"So wise so young, they say, do never live long" Shakespeare, Richard III, Act III, Scene I
The fate of the Princes in the Tower is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in English history. Who actually killed Edward V and Richard, Duke of York? How is it that they ended up in the Tower of London at all? Who benefited the most from their deaths? And what was the ultimate result of that tragedy? Alison Weir pens a great case for what happened back in 1483---and squarely lays all the evidence on one man: Richard III.
Weir has penned many English history tomes---Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, The War of the Roses, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, and Eleanor of Aquitaine just to name a few. Each book is a rich tapestry of history, making it a living thing. While much of the time period she discuses is far removed from our own, she makes these figures of history come alive once more and become human. She has an ability to dig deep, giving you an in-depth understanding of the people, the period, and the circumstances that surround a historical slice of time. Her book, The Princes in the Tower, is another key example of this.
To set the stage, let's understand some about what led up to Richard III usurpation of the English throne from his nephew, Edward V.
The War of the Roses was a period of about 30 years, in which the Red Rose of Lancaster faced off against the White Rose of York sporadically, culminating in the Battle of Bosworth of 1485. The wars mostly affected the nobility, leaving much of the peasant classes out of the fray---unless their town was caught in the cross fires, of course. It centered on the two branches of the Plantagenet family tree that descended from Edward III.
Lancaster traced its line to John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III. York traced his lineage to Edward III through Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Henry Bolinbroke, Gaunt's son, usurped the throne from Richard II, and became Henry IV. He left his throne to the famous Henry V, who died in 1422 of dysentery, leaving behind his infant son, Henry VI. As they say, woe to the country left to a babe, and until he reached his majority at the tender age of seven, the kingdom was in the hands of Protectors. Even afterward, Henry VI was easily manipulated by other nobles and most notably his wife, Margaret of Anjou.
Upon his majority, Henry VI didn't rule very effectively, which opened the door to York to start managing the country. Without going into extreme detail (after all, you can read Weir's wonderful book The War of the Roses to get the full story), York decided that instead of managing the country for the inept and sickly Henry VI, that he would establish his own dynasty: a Yorkist dynasty.
This led to a sprinkling of battles---Towton being the bloodiest to ever be fought on English soil---and the changing of rulers from Henry VI to Richard of York's son, Edward IV at various times through the 1460s and early 70s. Eventually, Edward IV wins out, and rules successfully until he dies suddenly aged 42 in 1483.
That is where the story of The Princes in the Tower begins, and Weir makes a masterful case as to why Richard III has to be the murderer.
Weir introduces us to the contemporary chroniclers that were putting together the record as it were surrounding this period of time---and explains how they set forth the evidence she uses as a historian to build her case. She establishes carefully how these chroniclers kept a record of the day---while explaining in clear language how their reports differ from a modern news report or historical record. It's a fascinating window into the medieval world---and considering how fifteenth century records are hard to come by in many respects, we're afforded an acute understanding of not just what happened but a bit of how they felt about the events surrounding the Princes. Weir refers to their records at key points in her narrative, making it all the richer and human.
Before reading this book, much of what I had known about the murder of the Princes and Richard III had been attributed to so-called Tudor propaganda. As we all know, Richard III is portrayed by Shakespeare as an evil tyrant, cruel and monstrous---and especially deformed as a hunchback. He is the ultimate villain---a child murderer no less.
While that play may exaggerate the truth, Weir proves that in many ways that Shakespeare wasn't necessarily far from the truth. She also sets forth that much of his source material came from sources that either existed prior to the Tudor Age---or was a result of being able to say things about Richard post mortem. After all, while many didn't like Richard and believed him to be the murderer of the Princes, they couldn't openly discuss this fact until after he was himself overthrown. Instead, Weir asserts that the Tudors took the established record as it were and embellished it to suit their needs. Much like a game of telephone, over time, Richard also become darker and all the more sinister.
Richard III, as we know from his burial discovery, did indeed suffer from a form of scoliosis. He wasn't nearly as hunchbacked as Shakespeare would have us believe, but there was some sort of deformity. Weir is careful to be balanced on this issue---and never once makes this a mark of his guilt---as an earlier or medieval chronicler might.
Instead, she explains to us that Richard III had spent much of his young manhood watching how to take power. He stood steadfast alongside his brother---even when George, Duke of Clarence, the middle York brother, did not. She tells us that Richard watched Edward IV employ murder himself to gain and keep his throne---namely the murder of Henry VI, not surprisingly, in the Tower. She even alleges that Richard may have been in charge of that operation. This was then backed up by Edward IV's execution of George, Duke of Clarence---one of the more bizarre executions in English history. So, murdering to take or keep a throne wasn't necessarily off the table.
The Princes were also vulnerable due to their mother's large Wydville family. Elizabeth Wydville had been a commoner, married much in secret to Edward IV when he won the throne in the early 1460s. Due to their influence, many chafed at them gaining more power in the power vacuum left behind in the wake of Edward IV's death. In many ways, that instantly made them the enemy of Richard III.
Edward V was King by right upon his father's death, but as English custom warrants, he was to go through a coronation. If he had safely, the course of history may have been significantly different.
The trouble was, Edward V was a child, and so that gave Richard the opportunity to become Lord Protector over Edward V. It didn't make him King, but it did give Richard the power to run the country in the young King's stead. But that wasn't enough for Richard---because once Edward attained majority he would be displaced and Edward V would be King in every sense of the word. Ultimately, Richard III was too ambitious to idly sit by and allow children to rank over him.
Recall that Henry IV had attained his majority at seven. Edward V was already twelve, nearly thirteen at this time. If the Wydvilles had managed to get to Edward V's coronation, Richard's power would come to an end and their family would once again rise to great power. Richard would have become a footnote at court more or less.
Weir tells us that Richard countered that by taking Edward V into his custody from his Wydville relative, the Earl of Rivers. There, he took Edward V to the Tower---all the while dangling the coming coronation in front of Elizabeth Wydville and the rest of the nation. Weir tells us in vivid detail how the people became anxious at each delay and at Richard III's growing powers.
Richard wanted to be King---and the boy king stood in his way. He made attempts to disinherit Edward V and his younger brother Richard by saying there had been a pre-contract or first marriage between Edward IV and another woman, Eleanor Butler, before he married Elizabeth. This would make Edward V and his brother bastards---thus unable to take the throne---and clear the way for Richard to become King as he was the next in line.
But Weir tells us that this story didn't work as well as he had hoped. So, Richard had to scramble and come up with another way to eliminate the Princes in the way.
Elizabeth Wydville had her younger son, Richard, in her possession while in Sanctuary. It kept him safe---and Edward V safe, too. Richard could have killed Edward V while he held him in the Tower, but it wouldn't have solved anything. Richard, Duke of York, would have become King. He needed that boy in his possession so he could eliminate both. It was an all or nothing gamble on Richard III's part.
Weir discusses in-depth how he does that. He threatened, essentially, to break Sanctuary and remove York by force. Much like the murders of Henry VI and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard had examples of broken Sanctuary to follow. During the War of the Roses, Edward IV had broken it. It left Elizabeth Wydville with no choice but to relinquish her second son---and it is the very thing that allowed Richard to set up the murder for both.
Once both boys were held in the White Tower, Richard III started to prepare for a coronation: his own. In that time, he began to restrict access more and more to the Princes. They were spotted at the windows at various intervals---until his coronation had happened.
Weir tells us that Richard III made sure to place trust in one man to watch the Tower and only admit those of his choosing. By doing so, he could make the Princes disappear over time---until at which they were murdered, sometime in early September 1483 according to Weir's impeccable research. After all, when he was asked about the Princes and no one saw them anymore, Richard III never once made a show of them to prove they were alive. If they had been---and he could have produced them as such---it would have dampened the rumors and ill-favor of the people quickly. Despite the resentment building up---after all Richard III not only had taken the throne from Edward V, he also favored Northerners, something that Southern Londoners didn't like---he did govern rather well, and if he had the Princes alive, he could have stamped out much of the anger over time. He didn't.
Instead, his brief reign had its share of rebellions and pretenders. Weir tells us that the murder of the Princes went too far---even for a brutal fifteenth century. They were children, and the murder of children was abhorrent to many. It's also why a Lancastrian faction was able to grow and prepare an invasion to restart the War of the Roses anew.
In 1485, Richard III is cut down at the Battle of Bosworth, by Henry VII, the first King of the Tudor dynasty---and the heir of Lancaster by his mother's lineage. Richard III had opened the door for the weak claim Tudor possessed to the throne by murdering the Princes---and Weir makes it clear in her conclusion that Henry VII had no idea what had happened to the Princes or where they had been buried after. Some that want to restore Richard III's name put the murder of the Princes on Henry VII---after all he did benefit the most from their demise in the end. But, with the evidence Weir lays out, the Princes were long dead before Henry VII actually launched his campaign in 1485. If their bodies had been recovered, it would have made his early reign easier by far---considering there were a number of pretenders in his time, too.
This book was written in 1992, and therefore long before the discovery had been made of Richard III's bones in the parking lot in Leicester, England. Weir, however, does talk about the various lores and theories about what had happened to his remains after the Greyfriars had been dissolved during Henry VIII's reign. Some had said Richard III had been thrown into the river to be lost for all time.
This book really made a strong case as to why Richard III had to be the murderer of the Princes, but Weir also kept a balance, telling us how Richard managed the government when not facing rebellion or pretenders. He was a capable ruler, but it is his ambition that led to the ultimate destruction of the House of York.
As a Tudor era enthusiast, what really struck me about this book is how it tells us that the Tudors would have never happened had it not been for Richard III's usurpation of the throne from Edward V. If not for the death of the Princes, there would have never been Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.
What really makes Weir a great historian, however, is she makes us feel deep empathy for the two little boys, found later in the 1640s, buried without any care or dignity under a stair case in the Tower of London. They were children, and in many ways the crime committed against them is as shocking then as it is now. It may be over 500 years ago now, but their tragic deaths still resonate even today---and we can imagine the terror and horror it must have been to be these boys.
If you're curious about this, give The Princes in the Tower a read. You'll not regret it.