The Princes in the Tower, London
One of the greatest mysteries in British history is what happened to the so-called Princes in the Tower .
When Edward IV , aged just 42, died suddenly at the Palace of Westminster in April 1483 - his life foreshortened by his debauched lifestyle - he left as immediate heirs his sons Edward, who immediately succeeded to the throne as Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York. But they were 12 and nine respectively. A power struggle began as to who would truly rule the land.
The candidates were Richard III, named in Edward IV's will as Protector of the Princes and the kingdom until their majority, and the Woodville family of the late King's widow Elizabeth.
Richard, sent the news by his loyal supporter Hastings (though loyalty counted for little with Richard who had him executed when it later proved convenient) managed at Northampton to chase down the party (reduced in size by the machinations of Hastings ) taking the boy-king Edward V from Ludlow to London where his coronation was planned for May 4. Lord Rivers and Sir Richard Grey who were accompanying the prince were taken off to Pontefract Castle and summarily executed. Edward V was taken to the Tower of London.
Though Queen Elizabeth sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey , she was persuaded to give up her younger son to Richard‚s care, and Richard Duke of York joined Edward in The Tower. Neither ever came out, though it must be said that The Tower was a royal residence as well as a prison in those times.
The young Princes were early on seen playing in the courtyard of The Tower, but after a time they were no longer glimpsed. Richard, their uncle, managed to have his brother's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville annulled, on the basis (probably true) that a contract to marry between Edward IV and Lady Elizabeth Butler had existed before his Woodville marriage. Thus the Princes were both made illegitimate, and Richard could accept the crown from a supine Parliament.
The two young boys were an embarrassment to more than just Richard: Henry VII could have wished to strengthen his rather weak claim to the throne before his invasion of 1485 by removing two better qualified candidates; friends of Richard like Henry Duke of Buckingham may have killed them to gain favour with the king, without him being aware of their attentions. But the overwhelming, if circumstantial, evidence is piled against Richard III.
Richard it was who had the boys put in The Tower. Their disappearance from public view happened before Henry VII seized the crown at Bosworth. Richard has been rehabilitated from the monster of Tudor myth, but he could act with gangster-like efficiency in removing enemies: Buckingham and Hastings both executed in spite of his debts to them; Rivers and Grey killed without trial; Henry VI possibly killed by his own hand, as again may have been Richard‚s own brother, the Duke of Clarence.
Rumours of the death of the Princes began in 1483, when Richard was on the throne, and he never countered this slur by letting them be seen alive.
Thomas More claimed that he had been told of the murder of the Princes by those in the know. His version of events was that Sir Robert Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower ordered by Richard via his servant John Green to dispose of the boys, had refused and been replaced by Sir James Tyrell. Tyrell sent John Dighton, his groom, and Miles Forest, a jailer, to smother the sleeping children. The bodies were buried under a stairway.
Intriguingly, in 1674 two skeletons of about the right size were discovered during some building work at The Tower, hidden under a stairway. These were examined in 1933, and found to be of children of about the right ages, though their sexes could not be determined. A blood stain found on one of the skulls points to smothering as a possibility.
Many other theories have surfaced about the Princes: for example, that Richard lived on elsewhere in the kingdom, hiding from Henry VII , his brother having died of illness in The Tower; or that they may have both died of natural causes.
We may never know the true answer. But the likeliest is usually the simplest. They were never seen after the summer of 1483, so they were lost from view during Richard's reign; and with two skeletons matching their ages found in a place suggested by the rumours of their death as ordered by Richard, however unfashionable it may be to blame Richard III , it is hard to avoid doing so.
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