The murder of the Princes in the Tower is the most famous cold case in British history. Traditionally considered victims of a ruthless uncle, there are other suspects too often and too easily discounted. There may be no definitive answer, but by delving into the context of their disappearance and the characters of the suspects, Matthew Lewis examines the motives and opportunities afresh as well as asking a crucial but often overlooked question: what if there was no murder? What if Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York survived their uncle’s reign and even that of their brother-in-law Henry VII? There are glimpses of their possible survival and compelling evidence to give weight to those glimpses, which is considered alongside the possibility of their deaths to provide a rounded and complete assessment of the most fascinating mystery in history.
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About the Author
Matthew Lewis is the author of The Wars of the Roses and Richard, Duke of York:.
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To Construct a Murder
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare, Act I, Scene 1
As Shakespeare's villain hobbles around the stage drawing his audience into his horrible conspiracies, we find ourselves liking this funny, irreverent man despite the evil he tells us he will do. There are strong reasons to believe that Shakespeare was writing about Robert Cecil, the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Robert had kyphosis – in Shakespeare's unkind terminology a 'bunchback' – unlike Richard's scoliosis, a curvature of the spine believed to have been barely visible beneath clothing. When Shakespeare was writing, the Cecil father and son held the reins of Elizabeth I's government and, as staunch Protestants, were trying to organise a Stuart succession. Shakespeare had many Catholic patrons and it has been suggested that he himself remained a secret Catholic all his life. It seems entirely possible that Elizabethan audiences would have understood that they were looking at Robert Cecil, scheming and plotting and getting away with it. Taken out of context over following centuries, it somehow became accepted as a work of biography rather than drama, fact rather than fiction, a damning account of an historical figure rather than a sly modern political commentary.
Shakespeare accused King Richard III of a myriad of crimes, most of which it can be demonstrated were not perpetrated by him, if any crime was indeed committed. Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales and heir to Henry VI, was killed on the battlefield at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, as was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset at St Albans on 22 May 1455, when Richard was just 21/2 years old. George, Duke of Clarence, the older brother closest in age to Richard III, was executed for treason following a trial in Parliament which, though hardly impartial, was nevertheless legal and many will argue well deserved following a list of betrayals. There were reportedly rumours circulating that Richard meant to harm his wife, enough at least to cause two of his closest advisors to council him to publicly deny the stories along with the other rumour that he planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. It is far more likely though that Anne Neville was taken by consumption, or tuberculosis as it is better known today, just as her sister Isabel, wife to George, had been. Henry VI was probably put to death when the Yorkists retook the throne in 1471 shortly after the Battle of Tewkesbury and although there is no real evidence of his involvement, it seems possible that, as Constable of England, Richard might have been involved, though the order would undoubtedly have come directly from King Edward IV. It was perhaps unpleasant, but nevertheless an execution ordered by the king like so many before and after. In none of these cases is there any evidence that a crime was committed, yet Richard stands in the court of public opinion convicted and condemned as Shakespeare's accidental villain.
The one act that would truly condemn Richard was the murder of two young children, his own nephews, who were in his care. Edward V was born on 2 November 1470 in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, his father, King Edward IV, having briefly lost his throne and been forced into exile in Burgundy with his brother Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, amongst other loyal men. Edward won back his throne and made it to London after the Battle of Barnet in April 1471, before leaving again to finish the Lancastrian cause at the Battle of Tewkesbury in May. By the time the king met his first son and was reunited with his wife and three daughters as they emerged from sanctuary, the baby was already 6 months old. On 26 June 1471, the tiny boy was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester by his father, a grant that was confirmed in Parliament on 6 October 1472 when Prince Edward was established, as the Parliament Rolls record it, in 'the name, style, title, rank, dignity and honour of prince and earl of the same'. In 1473, Edward IV established the Council of Wales and the Marches, based at Ludlow on the Welsh border and nominally headed by Prince Edward, who was approaching 3 years old. The care of the young prince was entrusted to Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the queen's brother and a noted scholar who was an early Renaissance man before such a thing became fashionable. It was here, far from London, that little Edward was to spend the majority of the next decade, learning the craft of ruling in a miniature kingdom with a court of his own, building networks and cultivating the craft of using connections to rule effectively.
Richard of Shrewsbury, the second son born to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, joined a burgeoning family of one brother, four sisters and two half-brothers on 17 August 1473. He was, as the toponym given to him suggests, born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Unlike his older brother, Richard was kept within the royal nursery and spent the following decade of almost unbroken peace in England in the various lavish royal palaces along the Thames in and around London. Richard was given the previously primary family title of his father, Duke of York, initiating the tradition that the second son of a monarch will usually hold this title. One of the few occasions when these two royal brothers came together was the marriage of Richard of Shrewsbury to Anne Mowbray on 15 January 1478 when the little prince was just 4 years old. Anne, who was 5 years old, was a ward of Edward IV and the pair were married because Anne brought into royal hands a vast inheritance. On their union, which was celebrated with full ceremonial, possibly to the bewilderment of the two infants at the centre of the event, Richard became Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Nottingham, Earl Warenne, Earl Marshal, Lord Mowbray, Lord Seagrave and Lord Gower as well as acquiring the rights to swathes of land in the east. Edward IV used Parliament to rather dubiously alter the laws of inheritance in this particular case so that if Anne died, Richard retained full rights to her lands and titles rather than them reverting to a Mowbray heir. In 1481, at the age of 8, Anne did pass away.
The differences in the upbringings enjoyed by these two boys until 1483 are stark and important. It is easy to characterise the Princes in the Tower as one unit, clinging together in fear for their lives as Victorian portraits present them. In fact, they would have been virtual strangers. Their prolonged separation would also have had another impact on this story. Richard of Shrewsbury would have been a very visible presence in London. Many of those working in the palaces as well as men of the government would have regularly encountered the young boy, watched him grow and change, perhaps even have spoken to him frequently. In short, Richard would have been well known to the men and women of Edward's court, to servants and to foreign dignitaries and ambassadors visiting England. In stark contrast, Prince Edward spent the vast majority of his time at Ludlow, visiting London only infrequently for major state occasions such as his little brother's wedding. As he approached his teens, few at court would have seen much of him and his appearance, personality and mannerisms would have been all but unknown to them. So, in 1483, we in fact see two boys who shared the royal blood in their veins and possibly a fear and lack of comprehension of what was happening, but who were virtual strangers to each other. They were thrust together and then lost from men's sight, their fates treated as one and tragic, but it is to be remembered that they were not the same. Their upbringings had been very different and at a long distance from each other. For the purposes of the events that followed, it is crucial that Richard was a recognisable boy in London and Edward a virtual stranger.
A detailed analysis of the spring and summer of 1483 is beyond the scope of this book, but an outline of the events leading up to the day when the two boys were placed in the Tower of London together may be helpful. King Edward IV died on 9 April 1483, a few weeks short of his forty-first birthday. His death was entirely unexpected. Edward remains the tallest monarch in English history, at 6ft 4in, and held a fearsome martial reputation in his younger years, never having been defeated on the field of battle. Although Edward's waistline may have spread and his interest in pursuits beyond those he found pleasurable may have diminished to the point that he had, just the previous year, despatched his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester to lead a campaign against Scotland that Edward seems simply not to have been able to motivate himself to undertake, his death was still a shock. The traditional story is that Edward caught a chill whilst fishing and the infection quickly took hold and killed him, though there have been much later rumours that his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, had him poisoned. There is no evidence for this, and certainly if the queen did take this course, it backfired spectacularly.
More than the unexpected suddenness of the king's death, the age of his heir was a cause for concern. Prince Edward was 12, still a minor. The king would have been only too aware that minorities had ended in disaster for Richard II and Henry VI. He knew too that there would be a bitter struggle to fill the vacuum he was about to create. The king was an immensely likeable and affable man so that he, personally, was the glue that kept his court and the country together. Such adhesion to him was needed because there was bitter division within his walls. The main factions revolved around the Woodville family, led by Edward's stepson Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, and around Lord Hastings, probably Edward's oldest and closest friend. Dorset and Hastings had conceived a deep hatred for each other that the king's presence kept a lid on, but which would threaten the fragile position of his minor heir should that lid be removed by the king's death. Edward reportedly added a late codicil to his will to resolve this perceived threat, falling back on provisions made for the minority of Henry VI by making his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector of the Realm, a position their father had held twice during Henry VI's periods of incapacity and which was a curiously English invention.
Richard was 30 years old, a decade younger than his brother, but had effectively ruled the north for over ten years. Like his nephew the prince, Richard was perhaps less well-known in the capital because of his long and distant separation, but he was nevertheless a truly national figure who had become a prominent bulwark of his brother's rule. The position of Lord Protector of the Realm formed part of a separation of power during a minority. This tripartite solution was created after the death of Henry V and was not quite what the warrior-king had himself instructed should happen. Nevertheless, the care of the person of the young king and provision for his education was to be given to one person. Government was carried out by the Council and the Lord Protector of the Realm was given full military authority to deal with both foreign and domestic threats to the kingdom, though the Lord Protector was usually to hold a senior position within the governing Council too. Thus, in 1422, the infant King Henry VI was placed under the care and tutelage of Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter and Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, amongst others. The king's uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was made Lord Protector of the Realm (though he was required to relinquish this position to his older brother John, Duke of Bedford whenever he returned to England from his position as Regent of France, which otherwise kept him out of England) and the Council governed in the king's name, with Humphrey as a senior member.
This situation was to be replicated in 1483. Earl Rivers, the queen's brother, already had responsibility for the care and education of Prince Edward, under instructions strictly laid down by the king, and there is no sign that this position was meant to change. Richard was appointed Lord Protector of the Realm, having proven himself capable in Scotland. It is important to note that the dying king saw a Lord Protector as a necessity, doubtless to provide a senior presence on the Council, but also because King Louis XI of France had recently reneged on the 1475 Treaty of Picquigny and was showing signs of aggression, coupled with the similar and linked threat from Scotland that had seen Richard dispatched there in 1482. Finally, the Council would govern. As the senior adult male of the blood royal as well as Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was the natural choice as a prominent figure within the Council.
There is no record that the queen informed her brother-in-law, then in his northern heartlands, that the king had died, Lord Hastings apparently writing to warn Richard that her Woodville family were planning a coup. The Marquis of Dorset, Hastings' bitter enemy, was reportedly bragging in Council that the Woodvilles could and would rule without Richard and the idea was mooted of having Prince Edward crowned swiftly and proclaimed of age to govern, bypassing a Protectorate and maintaining the Woodville family's influence at the centre of power which they clearly felt was coming under threat. Even before Richard left the north, battle lines were being drawn in London. Nevertheless, Richard ordered a funeral mass for his brother in York at which he caused all the northern nobility present to swear fealty to the new King Edward V. After this, he set out to meet his nephew on the road to London. Edward V did not leave Ludlow until 24 April, having celebrated St George's Day the previous day, and met his uncle Richard at Stony Stratford. The uncle and nephew would have been virtual strangers to each other and if Richard was suspicious of the Woodvilles, his concern was surely heightened when Earl Rivers overshot their agreed meeting place and installed the king before going back to meet Richard in Northampton. Richard's reaction was harsh and decisive. He took Earl Rivers and others of the new king's household into custody and sent them to his castle in the north before taking control of his nephew and continuing slowly to London.
The Woodville plan had been to crown Edward on 4 May 1483, but instead he only arrived in the capital on this date. Edward was installed at the Bishop of London's Palace and Richard again caused oaths of allegiance to be sworn to the new king. Preparations continued for the rule of Edward V, with the coronation planned for 22 June, coins minted and proclamations issued in the new king's name. Over the following weeks, the situation changed for reasons beyond the scope of this story and which remain deeply contentious. Edward V was moved to the Tower of London, then a royal palace yet to acquire its bloody reputation as a grim prison roughly equivalent to death row. Elizabeth Woodville had taken her other son Richard, along with her daughters and her oldest son the Marquis of Dorset, into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Richard applied pressure to the queen until the 9-year-old Duke of York was given into the care of the Archbishop of Canterbury and sent to join his 12-year-old brother at the Tower. There was little that caused much concern to this point. The Woodville family were generally unpopular and few were mourning their loss of power.
On 13 June, Richard had Lord Hastings summarily executed on a charge of treason during a Council meeting. Lord Stanley, Bishop Morton and Bishop Rotherham were also arrested. On 25 June, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the dowager queen's brother and the king's uncle who had effectively brought the boy up, was executed at Pontefract Castle along with Richard Grey, the younger brother of the Marquis of Dorset, and Thomas Vaughan, Edward V's Chamberlain. On 22 June, rather than seeing Edward V crowned, London heard a sermon preached declaring that the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous and all the children of that union were therefore illegitimate and incapable of inheriting the throne. The story may have originated from Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells and was not entirely new, having probably formed part of the downfall of George, Duke of Clarence in 1477–78. Those who had been summoned to London for the session of Parliament that had now been cancelled heard the evidence and subsequently petitioned Richard to take the crown as the only legitimate male heir of Richard, Duke of York. The petition was not presented by Parliament, which was not in session, but was later included in the business of Richard's only Parliament in 1484 as the Act of Titulus Regius. The text details the illegitimacy of Edward IV's children as well as heavily criticising the late king's reign, declares that the son of Richard's older brother George, Duke of Clarence, the 8-year-old Edward, Earl of Warwick, was excluded by his father's attainder and concludes that Richard is the rightful heir. Accepting the request, Richard III was crowned in Westminster Abbey alongside his wife Anne Neville on 6 July 1483.
Excerpted from "The Survival of the Princes in the Tower"
Copyright © 2017 Matthew Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 To Construct a Murder 11
2 Deconstructing the Myth 25
3 The Black Hole Effect 46
4 Colchester's Secrets 68
5 The First Pretender 82
6 A King in Dublin 99
7 Richard of England 114
8 A Prince Among Kings 140
9 A New Believer 154
10 The Wrong Place at the Right Time 180
11 The Secret Princes 208
12 To the Victor, The History 234
Bibliography, Resources and Further Reading 248