Why Richard III May Not Have Killed the Princes in the Tower

by JoHarrington

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?

When twelve year old Edward V went into the Tower of London, it was under the protection of his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

When the boy monarch's nine year old brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, went to join him, it was because their same uncle had guaranteed his safety. The children's mother, Elizabeth Woodville, would never have surrendered him into Richard's care otherwise.

Just days later, their Lord Protector usurped the throne to become Richard III; and within weeks the two boys disappeared.

Richard III as Lord Protector of the Princes in the Tower

He had a duty of care towards those two young boys. Then they went missing, while housed in the greatest fortress in England.

The Tower of London was built to be a stronghold. Throughout history, it's been the place where England's (and often Britain's) wealth is housed.

Our crown jewels are there. Our arsenal was once solely stored there. For centuries, it was the fortress where our leaders felt safest, or where they sent our most important prisoners. In short, the Tower of London is seemingly impenetrable.

This means that the suspect list, when considering who might have murdered the Princes there, is remarkably small. Particularly when they were confined to quarters.

It's a widely believed myth that only Richard III had the key to the north-eastern section of the White Tower, where the children were held. If only he had access, then he was the murderer, simple as that.

Of course, he wasn't the only person allowed anywhere near them. If he had been, then the Princes would have starved to death the second that Richard began his four month long royal progress through England.

Let's lay it out here right now. Richard III did not personally clothe, feed and bathe his nephews. He did not empty their chamberpot, nor conduct their school lessons. He did not act as their priest during morning mass, confession nor evening prayers. He did not nurse them, nor answer their calls, if they had a nightmare in the middle of the night. He did not stand guard outside their door, personally protecting them against intruders.

He was the King of England, and there were servants, yeomen, physicians, priests and schoolmasters for that sort of thing.

Naturally all of these people would have been vetted by Richard. There weren't a great number of them, but they had their roles to play. People with keys would have overseen their work and let them in and out.

When we say that 'Richard had the key', what we really mean is that the Constable of the Tower was actually in possession of it.  That was briefly Thomas Stanley, husband of Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry Tudor), in his capacity as Lord High Constable. Then it was Robert Brackenbury, a close ally of Richard III.

Moreover, the Constable of London could demand entrance at any time. That was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who raised a Lancastrian rebellion against Richard III later in the year.

Richard III had the opportunity and access to kill the Princes in the Tower. But he was not the only one. Nevertheless he is the one most often fingered as the killer.  Let's look at the facts.

Richard III Act 4 Scene 2

The evil Richard III orders to death the Princes in the Tower, in this powerful scene by William Shakespeare. Tudor propaganda at its best.
Two young royal boys disappeared in the Tower of London. But before we can speculate on the mystery, we need to know the history.
Richard III (Dover Thrift Editions)

Final play in Shakespeare's masterly dramatization of the struggle for power between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Richard is a stunning archvillain who schemes, seduces, be...

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Did Richard III Kill the Princes in the Tower?

This is the most commonly told story of all. So popular that most people believe it outright. But did it actually happen?

We can categorically say that King Richard III did not kill his nephews with his own hands.

They were still seen playing in the Tower of London after he'd left on his kingly progress across the country. Richard's movements are well chronicled, and he was nowhere near London at the time of their disappearance.

Granted they could just have been hidden away until he came back on November 25th 1483. Then he could have killed them.

However, not even the Tudors tried to say that Richard had done the deed himself. They said he ordered it done while he was away.

The story, as related by Sir Thomas More and then William Shakespeare, involved two attempts to kill Edward and Richard, with the second being successful.

On July 17th 1483, Richard appointed a long-time ally and supporter named Robert Brackenbury to the position of Constable of the Tower. This was now the man charged with the day to day care of the two royal boys.

Three days later, Richard III left Windsor to begin the tour of his realm. On July 29th, the king reached Gloucester. Now safely distanced, he dispatched a rider named John Green with a verbal message for Brackenbury back at the Tower of London.

The message asked the Constable to murder the children. But Brackenbury knelt before 'Our Lady of the Tower' (the Virgin Mary in the chapel) and swore that he would not do it, even if it meant his own death for refusing.

John Green rode away with this message. He caught up with his king at Coventry, on August 15th, and told him about Brackenbury's refusal. Richard apparently then went to the toilet. He sat there, muttering to himself, while he engaged in a long number two. His monologue was along the lines of 'who will rid me of these turbulent princes?'

A young boy - a page of the Chamber - overheard him and suggested that James Tyrrell would do the job. Tyrrell was the man who slept each night across the threshold to Richard's bedroom door. He wasn't actually there as a draught excluder. He was to ensure that no-one interrupted the king's sleep. Tyrrell was naturally looking for promotion.

Bowels cleared, Richard thanked the page for his recommendation of a murderer and promptly sent for James Tyrrell. This was a man with a criminal record, who jumped at the chance to do this thing. He was sent to London, ostensibly to collect some robes, so that Richard's son could be proclaimed Prince of Wales (in Yorkshire) in style.

(Slight verifiable discrepancy here.  Tyrrell did indeed go to London for the robes, but not on August 15th from Coventry.  The King's Wardrobe Accounts state that he left on August 30th from York.)

Sometime in early September (one historian, Alison Weir, worked out that it was September 3rd 1483), Tyrrell - with his accomplices John Deighton and Miles Forrest - arrived at the Tower of London. Brackenbury, after swearing that he'd rather die than see harm come to those children, and after undertaking a job which restricted all access to the boys, apparently just opened the door for the asking of three assassins.

Tyrrell and Deighton promptly smothered Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury with pillows as they slept.

The bodies were then carried down the spiral steps of the north-eastern tower of the White Tower, across the open courtyard, down the slope and into the gateway of the Bloody Tower. There an open grave had been prepared at the foot of the main staircase. The boys were buried with their golden robes (which must also have been conveyed to the spot), only to be uncovered in 1674, when restoration work was being undertaken in that area.

All this without the three hundred denizens of the Tower of London seeing them or suspecting a thing.

Arguments Against Richard III Killing the Princes in the Tower

To my mind, there are plot holes in that story, large enough to wheel a cannon through.

Here's the most famous portrait of Richard III. It's been proven to have been altered subtly several times during the reign of the Tudor dynasty.

This was an age when physical defects were supposed to indicate a sinister or downright evil nature. In the portrait, one of Richard's shoulders was raised to give him a slight hunchback. His fingers were elongated to ape claws. His genial expression was made to appear more troubled.

In short, this was how the Tudors wanted us to view Richard III. It is the winners who paint the picture AND write the history.

Sir Thomas More's story about the murder of the Princes in the Tower was not contemporary. It was penned during the reign of Henry VIII. It was precisely the version of events which would be most helpful to the Tudors.

Richard himself never confirmed nor denied the death of the children. He maintained a firm 'no comment' for the remainder of his reign - a mere two years after the supposed murder took place.

Let's just say that I have some questions regarding this:

  1. If Richard wanted to kill his nephews, why didn't he have a quiet word with Brackenbury to that effect before the king left London? It would have been far safer than deciding a few days later to do it. It would have cut out John Green - the middle man, whose historical role appears solely for us to know that this incident occurred.
  2. Why would Richard III talk aloud to himself on the toilet about such a sensitive matter? He was the king. His chamber would be full of servants. And, for that matter, why was the king taking the counsel of a small boy?  And how did said small boy know of a local murderer?
  3. What on Earth was going on with Robert Brackenbury?  One second he's on his knees in a chapel, swearing to protect the princes with his life; the next he's randomly opening the door of their chamber, at night, to three men sent to kill them. Anyone else seeing a disconnect here? At the very least, the man paid to ensure the well-being of the boys is going to have a massive blot on his resume here.
  4. Was the entire population of the Tower of London - all 300 of them - struck deaf, dumb and blind? Hundreds of windows overlooked that courtyard. The old Water Gate, running through the Bloody Tower, is even today one of the main entrances into the inner area. Guards patrolled and watched from every quarter. Elizabeth Woodville had people paid to watch at all times for news of her sons. Yet not one of them a) noticed a grave being dug under the main staircase of the Bloody Tower; b) the bodies of two children coming from the princes' tower, through the most populated area of the White Tower and across to the Bloody Tower; and c) the same regarding those dazzling, golden coronation robes, which were purportedly buried with them.

But assuming that history has lost the answers to all those questions, then I still have one big concern. Murder requires a motivation. In that regard, it just doesn't add up that Richard III would want the children dead.

Richard III's Motivation in Murdering the Princes in the Tower

I'm not convinced that he had one. At least not one which holds any ground, when you contemplate the wider context.

Whom does it serve?  If Richard III ordered the deaths of those children, then what is his motivation? He currently had them exactly where he needed them - under lock and key, but illegitimized by Parliament.

They were the focal point of rebellions, and such attainders can be reversed, which may have left him wishing they would go away. But they weren't the whole royal family. 

If he was going to kill Edward and Richard, then why not their sisters? As soon as Richard of Shrewsbury was smothered, then his sister Elizabeth of York was nominally Queen of England. No massacre ensued of the five daughters of Edward IV, only the two sons.

Ok, England probably wouldn't accept a female monarch if there were male options, but those girls could marry a prince from any royal house in Europe. They could return with a French, Spanish or Dutch army to reclaim their throne. They were just as dangerous in the succession.

Then there's Edward of Warwick, the eight year old son of George, Duke of Clarence. He was only not king at this moment, because George had rebelled against Edward IV and had his kids knocked out of the succession accordingly.

Parliament could easily overturn that attainder too.

If Richard III felt so paranoid about the two boys in the Tower of London, then he would equally have been nervous about the other SIX children between him and the throne. Instead, he made provision for their well-being, and even knighted little Edward of Warwick.

In the Tudor version of events, we're asked to believe that Richard III was simultaneously capable of killing two heirs to the throne, while pampering the other six. It makes no sense psychologically or politically. It makes no strategic sense at all.

The disappearance of the Princes in the Tower was the kind of PR disaster, which sparked rebellions in the south of England and rumors of murder on the continent. This was within his reign.

We all know what happened once the Tudors ran with the story.

The Trial of King Richard the Third

This Channel 4 programme staged a trial in a modern day courtroom at the Old Bailey. It was conducted by real barristers with a jury.

The above is merely the introduction.  If you wish to watch the trial in its entirety, you may find a (backwards!) playlist here:  King Richard III - The Trial.

Books about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower

Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain two of the most fascina...

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Cold Case Reopened: The Princes in the Tower

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Richard III: The Maligned King

In 2012 Annette Carson formed part of the team that discovered King Richard III's mortal remains, verified in 2013 by forensics including DNA matching. In response to the recent...

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Richard the Third

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Richard III and the Murder in the Tower

Since Tudor times Richard III has been painted as the "black legend," the murderous uncle—however, the truth is much more complicated and interesting Richard III is accused of m...

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Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes

In this new book, renowned litigator Bertram Fields goes back more than 500 years to offer a compelling look at the case of Richard III. Applying the same modern techniques he s...

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Updated: 10/29/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Was Richard III guilty or innocent of this murder?

Richard on 06/12/2016

Richard reigned for only two years. Supposing he was victorious at Bosworth and ruled for many more years, he would have to make some comment about the fate of the princes. Perhaps he would bring them out of hiding ... In Middleham, or Burgundy?

JoHarrington on 06/13/2014

Frank - I've seen a similar theory dramatized. It makes the most sense of all.

JoHarrington on 06/13/2014

Kathy - You'll find no argument from me there. Henry Tudor had the biggest reason of all. If only he'd had the access, then he'd be suspect number one. Though I do look on in grave suspicion the fact that his mother DID have access.

frankbeswick on 06/12/2014

Poison is easy to administer. Anyone can do it. Digitalis, foxglove poison, was well known long before the princes in the tower case, and it leaves no outward signs. Furthermore, it could be smuggled into a place as an innocuous drink. Mixed with wine it cannot be tasted. The most effective murder technique!

Kathy Foens on 06/11/2014

Definitely innocent! I don't believe he had a reason to have them killed; however, Henry Tudor, Lord Stanley & Duke of Buckingham all had reasons to have them killed.

JoHarrington on 08/03/2013

Parliamentary decisions can be reversed. Here's a scenario: 'Witness' steps forward and says that Lady Eleanor died before Edward married Elizabeth. Now he's free to marry. Now the kids are legitimate. Now Edward V is king again. It's no less dodgy than the Bishop of Bath and Wells suddenly having officiated at a secret ceremony, of which there is no legal record.

But for such things to play out, Edward V needs to be free and/or his supporters need to have him to crown. As long as he's safe and sound in the Tower, no-one is stepping forward to 'witness' anything.

Mira on 08/03/2013

I'm very confused. :) If they posed no threat to the throne (all the talk of their being illegitimate heirs) and no threat to anyone else, why would anyone want them killed?

JoHarrington on 08/01/2013

Thank you very much. What we really need is someone here writing an article for the prosecution to balance this all out!

ologsinquito on 08/01/2013

I don't know, but you presented a very compelling case. The truth always finds a way to bubble to the surface.

JoHarrington on 07/30/2013

I'm very pleased to hear it! And thank you too for engaging me in such conversations. I always find learning invigorating.

I don't want to take credit for your idea. Go ahead and suggest it in the forum. :)

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