The Fate of the Princes – Suspects

PrincesThis page gives a few of the arguments about the possible motivations of some of the players discussed in the podcast episode 193 on 4th September 2016 – just if you want a refresher! Please also see the post on The Fate of the Princes – Evidence. 

Did Richard III kill the princes? 

The hypothesis: Richard is often assumed to have killed the princes, and the motive appears obvious – to remove two of the obstacles standing in between him and the throne. In addition, that the two boys would always be a potential focus for rebellion; in 1483 he had already faced a challenge to his throne. The number of written comments that survive suggest that it was commonly assumed at the time that Richard had done this deed – just as Henry IV probably killed Richard II, and Mortimer Edward II. In support of the argument is his failure to produce the boys during the rebellion or at any point during his reign to scotch the rumours, and this seems damning to any defence, and any defence needs to explain this.

Richard also had access and opportunity; he personally could have been away from London if the boys were killed – but he very clearly had authority to send a killer to do the job.  Thomas More, who wrote most fully of the murder and was probably influenced by John Morton, described the commission by Richard of James Tyrell, who then smothered the boys with help. More references a supposed confession by Tyrell in 1502 – though no other record of this survives. 

The counter argument: One argument is that for Richard to have killed the princes would be irrelevant and counter Richard III productive. He and Parliament had already debarred them from the throne – they were now irrelevant. The Duke of Clarence’s son, Edward the earl of Warwick had also been debarred, but would normally have been ahead of Richard in the succession; and yet he lived on untouched in Queen Anne’s household – it too Henry VII to trump up a charge and kill him. 

Did Richard III let the princes live?  

The behaviour of Elizabeth Woodville is interesting. She had fled to sanctuary of course in 1483, and yet was prepared to come to terms with Richard in 1484, leave sanctuary, send her girls to court, encourage her son Dorset to return. Could she really do that with the killer of her son? Yes, she had a responsibility to her daughters, but her action would have been much more explicable if Richard was not their killer. 

There are two alternatives. One that the boys died of natural causes. The lady Augusta  Bracknell principle comes into play here – to lose one small nephew may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. It seems super unlikely both died at the same time, but should be considered. It’s worth noting that he would realise there was no point telling the world this – no one would believe him. 

The other is that Richard could not tolerate them on his doorstep, but was happy for them to retain their liberty in some safe place – either hidden away in the UK or abroad. These ideas have some benefits – they explain Richard’s behaviour (not rolling out the boys – he couldn’t because they weren’t there), and Elizabeth’s (“actually Richard’s behaved like a good egg, no problem”). They have the substantial disadvantages that you have to believe Richard would be prepared to give one of his nephews their liberty, free to declare themselves and  challenge his rule. And that there is no firm evidence whatsoever – but then firm evidence is thin on the ground in this whole discussion!

Did Buckingham kill the Princes? 

BuckinghamThe first thing to note that if Buckingham killed the Princes with Richard III’s approval it doesn’t count – in that case, Richard would still be fully accountable. So we have to build an argument that Buckingham decided to do this without Richard’s knowledge. 

Did he have motive and opportunity? Well, Buckingham had a claim to the throne, a claim a good deal better that Henry Tudor as it ‘appens, through both the same source (John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford) and through Thomas of Woodstock, untainted by bastardy. Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483 seemed to display the kind of daft ambition required. And it would certainly help his claim to have everyone believe that Richard was a murderer of small boys. It would also square the Elizabeth Woodville circle – Richard would not have been responsible. Buckingham is executed in November 1483, but it’s entirely possible that the boys had been killed before October – in fact that’s what on of the chronicles specifically says.  And Buckingham had opportunity in the same way that Richard did – Buckingham was Constable of the Tower, and clearly Richard’s right hand man. 

Counter arguments: are long and tricky. Consider the risk. Richard killing the princes and burying the princes is one thing; but Buckingham doing it – well the likelihood someone see something and  tell the king, Richard would be high, insanely high. Though it’s possible Buckingham wouldn’t care, that he’d calculate Richard would not be able to bring him down before he had been able to rebel. 

But, in his rebellion, Buckingham support’s Tudor’s claim. The idea that Buckingham would plan to then remove Tudor is surely incredible. Removing one king might be considered fortunate, removing too astronomically fortunate. Also, why did he then not kill Clarence’s son, Edward earl of Warwick, whose claim was better than his, if you consider the Princes to be worth killing? And finally, why on earth wouldn’t Richard tell the world what nasty Buckingham had done? 

Did Henry Tudor/Margaret Beaufort  kill the princes? 

Henry TudorThe argument: Now, when we talk of motive there is little doubt that Henry Tudor and his mum had a bright and shiny, honest to goodness motive. Henry had a very dodgy claim to the throne, from the wrong side of the bed. So when he swore in 1483 to marry Elizabeth of York, it was to bolster the legitimacy of his claim as well as try to attract Edward IVth’s Yorkists. But the legitimacy was worth diddly squat if you accepted the Titulus Regius disbarring the princes from succession – because Elizabeth would then have no claim. But if you rejected the Titulus Regius, then the princes and earl of Warwick would have prior claim. So the very best solution was to have the princes killed. And for them to be killed in Richard’s care – well, that was the gold plated solution, since then he got to blame Richard. Also, in 1487, Henry removed Elizabeth Woodville to a convent – it could be that this was to silence her because she knew something unfortunate. But if so, why wait to 1487? 

A man called Clement Markham in the 19th century made this point also that the Princes had greater claim that Elizabeth of York, Whom Henry was marrying to bolster his claim. It is worth noting, however, that Henry is very clever in the way he justifies his claim. After Bosworth, he never claims the throne by right of his wife – instead, it is by right of conquest. Henry sought to simply take the whole Titulus Regius debate out of the picture; he was marrying Elizabeth purely to unite the lines of York and Lancaster. 

The counter argument: Opportunity is a big issue before 1485; it is very hard to see Henry or Margaret Beaufort his allies (such as Margaret Beaufort) being able to gain access to the princes. It’s is even harder to understand how they would do this without Richard then telling the world that the evil Tudor had killed his nephews.  

It’s also very hard to understand why Henry didn’t accuse Richard of their destruction when he arrived in England. He talked vaguely about Richard having spilt the blood of innocents – but no direct accusation. Why? One answer might be that it was because he knew he’d done it. But another, more likely, was that he just didn’t know for sure – like everyone else. 

It is worth noting that no-one accused Henry at the time. One suggestion is that Henry killed the princes after 1485; James Tyrell was pardoned by Henry twice in 1485 and it’s argued that between these two Tyrell did the deed. But this hits the very big question of why, then, Richard did not just produce the princes to scotch the rumours of their deaths in 1483-1485?  It seems unbelievable that Richard would not do this if he could have done so. 

12 thoughts on “The Fate of the Princes – Suspects

  1. I think Richard did it, It helped him to secure his claim to the throne and the times he lived in were such that a little judicial murder wouldn’t be a problem if it helped him to keep the throne and stop it falling to the nasty Woodvilles…

      1. Granted I could be wrong – there are so many theories. But sadly, I found nothing convincing enough; the most obvious solution seems to me the most likely.

  2. I think it is hard for reasonable people to understand unreasonable acts. My impression of life during medieval times is that people truly believed in God. Maybe not the God that people associate today with religion and churches but at the very least that God and providence were one. Richard was a seasoned warrior and leader. It’s hard for me to believe that Richard who would have often experienced the vicissitudes of battle would risk alienating a God that was known for punishing sin. Murder of your brother’s son, after giving your oath to a dying man is pretty low. Even if Edward IV had become an early version of a libertine, how would h bee able to rally his lords of the realm if they believed Richard capable of breaking such a sacred oath.

    My take is that the princes were murdered by Buckingham because of a miss-understanding, of the order when Henry II drunkenly wished for Becket’s death, between himself and Richard and neither of them ever could say anything. I thought at one time Buckingham and Richard III were allies shortly before the prince’s death. The fact that the culprit was never found is proof of how heinous the crime was even by medieval standards. If I were to bet money the idea that the decadent Woodvilles would continue their ascendancy via Edward IV son, that Richard’s believed that the Woodville’s acute sense of opportunism would drown the upper echelon of the British nobility in a tidal wave of sycophancy (something like what is happening today in another well known country after holding a recent election) stoked him something fierce. In short, Buckingham was responsible and he thought Richard wanted the princes to disappear. And, later when they realize that the deed was caused by a miss-understanding they were both bound never to say anything, even when they waged war against each other.

  3. What the hell….since I posted the above, I have come to learn that the word “providence”, which I used, may confer more than I had intended. Providence to some, especially of Calvinistic bent implies predestination. I realized now that using the word “providence” was the wrong expression to paraphrase how deeply religious sensibilities permeated English culture.

    1. Still, probably less of a problem at the time of Richard III. Providence had come up before (Augustine of Hippo agonised about it I think) but wasn’t such an issue given the church’s position. Until Luther came long, and Calvin.

  4. There are two more suspects, ladies and gentleman i give you the Stanleys, William and Thomas, the most treacherous, devious, snake in the grasses around, they were the medieval mafia of that world, they were well known for playing both sides one would pledge fealty to king Richard while the other would pledge fealty to Henry Tudor, that way they would always be on the winning side, Buckingham was bought by the Stanleys to commit the dirty deed with the full knowledge of Margaret Beaufort and Henry, they had the strongest motive and opportunity via Buckingham

    1. Well, I’m all for accusing the Stanleys of anything! As you say, devious is such an inadequate word for them…!

  5. Fantastic analysis David! I personally believe that Richard was the most likely suspect, even if he didn’t do the deed himself, he either ordered it or implied he would like to see it done. I think in the context of Richard, people forget he was a medieval king who grew up in a country divided by dynastic wars, that saw Kings and Princes and power players rise and fall. He could still be a good, wise, religious man, while being ruthless when needed, especially to survive and gain power in 15th century England. I also don’t think he was above ‘killing’ his nephews, particularly if he believed they were bastards born out of wedlock and not princes or heirs to the throne. After all, he and his brothers seemed to have no problem doing away with Henry VI, who was their cousin and an anointed King. What were his other options, keep them locked up for the rest of their lives and hope no one tries to break them out? Release them and hope people abide by the Titulus Regius and no one supports their claim to the throne? The last one would be especially dangerous if they grew into adulthood, when they could pose a serious threat. If he didn’t kill them, he would’ve spent the rest of his reign with the shadow of the princes hanging over his head, and I don’t think a pragmatic man like Richard was prepared to accept that, and so he removed the threat of his brother’s sons (not to mention his animosity with the Woodvilles, he would’ve ensure he be kept down in Edward V’s rule).

    1. Thanks Jaime, love this and thanks for the interest. It’s a timeless one, but I left feeling utterly convinced that it was Richard. It’s just the simplest solution and as you say, the times were different.

  6. Hi,
    I’m working on this as a topic for my research paper in school. Its very interesting to hear theories on the princes death. To me personally. I think Richard did it. If there is any info on the princes I would like some more.

  7. Ok I will go with the Josephine Tey approach to the argument. If you look at Richard III character. He lionised Edward, and during his reign the rumour of the princes’disappearance didn’t widely appear (except for Croyland and a retracted comment in France). He didn’t produce the prince’s because he didn’t need to. Cut to Henry and he was a crab, never approached anything head on. Every heir with a claim in front of him was removed by Henry or Henry VIII, Morton’s fork is a great example of his crabbishness. The enforced nunnery of Elizabeth Woodville and the double pardon (almost completely unheard of) of Tyrell is also quite telling. History has a way of removing character, and the pious family nature of Richard is incongruous with infanticide and oath breaking. Richard pardoned almost everyone who rebelled against him. Henry on the other hand was ruthless, often using spurious charges to remove any threat to his position.

    I love this part of history and the podcast is so good thanks!

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