Richard III and the Princes in the Tower: The Case for the Defence

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower: The Case for the Defence

Richard III has gone down in history as one of the greatest tyrants to ever have the title of King of England. The disappearance of his nephews have left him tainted as a child murderer and his portrayal by Shakespeare as a deformed Machiavellian with an insatiable lust for power has turned him into the very model of a pantomime villain. Richard's reputation was crafted, and distorted, by the Tudors to suit their own very questionable claim to the throne after 1485. Certainly, Richard seized the crown by force after the death of his brother, Edward IV. But he wasn't the first after the unholy precedent set by Henry IV in 1399 when he removed Richard II and started the Lancastrian dynasty. Richard's father, Richard, Duke of York, used force to have himself named as Henry VI's heir in the 1450's. Richard's brother, Edward, seized the crown by force in 1461 and again in 1471. Richard's life was defined by the bloody civil wars of the second half of the 15th century where the English Nobility fought it out over the Crown. Throughout the Wars of the Roses many died. Many crimes were committed by both sides. Many promises broken and many friends betrayed. But why has Richard III gone down in history as an irredeemable monster when so many others have seen their crimes looked over by the past? The answer is that the accusation that Richard was responsible for the murders of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, aged just 12 and 10 has become almost an established fact. So much mud has been slung that the historical facts and the historical realities have become distorted. What makes Richard different is the smear of child murder. But was he guilty of ordering the murder of two defenceless children?

At the beginning of 1483 the House of York appeared unassailable. Edward IV had triumphed over his enemies, he had two healthy sons, the divisiveness of his younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, had been extinguished by Clarence's execution for treason in 1478 and the north of England was well administered by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Then, a bolt of lightning. Edward IV had long lost his youthful looks and had become seriously obese. Edward was taken ill in Easter, and it was clear his life was coming to an end. Before his death Edward appointed his trusted younger brother, Richard, as Protector of England.

After the death of his brother Richard suddenly found himself as the Lord Protector of England. Richard was one part of different power blocks that emerged after Edward IV's death. The Woodville's had grown in prominence ever since Edward IV married the widowed Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Edward had married Elizabeth for lust and love not for political reasons that drove most Royal marriages in the medieval world. William, Lord Hastings, had been Edward IV's closest friend. Hastings had been staunchly loyal to Edward throughout his life but his relations with the Woodville's had always been poisonous. These three major players in English politics would set the scene for the future of English Kingship.

Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, was one of the wealthiest landowners in England. Buckingham was a descendant of Edward III and had a claim to the throne himself. When he was young, he was married to Catherine Woodville, a younger sister of Queen Elizabeth. During the reign of Edward IV Buckingham had been, unusually for a man of his status, excluded from government and the Royal court. When Edward died Buckingham aligned himself closely to Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Now Edward was gone Buckingham finally had his chance to put himself centre stage at court after years of exile.

As Spring developed any sense of trust between the key figures broke down. It was Richard, as Lord Protector, who acted first. Richard, as arranged, met the Queen's brother, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and the Queen's son from her first marriage, Sir Richard Grey, at Northampton. The future Edward V had been sent on ahead on his travels towards London. After a night's drinking Richard had Rivers and Grey arrested on a charge of treason against him. No evidence has ever been produced to suggest that the Woodville's were plotting against Richard, but he obviously felt threatened enough to act against them. On hearing the news of her brother's and son's arrest, Queen Elizabeth and her children went into Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

After the arrests of Rivers and Grey, Richard escorted Edward V into London. Richard decided that Edward should stay at the Tower of London to await his coronation as King. In the English imagination the Tower of London has a sinister and oppressive image. A place to be feared. A place where death is a reality. But the Tower only took on this chilling role during the reign of Henry VIII. Before Henry the Tower was a place of safety. It was a highly fortified stronghold where senior Royals could seek safety during times of strife. Richard II had stayed there during the troubles with the Lord's Appellant and Henry VIII's mother, Elizabeth of York stayed there during times of conflict. To Edward V, there was no reason he should fear staying at the Tower. In-fact, it was the safest place in the country for any Royal to stay in 15th century England. History has remembered Richard's decision that Edward V and, eventually, his brother Richard of York, should stay at the Tower as being almost proof of Richard's hostility to the princes. But this analysis is flawed because it is assuming that the Tower was viewed as a threatening place at the time. Richard, by sending his nephews to the Tower, was attempting to secure their safety far from threatening it.

As Spring turned to summer Richard and Buckingham had convinced Elizabeth Woodville to allow her younger son Richard to leave sanctuary and join Edward V in the Tower. Now Richard was in complete control of Edward IV's heirs. As the weeks went on the Princes were seen less and less in the grounds of the Tower. Rumours were already starting to circulate that the Princes had been done to death and when Richard had himself crowned King in early July, 1483, those rumours became potent truths. But were the Princes in the Tower murdered on Richard's orders?

In October, 1483, English domestic politics took another unexpected turn. Margaret Beaufort and Queen Elizabeth Woodville had been plotting a secret marriage alliance between Margaret's son Henry Tudor and Queen Elizabeth's eldest daughter, another Elizabeth. This newly formed alliance between the exiled Lancastrian Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York is circumstantial evidence that Queen Elizabeth believed her sons were dead. If she thought they were still alive she never would've agreed to the marriage between Henry and her daughter, who was now heir to the House of York. The plot then took another twist when Richard's close ally, the Duke of Buckingham, was enlisted and began raising an army in favour of Henry Tudor. The circumstantial behaviour of those around Richard or members of the English elites is taken by those who believe in Richard's guilt as evidence that his nephews had been killed on his orders. But is there another explanation.

The Duke of Buckingham had always been a uniquely unhinged character even by the standards of nobility in the second half of the 15th century. Contemporary sources describe him as cunning and devious. During the reign of Edward IV Buckingham was excluded from his court and from political life. It was widely believed that it was because Buckingham came from a Lancastrian family. But Edward IV had fully forgiven his wife's family for their Lancastrian associations so why would he exclude an important member of the Royal House on those grounds, especially as Buckingham had been married to one of Queen Elizabeth Woodville's sisters. The explanation for Buckingham's exile is in his character defects. When Edward IV suddenly dies Buckingham rushes to align himself with Richard and throughout the spring and summer of 1483 is a source of great friction. Historian Paul Murray Kendall has argued that Buckingham's character was so flawed that he could've killed Edward IV's sons as revenge for being excluded from government during his reign. Kendall argues that when Buckingham and Richard fall out in October, 1483, it is because Buckingham has informed Richard that he's killed the Princes in the Tower.

Historian Alison Weir is convinced of Richard's responsibility for his nephew's murders. She argues in her book 'Princes in the Tower' that when Richard and Buckingham fallout it's because Richard informs Buckingham that he's killed his nephews and Buckingham rebels against Richard. But what are Richard's motives to kill his nephews at this time? By October, 1483, Richard is securely in charge of England. The Woodville's have been killed or driven into exile, William, Lord Hastings, is dead and the sons of Edward IV are comfortably looked after in the Tower. He has nothing to fear from the two boys at this stage. In the future Richard would most likely have had to have rid himself of his nephews but the motive to kill children at this time seems flimsy.

Richard III has always been cursed by his seemingly irreversible association with the murder of his nephews. Two children. Two young lives that the evil uncle Richard took from them because of a lust for power. But Buckingham is the more likely suspect. His deep character flaws and his obvious resentment towards Edward IV gave him a more compelling reason to despatch the Princes. Buckingham himself had a strong claim to the English Throne because of his descent from Edward III. Was this his real aim when he rebelled against Richard? After the deaths of the Princes only the lives of Richard and Henry Tudor stood in Buckingham's way. Could the Duke of Buckingham have been gunning for the Crown all along and Richard was his useful idiot who he manipulated all the way. When Buckingham rebelled against Richard if he'd won his claim to the throne would've been compelling. He could easily lay the blame for the Prince's murder at Richard's door and he'd most likely be believed. Many in the Yorkist world had been angered by Richard's usurpation and turned against him at Bosworth in 1485. The surviving Lancastrians would've been delighted to see the end of the House of York and to see a Lancastrian back on the Throne. The evidence against any of the suspects in the murders of the Princes in the Tower is unclear. It's circumstantial and would never stand up in a Court of Law. Because of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare the court of public opinion has Richard down as the guilty party. But Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, had the greatest motive of all.