The mystery of the 'princes in the tower': What really happened?

The princes in the tower
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais | Public Domain | Wikipedia

‘The tyrannous and bloody deed is done.’ (Richard III, 4.3)

Last seen alive in the autumn of 1483, two young English princes - Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York – have generally been presumed to have been murdered. But were they?

Nobody really knows.

It has never been proven that the princes were murdered, or how they died and when, and their remains have never been conclusively located and identified.

Here we look at some of the main theories for what happened to Edward and Richard.

Theory 1: Richard III Murdered the Princes

For hundreds of years, it has been popularly held that the ‘Princes in the Tower’ were murdered on the orders of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (1452-1485).

On the death of Edward IV (1442-1483), King of England, in April 1483, his brother Richard became Lord Protector of the realm.

The king was survived by his two young sons.

Far from being a nice, avuncular figure to his nephews Richard and Edward V (who became king on his father’s death but was never crowned), Uncle Richard had the juveniles housed in the Tower of the London and it soon became apparent that Richard wanted the throne for himself.

Richard had Edward dethroned as illegitimate and had himself crowned king on 26 June 1483.

The princes meanwhile were still in the Tower and before long rumours began to spread throughout England and then Europe that the youths were dead.

Italian visitor Dominic Mancini left England in July 1483 and expressed fears that Edward and Richard were already dead.

The traditional version of events, dramatized in Shakespeare’s 1593 play Richard III, is that the young knight Sir James Tyrrell (1455-1502), on Richard’s orders, went into the princes’ apartments in the tower with two men and murdered them. According to a later confession by Tyrrell, the men smothered the adolescents with pillows before burying them at the foot of some stairs, but then Richard ordered them reburied elsewhere, at a spot unspecified by Tyrrell.

Richard was undoubtedly ruthless – he had several opponents executed upon ascending the throne and was rumoured to have been involved in the deaths of Henry VI and his own brother George, who was executed by being drowned in a butt of wine – but would he have resorted to murdering his two young nephews?

Written forty years after the disappearance of the princes, Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III gave us the traditional image of Richard as a hunchbacked, devious monster. This portrayal of Richard as a pantomime villain has led many to dismiss More’s report as Tudor propaganda.

But a 2021 academic article asserts More’s account is reliable and that there is irrefutable evidence that the sons of the murderers – Forest and Dighton – confided in More about the truth of the sordid matter.

The best argument for Richard being responsible for the disappearance of the boys is the large proverbial smoking gun: Richard took the throne from Edward.

Theory 2: Henry Stafford Killed the Boys

After the death of Edward IV in April 1483, the Duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford (1455-1483), supported the Duke of Gloucester in his successful royal coup. By November Richard had had him killed. He was attained (executed and stripped of lands and titles) for his leading role in the failed ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ of that autumn.

What had made Henry jump ship? Perhaps Richard had in fact had the boys killed and Henry, finding out about the horrendous crime, turned against Richard?

Or perhaps, as some have hypothesised, it was actually Henry who had had the princes killed, unknown to Richard, and that Henry wanted the princes and Richard out of the way. But, if this is true, for whom did he do this? For himself? He did have a claim to the throne. Or did he act in support of another powerful figure, such as his aunt, Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) the mother of the future king Henry VII?

A contemporary Portuguese source says that the princes were in Buckingham’s custody and that he was responsible for the youngsters’ deaths. If this is true, was he acting for or against Richard?

Possibly both.

Some evidence suggests that Buckingham killed the princes in what he thought was an act favourable to Richard, but that this was the cause of their having fallen out.

If Buckingham did in fact carry out the dreadful deed, it is thought highly unlikely by historians that he could have done so without Richard’s knowledge.

Theory 3: Henry VII slew the brothers

Henry VII (1457-1509) was the great progenitor of the Tudor royal dynasty and a talented king, nicknamed ‘The Huckster King’ for his shrewd handling of overseas trade deals.

After his famous victory at Bosworth in 1485, Henry was clearly determined that he and his descendants should possess the throne.

Dispatching his enemies on the battlefield and with the executioner’s axe was one thing, but was he capable of having two innocent children murdered in cold blood to secure power?

Motive can certainly be found. Young Edward V was the uncrowned king, so clearly he stood in between the ambitious noble and the throne.

But did he do it?

Historians have reasoned that if Henry was responsible, it must have happened no earlier than 1485 or 1486 – two to three years after the princes were last seen alive. A long time to remain invisible at the Tower!

Though the princes’ disappearance certainly helped him become king, no documentary or material evidence exists to suggest Henry’s guilt, and not even Henry’s enemies at the time accused him of the crime.

Theory 4: Margaret Beaufort Killed the Princes

Lady Margaret Beaufort has often been touted as a suspect killer because of her evident determination to get her son Henry Tudor’s backside onto the throne. One hypothesis that has been put forward says that Margaret secretly had the boys killed or hidden and then, with the princes out of the way and with the blame shifted on to Richard, she was safe to propose her son as a candidate that the princes’ supporters could then follow, sealed with the promise that Henry would marry Elizabeth of York, the princes’ sister.

Furthermore, if these machinations occurred then they left no explicit evidence, and Margaret was never accused, by Richard or any other contemporaries, of being involved in the supposed slayings of the princes.

The Croyland Chronicle, as well as Mancini’s accounts, tell us that the princes were kept securely inside the inner-most rooms of the Garden Tower and were guarded by handpicked, trusted men. Clearly, Richard took steps to ensure access to the princes was through him and him alone. Neither Margaret Beaufort nor her husband Lord Stanley would have found gaining access to the princes easy, though nobody can prove with certainty that they did not achieve this.

Theory 5: The Boys Survived

In 1674, builders at the Tower unearthed the skeletal remains of two people, 10ft below the foot of a staircase. These were declared to be the bones of the princes and were reinterred in Westminster Abbey a few years later, despite Tyrrell’s confession to More that the bodies had been moved from there.

A controversial 1933 analysis of these remains was ultimately inconclusive, and the bones remain unidentified to this day.'

So, what if the boys were never murdered at all?

One leading theory maintains that Richard left the Tower and survived into adulthood but that Edward died of ill-health in custody. Others have contended that the brothers were smuggled out and given new identities (as builders in Colchester, according to one version).

One man who took advantage of contemporary rumours of the princes’ escape was an Oxford priest named Richard Simon, who in 1487 encouraged a young lad named Lambert Simnel (1477-c. 1534) to pose as the surviving Prince Richard emerging to claim his birthright, though it was later changed to a nephew of Edward IV. Merely the puppet of an ill-conceived and short-lived rebellion, Henry VII spared Simnel’s life and took him on as a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Perkin Warbeck (c. 1474-1499) also claimed to be Prince Richard. This pretender to the throne was taken more seriously, insofar as a number of powerful figures acknowledged Warbeck to be Richard, including Margaret of York and James IV of Scotland.

This throws up an intriguing possibility. Surely a pretender to the throne would have declared himself to be Edward rather than Richard? But two major claimants to the throne, who were figureheads of attempted coups that had to be militarily defeated, claimed to be Richard. This suggests, at least, that it was an open secret in the country that Edward was dead, and that Richard had survived.

It would certainly have been possible for one or both of the boys, had they somehow escaped the Tower, to live out their days in secret. Most of the public had probably never seen their faces, and as they grew up they would have been harder to recognise, especially in the provincial home of a sympathiser or even in the palace of a foreign ally.

On the balance of probabilities, it seems that the evidence points to the man who’s been the prime suspect all along: Richard III of England. DNA analysis of the remains at Westminster Abbey would undoubtedly tell us more, but permission to re-examine the contents of the urn has been consistently refused.

Written by:

James Brigden