The Princes in the Tower
Created | Updated Mar 9, 2009
Over the years, many people have been imprisoned in the Tower of London, notably Guy Fawkes (explosives expert) and Sir Walter Raleigh (explorer). This entry aims to shed light on just two of the prisoners at the Tower: Prince Edward (King Edward V) and his brother Prince Richard (Duke of York), who were imprisoned during 1483.
The Children of Edward IV
In 1464 Edward IV secretly married a commoner called Elizabeth Woodville. Together they had many children, two of whom were Edward, who was born in London in 1470, and Richard, who was born three years later in Shrewsbury. Their father had been crowned king as a consequence of the War of the Roses, and now they were seen to be the next in line to inherit the throne.
On 9 April, 1483, King Edward IV passed away and his eldest son became Edward V. The new King's uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was given the position of the children's protector. However, there was conflict between the Duke and the Woodville nobles (the children's maternal family) and when Edward journeyed to London in May ahead of his coronation (set for 22 June, 1483), he found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London. Soon after, on 16 June, Edward's younger brother Richard also took a trip to London and the same fate befell him.
Once they were both in prison, the Duke told Parliament that his brother's children were illegitimate on account of his brother marrying Elizabeth Woodville instead of the woman he was contracted to wed: Lady Eleanor Talbot. Therefore, on 26 June, 1483, Parliament declared the Duke as the true heir to the throne. He was crowned King Richard III — ceasing the reign of Edward V. The last sighting of the princes was around this time.
The Enigma Surrounding the Princes
What actually happened to the princes after they were imprisoned in the Tower is a complete mystery to this day, but two theories exist.
The first theory is that the children were murdered. Many people were said to have wanted to kill the princes, including the English knight James Tyrell, The Duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford, and the first Duke of Norfolk John Howard. Their uncle is also a particularly likely suspect, and may well have had them killed by his servants to allow him a clear path to the throne. However, as Lord Protector, Richard was, in effect, already ruling. He had no need to murder his nephews — of whom he was said to be very fond.
Of these characters, the writer Thomas More is attributed with later saying in a book1 that the most likely culprit was the princes' uncle; he most likely had the boys suffocated and the remains were hidden under a staircase. Richard III is also accused in Shakespeare. It's the 'standard' theory most people believe.
Bones were discovered in 1674 beneath the White Tower's stairs. They were later examined by the royal surgeon who claimed2 the bones belonged to the princes. These bones remained in the Tower for a further four years before being placed in a marble casket and taken to Westminster Abbey. A service was held for this occasion with Charles II stating:
It is right and meet that we commend the bones of these young princes to a place of final rest. Their fates at the order of Richard III grieves us, and though almost two centuries have passed, the vile deeds of that villain shall ne'er be forgotten.
In 1933 King George V called upon scientists Lawrence E Tanner (Keeper of the Monuments in Westminster Abbey) and Prof William Wright to re-examine the bones in the casket. They found that it contained not only human bones but animal bones too. The bones have not since been re-examined. Therefore until they are, nobody knows for certain whether they belong to the princes who could have been murdered, or alternatively might have died of natural causes.
In 2007 another theory was proposed by a historian from the University of Leicester called David Baldwin, who had pieced together his account of the events that occurred in the Tower, and written them up in a book entitled: The Lost Prince: The Survival of Richard of York. In the book he suggests that the eldest died a natural death in the Tower, and his brother was allowed to flee from the Tower. He then witnessed his uncle's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. On realisation that Henry Tudor, the winner of the battle, would now be crowned King, he journeyed to St John's Abbey, Colchester, Essex, where it is said that he became a bricklayer and went by the name 'Richard Plantagenet'. Plantagenet was said to have read Latin, a skill few commoners possessed, and died at Eastwell, Kent, in December, 1550.
Only time will tell whether this enigma will always be shrouded in mystery, or the true account of what happened will finally come to light.
In the confusion as to what happened to the real princes, two people claimed to be one of the princes and set out to overthrow Henry VII.
From an early age Lambert Simnel was brought up to act as an impostor. In 1486 he journeyed to Ireland and the following year was crowned Edward VI in Dublin. Once he became king his alleged Aunt Margaret furnished him with enough soldiers to scale a war against Henry VII. The battle didn't go well with Henry VII being the victor, but Simnel's youthfulness was on his side and he became a kitchen scullion and falconer to the king.
The second impostor was Perkin Warbeck. Although Flemish Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Richard, Duke of York and a nephew to Margaret of York. In 1497 he captured Taunton Castle and proclaimed himself Richard IV. He made many more attacks on places in England, but was finally caught in Exeter in September 1497. At his trial in Taunton he confessed to being an impostor and was sent to the Tower of London. He was caught trying to escape and was hung, drawn and quartered in November 1499.