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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Princes in the Tower

The story of the Princes in the Tower, which refers to the confinement of the sons of Edward IV by Richard III in the Tower of London in 1483, is perhaps one of the most bone-chillingly mysterious places where fact and fiction become blurred. Edward V was born in Westminster Abbey while his mother, Queen Elizabeth, was in sanctuary on November 2, 1470, making him only twelve-years old at the time of his death. Edward, Prince of Wales, was at Ludlow when his father died under the care of Earl Rivers, who then helped to escort him along with a force of 2,000 men to London.

When Rivers and Sir Richard Grey, his nephew, went to meet Richard and Buckingham, they were both arrested, leaving Edward entirely vulnerable. When she heard that her son had been captured, Queen Elizabeth immediately took sanctuary with her other children. Thanks to a considerable military force surrounding Westminster Abbey, the queen was eventually persuaded to relinquish her younger son, the nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York, who was taken to meet his brother in the Tower.

John Everett Millais' "The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483," 1878.

It is at this point in the story where the facts become obscured. The only detailed written version of the deaths of the two princes comes from Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, in which he relates a confession supposedly given by James Tyrell, the alleged murderer, upon his trial for treason in 1502. Since this confession has never actually surfaced, it is impossible to know whether More invented it or not. More claims that after Brackenbury refused to do the murders himself, Richard employed his ambitious servant Tyrell and placed the princes in the care of “Black Will or Will Slaughter” instead of their usual keepers. With the help of Miles Forest, “a fellow fleshed in murder before time,” and John Dighton, “a big, broad, square, strong knave,” Tyrell had the princes smothered to death at midnight and then buried at the foot of one of the Tower’s staircases (214). Apparently, Richard then had them re-buried in an unknown location.

The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, James Northcote, 1785

While it is most widely accepted that Richard III was responsible for the deaths of the princes, there are several other highly plausible scenarios. First, it has been claimed that Buckingham himself killed the princes, since he would have had access to the Tower at the time. The alternative defended by modern-day Ricardian supporters is that Henry Tudor had the princes killed in order to stabilize his own claim to the throne, which also explains why the blame would have been ascribed to Richard III as an integral piece of Tudor propaganda. It has even been suggested that the princes actually died of disease, such as the plague, while in confinement. To complicate matters, in 1674, a chest was uncovered buried beneath the White Tower containing two child skeletons supposed to be the princes’ remains. Although an examination of the “bones of 1674” found them to be appropriate matches for the two princes and believed the deaths to have occurred in 1483, making it impossible to have been the work of Henry VII. However, this was discredited in the 1950s, and it remains uncertain whether these are The Bones or not.


Maurer, Helen. “Bones in the Tower: A Discussion of Time, Place and Circumstance.” Part 2. The Ricardian, vol. 8, no. 111. 1990. pp 474-493.

Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001. Print.

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