This isn’t just meant as posturing. It’s a legitimate question, and an interesting one. The far, far more interesting question, however, is who didn’t say that he did it. This has been called the negative evidence – the conspicuous lack of positive evidence – and it is compelling.
It is often reported that the boys disappeared from public view late in the summer of 1483. This appears to be one of the few accepted, undisputed facts in the case. Even at this early stage, their fate was a matter of much gossip and it was, in the main, reported as just that – rumour and gossip. King Richard attracted attention, but so too did the Duke of Buckingham, as the below chronicle shows.
The eldest Prince, Edward, was also under the care of his physician, Dr John Argentine. The final glimpse of the boys within the historical record is the doctor’s assertion that “the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, made daily confession because he thought that death was facing him.” This is often taken to mean that Edward feared his uncle was planning to do away with him, but could equally mean that he feared the medical condition he was receiving treatment for may claim his life. It is telling that Edward fears for his life, but makes no mention of his younger brother, Richard.
This, for me, is where the historical record becomes most interesting precisely because it is silent. It may be understandable that during the reign of King Richard III he would prefer to have them forgotten, whatever their fate, but he held on to the throne for only two years. After the Battle of Bosworth, King Henry VII ushered in a new, tentative Tudor regime. Had Henry found the boys alive and well, he would have uncovered a real problem. He had sworn to marry their sister, Elizabeth of York, to unite the Houses of York and Lancaster. In order to do this, he had to re-legitimise all of the children of King Edward IV. In doing so, he would hand the strongest claim to the throne in the kingdom to Edward if he were alive. Much of Edward IV’s loyal support, which Henry had co-opted against Richard III, would most likely return their might their former master’s heir. It would therefore be in Henry’s interest for them not to be found alive.
Upon taking the throne, Henry VII never once laid the blame for the death of the Princes at King Richard’s feet. In fact, he never laid the blame at anyone’s feet. He never said an official word about them. It would have been so easy for him to state that they were dead, King Richard had done it and now Henry had avenged the evil deed. Odd, then, that he should choose to remain silent about their fate, even during the Perkin Warbeck affair when the spectre of Prince Richard reared its head to threaten him.
Fascinating too is the failure of Elizabeth of York during her nearly twenty years as queen consort to put her brother’s fate to bed. She had been in sanctuary in 1483 but the following year rejoined the court of King Richard. If she felt constrained from speaking out at that time, why not condemn her uncle for the murders of her brothers after he was gone and she was free from his control? Surely her new husband would have welcomed any attempt she may have made to blame Richard.
Perhaps the most unlikely keeper of the secret was Elizabeth Woodville, queen to King Edward IV and mother to the two lost boys. She too spent over a year in sanctuary with her daughters when Richard stole the throne from her son. She too rejoined his court in 1484, under his protection. In itself, it is strange that she would hand not only herself but all of her remaining children over to a man who had allegedly killed her sons. Yet after 1485, she too would have been free from any threat Richard held over her and who would have had more cause to berate the dead king for his murdering ways? She too said nothing. Eventually she was sent to Bermondsey Abbey in 1487 where she died five years later still never having accused Richard of anything. As an aside, is it possible Henry stripped her of her lands and sent her to Bermondsey because she threatened to produce the boys and oust Henry?
Sir James Tyrell is the man most often held to have had the deed done for King Richard, allegedly confessing and offering names when he was arrested for treason in 1502. Examination of the historical record shows that Sir James, in fact, never confessed to the murder, nor was he apparently questioned about it. I have found a reference to Henry VII touting the suggestion of blaming Sir James to an ambassador once, but when it was not well received, he dropped the matter.
This account of the boy’s death seems to have firs been formulated by Sir Thomas More in his infamous History of King Richard III. He may have picked up the negative image of Richard during his time in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and perennial thorn in Richard III’s side, yet he too reports only rumour, gossip and that ‘people said’ Richard killed the boys. Even the architect of Richard’s evil reputation could not bring himself to categorically say that he did it. It is interesting too that More never published the work. His nephew completed and published it after Sir Thomas’s death. Did More never mean to condemn Richard? That is a whole other story!
The first definite, unequivocal, explicit, unambiguous finger pointing is contained in Shakespeare’s play about the hunchbacked study in evil. Even this, though, presents issues. If we consider the play’s meaning to a contemporary audience, new light is shed upon the bard’s willingness to vilify the last Plantagenet king. Elizabeth I was ageing and had no heir. She was also refusing to name her successor. The play was written around the early 1590’s, when the Queen’s long serving advisor Sir William Cecil was also ageing. His son, Robert Cecil, was being fashioned to take his father’s place. The Cecils were not popular. They were trying to convince Elizabeth to name James VI of Scotland as her heir and this was not a popular policy. The fascinating fact here is that Robert Cecil was, without doubt, a hunchback. Not a man with of scoliosis, a hunchback. Was Shakespeare, then, less concerned with telling his audience exactly who Richard III was and what he did than with providing a moral tale for the country, perhaps even for the Queen, about the perils of relying on a scheming, unpopular hunchback and of failing to secure the succession? It was precisely that uncertainty that had put the Tudor’s on the throne and it now threatened to end their time in power too, sending the country into uncertainty.
The joy of writing about this kind of history is that we may never know the entire truth. I may have made wild assumptions, adding two and two together to make ten. Or I may have just hit the nail on the head. It’s interesting though, isn’t it?
Matthew has recently released The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy which details the course of the civil wars that made and broke families and can be found at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wars-Roses-Players-Struggle-Supremacy-ebook/dp/B0155CR1BS
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.