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Richard III - re-assessing his reputation in a modern light (Part 2)

In Part 1 we took a close look at the question of whether Richard III usurped the throne of England. In this part we are going to examine whether he was responsible for the disappearance of the princes in the tower, his nephews Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.

Let's begin with the disappearances of the princes in the tower. Richard III was crowned king July 6 1483. At this point both of his nephews were ensconced in the Tower of London. Edward V had been sent there since he and his uncle had ridden into London in May of 1483. His brother Richard joined him 16 June, apparently so he could participate in the coronation proceedings. Of course this never happened. At first, the princes could be observed playing in the tower grounds. Over the course of the next few weeks they were seen less and less; the last documented sighting happened in late summer. Then they simply disappeared. There is no direct evidence that the princes were murdered, but most historians believe that this was indeed their ultimate fate. There are theories that the princes managed to escaped or were smuggled out, but I believe these are just fanciful though understandable in a way: no-one wants to see children ruthlessly murdered. Alas, in all probability the princes probably did meet untimely and tragic deaths. Before I lay out the main suspects, I want to relate an interesting incident that happened during the reign of Henry VII. A man by the name of Perkin Warbeck claimed to have escaped from the Tower of London and that his real name was Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the two princes. Apparently a lot of people believed him, both at home and abroad (including European monarchs), and he became the centre of a rebellion again the Tudor monarch Henry VII. The rebellion failed and Warbeck ultimately put to death, apparently an imposter. In reality Warbeck was said to have been a young man from Flanders; however, both then and today there are some believe that Warbeck truly was Richard of Shrewsbury. I myself err on the side of that he probably wasn't really the younger of the two princes in the tower. I believe that the two princes were murdered sometime in 1483. And so without further ado, I present the persons most likely to have murdered the princes in the tower.

The Duke of Buckingham

For a while, the Duke of Buckingham had seemed to be Richard's most vocal and loyal supporter. However, in October of 1483 he instigated a rebellion against Richard's rule. Also implicated in the plot were Lady Margaret Beaufort and the Woodvilles. On the surface, at first the aim seemed to be to restore Edward V as king of England, but then it became a plot to bring Henry Tudor to the throne. It is speculated that the focus shifted from Edward V to Henry Tudor because it became known or suspected that the princes were in fact already dead. In fact, a lot of contemporary sources believed this to be the case. One theory goes that Buckingham acted against Richard by killing the princes in the tower in order to pave the way for Henry Tudor. Another states that as a person of noble blood, Buckingham had designs on the throne himself. Pretending to be loyal to Richard helped him get rid of potential enemies and clear a path. When the rebellion ousted Richard from the throne, Buckingham would take it for himself, by-passing Tudor.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Another suspect is Lady Margaret Beaufort herself. The theory goes that she was able to arrange for the murder of the two princes in order to pave the way for her son Henry Tudor to take the throne. The conspiracy to remove Richard was already in motion when Buckingham began his rebellion. It's possible that her primary thought was to bring Henry Tudor to the the throne as a continuation of the Lancastrian dynasty rather than restore the Yorkist Edward V. Obviously the Woodvilles would not have countenanced such an act if they knew that the princes were still alive. So it's probable that they thought the princes were dead; Margaret could have conspired to make it happen without their knowledge, but it seems unlikely to me.

Henry VII

The next suspect is Henry Tudor. This theory goes that the princes were alive but still hidden away in the Tower of London after the Battle of Bosworth in which Richard III was killed. The now crowned Henry VII had them killed in order to eliminate any potential rivals for the throne. How he might have accomplished the deed it's not known. There's no scrap of evidence to suggest that the princes were still alive at the time of Bosworth in August 1485. At that time they had not been seen for two years. So it's very unlikely that Henry VII was responsible for their murder. No doubt he was relieved that they were not around at the time he took the throne. It is interesting to note however that James Tyrell - the High Sheriff of Cornwall during Richard III's reign and a close personal friend of the king's - was made to confess to their murder in 1502, putting a line under the saga of the princes in the tower.

Richard III

And so we get to the prime suspect himself, Richard III. Almost everyone today believes that he was the one responsible for the murder of the princes in the tower. It was the same back in Richard's time. There are a few reasons why he might have wanted the princes gone. First, he had already taken the throne from his nephew. Secondly, keeping his nephew alive might mean they could become the focus of rebellions against him. And in fact there was a rebellion against him, the aforementioned rebellion of October 1483. And all things being equal, it seems that Richard is probably responsible for the princes' death for the reasons listed above. He had the means and the motive, access to the tower and the princes. He was the most direct beneficiary from getting rid of the last two people of royal blood that could be used against him: Richard would be safest if and when they were gone. Also, as far as we know he never spoke out against the disappearance of the princes. If they had been murdered or stolen away by another party without his knowledge or approval, would he not have said?

A tradition passed from from contemporary sources suggests that he sent the aforementioned James Tyrell to the tower to do the deed. However, it happened it's most probably Richard III that's likely responsible for their death. Those who suggest that the princes were killed without Richard's knowledge point to his coming to a sort of agreement with Elizabeth Woodville and allowing her daughters to court - would she have done this if she had known that Richard was responsible for her sons' deaths? At one point as well, she tried to convince one of her sons from a previous marriage that had fled to France to return to England. So perhaps at one point she had made her peace with the fact that Richard was now on the throne. On the flipside it could be argued that Richard was the current monarch and that keeping on his good side was the prudent thing to do. The fact that she conspired with Lady Margaret Beaufort to have her daughter Elizabeth of York marry Henry Tudor and for the latter to become king of England suggests that she knew or suspected that her sons Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury were dead.

One more thought before I leave this particular topic behind. As we have mentioned Richard III was the most likely candidate to have done away with his nephews. It might be important to understand why. An obvious motive probably involved Edward V being the focus of potential plots to free him from the tower: getting rid of them personally would be a sure way of ensuring this could not happen. Another less obvious motive could have been the dangers of having a child monarch on the throne. It had not worked out so well with Richard II or the more recent example of Henry VI; it seems that minors who become monarchs tend not to fare too well and there might have been a conscious effort of not letting another child assume the throne. A third potential motive could have been the possibility of the Woodvilles having a puppet king (and a young, impressionable one at that) that would accede to their every attempt to aggrandize themselves even more. These possible motives do not justify the killing of minors in any way, shape or form, but that is how Richard would have seen it from his far removed medieval perspective. From his point of view, he needed to protect himself.

So there we have a breakdown of who might have been responsible for the princes in the tower. In Part 3 we'll take a look at the remaining accusations against Richard III and we'll examine if those have any merit. Thank you and see you then.

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