Patricia Bernstein

Famous Prisoners in the Tower of London: The Young Princes

How did King Richard III acquire such an evil reputation that he became one of Shakespeare’s great villains?

Partly because of the tragic fate of the princes in the Tower of London. The famous lost princes were King Edward V, 12 years old, and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, 9 years old. The events that led to their probable murder began long before either boy was born.

The Princes in the Tower.BW
The Princes in the Tower, by Samuel Cousins

The mother of Edward and Richard, Elizabeth Woodville, was reputed to be a stunning beauty, even though when she first encountered King Edward IV of the House of York, she was already a widow and the mother of two. She was said to have “heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon”! Very seductive, one would imagine. Elizabeth’s husband, Sir John Grey, had been an obscure lord who died fighting for the House of Lancaster during the War Between the Roses.  

According to legend, Elizabeth heard that the famously lascivious king would be making a royal progress near her home. She—no doubt thinking to put her beauty to good use– waited for him under an oak tree in Whittlebury Forest in Northamptonshire, to plead for help in reclaiming the inheritance of her sons, which had become entangled with the claims of the Grey family.

Edward supposedly fell madly in love with Elizabeth on sight. The king already had a number of mistresses, but Elizabeth flatly refused to become just another conquest. Edward was so besotted that he married Elizabeth on May 1, 1464, but kept the marriage secret for several months.

When the marriage was revealed, suddenly Elizabeth and the Woodville family were raised to positions of great importance at court, which created immediate dissension with Edward’s brothers and Edward’s most important supporter, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as “the Kingmaker.” Warwick had been negotiating a marriage for Edward with a French princess and felt he had been made to look foolish. He was also enraged that the king had not only married a commoner of no political importance but a Lancastrian at that!

Elizabeth and Edward were married for almost 20 years: she bore him 10 children. But warfare and turmoil plagued Edward’s entire reign. At one point Edward was dethroned by Warwick and had to fight his way back to the throne while Elizabeth took refuge in Westminster Abbey, where she bore the son who later briefly became King Edward V. At different times both Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta were accused of practicing witchcraft. How else, people reasoned, could the politically insignificant Elizabeth have snared a king?

On April 9, 1483, King Edward IV died suddenly at the age of 40, possibly of pneumonia. Elizabeth and her children had lost their protector. Edward IV’s infamous brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, at first pretended to be Elizabeth’s friend and agreed to serve as Lord Protector of the 12-year old heir to the throne—as Edward IV had requested in a codicil to his will. Young Edward was placed in the Tower, as was the custom, to await his coronation.

Then the Duke of Gloucester began to show his true colors. He executed some of Elizabeth’s supporters—most prominently her older son Richard Gray and her brother Anthony, Earl Rivers. Soon after Gloucester sent Richard, Duke of York, to join his brother in the Tower, Parliament declared that Elizabeth’s marriage with Edward IV was invalid because the king had already been precontracted to marry another widow, Lady Eleanor Butler. Thus all of Elizabeth’s children with Edward IV were declared  illegitimate. Gloucester was crowned King Richard III in July 1483.

According to one account, the princes were seen playing in the Tower gardens, were moved from the royal apartments to the Bloody Tower and then were seen less and less. No more was heard of them after the summer of 1483. Most historians, after sifting through all the other possibilities, have decided that the most likely, though not certain, conclusion is that it was Richard III who had his nephews murdered in the Tower.

Perhaps the ever-devious Gloucester thought that, once he had obliterated his young rivals, all memory of them would gradually fade away, as if they had never existed. Instead their tragic story became one of the best-known tales in the entire history of England—a haunting mystery that was never solved.

If Richard believed that having the princes murdered would help to secure his reign, he was deluded. The probability that he had his nephews murdered may have been one of the primary factors that led Yorkists, and Elizabeth Woodville herself, to support the Lancastrian Henry Tudor’s campaign to depose Richard. On August 22, 1485, Richard III fought the forces of Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field and was killed. Henry took the throne as Henry VII and married Elizabeth, sister of the lost princes, thereby ending the War Between the Roses.

Two characters, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, showed up later, each claiming to be Richard, the younger of the two boys, and to have somehow survived, but the general consensus of historians is that both were imposters. In 1674, workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons that were thought to be the remains of the princes. King Charles II ordered the bones interred at Westminster Abbey with a monument designed by Christopher Wren.

But Queen Elizabeth II never gave permission for the bones to be tested for DNA, which might have established whether or not these little skeletons could possibly have been the two princes. Perhaps King Charles III will grant that permission!

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