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The Princes in the Tower

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Royalty on Sunday, 31 January 2016

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This edited article about the Princes in the Tower originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 997 published on 18 April 1981.

Prince Richard leaves his mother, picture, image, illustration

Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s widow, was finally persuaded to give up her younger son, Richard, to her brother-in-law, Richard of Gloucester. Picture by Clive Uptton

Few kings of England have been born in such impoverished and perilous circumstances as Edward V. His birthplace was a gloomy building called the Sanctuary, at Westminster, where his mother had sought refuge after her husband, Edward IV, had been forced to flee temporarily to Holland.

A midwife named Mother Cobb was called into the Sanctuary to attend to the birth and a doctor named Serigo helped her. The danger of the whole Sanctuary party being starved into surrender by their enemies the Lancastrians was averted only by a well-disposed London butcher named John Gould, who supplied them with “half a beef and two muttons every week”.

A few months later a victorious King Edward IV was back in London. Warwick the Kingmaker was dead and the fortunes of the House of York were restored. So the baby prince, born within a building that had hitherto provided shelter for murderers, robbers and other fugitives from justice, was now heir to the throne of England.

Two years later little Prince Edward had a brother. The new baby was called Richard and soon afterwards created Duke of York.

When Richard was still only four he was married with proper ceremony to three-year-old Anne Mowbray, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. Richard’s brother Edward, then six, went to the wedding and afterwards all the guests sat down to a fine wedding feast.

Very little else is known about the short lives of Edward and Richard. The Prince of Wales, says one report, was forever talking about all the wars he would fight and win when he became king, but for a small boy in the 15th century that was normal behaviour.

It is in death, rather than in life, that Edward and Richard are most famed. For their deaths – alleged to have occurred only eleven weeks after their father died – have remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of our islands’ story – a mystery that has occupied the attention of scholars almost ceaselessly since the day it was discovered.

As the princes grew, the health of their dissolute father the king declined. Prince Edward was only 12 years old when his father, propped up with pillows on his death-bed at Westminster, commanded his favourite nobles, Stanley and Hastings, to protect his sons.

When his father died, the new uncrowned King Edward V was at his studies under the tutorship of the faithful Lord Chamberlain at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border.

Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who was in London, shuddered. Suddenly she was alone and surrounded by nobles who had never liked her or her family, who had seethed with impotent anger when the late king had showered honours and titles on the Woodvilles. She believed her sons could be in grave danger of death from one of the nobles who might seize the crown – but she was quite unaware who it might be.

For hundreds of years after the two little princes died mysteriously in the Tower, all England was told that the culprit was their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was soon to become King Richard III. When his brother King Edward died, Richard of Gloucester was on the Scottish border. He immediately proclaimed his nephew Edward V King of England, and wrote a kind letter to Queen Elizabeth Woodville expressing his sadness at her loss.

Elizabeth would not have been surprised at that, for her brother-in-law had always been kind to her, and had never treated her with the distaste shown by almost all the rest of the English aristocracy.

In London the Council commanded that Earl Rivers should bring the young King Edward from Wales. While this was happening there came astonishing news: Richard, Duke of Gloucester had moved south from Scotland, intercepted the royal progress to London, and taken the young prince into his custody.

Queen Elizabeth, distraught, fled back to the Sanctuary, taking with her Richard, her younger son.

The fourth of May in that year of 1483 had been the day appointed for young Edward’s coronation – but it was not until that date that Gloucester entered London with his nephew, surrounded by his supporters and officials of his retinue. All wore black, still in mourning for the late king. The new king was taken to the Tower, then a palace, ostensibly to await his coronation.

Whatever the object, and again the matter is surrounded by doubt and dark speculation, the facts are that the king’s little brother Richard was next obtained from his mother’s care in the Sanctuary and transferred to the Tower to join his brother.

In the middle of June, when preparations were still under way for Edward’s coronation, a London clergyman, Dr. Cobb, brother to the mayor, startled everyone by preaching a sermon that Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV had been invalid and that therefore the children were illegitimate and could not succeed to the throne. On 26th June Gloucester was recognised as King Richard III; Edward V was considered deposed and Gloucester was crowned ten days later.

The last days of the princes in the Tower are shrouded in the deepest mystery. On 4th July Gloucester took possession of the royal apartments in the Tower, and if the children had been in the apartments then they would probably have been moved into the Portcullis Tower, which tradition points to as the scene of their murder.

Sir Thomas More, who some time in the next century wrote an account of the murder (although some scholars claim that the story was not his), set down a tale that was believed until the 20th century, when scholars began to peel back in layers the many obvious flaws in it. He recounted that when Richard was at the city of Warwick one night a few weeks after he was crowned, he sent Sir James Tyrrell to murder the little princes.

Tyrrell rode to the Tower and was allowed in, although the governor declined to be a party to the plot. Tyrrell decided that the princes should be killed in bed and appointed one of the guards, Miles Forest, and his own horse-keeper, John Dighton, “a big broad knave”, to carry out the deed.

One night when the princes were asleep “these men came into their chamber and, suddenly lapping them in the clothes, smothered and stifled them till thoroughly dead; then laying out their bodies in the bed, they fetched Sir James to see them, who caused the murderers to bury them at the stair-foot deep in the ground, under a heap of stones.”

Two hundred years later when Charles II was king, the bones of two children were discovered in a wooden chest under the Record Office of the Tower. Were these the bones of the princes? Charles decided that they must be, and ordered their re-burial in Westminster Abbey.

Then in July, 1933, the urn containing the bones was opened and examined by an expert, who declared that they were the bones of two brothers aged respectively between twelve and thirteen and “about mid-way between nine and eleven” and that the skull of the elder child bore traces of death by suffocation. Some modern scholars, however, have since said that such a diagnosis is utterly impossible.

When the princes were murdered, probably in August, 1483, the elder, King Edward V, would have been thirteen; his brother Richard would have been eleven.

Who gave the order for the murder? Was it Richard the Third, their uncle of Gloucester, or was it, as has since been said, someone else? We shall be able to look at some of the possibilities when we come to examine the reign of Richard the Third.

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