Two Princes: A Mediaeval Mystery

The discovery of King Richard III’s body in 2012, in a Leicester carpark, confirmed a few things.  The first is that he was slightly deformed, suffering from ‘idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis’ (Jones).  This condition is caused by a slight or severe twisting of the spine, meaning that one shoulder becomes slightly higher than the other.  However, the king was not a hunchback (Laudau), a condition known today as kyphosis, which is caused when the spine is curved forward (Mayo Clinic).

Scoliosis generally develops at puberty, during the growth spurt that occurs then.  It can now be monitored with X-rays, to see if the curvature is worsening.  Some cases require no treatment.  In others the child should wear a brace, so the condition will not worsen.  Severe cases of scoliosis can now be treated with a type of surgery, called spinal fusion (Mayo Clinic).

We 21st Century people now know that scoliosis is merely a medical condition, as is kyphosis, which can be treated.  ‘To contemporary eyes, physical deformity was the outward manifestation of evil character’ (Weir 32). We would certainly disagree with mediaeval thought here.  Nor is it a result of witchcraft, a collaboration between Queen Elizabeth and her rival, Edward IV’s mistress Elizabeth “Jane” Shore.

‘I pray you all, tell me what they deserve

That do conspire my death with devilish plots

Of Damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d

Upon my body with their hellish charms? (Shakespeare 768)


Today, it would be seen as terribly cruel to refer to a disabled person as:

‘Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog.

Thou who wast seal’d in thy nativity

The slave of nature and the son of hell,

Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb

Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins.’

Let alone if you were to add ‘curse this poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ (Shakespeare 753).


One thing that is still TOTALLY unacceptable to a 21st Century audience, was the murder of Richard’s nephews, the ill-fated Princes in the Tower.  It is nature’s strongest instinct to protect the young, something our furry and feathered friends sometimes do a better job of than humans.  Child murder is regarded as so heinous, even by hardened criminals, just as paedophiles are totally despised – both destroy a child’s innocence.  Today, Richard Plantagenet and James Tyrrell, if convicted of murdering the young boys, would be placed in the strictest Protection in prison, known as the “boneyard”, or else they could be murdered by other inmates.

So, did Richard III murder his little nephews, Edward and Richard, the Princes in the Tower?  If not, what did happen to the young king and his brother?  Who was responsible for their end?



The most obvious motive for Richard to murder his nephews was to seize the throne.  However this was not an issue once it was discovered that Edward IV had been betrothed to another woman, before his marriage to Queen Elizabeth.  This was not ‘his contract with Lady Lucy’ (Shakespeare 770), but another woman.  Also known as Elizabeth Waite, Lucy was another mistress in Edward’s harem, but never betrothed to him (Geni).

‘Today, there is nothing binding between a man and a woman promising to marry. We call it an engagement and it is usually the precursor to the actual binding of the couple in matrimony. In medieval times, the promise of marriage followed by intercourse was tantamount to a binding commitment or marriage and recognized by the church’ (Easter Smith).

Edward’s alleged pre-contract, or even marriage, was with Lady Eleanor Talbot Butler. She was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and widow of Sir Thomas Butler (Murray 216). In May and June 1483, one Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, ‘declared he had been witness to a pre-contract between Edward and Eleanor BEFORE Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, making Edward’s marriage with the queen bigamous and thus bastardizing all the offspring of that union’ (Easter Smith).

It was therefore decided that Prince Edward could not take the throne.  A document was drawn up stating this called the Titulus Regius, which asserted that Richard of Gloucester was the only rightful heir to the crown (Markham 101).  At the end of June 1483, parliament assented to this (Fraser & Cheetham 162).  Now the only thing left was Richard’s coronation.

So the question now is: if he had already become King Richard III, why should he conspire to murder the two princes?  He had ‘touch’d the bastardy of Edward’s children’ (Shakespeare 770), they were no longer in his way.   ‘However, it is suggested that all his subtlety deserted him and, throwing away all this hard-won political advantage in an act of monumental stupidity, he simply murdered Edward and Richard and allowed their deaths to become a rallying point for his enemies’ (Prenderghast 96).

He is certainly judged guilty of the murder of Edward V and Richard of York, by Sir Thomas More, in his History of Richard III. However even he admits there are other possible scenarios.  ‘I shall rehearse you the dolorous end of those babes, not after every way that I have heard, but after the way that I have heard by such men and by such means as methinks it were hard but it should be true’ (More 103).

He names the perpetrators as Sir James Tyrell, along with Miles Forest and John Dighton (More 105), the same as the assassins named in Shakespeare.  The Constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, had already refused to harm the boys, ‘though he should die therefor’ (More 103).  However, he was ordered to deliver to Tyrell the keys to the Tower for one night (More 104), and Brackenbury could hardly disobey his king.

They came into the tower about midnight, when the boys were in bed. Then the killers ‘suddenly lapped them up among the bedclothes – so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths – that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodies dead in the bed’ (More 105).  After Princes Edward and Richard were killed, Tyrell ‘caused those murderers to bury them at the stair-foot, meetly deep in the ground under a great heap of stone’ (More 105).

It is a terrible story, but was it true?

Revisionist histories can rebut that these events took place, like a top criminal lawyer, but they can’t tell you what did take place, in a way that would provide proof.  ‘The few facts that are known do not, however, support the traditional story’ (Richard III Society).

Some modern historians, whose writing arms are obviously not being twisted by a Tudor monarch, also believe that Richard was guilty.  ‘Richard’s career is too often judged on the issue of whether or not he had the Princes in the Tower murdered.  The evidence is not conclusive, but it seems highly probable that he did’ (Cheetham & Fraser 165).

Historian Alison Weir (1992) spends her first chapter chronicling the chroniclers of Richard’s reign – ‘virtually all we have to rely on’ (Weir 1).  She admits that: ‘The main problem facing any historian studying Richard III is how much to rely on these Tudor accounts, which are so rich in detail and so hostile to Richard, and which sometimes contradict each other’ (Weir 5).  She then documents how John Rous turned spiteful towards Richard, following his death in 1485 (Weir 5).

So therefore, why would she take their assessments on Richard’s character so seriously?  ‘Richard was essentially the child of a violent age, born to a legacy of civil war.  His childhood and formative years were overshadowed by battles, treachery and violent death. . .It is therefore fair to say that by the age of eighteen he had become hardened to violence and treachery, and had developed a ruthless streak in his character’ (Weir 29-30).  After this psychology, she sounds as if she is paraphrasing Shakespeare with ‘there is every reason to suppose that many people in England, like the chroniclers of the time, viewed Richard III as an usurper, tyrant and hypocrite’ (Weir 133).

Not surprisingly, Weir returns a guilty verdict.  Her book reads like a modern criminal investigation, except that they would give more weight to alternative theories for the disappearance and homicides.  She concludes with ‘given all the other evidence already discussed in previous chapters, then only one man could have been responsible for their deaths: Richard III’ (Weir 258).

If this is true, we are justified in saying:

‘From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death

That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes

To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood

That foul defacer of God’s handiwork

That excellent grand tyrant of the earth

That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls’ (Shakespeare 777).

However, this is not the final verdict.



He was the Second Duke of Buckingham, with his own royal claims, to which the Princes in the Tower would have been an obstacle.  ‘He certainly had a more than adequate motive, however, being related closely enough to the royal family to be considered a candidate for the throne himself’ (Prenderghast 98).

A manuscript found in College of Arms in the 1980s, alleges he was guilty (Gallagher).  The boys were ‘put to deyth in the Towur of London be the vise of the Duke of Buckingham’ (Prenderghast 99).  It is unknown whether “vise” here would mean advice or device.

Initially a supporter of Richard’s, by October 1483 was now in arms against him, having come to terms with both the Woodvilles and Henry Tudor.  He wanted to be king, but Buckingham’s rebellion was washed out by heavy rain and he was captured at Salibury, then beheaded on 2 November (Fraser & Cheetham 162).

If he was the killer, it is hard to be sympathetic with Buckingham, and his comments in the play, while being led to his execution.

‘All that have miscarried

By underhand corrupted foul injustice,

If that your moody discontented souls,

Do through the clouds behold this present hour,

Even for revenge mock my destruction!’ (Shakespeare 784)



If Richard had a motive to eliminate Edward V and Richard of York, then his successor Henry Tudor, known as Richmond in the play, certainly did also.  He became Henry VII, after his victory at Bosworth Field in 1485, which ended up a real-life version of checkmate.

Tudor had a shakier claim to the throne than Richard.  ‘His claim was based on the right of conquest!’ (Johnson 2017).  After the battle, Henry could and did bill himself as ‘a God-appointed savior dealing his just deserts to Richard, a disloyal, unnatural regicide and “spiller of infants’ blood”’ – this accusation was included in the Act of Attainder passed against Richard in the first Tudor parliament (Prenderghast 41).

Henry himself had every reason to be rid of any rivals to the throne.  ‘It is impossible that a man in his position could have had a stronger motive.  He had denied the illegitimacy, and had thus made his wife’s brothers his most formidable rivals’ (Markham 254).  Even the more pro-Tudor historians admit: ‘There were a number of people who had a better claim to the throne than Henry VII, a fact of which he was painfully aware’ (Weir 219).

If the boys did survive until 1485, their prospects were about to become even bleaker.  More was hardly likely to make this accusation of ‘the late noble Prince of famous memory, King Henry the Seventh’ (More 103), but subsequent historians have.  ‘Although Henry probably did not murder them, it would be naïve to suppose that he did not know what happened to them, or rather, what had not happened to them’ (Prenderghast 100).  Tudor could only commit the murders once he became Henry VII (Gallagher 2015), although some have alleged his mother Margaret Beaufort could have been linked to the disappearance and murders before this (Matt’s History Blog), but she is probably an unlikely suspect (Prenderghast 100).

Once he became king, Henry reversed the Titular Regis, and ordered all copies destroyed, meaning that all the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were declared legitimate (Markham 250).  This gave Elizabeth of York, the Princes’ eldest sister, her claim to the throne, but at this time no woman had been a queen regnant in England, since the days of Boadicea and her daughters.  ‘Although there was no Salic Law in England, the concept of a female sovereign was repugnant to most people’ (Weir 219).

This was not a problem for Henry, who arranged a marriage to the heiress of the House of York.  ‘His first act as king was to send Sir Robert Willoughby to Sheriff Hutton to pay his respect to Elizabeth of York and escort her to Westminster.  Henry meant to keep his oath and marry her, thus bringing about the longed-for alliance between Lancaster and York’ (Weir 219).  It is not recorded if the bride carried a bouquet of red and white roses.

However, it would have been a serious problem if either of her brothers turned up alive. ‘In the popular mind, Richard had already been condemned as the culprit, so if he had the bodies, Henry had the perfect opportunity to exonerate himself if he had conspired to murder his wife’s brothers’ (Prenderghast 99).

The Victorian historian Sir Clements Markham considered Tudor to be guilty of the murders, using the same emotive terms such as usurper and tyrant to refer to him.  Henry did not announce that the boys had been murdered until July 1486, nearly a year after Richard’s death (Johnson 2017).  ‘The die was then cast.  It became a matter of life and death to Henry VII, that the brothers of his wife should cease to exist’ (Markham 254).  Perhaps we should look at this as the possible date for Edward’s and Richard’s deaths.  ‘If the young princes were in the Tower when Henry succeeded, his conduct in analogous cases leaves no doubt of their fate’ (Markham 255).

One judicial murder that can be proved against Henry VII, was that of Edward, Earl of Warwick, whose only crime was to be the ill-fated son of George, that ‘false, fleeting, perjured Clarence’ (Shakespeare 755).  He was sent to the Tower at the age of ten and ‘deprived of the society of all save his gaolers the boy was to grow to manhood uneducated, isolated, and imprisoned so securely that rumours of his death abounded’ (Weir 217-18).  This eventually came, when Warwick was executed in 1499 (Fraser and Cheetham 173).  ‘The tyrant hesitated for years before he made up his mind to commit another foul crime.  But he finally slaughtered the unhappy youth under circumstances of exceptional baseness and infamy, to secure his own ends. . .The executions of which Henry VII, and his son were guilty were an imitation of the policy of Turkish sultans’ (Markham 255).

The fact that the Princes in the Tower, living, would have been a threat to Tudor reign can be seen by the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.  ‘To the end of his reign Henry was troubled by Yorkist claimants to the throne and by pretenders’ (Fraser and Cheetham 171).  Simnel’s rebellion began in 1486, he claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick, then later Prince Richard (Fraser and Cheetham 171), ‘and was undoubtedly an imposter’ (Walpole p206).

Warbeck’s rebellion was more of a threat.  Some believe that ‘the balance seems to incline greatly on the side of Perkin Warbeck, as the true Duke of York’ (Walpole p239).  After the failure of his alliance with the Scots, he was executed in 1499 (Fraser and Cheetham 173).

It is interesting that the younger Prince Richard, if he had survived, had the same name and title as his grandfather Richard, Duke of York, whose power struggle after another king went mad, triggered the Wars of the Roses.



Perhaps he is the key to the whole case.  Tyrrell is the alleged ringleader of the murders in More’s version of events, dramatized by Shakespeare.  In another version, dramatized by classic detective novelist Josephine Tey (1951), whose character Alan Grant solves the ultimate cold case while in hospital, he also allegedly killed the Princes in the Tower but in 1485, a couple of years later.

The real Sir James Tyrrell was executed for treason on 6 May 1502, for supporting the Yorkist pretender Edmund de la Pole.  ‘Knowing that he was to die, Tyrell made, it is said while in the Tower, a confession of his guilt as to the princes’ (Jokinen 2010).  No record of this alleged confession survives today (Prenderghast 152).

He had long served under the House of York, and was knighted by Edward IV after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 (Bryce 1999).  He served under Richard also, being appointed to Guisnes Castle, France, in January 1485 (Bryce 1999).

Tyrrell fared surprisingly well under the new king, perhaps because he had been overseas at the time of the Battle of Bosworth Field.  He was not attainted by Henry’s parliament, but lost the sheriffdoms of Glamorgan and Morgannok, and his other offices in Wales (Bryce 1999).  ‘Henry VII, however, took him into favour, or at all events employed him’ (Jokinen 2010).

‘So Tyrrel was taken into favour, and undertook to perform Henry’s work with the understanding that he was to receive a sufficient reward’ (Markham 269).  One fact he makes much of is that Tyrrell received a general pardon on 16 June 1486. ‘On 16 July 1486, Sir James Tyrrel received a second general pardon.  This would be very singular under ordinary circumstances, the second pardon having been granted within a month of the first’ (Markham 270).

Sir Clements Markham then alleged: ‘Thus we are able to fix the time of the murder of the two young princes between June 16 and July 16, 1486.  One was fifteen and a half, the other twelve years of age’ (Markham 270).

However, this is just another theory, which can no more be proven than the version told by More and Shakespeare, neither can be proven beyond reasonable doubt at this stage.


The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878

‘If we take “evidence” to mean testimony that would secure a verdict in a court of law, there is no evidence that he {i.e. Richard} murdered the Princes.  Upon what materials, then, must an investigation be based? – upon rumours and hearsay, assertion from sources of demonstrable unreliability and inaccuracy, facts of disputed relevance, and inferences insusceptible to test drawn from events and acts.  This is all we have in the way of “evidence”, and it is a knotty, baffling, often contradictory complex of uncertainties’ (Kendall 393).

So what happened to the Princes in the Tower will remain a mystery.  The question will never be satisfactorily answered, of who was behind their murders?  However there is another question that will never be answered:  what type of king would Edward V have made?




Fraser, Antonia Ed. & Cheetham, Anthony.  The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England.  Phoenix Illustrated, 1997.

Kendall, Paul Ed.  Richard III: The Great Debate.  This compilation consists of: More, Thomas. History of King Richard III; & Walpole, Horace. Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III. The Folio Society, 1965.

Kendell, Paul Murray.  Richard III.  Unwin Hyman, 1955.

Markham, Clements.  Richard III: His Life and Character.  Russell & Russell, 1906.

Prenderghast, Gerald.  Richard III and the Prince in the Tower. McFarland and Company, 2017.

Shakespeare, William.  The Complete Works. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Tey, Josephine.  The Daughter of Time. Franklin Watts, Inc, 1951.

Weir, Alison.  The Princes in the Tower. Arrow, 1995.


“An incredible discovery”.  King Richard III Visitor Centre Trust.  2014.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Kyphosis”.  Mayo Clinic.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Lady Elizabeth Lucy / Waite”. Geni. 2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Richard the III – The Evidence Unearthed”.  Leicester University.  HeritageDaily.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Scoliosis”.  Mayo Clinic.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“The Discovery of Richard III”. University of Leicester.  2012.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“The Princes in the Tower” The Richard III Society. 2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Bryce, Tracy.  SIR JAMES TYRELL — HERO OR VILLAIN?  Cogeco.  January 1999.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

De Lisle, Leanda.  Did Richard III Kill the Princes in the Tower.  Newsweek.  13 July 2014.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Easter Smith, Anne.  Edward IV’s Women. A Writer of History.  16 May 2013.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Gallagher, Paul.  The Princes in the Tower: Will the ultimate cold case finally be solved after more than 500 years?  The Independent.  21 August 2015.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Johnson, Ben.  The Princes in the Tower.  Historic UK.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Jokinen, Anniina.  Sir James Tyrell.  Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project.  2010.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Jones, Bryony.  Five things we’ve learned about Richard III since he was found.  CNN.  23 March 2015.

Laudau, Elizabeth.  Richard III’s spine was twisted, not hunched.  CNN.  30 May 2014.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Mattlewisauthor.  Margaret Beaufort and the Princes in the Tower.  Matt’s History Blog.  4 September 2016.  Accessed 1 April 2017.


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