The Princes in the Tower is an episode in British history so shrouded in mystery that still, over 500 years later, we are still discovering clues, still creating theories as to what might have happened to the boys. The story is one of the best known in British history – most people know that ruthless King Richard killed his nephews, as Shakespeare would have us believe. However, the actual background and facts of the story often get lost within the drama of it all.
It is not surprising that the background does not get overly focused on. The muddied entanglements of the Wars of the Roses are so complex that they can make your brain hurt and want to trace it out in pencil and paper, so I shall try to make it as brief and simple as possible. Richard III was the fourth son of the House of York, a seemingly benign duke, who had served as Lord of the North under his brother Edward IV – the taller, more attractive, more charismatic, and king-like of the two. This situation worked well. Richard appeared happy in his position of Lord of the North and did not organise any rebellions against Edward, unlike his other brother George, whose treason was punished by drowning in a barrel of his favourite malmsey wine, as the rumour goes – some might argue a slightly psychopathic way to kill your own brother. Edward spent most of his time drinking, eating, and partying, which could have led to his early death in April 1483. His prematurity left his son, the 12-year-old Edward V, as king of England. Obviously, a 12-year-old cannot rule a country, and so, as was common in the fifteenth century, Edward’s brother, Richard III was named Lord Protector. Soon after he is named Lord Protector a convenient piece of evidence emerges that claims to prove that Edward IV was secretly married before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the boys’ mother, making Edward IV a bigamist and Edward V illegitimate – and, most continently, made Richard the King of England.
At the same time, in Brittany, Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, was in exile where he had been since 1471 as a relatively distant heir to the Lancastrians. Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had attempted to get her son out of Brittany and back to England since his exile began, and nearly succeeded under Edward IV, but his untimely death rendered this impossible. However, with the commotion of the illegitimisation of Edward V, Margaret seemed to change tack, with her aim no longer just to get her son back into England but get her son back as King. In order to improve his claim, Henry Tudor promised to marry Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV, and sister to the princes in the tower.
With the background laid out, it is now necessary to move to the suspects. The key suspect is undoubtedly Richard III, arguably with the fate of his legacy being sealed in Shakespeare, with his depiction of the evil hunchback Richard III, so evil that he killed his nephews in their sleep. This is the image which remains culturally embedded in the depiction of Richard. In more recent years, however, there has been a more sympathetic reading of Richard III. Modern sympathisers of Richard III have created an almost cult-like following of people rushing to defend the person termed the ‘first victim of fake news’ by the Richard III society’s chair, and respected historian, Matt Lewis.
The theory that Richard III killed the princes in the tower is the one most commonly accepted by historians, and originates from Tudor historians’, Polydore Vergil and Sir Thomas More’s, versions of events. It has been argued that Richard had the most motive and could easily access the princes. Nathen Amin has argued that Richard III was acting as a bad uncle in an attempt to be a good father. Murdering the princes, despite having already deemed them illegitimate, was necessary, as proven with Edward IV, to securing the throne. The son of Richard III is often neglected in historical recounts, after all he died in 1484, just one year after the princes in the tower. However, as is noted by Amin, Richard would not have known that events would unfold in this way.
However, as has been argued by Matt Lewis, the murder of his nephews is not so obvious as one would at first glance believe. Lewis argues less that Richard didn’t have motive, because lets be honest, his motive is pretty obvious, but more that his actions do not suggest that he killed the princes. Lewis argued that had Richard killed the princes, then he would have at least publicised the fact that they had died, in order to stop them from being a threat. The rebuttal to this argument has been clear from historians such as Ms de Lisel, who has argued that if the death of the boys was publicised then they risked gaining a cult-like status, however, this arguably didn’t matter. They may have been cult-like in status, but they would have still been dead, and unable to launch a rebellion. One of the pieces of evidence that is perhaps more compelling however, is the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville’s, reaction to Richard. According to Lewis, no one close to the boys, including Elizabeth, ever accused Richard of murdering the boys, and in 1484, Elizabeth even sent her daughters out of sanctuary and into Richard’s care, less than a year after he supposedly murdered their brothers. It could be argued that the girls would not be a threat to Richard’s throne, and so they would not be in danger. However, by this point, Henry had already promised to marry the eldest daughter Elizabeth, in order to bolster his own claim to the throne. With all this considered it seems unlikely that Richard murdered the princes in the tower.
The next theory, which appears to have gained traction over the past decade, is the argument that Lady Margaret Beaufort murdered the boys. Lady Margaret Beaufort is a fascinating figure in her own right – painted by some as the original momager, Margaret did what she could to ensure her son, the Lancastrian heir, got his place on the throne. It is hotly debated, the extent to which Margaret plotted to get her son on the throne, some, such as historical fiction writer Phillipa Gregory, paint Margaret as plotting from his birth to get her son his god given place on the throne. The real answer however is arguably less extreme. Margaret was most likely an opportunist: undoubtedly ambitious, not just for her son but for herself, but it is perhaps more likely that her ambitions for him to become king only appeared when Richard took the throne. This could be for many reasons, mainly because she saw cracks within the York dynasty. But did Margaret have the motive? Arguably, the boys were moved out of the way due to them being illegitimised. However, as pointed out earlier, this did not completely mitigate them as a threat for the future. Not just that but her own sons claim, relied upon the legitimacy of the marriage of Henry to Edward IV’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, later to be known as Elizabeth of York. It would be impossible to legitimise Elizabeth for Henry’s claim without also legitimising her brothers, who undoubtedly had a stronger claim than the also illegitimate Beaufort line, so it could be that Margaret would have wanted to move the boys out of the way to make way for her son. It also must be said that even into Henry’s reign there was no discussion or enquiry into who killed the princes in the tower, and it has been argued that this was a way of Henry protecting the murderer – and who would he have had more incentive to protect than his dotting mother, who put him on the throne anyway? Margaret undoubtedly had motive, but she did not have the means, neither she nor her husband had access to the tower, nor a reasonable reason to have visited the boys. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Margaret murdered the boys.
The theory which is appearing to be more and more likely is the idea that the boys didn’t actually die in the Tower of London, and that they perhaps escaped and lead normal lives. There have always been men claiming to have been one of the boys, the most prominent being Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger of the two boys. But these rumours appear to have grown legs in the past few months – with historian and detective John Dike. John believes that he has found the real Edward V, who lived and died in Devon, under the alias of John Evans.
There is limited evidence that proves that the princes died in the tower. In 1789, workmen working on St Georges Chapel accidentally broke into the tomb of Edward IV, where they found the skeletons of two unidentified children. In 1933, they were disinterred from Westminster abbey, and analysis though they were unable to even decipher the gender.
So what evidence is there that the boys escaped? The main evidence comes from St Matthew’s Church in the sleepy village of Coldridge in Devon. For the past four years John Dike has been investigating into the church, and its possible connection with the eldest prince in the tower – Edward V. Throughout the church there are Yorkist symbols everywhere, the rose of York appears throughout as does the sun in splendour. There is also a figure depicted, believed to be Edward V, wearing an ermine jacket and carrying a crown. This is somewhat unsurprising, the church was within the land owned by Elizabeth Woodville’s son, and Edward V’s half-brother Thomas Grey. But it could also be that it goes deeper, and that the Yorkist symbols were in support of Edward V as well as the Yorkist movement. In March 1484, Elizabeth Woodville made a deal with Richard, after which she wrote to her son telling him to come home as Richard had agreed to pardon him – could it be that another part of the deal was for her sons, or at least her son Edward would be safe, so as he never made a claim to the throne. It is thought that even the name John Evans is a reference to his heritage: EVAS, written on his tomb is thought to be a clue to Edward V (EV) and asa (AS), the Latin for in sanctuary. It seems that perhaps the reason that there has been no real headway made in finding who murdered the boys could be because they were not murdered in the first place.
As one of the biggest mysteries in British history, the story of the princes in the tower is likely to never be solved. But improvements in forensic technology have meant that we may be closer than ever to finding the truth. The mystery is a real testament to the power of public imagination – people have been trying for centuries to find what really happened to the princes, and much funding has gone into finding out what happened. But the story isn’t over yet. In the late 1990s there was a request to open the tomb, which was denied by Elizabeth II. However, it is rumoured that Prince Charles is much keener to solve the mystery than his mother. So, who knows – the mystery of the princes in the tower may be closer to a possible resolution than we had all assumed.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
Gething, Ashley. Who Killed the Princes in the Tower? / BBC Worldwide Ltd. ; Produced and Directed by Ashley Gething. London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2015.
Junge, Hans-Christoph. “Alison Weir, ‘The Princes in the Tower.’” Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 58, no. 1 (1999): 225–.
Lewis, Matthew. Amin, Nathen. “Did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower”, History Extra (September 2019)
Steafel, Eleanor. “Meet the man behind Devon’s Da Vinci Code” The Telegraph (2 January 2022)
Thornton, Tim. “More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII.” History (London) 106, no. 369 (2021): 4–25.