Locked in the Tower in June 1483 with his younger brother, the 12-year-old Edward V was certain “that death was facing him”. Two overthrown kings had died in suspicious circumstances already that century. Yet it was still possible their uncle, Richard III, would spare them. The princes were so very young, and if it were accepted that they were bastards, as their uncle claimed, they would pose little threat. The innocent Richard, Duke of York, only nine years old, remained “joyous” and full of “frolics”, even as the last of their servants were dismissed. But the boys were spotted behind the Tower windows less and less often, and by the summer’s end they had vanished.
It is the fact of their disappearance that lies at the heart of the many conspiracy theories over what happened to the princes. Murder was suspected, but without bodies no one could be certain even that they were dead. Many different scenarios have been put forward in the years since. In the nearest surviving contemporary accounts, Richard is accused of ordering their deaths, with the boys either suffocated with their bedding, or drowned, or killed by having their arteries cut. There were also theories that one or both of the princes escaped.
In more modern times, some have come to believe that Richard III was innocent of ordering the children’s deaths and instead spirited his nephews abroad or to a safe place nearer home, only for them to be killed later by Henry VII who feared the boys’ rival claims to the throne. None of these theories, however, has provided a satisfactory answer to the riddle at the heart of this mystery: the fact the boys simply vanished.
If the princes were alive, why did Richard not say so in October 1483, when the rumours he had ordered them killed were fuelling a rebellion? If they were dead, why had he not followed earlier examples of royal killings? The bodies of deposed kings were displayed and claims made that they had died of natural causes, so that loyalties could be transferred to the new king.
That the answer to these questions lies in the 15th century seems obvious, but it can be hard to stop thinking like 21st-century detectives and start thinking like contemporaries. To the modern mind, if Richard III was a religious man and a good king, as many believe he was, then he could not have ordered the deaths of two children. But even good people do bad things if they’re given the right motivation.
In the 15th century it was a primary duty of good kingship to ensure peace and national harmony. After his coronation, Richard III continued to employ many of his brother Edward IV’s former servants, but by the end of July 1483 it was already clear that some did not accept that Edward IV’s sons were illegitimate and judged Richard to be a usurper. The fact the princes remained a focus of opposition gave Richard a strong motive for having them killed – just as his brother had killed the king he deposed.
The childlike, helpless, Lancastrian Henry VI was found dead in the Tower in 1471, after more than a decade of conflict between the rival royal Houses of Lancaster and York. It was said he was killed by grief and rage over the death in battle of his son, but few can have doubted that Edward IV ordered Henry’s murder. Henry VI’s death extirpated the House of Lancaster. Only Henry VI’s half nephew, Henry Tudor, a descendent of John of Gaunt, founder of the Lancastrian House, through his mother’s illegitimate Beaufort line, was left to represent their cause.
Trapped in European exile, Henry Tudor posed a negligible threat to Edward IV. However, Richard was acutely aware of an unexpected sequel to Henry VI’s death. The murdered king was acclaimed as a saint, with rich and poor alike venerating him as an innocent whose troubled life gave him some insight into their own difficulties. Miracles were reported at the site of his modest grave in Chertsey Abbey, Surrey. One man claimed that the dead king had even deigned to help him when he had a bean trapped in his ear, with said bean popping out after he prayed to the deposed king.
Edward IV failed to put a halt to the popular cult and Richard III shared his late brother’s anxieties about its ever-growing power. It had a strong following in his home city of York, where a statue of ‘Henry the saint’ was built on the choir screen at York Minster. In 1484 Richard attempted to take control of the cult with an act of reconciliation, moving Henry VI’s body to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. In the meantime, there was a high risk the dead princes too would attract a cult, for in them the religious qualities attached to royalty were combined with the purity of childhood.
An insecure king
In England we have no equivalent today to the shrine at Lourdes in France, visited by thousands of pilgrims every year looking for healing or spiritual renewal. But we can recall the vast crowds outside Buckingham Palace after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Imagine that feeling and enthusiasm in pilgrims visiting the tombs of two young princes and greatly magnified by the closeness people then felt with the dead. It would have been highly dangerous to the king who had taken their throne. The vanishing of the princes was for Richard a case of least said, soonest mended, for without a grave for them, there could be no focus for a cult. Without a body or items belonging to the dead placed on display, there would be no relics either.
Nevertheless, Richard needed the princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and others who might follow Edward V, to know the boys were dead, in order to forestall plots raised in their name. According to the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, Elizabeth Woodville fainted when she was told her sons had been killed. As she came round, “She wept, she cryed out loud, and with lamentable shrieks made all the house ring, she struck her breast, tore and cut her hair.” She also called for vengeance.
Elizabeth Woodville made an agreement with Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, that Henry should marry her daughter, Elizabeth of York, and called on Edwardian loyalists to back their cause. The rebellion that followed in October 1483 proved Richard had failed to restore peace. While he defeated these risings, less than two years later at the battle of Bosworth, in August 1485, he was betrayed by part of his own army and was killed, sword in hand.
The princes were revenged, but it soon became evident that Henry VII was in no hurry to investigate their fate. It is possible that the new monarch feared such an investigation would draw attention to a role in their fate played by someone close to his cause – most likely Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The duke, who came from a Lancastrian family, was a close ally of Richard in the overthrow of Edward V, but later turned against the king. Known as a “sore and hard dealing man”, it is possible he encouraged Richard to have the princes murdered, planning then to see Richard killed and the House of York overthrown. Richard executed Buckingham for treason in November 1483, but Buckingham’s name remained associated at home and abroad with the princes’ disappearance.
What is certain, however, is that Henry, like Richard, had good reasons for wishing to forestall a cult of the princes. Henry’s blood claim to the throne was extremely weak and he was fearful of being seen as a mere king consort to Elizabeth of York. To counter this, Henry claimed the throne in his own right, citing divine providence – God’s intervention on earth – as evidence that he was a true king (for only God made kings). A key piece of vidence used in support of this idea was a story that, a few months before his murder, ‘the saint’ Henry VI had prophesised Henry Tudor’s reign.
It would not have been wise to allow Yorkist royal saints to compete with the memory of Henry VI, whose cult Henry VII now wished to encourage. In 1485, therefore, nothing was said of the princes’ disappearance, beyond a vague accusation in parliament during the autumn that Richard III was guilty of “treasons, homicides and murders in shedding of infants’ blood”. No search was made for the boys’ bodies and they were given no rite of burial. Indeed even the fate of their souls was, seemingly, abandoned.
I have not found any evidence of endowments set up to pay for prayers for the princes that century. Henry may well have feared the churches where these so-called ‘chantries’ might be established would become centres for the kind of cult he wanted to avoid. But their absence would have struck people as very strange. Praying for the dead was a crucial part of medieval religion. In December 1485 when Henry issued a special charter refounding his favourite religious order, the Observant Friars, at Greenwich, he noted that offering masses for the dead was, “the greatest work of piety and mercy, for through it souls would be purged”. It was unthinkable not to help the souls of your loved ones pass from purgatory to heaven with prayers and masses. On the other hand, it was akin to a curse to say a requiem for a living person – you were effectively praying for their death.
A surviving prince?
The obvious question posed by the lack of public prayers for the princes was, were they still alive? And, as Vergil recalled, in 1491 there appeared in Ireland, as if “raised from the dead one of the sons of King Edward… a youth by the name of Richard”. Henry VII said the man claiming to be the younger of the princes was, in fact, a Dutchman called Perkin Warbeck – but who could be sure?
Henry was more anxious than ever that the princes be forgotten and when their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, died in June 1492, she was buried “privily… without any solemn dirge done for her obit”. It has been suggested this may have reflected her dying wishes to be buried “without pomp”. But Henry VII also asked to be buried without pomp. He still expected, and got, one of the most stately funerals of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Woodville emphatically did not receive the same treatment. Much has been made of this in conspiracy theories concerning the princes (especially on the question of whether she believed them to be alive) but Henry’s motives become clear when recalled in the context of the period.
This was an era of visual symbols and display: kings projected their power and significance in palaces decorated with their badges, in rich clothes and elaborate ceremonies. Elizabeth Woodville, like her sons, was being denied the images of a great funeral with its effigies, banners and grand ceremonial. This caused negative comment at the time. But with Warbeck’s appearance, Henry wanted to avoid any nostalgia for the past glories of the House of York.
It was 1497 before Perkin Warbeck was captured. Henry then kept him alive because he wanted Warbeck publicly and repeatedly to confess his modest birth. Warbeck was eventually executed in 1499. Yet even then Henry continued to fear the power of the vanished princes. Three years later, it was given out that condemned traitor Sir James Tyrell had, before his execution, confessed to arranging their murder on Richard’s orders. Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas More, claimed he was told the murdered boys had been buried at the foot of some stairs in the Tower, but that Richard had asked for their bodies to be reburied with dignity and that those involved had subsequently died so the boys’ final resting place was unknown – a most convenient outcome for Henry.
While the princes’ graves remained unmarked, the tomb of Henry VI came to rival the internationally famous tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury as a site of mass pilgrimage. Henry ran a campaign to have his half-uncle beatified by the pope, which continued even after Henry’s death, ending only with Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The Reformation then brought to a close the cult of saints in England. Our cultural memories of their power faded away, which explains why we overlook the significance of the cult of Henry VI in the fate of the princes.
In 1674, long after the passing of the Tudors, two skeletons were recovered in the Tower, in a place that resembled More’s description of the princes’ first burial place. They were interred at Westminster Abbey, not far from where Henry VII lies. In 1933, they were removed and examined by two doctors. Broken and incomplete, the skeletons were judged to be two children, one aged between seven and 11 and the other between 11 and 13. The little bones were returned to the abbey, and whoever they were, remain a testament to the failure of Richard and Henry to bury the princes in eternal obscurity.
The players in the princes’ downfall
Henry VI (1421–71)
Succeeding his father, Henry V, who died when he was a few months old, Henry VI’s reign was challenged by political and economic crises. It was interrupted by his mental and physical breakdown in 1453 during which time Richard, 3rd Duke of York, was appointed protector of the realm. Both men were direct descendants of Edward III and in 1455 Richard’s own claim to the throne resulted in the first clashes of the Wars of the Roses – fought between supporters of the dynastic houses of Lancaster and York over the succession.
Richard died at the battle of Wakefield in 1460 but his family claim to the throne survived him and his eldest son became king the following year – as Edward IV. Richard’s younger son would also be king, as Richard III. Henry VI was briefly restored to the throne in 1470 but the Lancastrians were finally defeated at Tewkesbury in 1471 and Henry was probably put to death in the Tower of London a few days later.
Edward IV (1442–83)
Edward succeeded where his father Richard, the third Duke of York failed – in overthrowing Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses. He was declared king in March 1461, securing his throne with a victory at the battle of Towton. Edward’s younger brother Richard became Duke of Gloucester. Later, in Edward’s second reign, Richard played an important role in government. Edward married Elizabeth Woodville in 1463 and they had 10 children: seven daughters and three sons. The eldest, Elizabeth, was born in 1466. Two of the three sons were alive at the time of Edward’s death – Edward, born in 1470, and Richard, born 1473. Edward is credited with being financially astute and restoring law and order. He died unexpectedly of natural causes on 9 April 1483.
Elizabeth, Queen Consort (c1437–92)
Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with children, took place in secret in 1464 and met with political disapproval. The king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was among those allegedly hostile to it. The preference the Woodville family received caused resentment at court, and there was friction between Elizabeth’s family and the king’s powerful advisor, Hastings. On Edward IV’s death in 1483, Gloucester’s distrust of the Woodvilles was apparently a factor in his decision to seize control of the heir, his nephew. Elizabeth sought sanctuary in Westminster, from where her younger son, Richard, Duke of York, was later removed. The legitimacy of her marriage and her children was one of Gloucester’s justifications for usurping the throne on 26 June.
Once parliament confirmed his title as Richard III, Elizabeth submitted in exchange for protection for herself and her daughters – an arrangement he honoured. After Richard III’s death at the battle of Bosworth, her children were declared legitimate. Her eldest, Elizabeth of York, was married to Henry VII, strengthening his claim to the throne.
Edward V (1470–83) & Richard, Duke of York (1473–83)
Edward IV’s heir was his eldest son, also named Edward. When the king died unexpectedly, his will, which has not survived, reportedly named his previously loyal brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as lord protector. On hearing of his father’s death, the young Edward and his entourage began a journey from Ludlow to the capital. Gloucester intercepted the party in Buckinghamshire. Gloucester, who claimed the Woodvilles were planning to take power by force, seized the prince.
On 4 May 1983, Edward entered London in the charge of Gloucester. Edward’s coronation was scheduled for 22 June. On 16 June, Elizabeth was persuaded to surrender Edward’s younger brother, Richard, apparently to attend the ceremony. With both princes in his hands, Gloucester publicised his claim to the throne. He was crowned as Richard III on 6 July and a conspiracy to rescue the princes failed that month. By September, rebels were seeing Henry Tudor as a candidate for the throne, suggesting the princes were already believed to be dead.
Richard III (1452–85)
Richard was the youngest surviving son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and was still a child when his 18-year-old brother became Edward IV after Yorkist victories. Unlike his brother George (executed for treason in the Tower in 1478 – allegedly drowned in a butt of malmsey wine), Richard was loyal to Edward during his lifetime. On his brother’s death, he moved swiftly to wrest control of his nephew Edward from the boy’s maternal family, the Woodvilles. At some point in June 1483 his role moved from that of protector to usurper. He arrested several of the previous king’s loyal advisors, postponed the coronation and claimed Edward IV’s children were illegitimate because their father had been pre-contracted to marry another woman at the time of his secret marriage to Elizabeth. Richard was crowned, but he faced rebellion that year and further unrest the next. Support for the king decreased as it grew for Henry Tudor, the rival claimant who returned from exile and triumphed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Henry VII (1457–1509)
Henry Tudor was the son of Margaret Beaufort (great-great-granddaughter of Edward III) and Edmund Tudor, half-brother of Henry VI. In 1471, after Edward IV regained the throne, Henry fled to Brittany, where he avoided the king’s attempts to have him returned. As a potential candidate for the throne through his mother’s side, Henry became the focus for opposition to Richard III. After the failed 1483 rebellion against the king, rebels, including relatives of the Woodvilles and loyal former members of Edward IV’s household, joined him in Brittany. In 1485 Henry Tudor invaded, landing first in Wales, and triumphed over Richard III at Bosworth on 22 August.
Henry was crowned on the battlefield with Richard’s crown. The following year he further legitimised his right to rule by marrying Elizabeth of York. When the king died in 1509, his and Elizabeth’s son came to the throne as Henry VIII.
Leanda de Lisle is a historian and writer. She is the author of Tudor: The Family Story (1437–1603) (Chatto and Windus, 2013)