bosworth, Henry VII was confronted by two pretenders to his own crown: Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, the latter of whom claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury. Could these rebellions have been inspired by the continued survival of the young princes? In short, did Richard spare them, rather than ordering their deaths? Two leading experts debate this question.
Matthew Lewis is a historian and author. His books include Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me (Amberley, 2018)
Nathen Amin is an author with a special interest in Henry VII. His books include The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown (Amberley, 2017)
Could the Princes in the Tower have lived on beyond 1485?
Matthew Lewis: When the French philosopher Pierre Bayle declared that "the antiquity and general acceptance of an opinion is not assurance of its truth", he wasn't referring to the princes in the Tower. But his observation applies perfectly to this famous mystery. Many claim to know beyond reasonable doubt what happened – usually that the boys' uncle Richard III had them murdered – but no one truly does. I believe the potential that they lived beyond Richard's death in 1485 has never received the attention it deserves.
The certainty that the princes died in Richard’s custody was born on the continent. Contemporary English sources were much less confident of the boys’ fate (or fates – for they might have differed). Well into the Tudor era, many writers suggested that at least one of the brothers survived – smuggled from the Tower across the sea or spared by their would-be murderers. It was a common concession that, after murdering Edward V, the killers took pity on his younger brother, Richard. In fact, I suspect that they were never in any danger at all from their uncle Richard, and there are several compelling theories that offer a glimpse of their survival into the Tudor era – when they would have been a far greater threat to the crown than they were in 1483.
Occam's Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, has often been used to bolster the suggestion that Richard murdered his nephews. Relying on it is a symptom of the lack of evidence to support that conclusion. But it can also be applied to aspects of the story to make their survival seem more likely, not less.
- Listen | Nathen Amin considers some of the possible explanations for the princes’ disappearance and whether Richard III was behind their murder
When the princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, sent her daughters out of sanctuary and into Richard III’s care in spring 1484, can she really have believed he had killed his nephews months earlier? Her daughters were a threat to Richard; the eldest, Elizabeth of York, was to marry Henry Tudor if he could win Richard’s throne. Yet they all survived. The simplest explanation for all this is that she knew her sons were safe.
Why did Elizabeth of York keep a book that had belonged to her uncle Richard and sign her name beneath his? That is hardly the action of someone who believed he had murdered her brothers. The behaviour of the main protagonists is among the most compelling evidence that there were no murders.
None of those closest to the princes accused Richard of murder – not even Elizabeth Woodville, the boys' mother
It is striking that none of those closest to the princes made accusations against Richard III. Elizabeth Woodville lived until 1492, but never once accused Richard of their murder. Their sister, Elizabeth of York, was queen until her death in 1503, and even when she had her own dynasty to protect, she, like her sisters, remained silent on the fate of her brothers.
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Some historians insist on relying entirely on Thomas More's account of the fate of the princes. In his History of King Richard III, written between c1513 and 1519, More claims that one of Richard's henchmen, James Tyrrell, confessed to the princes' murder. Yet More's version of events is not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and his story of Richard III is riddled with demonstrable errors.
In fact, the best-informed contemporary writer, the Crowland Chronicler, says only that rumours of the princes’ deaths emerged as part of a major uprising against Richard III in October 1483, but does not say they were true. For me, therefore, the possibility of the princes’ survival into the reign of Henry VII is very real indeed.
- Read more about Lambert Simnel, Richard III’s heir who 'had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VII'
Why might the princes have been killed?
Nathen Amin: If we want to introduce philosophical quotes, none are simpler than 'where there's smoke, there's fire' – though it's perhaps not as pleasing to the ear as Pierre Bayle's laudable effort. It is not possible to argue conclusively that the princes were murdered, for irrefutable evidence of their fate is frustratingly vague. But the evidence we do have strongly suggests they were.
Firstly, too many people stood to gain from the princes’ demise. Richard III’s kingship rested on the assertion that his nephews were illegitimate. It is flawed to say they posed no threat to him, because parliament could have overturned their status as illegitimates. There always remained the possibility that these fallen princes would one day seek to recover their stripped inheritance – why wouldn’t they?
If Richard wasn’t concerned about his present position, he certainly needed to safeguard the crown he intended to one day pass on to his son, and thereafter grandson. The Wars of the Roses, after all, were a dynastic fallout several generations after the deposition of Richard II. Nobody had foreseen those issues in 1399, but in 1485 the third Richard was acutely aware of the dangers a latent claim could one day pose.
There were others who stood to prosper from the princes’ deaths, too. These included the Duke of Buckingham, who briefly soared high under Richard III, and the father-and-son team of John and Thomas Howard, who had previously seen their claim to the dukedom of Norfolk dismissed in favour of the younger of the princes, Richard. Richard’s attainder [forfeiture of lands and rights] and disappearance paved the way for the Howards to receive the Norfolk title, which the family still retain today.
All the principal suspects had vast affinities swollen with men who sought to rise with their masters, giving many lesser-known figures around London ample incentive to dispense with the princes to advance their own careers. And Yorkist opponents of Richard III would hardly have put forward a Welsh-Lancastrian nonentity like Henry Tudor as a plausible contender for the throne had there been any doubt whatsoever that the princes had been killed.
What of precedent? Well, deposed kings were typically slain, as was the case with Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI. Though young Edward V had not been crowned, he had been recognised as king, with fealty to his crown widely sworn.
Even mere pretenders to the throne could prove seriously disruptive if they weren’t dealt with promptly. Richard II’s failure to execute Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV), and the Yorkist failure to capture Henry Tudor, both proved costly. It made little sense in 1483 not to subdue a threat before it could develop further. This same principle ultimately led Henry VII to order the execution of Edward, Earl of Warwick – who, as Richard III’s nephew, had a strong claim to the throne – in 1499.
Sadly, the deaths of the princes were a necessary evil to secure the futures of the sitting dynasties of the day. The lack of evidence regarding the princes' death does not justify the argument that they survived. Quite simply, as 1483 progressed, their presence was a risk that exposed many who stood to gain from their demise. It's implausible that they lived on in such a fragile atmosphere. This is one scenario where Occam's Razor is most fitting.
Heirs and pretenders: 5 potential threats to Richard and Henry's crowns
When Edward IV died in 1483, it was widely expected that his 12-year-old son, also Edward, would accede to the throne. Edward’s coronation was set for 22 June but, by the end of the month, his uncle Richard had seized the crown and consigned his nephew to the Tower. Young Edward was apparently never seen in public again – his fate the source of a 500-year mystery.
Richard of Shrewsbury
Edward V’s younger brother, nine-year-old Richard, was also sent to the Tower when his uncle seized the throne. Richard of Shrewsbury’s fate is unknown: most historians argue that Richard III ordered his murder, though others speculate that he could have survived into the reign of Henry VII.
Edward, Earl of Warwick
As the nephew of kings Edward IV and Richard III, Edward, Earl of Warwick (born 1475) had a powerful claim to the English throne. Henry VII certainly regarded Edward as a threat and imprisoned him in the Tower. Edward’s fate was sealed when he became involved in a plot to flee the Tower with Perkin Warbeck (see below). Henry had Edward executed for treason in 1499.
In May 1487, Henry VII’s Yorkist enemies had Lambert Simnel (c1477– c1525) crowned ‘King Edward VI’ in Dublin, claiming that he was Edward, Earl of Warwick. Having landed in England, Simnel’s rebel army was defeated at the battle of Stoke Field – but Henry pardoned Simnel, putting him to work in the royal kitchen.
In 1497, Perkin Warbeck (c1474–99) headed an uprising against Henry VII in Cornwall, declaring that he was Richard of Shrewsbury. The rebels headed for Taunton but, on learning of the approach of loyalist forces, Warbeck fled. He was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he remained until a botched escape attempt ended in his execution.
Matthew Lewis: Poor Warwick. A fatted calf slaughtered for Tudor security. That was the Tudor way. Yet it wasn't Richard's. Based on the previous 30 years of his life, such an act was way out of character, and cannot have been his first choice.
It's true: Edward IV's children remained a threat to Richard. And there was a precedent of killing, or at least claiming to kill, deposed kings. But in all these cases, a body was produced to silence rumours and vanquish danger. Why didn't Richard do the same with the princes? He could have blamed Bucking-ham, the plague, or a botched plan to free them… it mattered less whether people believed the story than that they knew the boys were dead.
Too many people stood to prosper from the princes' death. It is flawed to argue that they posed no threat to Richard
When Henry IV took the throne in 1399, Richard II’s heir presumptive was Edmund Mortimer, a seven-year-old boy with a younger brother, Roger. No one knew where they were for years, until the death of Henry IV in released them, allowing Edmund to take possession of his inheritance.
Richard had a perfect model for what to do with two boys: not kill them, but hide them. His sister was Duchess of Burgundy, while after more than a decade in the north, Richard had properties he was intimately familiar with, filled with men who were passionately loyal to him. He had places to hide his nephews; in fact, their presence might explain the appointment of another of Richard’s nephews, John de la Pole, to run the Council of the North.
Aside from the princes, 17 of Richard’s nephews and nieces were alive at the beginning of his reign. Every one was still alive on the day of his death at the battle of Bosworth.
As for Occam’s Razor: two missing boys, two pretenders to Henry VII’s throne – this surely points in the direction of Henry being responsible for their deaths.
Nathen Amin: Warwick indeed was a fatted calf slaughtered for Tudor security – killed to satisfy the single biggest preoccupation of any sitting medieval king, the endurance of their line. Why is it so implausible that Richard III was capable of the same act in 1483? He may have been an exemplary duke hitherto, but upon becoming king the goalposts had moved significantly and his new mission as a good father was to secure his son Edward's future.
I strongly suspect that the Lambert Simnel rebellion against Henry VII was an uprising in favour of Edward V
Killing the princes may not have been Richard’s first choice, and I reject all assertions he was a tyrant or monster. But when you place yourself in his shoes during that tense summer – uncertain who around him was friend or foe – it is surely credible he acted decisively to the benefit of himself and his line. Unpalatable as it may be to the modern observer, I’d argue Richard had learnt from the hesitancy of his father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, who ended his life with his head spiked on a gateway after defeat in battle by the Lancastrians.
Edmund Mortimer is an intriguing precedent, but only if we overlook the fact that, unlike Edward V, he was never roundly recognised as king, with oaths sworn across the realm to uphold his kingship. Do not underestimate the strength of loyalty in the heart of a medieval Englishman who had sworn fealty to his king.
So why were the boys’ bodies not produced? If Richard presented the corpses of the princes, just 12 and 9 respectively, to the citizens of London, he would surely have opened himself to accusations of murder at home and abroad. Rumours of their demise were already rife, and the sight of their bodies would have confirmed the suspicions of many. With proof, resistance to Richard’s rule would have hardened, for while previously deposed kings had lost their crowns through their own transgressions, these boys were truly innocents. Only usurpers killed their predecessors, and this was not an accusation that Richard wished to invite.
If he had truly been Edward V, Simnel would surely have been recognised by his sister Elizabeth of York
As for Henry, he simply followed Richard’s policy – to act as though nothing was untoward and hope the matter was gradually forgotten. To propose that the princes outlived Richard and survived into Henry’s reign merely raises questions about the competency of those involved. Richard and Henry were many things – but they weren’t incompetent.
Matthew Lewis: The Warwick example shows that kings did not tend to murder child hostages: Warwick was kept alive for 14 years before his execution. And the point I'm making about Richard III's failure to produce the bodies is this: murdering the princes and keeping it quiet did nothing to remove any threat.
So what did happen to the princes? There are several survival theories with at least as much circumstantial evidence to support them than the notion they died in 1483. I strongly suspect that the Lambert Simnel rebellion against Henry VII of 1487 was an uprising in favour of Edward V, not Edward, Earl of Warwick. Why would Elizabeth Woodville and her son Thomas Grey be suspected of involvement in a revolt favouring Warwick? They had absolutely nothing to gain from it. Elizabeth of York was already queen and had a son, Prince Arthur. The only thing that placed Elizabeth Woodville in a better position in 1487 than having her daughter on the throne was putting one of her sons on it.
The Tudor court poet Bernard André was adamant that the rising was in the name of a son of Edward IV. A 1526 report on Ireland for Henry VIII asserts the same. Then you have John de la Pole’s decision to overlook his own very strong Yorkist claim and declare his support for Lambert Simnel. Take all of these into account and it soon becomes clear that something other than the official Tudor story was almost certainly going on.
Perkin Warbeck, another pretender to Henry VII’s throne, was given a similar Tudor spin – an odd name, humble background, documented torture, beatings to the face – to paper over the strong possibility, backed by crowned heads across Europe, that he was the genuine Richard, Duke of York (the youngest of the princes in the Tower).
It requires a feat of cognitive dissonance to assert, with any certainty, that Richard III murdered the princes. Their survival is a real possibility – one that demands recognition and examination.
- Listen | Historian and politician Chris Skidmore discusses his biography of Richard III, offering his take on pivotal moments
Nathen Amin: I would counter that Warwick's example shows that Henry learnt from Richard that it was vital to keep a princely child alive so that they could be presented if called upon. In fact, when Lambert Simnel arrived on the scene and was put forward as Warwick, Henry simply brought the real Warwick out of the Tower and paraded him through London, quelling much of the doubt in his subjects' minds and forcing Simnel's backers to seek support in Ireland rather than England. Richard had never been able to do this with his other nephews, and the uncertainty cost him his crown, and his life. Henry, on the other hand, had the benefit of keeping alive a child who had never been recognised or accepted as king, and indeed was not the son of a king.
The problem with accepting the survival story in favour of the ‘traditional’ one is that it raises doubts in some areas while ignoring vast evidence to the contrary. Bernard André does indeed suggest that Simnel claimed to be Edward V, not Warwick, but this is an author roundly derided by Ricardians and other historians for his lack of credibility. Are we to accept this sole statement as truth while disregarding his other errors?
And there are other reasons to doubt André: it disregards the fact that Simnel’s cause was generally advanced by the former household of Warwick’s father, George Duke of Clarence. And, granted his life by Henry after his capture, Simnel lived a quiet life under Tudor rule until at least 1525. If he had truly been Edward V, he would surely have been recognised by his sister Elizabeth of York and other courtiers. Is this at all a likely scenario, particularly under the reign of Henry VIII? It rails against logic. If there had been any doubt whatsoever, it would have been sheer madness for Henry VII or VIII to keep Simnel alive.
As for Perkin Warbeck, there are discrepancies in the confession he gave post-capture, but an abundance of sourced evidence corroborates the assertion that he was quite simply an effective, even impressive, imposter. Like Simnel, Warbeck was also granted his life – twice – by Henry. And when Henry did eventually order Warbeck’s execution, it was arguably only to secure the downfall of the real Yorkist heir, the true surviving prince in the Tower: Warwick.
Surely the best approach to this saga is to weigh up the material available and come to the most rational conclusion, while conceding that it is unlikely we will ever be able to give a definitive answer to the debate. Just like the Jack the Ripper case, and the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste, this is one mystery that will run and run.
Find out more about Richard III and his era.
This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine