The Truth about the Princes in the Tower

by JoHarrington

Two young royal boys disappeared in the Tower of London. But before we can speculate on the mystery, we need to know the history.

If you call them the Princes in the Tower, then you've subtly expressed your allegiance to Richard III. Anyone on the side of the boys would have referred to only one prince. The other was King Edward V.

Yet due to the powerful writing of William Shakespeare and the smear job of the Tudor court, we all think we know for certain that Richard III had those children killed.

But who were the boys in the Tower of London? And why was it so politically convenient to make them go away?

Let us start at the beginning.

Who Were the Princes in the Tower?

Twelve year old Edward V of England and his younger brother - and heir to the throne - Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, aged nine.

On his deathbed, Edward IV knew that the worst possible scenario was going to play out. His country was finally stable, after the terrible decades of the Wars of the Roses. But the House of Lancaster still wanted his throne.

He was about to leave a twelve year old boy wearing the crown. It was practically inevitable that would lead once more to the battlefield.

Edward IV was a father, but he was also a monarch. His decisions would necessarily impact the entire realm, and he was having to make them while wracked with illness.

(Modern medics have determined that he died either of typhoid or pneumonia.)

In the full knowledge that he was about to die, Edward IV's major concern was appointing a Protector. This was someone who would rule in lieu of his young son; and keep his family safe until Edward V was old enough to take his place.

There were really only two contenders.  One was his wife, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who would undoubtedly act with their son's interests at heart. The other was his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had been loyal throughout his life.

The father in him would have reached for Elizabeth. The ruler in him knew that Richard was the only sane option.

England would never accept a Queen Regent. They had experienced one under Margaret of Anjou, and that had sparked the whole Wars of the Roses. England would accept Richard. His brother had been beside Edward IV in every major battle and trial of his reign. He knew what to do.

On April 9th 1483, Edward IV died in Westminster and was initially buried in St George's Chapel, in Windsor Castle. Further north, in Ludlow Castle, his son was proclaimed king; while in London, it was announced that Richard would be Lord Protector.

Edward V's progression south began immediately.  As young and bereft as he was, the boy had to be seen to take up office in London. He had to be crowned.

King Edward V

King Edward V

Richard, Duke of Gloucester

King Richard III of England Reigned 1483-1485

However, that journey was intercepted. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the Realm, met his nephew and diverted him to the Palace of the Bishop of London. There Richard arranged for various peers to come and swear loyalty to his twelve year old nephew, King Edward V.

It was only after a council, a couple of days later, that it was decided to relocate the boy to the Tower of London. No apparent prison in this instance. It was also a commonly used royal residence. The boy king was going there for his own safety, Richard told him, until the day of his coronation.

This too was entirely common sense. The House of Lancaster could easily arrange an 'accident' for the adolescent monarch.

The initial trouble came from Richard's own House of York though. He had not been officially told when Edward IV had died. He had to learn about it by an informant. It quickly became apparent that the Woodvilles were attempting to stop him becoming Lord Protector. He quickly arranged for the brother of the Queen to be arrested, plus her son from a previous marriage and members of her retinue.

By June 10th 1483, Richard was convinced enough of another internal York threat in London, that he sent word north for military reinforcements.

Things moved quickly thereon. Several conspirators were accused at a council on June 13th, with their ringleader - Lord Hastings - being executed on the same day.

However, the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Woodville, had learned to act on her instinct. On May 1st 1483, she had gathered together the rest of her family and fled into the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. By the laws of the day, no-one could touch them there. They could not be arrested or forced to go elsewhere, until they left the holy building.

The royal family were visited in sanctuary by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Whatever he said to Elizabeth Woodville persuaded her to surrender her second son to his uncle's care.

Bear something in mind here. Elizabeth had no reason to doubt her brother-in-law's intentions. He had remained absolutely loyal to her husband his entire life. The child going with him was his own namesake.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had risked life and limb several times on the battlefield, fighting to secure Edward IV's crown. It was a logical deduction to assume that he'd do the same for the son, as he had for the father.

That said, why did Elizabeth Woodville remain in sanctuary with the rest of her children - all of them daughters? She was a canny woman, who knew how unpopular she was amongst the aristocracy of England.

Edward IV had married her for love. Her nastiest detractors said that she'd bewitched him with her spells. The rest merely noted that she was beautiful and the Woodvilles were ambitious. It had caused a lot of resentment, when her siblings snapped up so many titles, properties and great marriages.

She also knew that the common people of England loved her dearly.

Elizabeth Woodville could have kept her nine year old son Richard with her. No-one could have touched him in sanctuary. But she handed him over to his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He joined his brother Edward, in the Tower of London, on June 16th 1483.

Elizabeth Woodville Says Goodbye to her son Richard

Richard, Duke of York, Taking Leave of His Mother, Elizabeth Woodville, Westminster

Books about the Yorkist Royal Family & the Princes in the Tower

Edward V's Claim to the Throne is Dissolved

Only a legitimate heir can be crowned King of England. By decree, young Edward Plantagenet had his legitimacy undermined on two counts.

When Edward V had entered London, it was alongside his beloved uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

The same man had been to fetch his brother, so that he had a playmate in the Tower of London. Both boys had also been measured up for coronation robes. The exquisite garments had arrived. They'd tried them on.

But the date of the actual coronation kept being postponed. Then, just a week after little Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, joined his brother, something terrible happened.

It began with a sermon, delivered on June 22nd 1483.  A theologian named Ralph Shaa told from the pulpit how he had received evidence that Edward IV had been betrothed to somebody else, at the time that he married Elizabeth Woodville.

In Medieval law, a betrothal was binding. It rendered his marriage invalid, thus turning all of the royal children into bastards.

An illegitimate child could not be crowned King of England. The boy in the Tower could not be called Edward V, nor would his little brother be his heir.

Just as London was reeling from these revelations, older rumors began to resurface. Anyone who could count to nine on their fingers had wondered about the legitimacy of Edward IV himself. His father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, had been fighting in Pontoise, France, when the Duchess Cecily became pregnant in Rouen.

Those stories had been heard before, notably when a second brother, George, Duke of Clarence, had tried to usurp Edward IV to claim the throne for himself. It had been quashed by their mother, who stated outright that her husband HAD popped home to visit her in 1441.

Now all of London, and further afield, were muttering that she would say that, wouldn't she?  Maybe there was some truth in the rumors. Plus what was an English king doing being born and baptised in Rouen?

The Duchess Cecily was still alive in 1483. She flew into an absolute rage over this. Despite the fact that Richard never once publicly repeated the claim that Edward IV had been illegitimate (thus rendering Edward V's legitimacy as a monarch doubly dubious), Cecily certainly blamed him for this particular resurgence of gossip.

She told anyone who'd listen 'of that great injury which her son Richard had done her'.

Learn more about Duchess Cecily in this novel about her life by Anne Easter Smith.

However, Parliament really wasn't too concerned about the circumstances of Edward IV's birth. That was merely common tittle-tattle, creating a greater background of scandal and controversy. Instead, when the House met on June 25th 1483, it was to discuss the man's marriage instead.

It was proved to its satisfaction (and convenience) that Edward IV had been betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler (aka Lady Eleanor Talbot). The Bishop of Bath and Wells stepped forward to state that he'd officiated himself at a clandestine wedding ceremony.

Edward IV had not been at liberty to marry Elizabeth Woodville.  Therefore Edward V could not be king.

The natural born heirs to the throne should have been the children of George, Duke of Clarence, but an act of attainder had already knocked them out of the succession. That was the penalty for his earlier attempt at usurpation.

Which left, well, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.  With a great show of reluctance, he asked to think about it.  The next day, he humbly agreed to become Richard III.

History Books about Richard III - His Coronation, Reign and DNA

Attempts to Break Out the Princes in the Tower

The summer and autumn of 1483 saw several rebellions and plots designed to reinstate Edward V on the throne. Then he went missing.

In late June and July 1483, clergymen, mayors and respected gentlemen were delivering lectures up and down the country. These were designed to explain canon and Parliamentary law to the common folk, thus showing them precisely why Richard was now King not Lord Protector.

Meanwhile, Edward and Richard were still very visible within the Tower of London. Over three hundred people made the Tower their home. Any of them had the opportunity to watch the children at play. Even the rank and file of Londoners got occasional glimpses, as the boys ventured out onto the battlements.

This, of course, afforded their mother Elizabeth Woodville plenty of opportunity for news about her boys. She'd taken a lot of money and jewels into sanctuary with her, so she had the means to pay informants. Moreover, this was still a York monarchy, and many inside the Tower would have been secretly still loyal to the deposed Edward V.

Throughout England and Wales, there were plenty more supporters too. As the news spread about Richard's claim to the throne, several open rebellions broke out, particularly in the south of England.

Richard's response was to confine the boys to quarters. It lessened their availability to Woodville conspirators, who might be planning to seize the children.

This was no idle paranoia. The uprisings spread like wildfire, but Richard had been able to put them all down. Plus he'd received word of The Sanctuary Plot, whereby Elizabeth planned to sneak her daughters across the Channel into France.

With the princesses at liberty to enter into marriages with the royal families of Europe, then there could soon be continental armies ready to fight for Edward V.

While nobody got close enough to the boys to seriously spirit them out of the Tower, there were certainly various plans to do so.

The Disappearance of the Princes in the Tower

We all think we know what happened to the boys. Shakespeare, amongst others, did a great job of telling us without any evidence at all.

Mid July 1483 was the last time that Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were spotted playing within the grounds of the Tower of London. Nor did anyone outside ever see them again.

After this point, all else is conjecture. No official statement was given regarding their Fate. They simply disappeared.

Pretty much all speculation hereon comes from watching the ripple effect, as those who may have been in the know reacted to something that we can't see.

By late July, the now crowned Richard III began a progress through England with his royal entourage. He'd left behind him people paid to guard the boys. It can be assumed that they were safe and sound, just hidden indoors, around this time.

The Duke of Buckingham had been one of Richard's closest friends and allies. He was included in the grand tour of the country. But in Gloucester, the two of them violently quarreled over some unknown cause.

By the time that Richard reached Warwick, on August 8th 1483, the Duke of Buckingham had left his company. He'd used a flimsy excuse to check on his lands in the Welsh Marches. Buckingham promptly raised one of the most serious rebellions of Richard's reign.

He did it initially in the name of Edward V, whom Buckingham sought to return to the throne. In short, whatever they argued about, Richard's closest friend believed the boy to still be alive in early August.

However, by the autumn, Buckingham's uprising swiftly changed gears. He suddenly and without ceremony ditched his bid to return Edward. Instead his allegiance went to Henry Tudor (a man with less claim to the throne than Buckingham himself). What had he heard (or done) to make him opt for the long shot?

Most damning of all, around the same time, Elizabeth Woodville also had a change of heart. She had begun negotiating with Margaret Beaufort, attempting to gain Tudor support for Edward V. The idea was to marry her daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Henry Tudor to secure the deal.

That plan ultimately did go ahead. The couple became the founders of the Tudor dynasty. But Elizabeth Woodville's motivation had also flipped in the autumn of 1483.  Now it wasn't allegiance for her son that she wanted, but her daughter on the throne.

She had some knowledge which assured her that her sons were dead. But she never once stated that it was murder. Unlike York refugees on the continent, or the later Tudor propaganda machine, such rumors didn't even appear that current in 1483.

It wasn't until January 1484 that anyone openly accused Richard III of killing, or ordering the murder, of his nephews. The York King merely kept silent, even while his reputation took a battering. It would have been so much easier for him to have produced them to prove that they were alive.

That he didn't is perhaps the strongest indication of all that they were not. 

The great Medieval mystery remains - if they were dead, then how did they die?  Unfortunately, it's a question that seems unlikely ever to be answered.

Ask anyone with a passing interest who killed the Princes in the Tower. The likely answer is that it was Richard III. But did he do it?
It's an enduring Medieval mystery, which has intrigued historians for centuries. But what is really known about the disappearance of the boy king Edward V and his little brother?

Princes in the Tower Memorabilia on eBay

Updated: 08/02/2013, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Indentured servants were one step removed from slaves, but they had a time limit set upon their service. It might mean, for example, that they were bound to serve the family for ten years, then they were free to go.

I'll see what I can come up with about daily life in 1640.

Ragtimelil on 08/02/2013

I haven't decided I want to pay money to I may have to do that. York or London is even farther for me...(or is that further?) Anyway, I just looked up indentured servants since my Hubert Patey came here as one. The family probably wasn't wealthy. Most of my ancestors were farmers. You know, what did they do all day?

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Is there nothing on If not, then it would involve a trip to York or London, both of which are reasonably far away for me.

What do you want to know about daily life in 1640?

Ragtimelil on 08/02/2013

WIsh I knew how to research "across the pond." I'd love to find out more about him. I have found two names of people with the same set of children (including Hurbert). I also want to learn about life back then (1640). I want to put it together in a book for my dad's 90th.

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

So you've possibly got a bit of Viking stock in your bloodline! Lots of Yorkshire people have, at least.

Ragtimelil on 08/02/2013

Fascinating. I've been back to genealogy lately and have traced on ancestor back to Yorkshire. I haven't gotten this far back, but it makes these stories even more real for me. Thank you.

JoHarrington on 07/30/2013

Yes, Elizabeth Woodville really was caught between a rock and a hard place there.

I've not considered the theory that she had them smuggled out before. There were certainly plenty of Woodvilles and their supporters in and around the Tower of London. Access was therefore possible, if difficult.

The Sanctuary Plot - uncovered around July 1483 - relied upon a Woodville inside the Tower creating a diversion with a fire, so that the boys could be ninja-ed out. The plan was foiled, if it had ever existed at all.

Richard used that as the excuse to confine them to one section of the White Tower. That would have made it incredibly difficult for any Woodville to sneak the boys out. The idea is therefore looking unlikely.

However, let's assume that it happened. What next? I think that Elizabeth would have certainly shouted about it from the rooftops, especially three years later, when Edward V was fifteen. At this point, he would have legally achieved his majority and he could therefore be viewed as an adult monarch.

The fact that she didn't really does make me think that Elizabeth hadn't had the princes removed. The aftermath just doesn't support the notion. Intriguing plot twist though!

Mira on 07/30/2013

Really interesting. I find Elizabeth Woodville's position(s) so fascinating. Like Treathyl (cmoneyspinner), I think she somehow smuggled them out, which is why she never accused anyone of murdering them. But I know nothing about the topic :). Look forward to your other piece (the more recent one).

JoHarrington on 07/26/2013

It's funny you should say that, because there is at least one strong rumour that this is precisely what happened to Richard of Shrewsbury. :)

Elizabeth Woodville was certainly trying to smuggle her daughters out at one point too.

I'm with you. I think all this wrangling for the crown was way too high a price to pay for the reality.

cmoneyspinner on 07/26/2013

@aingham69 and @JoHarrington - It's really two bad they were too young to make their own life-changing decisions, particularly in view of the life threats all around them. Because if it were me, I would put on some pauper clothes and slipped out of the country. They didn't have computers back then. Those wicked wretched evil power-mongers would have never found me ever again! Come back and reclaim a crown? What for? I'm living large without the headache!! Life? Crown? Being a monarch ain't all that! Give me life! Yo! You could have just asked me. I would have abdicated! But you never thought about that, did you??!!

You might also like

The Coronation of Richard III and Anne Neville

Richard III and his wife Anne were crowned on July 6,1483. Richard is known f...

Did Shakespeare Have Richard III All Wrong?

The theory was that by uncovering Richard III, we would learn more about the ...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...