Richard III, The Princes in the Tower, and the Big Whodunit

Since the 1950s there has been a BIG debate about Richard III, who is either a monstrous murderer or a perfect paragon, depending who you ask.  On one side is the pro-Richard III team, called the Ricardians, who claim that everything bad Richard was accused of doing was a foul calumny spread by that bastard Henry VII, his sycophants, and his heirs and it was wrongly put down as “truth” because Henry won the Battle of Bosworth. Then there are the people who are anti-Richard III who think he was a power-hungry evildoer who stole the throne after his brother, Edward IV, died and then murdered his nephews to keep the crown for himself.

The general populace could give a teeny, tiny mouse-doot about the whole thing but assume that Richard is a bad guy because that’s what they heard somewhere. This drives Team Richard nuts.

As for myself, I think that there are very few saints, that the War of The Roses was a bloody nightmare filled with betrayal, backstabbing, and barbarism, that Richard was determined to attain power and survive just like any other man clawing for a safe position at the time, and that he had the means, motive and opportunity to have the Princes slaughtered.

I think the exact same thing about Henry VII.

The War of the Roses

The brutal and bloody reality was that before Richard stole the crown from Edward IV’s heirs, Edward had stolen the crown from Henry VI and killed the King’s only son. Henry VI was a sweet man, but weak and mentally unstable. The king’s cousin, the 3rd Duke of York (Richard Plantagenet) was a strong leader and wanted Henry’s throne. Henry’s Queen, Marguerite of Anjou fought hard to try to keep the throne for her son, the Prince of Wales. There was some hope for Henry and the Prince when York and his second son were killed in the Battle of Wakefield, but less than two years later all was lost when the King’s chief ally (and former York supporter) the 16th Earl of Warwick, was slain in the Battle of Barnet by York’s eldest son, Edward. The victor of the Battle of Barnet was then crowned as Edward IV. A few months later the deposed Prince of Wales tried to get the crown back for his father, Henry VI, but was defeated by Edward IV’s forces in the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward, aided by his brothers, George of Clarence and the future Richard III, killed the Prince.

The young man whom Edward, George, and Richard murdered was the lawful heir to the throne. That is a fact. At that time, it was believed that God Himself dictated Kingship; so anyone who murdered a rightful king was flouting God’s will. Nevertheless, the York boys managed to convinced themselves that killing the Prince of Wales was the “right” thing to do.

Never underestimate the depths to which the rationalizations of men seeking power will descend.

Henry VI died shortly thereafter in the Tower of London. He could have been murdered, but no one is sure of it. Richard subsequently married Anne Neville, the widowed wife of the Prince and the daughter of the Earl of Warwick.  Anne’s father was the man who had killed Richard’s father, and Richard was the man who killed her husband.

A nice family get-together must have been all kinds of interesting back then.

The Princes in the Tower

Historical poo didn’t hit the fan until Edward died in 1483. Edward had two sons, aged 12 and 9, and the eldest became Edward V. However, their uncle Richard intensely disliked Edward’s widowed Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, because she basically tried to do what EVERYONE was doing back then – get power and wealth for her kith and kin. The biggest problem was that she was good doing so, which made her an evil she-bitch to anyone who was losing out, which included Richard.

By the time Edward IV died Richard and Anne had a son of their own who was the same age as the the youngest of Edward’s sons. It was easy-peasy for Richard to find a reason to declare Elizabeth Woodville’s sons illegitimate and make himself king, thus stabilizing the country (which was teetering with an underage King) and making his own dearly loved son the heir to the crown. All of Woodville’s enemies (which was anyone not her family or beneficiaries) were happy to see Richard on the throne. His nephews were taken into “protective custody” at the Tower of London.

Now things get iffy. Did Richard have the boys murdered? Did one of his allies do it thinking to “help” him? Or did Henry VII slaughter them after he killed Richard III at Bosworth Field? Or was it one of Henry VII’s allies?

Did Richard III do it?

Team Richard point out that there is no real evidence that Richard killed his nephews. They also point out, correctly, that he was good King and personally better behaved than his older brother. The Ricardians emphasize just how awful Elizabeth Woodville was (she acted like any man would have back then, the she-devil!) and how there was probably real, honest-to-goodness reasons Richard thought she was a witch (literally) and her children illegitimate.

The anti-Richard faction point out that the “evidence” for the illegitimacy of Richard’s nephews was as flimsy as a balsa wood bridge, and that Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t doing anything worse than anyone else in her station. They also make much of the fact that when the nephews “disappeared”, Richard never trotted them out to prove he hadn’t done away with them. This does seem a compelling argument. It is true that Richard had a lot on his plate during this time, and there was more to do than quash every rumor, but that particular rumor was making his crown list precariously. Why not address it?

Team Richard argues (correctly) that other things widely believed about Richard were 100% utter Tudor propaganda; a lot of it invented by Thomas More. It’s from More’s time that we get such twiddle-tattle as the idea that Richard was a hunchback (physically deformity was considered a manifestation of inner evil back then, so it was indeed a powerful slander), or that he poisoned his wife, or that Henry VI was a saint and Richard’s family were Satan’s own for killing him. Ergo, the Ricardians shout, why couldn’t the accusation that Richard murdered his nephews be poppycock as well?

Well, being an otherwise okay guy with a slight curvature of the spine isn’t really evidence that someone is incapable of murder.  Richard could have been a good King and still have murdered his nephews. People under much less provocation have done worse and justified their actions to themselves. People can love their spouse and their siblings and yet still be “morally flexible” enough to kill family members. It happens. Royalty in England has a long tradition of destroying nephews and cousins and even brothers to keep the throne; Richard would not be an anomaly if he murdered his kinsmen.

Did Henry VII do it?

Henry VII was certainly capable of doing it after he usurped Richard’s previously usurped throne. Heaven knows that Henry had a very tenuous claim on the throne, and he certainly didn’t hesitate to trump up a reason to kill the one surviving male heir of Edward IV’s line, the 17th Earl of Warwick. Henry also killed Richard’s illegitimate son, John of Gloucester (Richard’s only legitimate son had already died by the time Bosworth rolled around), just to make sure their were no more rivals for the crown. Henry was mean as a snake, conniving, smart, and brutal. He was also a devoted husband and father.

It turns out that devils are as rare as angels, and humans are frequently a mixture of the two. Who knew?

Ricardians have noticed that Henry VII never did a big push to claim that Richard III, whom he had murdered in battle and really wanted to paint as black as possible, had killed the Princes in the Tower. Why? Did he know who really did it, and had a good reason to avoid the topic lest the real killer be brought to light?

Then again, was Henry’s silence simply because everyone already assumed Richard had murdered the boys and there was no reason to bring it up? Moreover, why didn’t any of Richard’s supporters ever claim Henry VII had murdered the princes?

Did Margaret Beaufort do it?

Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was married to Edmund Tudor, who was the half-brother of King Henry VI by his mother’s second marriage, when she was just 12. She gave birth to Henry Tudor when she was just 13. Henry was Margaret’s only child, in spite of the fact she went on to have three other husbands, and she was devoted to him. Although her son was only the King Henry VI’s maternal half-nephew (not exactly a guy who would have typically been considered a contender for the throne), Margaret considered her blood to as royal as any Yorkist monarch and she saw no reason why her little boy should not have the crown.

Could Margaret have conspired to kill the Princes? Certainly she was capable of intrigue. After all, she conspired against Richard to try to bring her own son to the throne. Margaret was also thought to be completely cold-blooded in everything but her loyalty to her son and his lineage, and she reportedly hated the York family for Henry VI’s overthrow and murder. Once Henry VII won the crown, Margaret would have had the wherewithal and incentive to kill the Princes (who were the offshoots of the hated Yorks) to keep her son’s throne unchallenged by rival heirs. If she were the culprit, it would explain why Henry, who loved his mother as much as she loved him, would have wanted to keep the murders of the Princes away from too much scrutiny.

Casting Margaret as the villain leaves so big gaps, however. When Henry had killed Richard, she is the one who negotiated his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the elder sister of the missing Princes. If she hated Yorkists so much, why have her son marry one? There were other women around who would have also reinforced his claim to the throne by upping the royal blood content of his heirs; he could have married one of them. Moreover, if Margaret wiped out the Princes in the Tower because they were Yorks, why didn’t she kill all the rest of Elizabeth Woodville’s offspring?

Back to Richard III

Personally, I think Richard III had the Princes in the Tower murders. The Ricardians don’t like it, but there is evidence of Richard’s hand in this dastardly deed that predates the accession of Henry VII, and thus predates any historical “rewriting” of Richards character. The fact that puts me in the Richard-dun-it camp is that when the populace was screaming that the princes be shown alive, Richard didn’t display them even though it made his throne a shakier place to park his butt. Why would an astute man and competent ruler like Richard decline to do the expedient thing that would make him more popular, and thus his crown more secure? The only reason I can think of that he didn’t have the princes paraded on a balcony for Londoner’s to gawk at was the fact he didn’t have live princes to parade.

Furthermore, the argument that he was a “good guy” doesn’t sway me. No one was a “good guy” in the War of the Roses. Everyone killed anyone who stood in their way; it was that or get killed themselves. Richard was a good guy in many ways, but he was also a normal noble for the time. That means he was so ruthless that you could strain his soul through a fine-mesh colander and not find an iota of ruth in it, but he was loyal to his family and didn’t poke out people’s eyes for laughs. He also appeared to love his wife, even if it was weird about their whole families-killing-each-other thing. Nonetheless, many otherwise “nice” people have committed horrible crimes, so his retaliative niceness is not exculpatory.

Anyway, gentle readers, who do you think is the most likely mastermind of one of the greatest whodunits in the history of England? Richard III, Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, or Somebody Else?

9 thoughts on “Richard III, The Princes in the Tower, and the Big Whodunit

  1. Ever since reading “Daughter of Time”, I’ve been leaning towards Henry VII as the culprit. Somehow, that book made a lot of sense, even though it was fiction. Good detective work!

    Of course, that’s not to say Richard couldn’t or wouldn’t have had them done in. These were brutal times and people didn’t hesitate to use brutal methods. Certainly they cannot be judged by modern mores.

    IMO, Richard III had the makings of a good, if not great, king. Much maligned and never really given a chance, we will never really know. Also, his claim to the throne was very strong. No problems there.

    This is why I love history. The mysteries we will never solve, the “what ifs” etc. Fascinating!

    1. They are working on exhuming RIII, and I am really curious what they will find. At any rate, I hope he gets some of the respect he deserves, even though I am opposed to the sainthood that is occasionally thrust upon him by his fans.

    2. We are forgetting that Richard did not rule alone. The church had a string hand in every thing. Richard had to assign custody if the boys to someone. He trusted the church. He shouldn’t have.
      Remember Bishop Morton whom he had under arrest? Morton was Margaret Beaufort s good friend. Morton had the privy council infiltrated. They pressured Richard, who was no absolute monarch, to give a cadre of churchmen physical disposition of the boys.
      Morton was under arrest in Buckingham s house. He uses B. Who is Lord High Constable and promises he can be King. Just get the boys out if the way and help us dispose of their bodies. Richard is out of town.
      B succumbs. The boys are drugged and smothered and buried in Epping Forest.
      Richard signed the document didn’t he? He was naive. He and Buckingham have a huge fight about something (fact,) and B stages a rebellion. MArgaret Beaufort spent her life doing charity for young people (penance,?)

  2. My personal opinion is that the two young princes were indeed murdered under the orders of either Henry V11 or the Duke of Buckingham once an supporter of Richard 111. Shakespeare did much to blacken Richard’s name from hearsay which was passed down by Thomas More and other people after Bosworth in 1485 and during the Tudor era. The two young boys would have been deemed illegitimate as their father was already said to have promised marriage to another woman before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and in those days a verbal utterance was a binding contact i think i am right in saying under church law. And this Richard most likely used to take the princes from the line of the throne. So Richard would have been the next in line as George Duke of Clarence his other brother was already dead. Shakespeare would have us believe that Richard killed off most of his relatives to gain the crown and als killed his wife Anne so he could marry Edward’s daughter Elizabeth of York. The image of the wicked uncle Richard deformed and evil is pure Tudor propaganda Shakespeare lived during the time of Elizabeth 1 who was the granddaughter of Henry V11 so maybe he felt that he had to keep in with Queen and make Richard the baddy and her grandfather Henry the good guy. The discovery of the remains which could be Richard under a car park in Leicester where a abbey once stood could answer the question if it is Richard was he the deformed monster Shakespeare said he was i will be intersted to find out more hopefully.

  3. I am intrigued by the casting of Margaret Beaufort as villain. She was married to the side-switching Lord Stanley; Richard considered her a rehabilitated Yorkist rather than an enemy Lancastrian, which gave her access to the Tower; and if she and John Morton cooked the plot up between them so that Henry could marry Elizabeth of York and claim the throne, that would explain why neither Richard nor Henry could produce the boys or their bodies. Smothering them under Richard’s nose would have been a master stroke–he would garner the blame whether the boys were missing or dead. If Henry had his suspicions, it could also explain why he was extra careful to establish his right to the throne via Parliament, sans wife, and why her coronation was so long postponed. But this theory makes Elizabeth of York an interesting character. She schemed with Margaret and Henry before Bosworth. Did Margaret convince her that Richard killed her brothers? For that matter (to enlarge the plot), could Margaret and Morton have had Richard’s son and wife poisoned? Until the battle of Bosworth, Margaret and Lord Stanley were good Yorkists, so Margaret could have engineered all kinds of mischief. I’d like to see if someone has done any research on this.

  4. Richard subsequently married Anne Neville, the widowed wife of the Prince and the daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Anne’s father was the man who had killed Richard’s father, and Richard was the man who killed her husband.

    Warwick fought for the Yorkists, he didn’t kill Richard’s father. Do you maybe mean Edward’s father?

    1. Warwick switched teams in the third inning, which is how Anne wound up married to Prince of Wales Edward and how Warwick got killed by Team Ed IV.

  5. First of all, not that I don’t believe two boys who are supposed to be the princes died in the tower. But I don’t really believe in that both the boys were the princes for real. Because, honestly… everyone says Elizabeth Woodville was a witch, a smart woman, etc… so… Richard III took Edward V to the tower and murdered her other son by execution. So then, he went to Elizabeth and told her to give her fourth son up and have him put in the tower as well? So Elizabeth was just happy to give her son up and saw no treath in this? IMO, she switched the kid with a commoners son and passed that boy of as her son. So she had her youngest son taken out of the country.

    But right, I do believe two boys died in that tower… but were they murdered?
    So yes, I think about another suspect: Anne Neville, why wouldn’t she also be capable of murdering the two boys? If this would have happened, it could also be a reason why King Richard III didn’t talk about it.

    So Elizabeth Woodville was a witch, placed a curse upon whoever killed the two boys in the tower – I’m not even sure if the two boys who were in the tower would have been the two princes, as little Richard easily could have been switched with a commoners son, as his mother wasn’t stupid- and Queen Anne died, just as her only firstborn son.

    it’s also possible to link the princes in the tower their dissapearance with the Dauphin Louis XVII, that kid did die in the temple of France because of his abuse and illness, but there are rumours that the dauphin also escaped and another boy died. Maybe, they aren’t even murdered.

    Why murder them at all? Maybe just don’t give them enough love and food, and made sure their health wasn’t top, so the kids just died of neglect.
    In that case, it’s very normal no one could tell about it in the years after. Okay, the kids died, how so? Why, who did it?
    And if one of the kids wasn’t Prince Richard, what was the King going to do then? Admitting a woman had outsmart him?
    That would also be a reason why Henry kept it quite… because there was still a boy out there who was the true heir to the throne.

  6. Richard killed the princes why have them put in the tower if he saw no threat saying they were bastards if they where why not release them he probably killed as soon as he imprisoned them

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