Did the Princes Survive? Richard III and The Princes in the Tower

I should start by making it clear that my ideas about the fate of Edward IV’s sons are only theories: I have no more evidence at my disposal than anyone else! Nor do I place any particular confidence in the various speculations as to their afterlife (although it is notable that numbers of people did, from the 15th century onwards).

Historians are good at judgements based on political motivations and precedents; but how often do they tell us precisely how they suppose things were carried out? I am a practical person so I care about the ‘how’, e.g. how the sons of Edward IV were supposedly disposed of. And more importantly, how their fate remained so mysterious that Thomas More could write 40 years later, in the middle of giving chapter and verse as to how they died and who killed them, that ‘some remain yet in doubt whether they were in [Richard’s] days destroyed or no’.

In pursuit of practicalities I spent considerable effort and expense on researches into the Tower of London during the years 2003–2005 when I was writing The Maligned King. People I consulted included leading experts on the Tower and its history, artists who had collected and created images and reconstructions, and experts in such disciplines as architecture and civil engineering.

Integral to this research was investigating why the mystery surrounding their fate has endured, in spite of Thomas More’s explanation being adopted and dramatized by Shakespeare, and despite the presence in Westminster Abbey of an urn containing bones that are said to be theirs. As an example, an important practicality in this respect was the build-up of soil accumulation at the Tower; I have since compared this with similar accumulation on top of Richard III’s grave in Leicester (see ‘Ricardian topics’ at annettecarson.co.uk).

The Main Question

I’ll start by addressing the question that comes top of my personal list – why the persistent doubt surrounding their fate? Consider this: we know precisely when the rumour of their death arose (just after the Duke of Buckingham placed himself at the head of the 1483 rebellion, says the suspiciously knowledgeable Crowland Chronicle [1485]). And we know precisely where they were assumed to be at the time (in a hugely busy royal palace in the heart of one of the largest cities of the known world, peopled by hundreds of residents and serviced by an enormous daily supply chain). So why could London produce no contemporary record of what happened to them? Why couldn’t Henry VII find out? If they were eliminated or ‘made to disappear’ overnight, the place would have been abuzz within hours.

The 15th century Tower in a manuscript of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-1465)
The 15th century Tower in a manuscript of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-1465)| Picture @British Library

They must have been the most famous and talked-about Tower residents of their day. Unrest was being stirred up all around in the Home Counties, and attempts being made to abduct them. The most recent historian I read on this was Mike Jones in Philippa Langley’s book, The King’s Grave. Mike believes Richard III chose to kill them in the aftermath of just such an abduction attempt, but I see no sense in choosing that moment, when everyone must have been whipped up into a state of security-consciousness. He also believes the Tudor story that James Tyrell organized the killing; but if so, why did Henry VII wait until 1502 to pin the blame on Tyrell, meanwhile allowing his reign to be jeopardized, and resources squandered, on needlessly combating pretenders? Didn’t anyone say “I remember they were last seen that day when James Tyrell arrived”? Had someone said that, Henry would have arrested, tortured, charged and executed Tyrell in 1485 instead of 17 years later.

The key lies in the very fact of the doubt that prevailed, which mainstream historians brush aside. It’s obvious Henry VII remained in the dark about their fate, despite what must have been the most stringent enquiries after Bosworth accompanied by who knows what kind of coercion. George Buck [1619] confirms there was ‘much and diligent search’ at the Tower with ‘places opened and digged’. There is always talk about Richard III failing to advertise the death of Edward IV’s sons; historians say quite rightly that when a king was deposed it was sheer common sense to publicize that he was dead and wouldn’t come back. However, there is less talk among Tudor historians about Henry VII signally failing to do the same, despite the potentially fatal threat they represented.

So how did those hundreds of people in and around the Tower either conceal, forget or remain in ignorance of such a sinister disappearance? The answer must be simply that there was no sinister disappearance. If you accept this, it leads to the logical conclusion that whatever happened, it could not have been unusual enough to stick in the memory. No mysteriously empty bedchamber, no digging at dead of night, no loose ends, no abandoned chests lying around with clothes, books and costly playthings.

This also rules out any ‘smuggling’ out of the Tower, which would have left behind just as many ominous and well-remembered loose ends shrouded in mystery. It must also be remembered that Edward V and his brother were quite naturally suspicious and fearful for their future. They were unlikely to have been co-operative in any activities that smacked of cloak-and-dagger.

Hence we are left with the option of a perfectly normal, everyday and unmemorable departure: quite simply, their servants and attendants made all necessary travel arrangements, packed up their belongings, and sensibly escorted them elsewhere. Probably by barge via the Water Gate. Certainly no one would have thought it safe for them to remain in the centre of London with a rebellion going on. Which would have been all anyone remembered, and the only story Henry VII’s men were ever told.

Tower of London showing access by the water gate
An illustration of the Tower of London showing access by the water gate

This offers an answer to the big question of how Richard managed to keep their fate a secret: their fate was not death and burial at the Tower – or even being smuggled out – so no great effort was needed to ensure hundreds of Tower residents and workers wouldn’t ever remember or reveal what happened. It merely entailed a routine, unhurried departure, with their ultimate destination known only to a few trusty retainers.

I don’t claim to be the first author who suggested their survival, although it is true that most pro-Richard authors of the 20th century, including Paul Murray Kendall, Jeremy Potter and Bertram Fields, adopted the standpoint that a ‘murder in the Tower’ had probably taken place (or death by misadventure). Being preoccupied with sources, I took my cue from those who wrote in the 15th and early 16th centuries that Edward IV’s sons might have been hidden away rather than eliminated (von Popplau, Molinet, the Divisie Chronicle, Bernard André, and even Polydore Vergil). Traditional historians find reasons to cast doubt on these early non-conformist ideas, and indeed it is not unreasonable to suppose that for some, the hope that the boys survived may have represented any port in a storm. But I challenge any historian to find an ulterior motive behind the report of the intelligence-gatherer Dominic Mancini in December 1483 – long after the date of Edward V’s alleged murder – who wrote ‘Whether, however, he has been taken by death, and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered’.

Perkin Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck

George Buck was clear in 1619 that the boys were never put to death, and his ideas of what happened to them are very much the same as most present-day theories, i.e. Edward died of natural causes and Richard returned as ‘Perkin Warbeck’. I was encouraged to take this seriously by Arthur Kincaid, Buck’s modern editor, and Isolde Wigram, co-founder of the present-day Richard III Society. What I can perhaps claim as unique to my book is having set out the first full and viable case, in chapter 9 of The Maligned King, for how Richard could have managed the circumstances of their safe removal from the Tower to Flanders; a case which since 2008 has begun to be much more openly canvassed.

Afterlife

When it comes to their later survival, I’m afraid my answers will be disappointing. It’s a mystery, and that’s what Richard III intended it should be.

My main interest is not trying to figure out what happened if either Edward or Richard survived. For me the priority is the eradication of the myth of the ‘princes murdered in the Tower’, which slams the door on any attempt at serious discourse on the subject. Even Mike Jones, who bucks orthodoxy so far as to entertain a sneaking admiration for Richard III, still dares not depart from this particular party line.

Once it’s conceded that an afterlife is possible, then the options are myriad. Starting with the premise that they were hidden, as Niclas von Popplau believed in 1484, the only really safe place to hide them, especially at a time of unrest, was over the sea. Hence the association of later pretenders with Flanders. They might have been taken to some nearer destination and killed; but the only logical motive for killing them was to prevent them from heading up a rebellion in their name, and no such drastic action was necessary if the same objective was achieved by hiding them away. Especially when no further rebellion raised its head after 1483.

The climate of unrest in September–October 1483 dictates their removal abroad and its timing: obviously they had to be kept from the hands of their family’s party who were promoting them as contenders for Richard’s crown; also, travel by water was much more suitable for the younger boy, a lad of ten who would have little stamina for arduous days of journeying by road. Crossing the Channel or the North Sea was also dependent on weather: hazardous at any time, it was particularly so in the months after October.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville

A persuasive factor in support of their survival is their mother’s emergence from sanctuary in Westminster the following March to join Richard III’s court: not merely pursuing improvements in her own and her daughters’ circumstances, but also encouraging her eldest son to abandon the rebel cause. Undoubtedly her reconciliation with the king had involved lengthy prior negotiations, which could well have commenced the previous November with approaches from Richard when he arrived in the Home Counties after quelling the October rebellion.

The Low Countries were the obvious destination, of course, just a few hours away if the crossing went well. As my readers will be aware, I have listed prior examples of noble children being spirited there to escape danger in the later 15th century, including Richard himself. I’ve also pointed out that as soon as he realized in April/May that a power struggle with the queen’s party was on the cards, Richard would have taken the precaution of planning an escape route for his own small son. His sister Margaret of Burgundy had more than enough resources in Flanders to take care of arrangements, which needed little adaptation to embrace his nephews later on.

This is not exactly rocket science, in fact it’s all rather self-evident. But before mainstream historians can bring themselves to discuss it seriously, it depends on surmounting that hitherto insurmountable hurdle of the ‘murder in the Tower’; an article of faith they dare not abandon for fear they might be thought to have been infected by the Ricardian heresy.

Pretenders or feigned boys?

The urn at Westminster Abbey containing the remains of two children, traditionally thought to be Edward V and Richard Duke of York
The urn at Westminster Abbey containing the remains of two children, traditionally thought to be Edward V and Richard Duke of York

Sadly I can point to no evidence, old or new, to assist our knowledge of whether Edward V or his brother survived their departure from the Tower. There are plenty of interesting circumstances surrounding both ‘Lambert Simnel’ and ‘Perkin Warbeck’, all open to interpretation and theorizing. Research into the latter seems more promising in view of the length, breadth and tenacity of his career as ‘Richard of York’; and if academia were to devote a few spare resources, it might be possible to dig deeper into European archives to see if anything further could be unearthed. But as long as he is dismissed as an impostor we must make do with what little we already know, together with what scraps may be stumbled upon in the course of more mainstream researches. This belief in his imposture is the second article of faith (not proven), that brings comfort to historians who believe in the ‘murder in the Tower’.

The third, of course, is the discovery in 1674 of the skeletal remains of children adjacent to the entrance of the White Tower, assumed (on the basis of no evidence) to be the sons of Edward IV. In these days of more rigorous scientific standards their examination in 1933, and identification as the missing ‘princes in the Tower’, seems almost risible. Michael Hicks’s biography of Edward V is notable for perfunctorily glossing over the subject.

So might ‘Perkin Warbeck’ have been Richard of York? The one piece of apparently gold-standard evidence we have is Henry VII’s execution of Sir William Stanley, on account of the latter’s scruples that ‘Perkin’ could have been the genuine article. But this is discredited on the questionable grounds that Stanley was probably framed by an informer (what motive Henry had for such extreme measures to get rid of his uncle by marriage is even more questionable).

Nevertheless the importance of this reported fact is routinely dismissed on the basis of an unsubstantiated theory.

Ironically, Henry VII’s own unpopularity is often cited to suggest that supporters of the pretenders were none too fussy about their authenticity. It may also be why, even if Henry did produce a story in or after 1502, hoping it would prove that the sons of Edward IV were safely dead, the reality is that he was conspicuously unsuccessful. Hence the ‘mystery of the princes’ still persists to this day.

 


Annette-Carson-Richard-IIIRichard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson. Published by The History Press 2013.

Buy Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson

In 2012 Annette Carson formed part of the team that discovered King Richard III’s mortal remains, verified in 2013 by forensics including DNA matching. In response to the recent upsurge of interest, her 2009 paperback has been updated with details of the discovery plus new illustrations. Carson’s premise is that for centuries the vision of Richard III has been dominated by the fictional creations of Thomas More and Shakespeare. Many voices, some of them eminent and scholarly, have urged a more reasoned view to replace the traditional black portrait. This book seeks to redress the balance by examining the events of his reign as they actually happened, based on reports in the original sources. Eschewing the overlay of assumptions so beloved by historians, she instead traces actions and activities of the principal characters, using facts and time-lines revealed in documentary evidence. In the process Carson dares to investigate areas where historians fear to tread, and raises many controversial questions.

 

Carson_Richard_IIIRichard III: A Small Guide to the Great Debate

Written as a succinct, straightforward summary of the facts, this short handbook outlines how King Richard came to be portrayed as a monster-villain by the Tudors, and how a backlash in later centuries created the ‘Great Debate’ over his reputation, which still rages today. It also analyses the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, examining what people actually said and did at the time of their disappearance, and who profited from their removal.

The book sets out all the main theories and arguments, together with their strengths and weaknesses, in a non-scholarly style, without imposing judgements and conclusions. An invaluable reference resource, it invites readers to weigh up the evidence and make up their own minds.

Print version available at ajcarson.co.uk