According to popular legend, England’s hunchbacked king, Richard III, hired Sir James Tyrell, Miles Forest and John Dighton to smother his two young nephews as they languished in their prison cell in the tower.
Richard did this, so the story goes, in order to take the crown from the eldest, Edward V, and to prevent the younger, Richard, from ascending to the throne.
Historical Theories for the Murder of the Princes
Because no one knows for sure exactly when the two princes died, it’s difficult for historians to prove any of the theories revolving around who murdered them.
Sir Thomas More argued that Richard III killed the boys and William Shakespeare portrayed the experienced soldier as a hunchback who shouted that he would trade his “kingdom for a horse!”
While both More and Shakespeare offer colorful accounts, their own motives are suspect.
Would you like to see more articles like this?
Support This Expert’s Articles, This Category of Articles, or the Site in General Here.
Just put your preference in the “I Would Like to Support” Box after you Click to Donate Below:
More served Henry VIII as Chancellor; while More later sacrificed his position and life on behalf of his religious beliefs, it is unlikely that he would feel as passionately about protecting the reputation of the man whose death allowed Henry’s father to become king. Politics was an art form in the Tudor Court, and Richard III’s reputation was a safe object of derision.
Likewise, Shakespeare lived and wrote in the Elizabethan era, a time in which it was safe to laud Elizabeth I’s grandfather, but even more so to transform the last Plantagenet king into a hunchbacked monster. As historian Peter Saccio points out, this derogatory portrayal of Richard began with earlier writers, but Shakespeare’s fictional details truly mythologized Richard III in the public’s imagination.
Unfortunately, the bard’s portrayal carries into modern culture, possibly persuading investigators L. E. Tannery and Professor Wright in 1933 to date the boys’ skeletons to 1483 during Richard’s reign, rather than during Henry VII’s, beginning in 1485.
As British historian Natasha Sheldon notes, recent examinations of Richard’s skeleton prove that he did not suffer from a hunchback, but rather from scoliosis, reminding modern historians that Shakespeare wrote great literature, not a factual history.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester
While the legend makes a Disney-ready tale filled with wronged innocent children and a visually frightening villain, recorded 15th century history offers a different theory of who murdered young Edward V and Richard.
The future Richard III, an experienced soldier, spent years with his brother, Edward IV, as the typically blond Plantagenet king sought to keep his throne from external claims from Henry Tudor and Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Edward rewarded his loyal brother with considerable responsibility in the northern England, where Richard earned respect from the inhabitants.
Normally popular, Edward controversially married a beautiful widow with children and an extensive extended family. The marriage to the widow, Elizabeth Woodville, meant a shift in royal favor from previously established nobles to the new queen’s previously un-influential relatives.
As Saccio notes, the elder son was in Ludlow when his father died while Elizabeth Woodville and her remaining six children were in London. Richard, then known as the Duke of Gloucester, tended to matters in the north.
Predictably, the unrest encouraged the unhappy nobles to scurry, looking for ways to return to the status quo, especially after Edward died suddenly on April 9, 1483, leaving a minor as an heir, a tension-filled court and an ambitious claimant with an army at the ready.
Edward IV’s Heirs
The most telling argument for Richard’s innocence stems from Edward IV’s large family; even if Richard murdered Edward V and his younger brother Richard, there were still five other children, all daughters, in line for the throne. England did not observe anything like France’s Salic Law, so there was nothing to preclude daughters from inheriting in the event of no surviving male heirs.
Instead, Richard became king after Parliament declared all of Edward IV’s children with Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate due to the questionable circumstances surrounding the king and queen’s marriage. Richard and his supporters could argue that this action allowed a stronger Plantagenet throne in the face of attacks from Henry Tudor.
Henry VII, the Start of the Tudor Dynasty
Henry Tudor based his claim to England’s throne based on the relationship between his grandfather, Owen Tudor, and Catherine of Valois. Their secret union produced three sons including Edmund, who married Margaret Beaufort, who descended from famous Lancastrian John of Gaunt.
Because of his nebulous claims that paled in comparison to the lineage of others, Henry soon married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, to secure the support of both Tudors (who had their Lancastrian link) and Plantagenets.
In fact, if Henry allowed the Act of Parliament that declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate to stand, then he knew that he could not marry Elizabeth of York and his own reign would suffer countless attempts of usurpation.
The Mysteries Continue
While Richard III separated the two boys from their mother, they did not immediately go to the Tower. He hoped to strengthen his own claim to the throne through demonstrating that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was not binding. Even though Richard eventually moved the princes to the Tower, it’s important to note that the Tower was much more than a prison for unfortunate souls; it also served as apartments and had other functions.
Because witnesses saw the two princes less frequently- and finally, not at all- no one knows exactly when they died. Examinations of the skeletons places them at about 13 and 10 years of age, although this is just an estimate.
The Advantages of Murdering the Two Princes
Ultimately, both Richard III and Henry VII had much to gain from the deaths of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, but only one could claim the throne after their deaths, while their siblings remained alive.