The Princes in the Tower, the murder mystery that never was

As  Richard III is currently in the news  I thought it a good time to finish my post on the Princes.The alleged “murder of the princes in the tower” is a frequent reason for suggesting that Richard III was both a bad person and a usurper .Richard cannot escape the slur of child murder and comments about placing his actions in a historical context don’t really wash.Yet there is absolutely nothing about Richards character and behavior prior to becoming King which suggests he is capable of murdering not just  children but his brothers  children .

It is certain Richard took power from these children  with what seems to be planned and somewhat ruthless efficiency and placed them under increasingly close keeping  in the Tower of London.They then disappear from  the tower and from history presumably murdered or at least dead .


I know it is popular to “defend “Richard by suggesting other potential suspects of which there are plenty with much more motive than Richard and who would be much less likely to be squeamish  about murder but I don’t think it is actually necessary to assume foul play .The princes could  quite easily have died of natural causes, or perhaps  the  older prince  or more precisely the young king  Edward V died and the younger prince was sent away,(I can’t personally  imagine it likely that one prince was sent into exile overseas but there is considerable academic support to favour it and  unless this occurred or was at least suspected  I cannot otherwise explain the  behaviour of  key players later in case of Perkin Warbeck).

True Richard took power from them  and placed first Edward V and then is Brother Richard in the Tower of London but this was a time of huge upheaval ,kings came and went ,their fates decided on the fields of increasingly bloody battles it was no time for a child king ,in addition that child was controlled by a vastly unpopular faction ,the Woodvilles who despite no evidence that Richard would be anything but a fair protector of the children ,took immediate steps to “usurp” the man appointed by the recently dead king to be protector of the children and kingdom .There was every likelihood that war would be the rapid outcome .Richard seems to have reacted to events and  planned merely to keep them from Woodiville control not to usurp them.  Once he had been awarded power by parliament he was king ,the princes were no threat they were declared illegitimate,something that had been whispered around for many years previously and legitimacy was not the clear-cut condition it now ,nor did marriages remain unchallenged .Just over fifty  years later Henry VIII had one marriage of over twenty years standing to Katherine of Aragon a popular and well loved queen who was no less than a princess of powerful Spain declared null and void .In the aftermath of bloody civil wars declaring two children illegitimate and casting doubts on the un witnessed marriage of a dead king to an unpopular commoner so that war could be avoided would be a minor problem for the troubled times .Catherine of Aragons daughter was declared illegitimate despite universal international and national outrage because she was seen a legitimate and the rightful heir,none of this outrage is felt when the same is done to the princes .Likewise another commoner ,Henry VIII second  wife Ann Bolyn was accused of witchcraft and adultery by Henry VIII and her marriage dissolved ,her child then also declared illegitimate ,but due to Annes unpopularity this doesnt seem to have raised any eyebrows ,her situation directly correlates to Elizabeth Woodvilles ,an unpopular commoner ,who rises from nowhere to become Queen then falls from power with no powerful allies to save her or defend her daughter .Henry later went on to annul yet another marriage to Anne of Cleeves .During the following years ,the children of Henry VIII went in and out of legitimacy depending on the whims of the Monarch in power at the time but none were secretly murdered .Elizabeth even spent time in the tower which by then had become a frightening place of imprisonment and torture .However the Tower had none of those connotations in Richard time so that  the moving of the Princes to the Tower was not as ominous as it seems to us now.Priror to the reign of terror instituted by the Tudors the Tower was the key royal lodging in London and  had a large and comfortable set of Royal apartments and monarchs stayed there prior to their coronation.It is only later under the Tudors and Stuarts it acquires a reputation that is entirely unpleasant.Monarch began their cornation journey there and usualy stayed overnight there prior to it ,this was still the case in Henry VIII reign   .Even had the boys not been kept in the Royal apartments in which they were lodged its not necessarily the case that because they were placed in the towers other rooms their death needed to follow.The Tower had a number of long-term prisoners and several kings and queens spent years imprisoned in the Tower  often in some luxury before being released or moved elsewhere.Over the centuries Kings of France ,England and Scotland spent years in imprisonment .Richard may have planned a similar fate for his nephews,he certainly had nothing to gain from having them murdered as they had been declared illegitimate ,their power base curtailed and  he had been crowned king.

Keeping the children in his custody made much more sense than murdering them as while they were in his close keeping they were in effect hostages for the good behavior of their mother and her supporters and many of those supporters were the unpopular Woodville’s or Woodville allies.Though plots could be instigated to free them, as long as they were kept safe and perhaps in secret locations it was far safer to leave them alive. The next claimants  to Richards throne were all adults who were out of Richards control and capable of acting for themselves .

It is not therefore fanciful or illogical  to assume Richard did not murder the Princes and there is no evidence against him .Though there were random rumors in 1483 and 1484 and the odd vague remark by later chroniclers  there is no evidence that he murdered the children except that they disappeared and their disappearance may equally have been because as other rumors claimed that they had been sent overseas.Likewise despite it being in his obvious best interests Henry VII could not find reputable accounts of any murder or produce the princes bodies and was never able to clearly accuse Richard of their murder.Further more Henry’s behavior in the Perkin Warbeck case tends to suggest he did not know for an absolute fact that the princes had been murdered .

There is also the behavior of  their mother and their sisters Despite a few rumours that the princes had been murdered in late 1483 In March 1884 their mother Elizabeth Woodville and their sisters came out of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and Richard gave sworn assurances of their safety and good treatment and he made good his promises.To allow the sisters of the Princes liberty was fairly safe while their brothers were still alive if however Richard had killed them ,it meant he was allowing freedom to potential heirs of Edward IV and  also placing in positions of power women whose brothers he had murdered .This doesn’t seem the wisest of moves.If however we assume the princes were moved and hidden away there is no reason not to treat their sisters well . If as I suggest may be the case that the princes  or at least the  elder  King Edward died of natural causes and this was known to be a fact by their mother then there would be no danger from allowing the women liberty as long as they would be persuaded to see their best interests lay with Richard and it made political sense to  marry them into the families of his supporters or perhaps as his wife was sickening he planned  to marry  one of them himself to strengthen his claim to the throne,this seems unlikely considering Richards attitude to the Woodvilles ,his piety and his action in promoting Elizabeths marriage to overseas kings and princes but isnt impossible , Henry VII does this later when he marries Elizabeth of York.eli yorkThe case for natural death grows if  evidence from the bones long believed to be the Princes in the tower is considered.(though I am not in any way convinced these are in fact the princes bones ,the arguments for illness still apply )The bones of the largest /eldest child showed evidence of extensive  osteomyelitis, a chronic and in medieval times, incurable bone  disease ,it causes not just severe pain and sores but also bone necrosis and even today dead bone often needs to be removed and treatment with antibiotics is essential .None of these options were available at the time .If the skeleton is that of  Edward V he was doomed even without being murdered The pain from this infection  would be more than enough to account for Edward Vs apparent depression and its severity and lack of any remedy at that time more than accounts for his reported belief  that he would soon die(yet again assuming that belief was  a fact and not made up later by Tudor propaganda) .If this was the prince and the disease was of long standing so  would be another cause to remove him from power bad enough to have a child in power but a child who was clearly not going to live long enough to allow stability or father an heir would be worse ,Once it was clear the current prince would not make old bones it becomes essentail to have the next king the younger prince removed from Woodville keeping. Though there are no reportsof a sick and ailing prince its not impossible to imagine the covering up by his parents of a serious condition or its rapid onset ,the same thing was done in Russia by Zsar Nicholas and that was achieved in the age of photography ,film and newspapers, medieval England had none of those .If the bones were his it is also clear he had been  alive for longer than reports of his death in 1483 suggested.

The progress of this or any degenerative or genetic disease would also explain why the princes began to be seen less frequently and may also explain the death or disappearance  of the second prince .Perhaps when it became clear how ill Edward was, Richard was moved to keep him healthy or more likely he contracted a related disease and died .Osteomyelitis can be a complication of other diseases  caused by a number of bacteria all of which would easily be passed from child to child by direct contact ,by sharing the same environment,,same bed ,same increasingly confined space.Two of the bacteria Staphylococcus and salmonella are environmental and the princes probably shared the same spaces  infected by the bacteria and may  have been independently infected .Its also possible it was a complication of Tuberculosis ,which may have been the actual cause of death and would have very easily been transmitted from prince to prince ..Though the second skeleton does not appear to have any signs or disease  it was incomplete and already damaged when examined .In addition death from for example Typhus  would leave no marks nor would flu type diseases  ,it was only months after Bosworth that the “sweating Sickness” officially appears in England but it was probably present much earlier perhaps the princes were among the earliest victims.
Death by natural causes would explain the burial of the bodies displayed, if your going to murder two children then why not just throw them in the river but if they die of natural causes after being cared it’s entirely logical they may have been secretly and hurriedly buried in a makeshift coffin to prevent the spread of disease from their corpses but perhaps also with the hope they could be reburied with more dignity later.

If they had died in 1483 it  doesn’t of course explain why Richard didn’t make the deaths public and produce bodies,Edwards disease would be so visible that it would be impossible to attribute his death to murder .I would suggest that it’s possible that at the time the first rumors  of their murder were circulating  the princes were extremely ill and couldn’t be produced but Richard was biding his time and intended to produce them once they recovered or produce their corpses once they succumbed and died.Perhaps Elizabeth emerged from the closely watched sanctuary of the Abbey in 1484 so she could visit one or both sons before their deaths it would explain what otherwise seems to be a strange  or calculating and callous about her about turn .To make peace with and become part of the court of your sons murderer is even by the standards of the day appalling but if you know that this is merely someone who has taken power from them ,then its more understandable ,Kings rose and fell and you had to adapt.

There were regular outbreaks of disease in London and especially during the hotter months ,infant mortality in medieval England was high among all classes and the Woodville children of Edward IV seem to have been particularly susceptible to ravages of  infant mortality .In addition precautions against spreading disease where for the  most part ineffective .In the light of the lack of evidence it would seem far more likely that the Princes died while kept in less than ideal conditions  of a disease requiring quick burial rather than that they were murdered by persons unknown in a manner unknown and disposed of in a place unknown.

The possibility that the younger child survived in exile will be dealt with at some point in the future as the case of Perkin Warbeck is of enough interest to merit its own post


Richards religious beliefs

As it’s a subjective opinion I have not included the following in the main article however I think it a valid and very important  argument and it is therefore included below.

As a christian I do not feel that Richard who shows obvious signs of  being genuinely devout would have committed child murder .While Richard was obviously used to killing ,he had fought in many battles ,this does not make him capable of child murder .Premeditated  Murder is a mortal sin ,had Richard committed such a sin he would have shown signs of a troubled conscience and have worried about the state of his soul after death ,increasing donations to religiouse houses or churches ,this isn’t the case .True he arranged  the execution of enemies but those were adults who were  his enemies not defenseless children ,Richard seems to have had an empathy for the under dog and a passion for justice for the voiceless its I think impossible that such a man could kill children in his care.

About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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12 Responses to The Princes in the Tower, the murder mystery that never was

  1. I have postulated a similar idea to that described above in my Kindle book A Wilderness of Sea, I would be interested in your opinion of it. My web site has some articles you might be interested in.

  2. imacomputerbuddie says:

    I had wondered if the princes had the sweating sickness

    • yes that seemed a strong possibility to me

      • I believe that Edward V died naturally of whatever illness he had when he went in the Tower. Prince Richard was given a new identity for his own protection and emerged later as Perkin Warbeck. He was murdered judicially by Henry Tudor along with the real king of England, Edward earl of Warwick – the third prince (there were three, not just two).

      • Hello
        Yes I think thats possible ,I dont think its impossible both survived but as they did disappear from view ,it seems very likely to me that one or both fell ill and Perkin Warbeck seems far too credible not to have been either a Prince or at least take advantage of rumours that much of Europe thought credible

  3. Varun says:

    If Edward V died of a disease, why didn’t Richard just display his body in state? That would’ve left no doubt in people’s minds. Even if there was risk of outbreak, a private display to certain prominent people could still be done. His failure to produce the princes in any form ultimately cost him his life. His behavior makes more sense if he was unaware of what happened to them or was covering for someone else. Besides that, if Richard was blameless, why did the Woodvilles choose to ally with Henry? I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Richard’s capability. Greed can change anything you think you know about yourself. His portrait also shows a highly worried man.

    • There is a number of reasons the body might not have been displayed or might not have been recorded as being displayed ,Henry Tudor destroyed a lot of records its possible someone did see the body.Its also not uncommon for people to not be displayed if they died of infectiouse disease which was considered couyld be spread by their corpse ,Eleanore of Toldedo was buried in such a hurry her ladies did not even lace her bodice up (we know because the body was disinterred as part of an Italian research project into the Medici).I think its not impossible Richard didnt know what was going on or what had happened ,odly thats also the impression gained from how Henry Tudor reacted to the Perkin Warbeck revolt so maybe the boys disapeared in away neither Richard nor Henry could explain.
      I think the Woodvilles appear to sided with Henry because he won ,I dont doubt that had Richard won they would have been on “his side”.Also theres the mystery of why Elizabeth Woodville had a later falling out.
      The portrait isnt really relevant as the portrait was altered in Tudor times

    • Have you read my book Westminster Bones? If not you might find it interesting. Its on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

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