William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, represented the apex of his families power. His rise and his fall were both a symptom and a cause of the problems that would mount up until civil war became unavoidable in England.
In this episode we will trace the rise and fall of his family and why his death was not enough to stop the tide of war.
Sudeley Castle stands in Winchcombe, for a time the capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, just 9 miles from Junction 9 of the M5 but a world away from the hustle and bustle of the life that artery maintains. Sudeley Castle is nestled away along a single track road from the village. Just as you wonder whether you’ve taken a wrong turn, the gates greet you, beckoning the visitor to the feast of history within.
There were several reasons I was drawn to Sudeley for my first visit. The facial reconstruction of Richard III was lodged there at the time, which is perhaps reason enough for me. I knew of Sudeley’s Tudor connections too, to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr and Elizabeth I, but there was so much more to discover than I had imagined.
The welcome at Sudeley was as warm as the weather (which is a complement – it was actually a really nice day!) and stepping into the grounds leads through beautifully maintained gardens as the visitor winds their way up toward the castle.
The first building encountered is the now ruined Tithe Barn, built in the 15th century but a victim of the Civil War. It remains a picturesque ruin though, displaying several species of rose within its remaining walls. The Barn, along with significant parts of the castle itself, date from the time the estate belonged to Ralph Boteler, Baron Sudeley (1394-1473). Ralph made his fortune in France, serving with Henry V, and held prestigious titles as Captain of Calais and Royal Treasurer to Henry VI. When he returned from France, Ralph renovated Sudeley but lost the property in 1469 for his support of the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses.
Ralph Boteler left no male heir, his only son Thomas having pre-deceased him. Wars of the Roses interest is significant here too. Thomas Butler (as Boteler had evolved into) was the husband of Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter to the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was supposedly involved in the pre-contract of marriage with King Edward IV that was later used to invalidate his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and declare his heirs illegitimate.
The reflection pool that runs alongside the Tithe Barn was added in the 1930’s and offers a tranquil position from which to view the castle as the giant carp pop up now and then. From there, a leisurely stroll around more immaculate gardens brings the now eager visitor to the castle itself. Underneath the terrace is a display of stones removed from Winchcombe Abbey, a stark reminder of the cultural vandalism of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1539 the Abbey was dissolved and the land granted to Thomas Seymour. Some of the stonework of the Abbey was moved to Sudeley to form an underground waterway. It was uncovered in 1996, but it is believed more plundered stones filled the castle moat and remain buried under the grounds and gardens.
A flight of stairs, in the shadow of which a row of Victorian dog kennels remains, leads to the terrace, offering a stunning view over the Gloucestershire countryside. It is not hard then to imagine the old soldier Ralph resting himself there, or Richard, as Duke of Gloucester, pondering the building work he was to undertake during his custody of Sudeley. Nor is it difficult to picture the lovelorn Henry VIII strolling along the terrace arm in arm with Anne Boleyn, and their daughter Elizabeth enjoying the hunt during one of her three visits to the castle.
It is somewhat unfortunate that photographs cannot be taken within the Castle, though also understandable. A significant amount of charm is derived from the fact that Sudeley remains a family home as well as a visitor attraction. Amongst the medieval portraits and letters, the beautiful fabrics on display and the oddities that made up Emma Dent’s museum are family photos and I have to say that this adds charm and a real connection from the very present to the distant past in a way that many such places cannot do.
Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, received possession of Sudeley Castle from his brother, King Edward IV, in 1469 after it was confiscated from Ralph Boteler. Richard owned the property for 9 years before exchanging it with his brother the king for Richmond Castle, presumably to consolidate his holdings in the north. When Richard became king, he regained Sudeley too. It was during Richard’s stewardship of Sudeley that the Banqueting Hall was built. Now ruined, its vanished splendour is still to be perceived in what remains today.
The Knot Garden, which can be entered part way through the castle tour, offers a spot for tranquil reflection in the heart of the castle and water gently falls from the fountain at its centre. The Ruins Garden can be accessed from here, a spot where nature has claimed some of the stonework for her own.
As the castle is exited, the visitor is greeted by the remains of a covered walkway that once ran from the Castle’s door to the parish church of St Mary’s just a short walk across the lawn. Once more, the spectacle of Katherine Parr strolling that very path on her way to worship at the church almost conjures itself in the mind. The church is beautiful, but its great attraction for the visitor is the tomb of Katherine Parr, who married Thomas Seymour, uncle of King Edward VI, after Henry VIII’s death. She saw out her final years at Sudeley Castle with her fourth husband and it retains several fascinating personal items; two books that she wrote, personal letters to Thomas Seymour, one demonstrating her contempt for his brother Edward, Duke of Somerset and Protector to Edward VI, who she declares she would have bitten had he been close enough after one altercation! Her privy is also not to be missed. Words can barely do it justice!
When the English Civil War ravaged so many fortifications across the land, Sudeley did not escape. The then owner, George, Lord Chandos, was a staunch royalist when confrontation erupted in 1642. In 1643, King Charles stayed briefly at Sudeley following the failed siege of Gloucester. In 1644 the Castle itself came under siege. When the garrison refused to surrender, canon pummelled the walls until someone inside opened the doors against orders. The castle was then slighted once the Parliamentarian side had won.
The gardens provide a beautiful stroll around Sudeley’s grounds, encompassing herb gardens with explanations of the medicinal benefits of the various plants, the secret walled garden and the Pheasantry. It is easy to lose track of time, absorbed by the amazing setting and surroundings.
After a time as a romantic ruin, attracting royal visitors and sightseers alike, as well as the discovery of Katherine Parr’s lead coffin in a shallow grave, the property was bought by the wealthy Worcester glove makers John and William Dent in the mid 19th century. Through the Victorian age, Sudeley underwent something of a re-birth as the Dents poured their substantial fortune into resurrecting Sudeley Castle as a family home. The Dent brothers died within a year of each other with no sons, so Sudeley passed to their nephew, whose wife, Emma Dent was passionate and committed her life to the Castle. One of Emma’s nephews then inherited Sudeley and it is this family who still call the Castle home today. Their story, from the tragedies of World War I to today, are now a part of the rich history that can be indulged in at Sudeley, and that connection between past and present adds to the charm that wraps the visitor in the experience of this magnificent place. There is a very real sense that the tapestry of Sudeley’s history is still being woven.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope that you will consider adding Sudeley to your “To See List” if you haven’t already been.
I like King Edward IV. I think most people do. He held onto his throne in no small part because he was an intensely likeable man. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. In many ways, he was a successful king. Edward was keen on trade, particularly with Burgundy, later with the Hanseatic League and France, and patronised Caxton’s printing press as soon as it arrived in England. His military record was the envy of the time, having never been defeated on the field of battle.
However, some of Edward’s political decisions seem a little short sighted and this lack of forethought was to store up a whole bag of snakes that were unleashed on his untimely death. During his lifetime, Edward’s affability seems to have kept the drawstring tightly shut, but on his death, no man seems to have been able to prevent them from spilling forth to poison all of his good work.
Whilst examining some of the political decisions that were to create problems later, it is worth bearing in mind whether they perhaps occurred from a lack of forethought, the absence of the will to deal more fully with certain matters or from a genuine believe that the underlying issues were solved by his solutions. Edward lacked the benefit of hindsight and was never to see what happened in the summer of 1483.
King since 1461, in 1464 Edward famously married Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian widow with two sons, in secret whilst the Earl of Warwick was negotiating a French marriage. Whether Edward fell genuinely in love with Elizabeth or was tricked somehow into validating the union is of little consequence. The fact remains that he not only sacrificed any potential gain or alliance his marriage could have brought (unromantic, I know, but a genuine consideration for a king at this time), but he also deeply embarrassed his most powerful subject. A rift slowly opened that Edward did nothing to heal until Warwick eventually rebelled in 1469. Even if Edward could not have been expected to foresee this trouble, he surely had a long time to deal with the mounting tension, yet chose not to.
The Parliament of 1472 was a long, protracted affair. Writs were issued summoning members to attend on 6th October 1472 and the Parliament sat for forty four weeks in total over a period of two and half years. This record session was not to be broken until the Reformation Parliament. Edward had lost his grasp on the crown for six months between October 1470 and April 1471 and there were a lot of loose ends that needed to be addressed.
When Warwick had been killed at Barnet in 1471, he had been in control of the huge Neville patrimony. His widow, Anne, had also brought her husband the vast Beauchamp and Despenser inheritances. Here began Edward’s problems, and his scruffy solutions. His two brothers, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester had been at odds over the inheritance of their wives, the Neville sisters, since Edward had regained power. Most of the vast tracts of Neville land in the north had already been vested in Gloucester and it is clear the Edward intended it to stay there. Throughout the bitter dispute between the king’s brothers over the inheritance the one thing upon which they both agreed was their desire to hold the lands in right of their wives rather than by royal grant.
The advantage of this to George and Richard was clear. If they held their new lands and titles by right of inheritance the king could not legally take them away. If they were held by royal grant, breaking the line of inheritance, they were held at the king’s leisure and could be removed in a fickle moment, as we will see later. Their foresight is perhaps in contrast to their brother’s lack thereof. It is telling that both brothers, however vehemently they argued, could agree that they did not wish to hold power at their brother’s leisure, clearly staking a claim for some sort of independence. This thin slither of agreement was seized upon by Edward, but presented its own problems.
If Edward were to grasp this wisp of accord between his brothers, he could not attaint Warwick, since his lands and titles would be forfeit if he did. If Warwick was to escape this posthumous punishment, so too must his followers, meaning that none could be attainted for their part in the rebellion, including Warwick’s brother John Neville, Marquis of Montagu, who had also perished at Barnet. John was, himself, a tutorial from which Edward should perhaps have learned. The Percy Earl of Northumberland had been attainted after his death at Towton in 1461 and in an effort to bolster Yorkist support the earldom and lands had been granted to John Neville in 1464. The rivalry between the Nevilles and the Percys was deeply ingrained and frequently violent, so the Nevilles must have been delighted to have obtained the upper hand under Yorkist rule. Henry Percy, now head of the family, quietly pleaded his case to Edward and in 1470, the king decided to rehabilitate this family, who still held great sway in the far north. He chose to do so by depriving John Neville of his earldom and returning it to the Percy clan. John was compensated by being created Marquis of Montagu, theoretically a superior title to an earldom, but in reality it came with insufficient lands and income to support him. It was undoubtedly this affront before an old rival and the inconvenience brought by finding himself suddenly underprivileged that led John to support his brother’s rebellion in 1470 and drive out King Edward.
Now, Edward decided to acquiesce to his brothers’ demands, but it was still not so simple. The Neville inheritance was tied to the male line of the family, so the rightful heir was not, in fact, Isabel or Anne Neville, the Duchesses of Clarence and Gloucester respectively, but their cousin George Neville, son of the aforementioned John. This presented another problem in which Edward entangled himself awkwardly.
His eventual solution was as unsatisfactory as it was inequitable. The dowager Countess of Warwick was disinherited, effectively treated as though she were legally dead, so that her daughters might acquire her lands. Edward then proceeded to deprive George Neville of his rightful inheritance, compensating him with the title Duke of Bedford. For his protection, which it was clearly felt that he might be in need of, Edward added a condition at the very end of the grants made to his brothers. Richard was granted his substantial Neville inheritance by a bill dated 23rd February 1473 and George’s more modest estates in the Midlands and Marches were settled in a bill dated the following day, 24th February. Both contained an identical final sentence which read thus:
“Also it is ordained by the said authority that if the said male issue begotten or coming of the body of the said John Neville, knight, die without male issue coming of their bodies while the said duke is alive, that the said duke shall then have and enjoy all the things stated for term of his life.”
Edward effectively granted his brothers’ wish to inherit on behalf of their wives, but specified that should the male line of the body of John Neville, late Marquis of Montagu, become extinct, the titles would revert to a life interest only. This provision seems to be Edward sneaking in a curtailment of his brothers’ titles to counteract their insistence on inheriting rather than receiving a grant, but it made their power base fragile and placed their fortunes upon a whim of fate. Edward may have thought that he was being clever, but this single sentence was to have a devastating effect in 1483.
A few years after this settlement, Edward felt in control enough at home to turn his attentions abroad. Much of 1474 was spent planning the invasion of France, to press Edward’s claim to that throne in a renewal of the long dormant Hundred Years War. In 1475 a force reputed to be the largest ever to leave the English shore departed for Calais. On arrival, Edward’s powerful but enigmatic ally Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy failed to meet the English king having inexplicably decided to march his army in the opposite direction to press some more trifling claim. Edward was left high and dry. In spite of the size of his force he had been relying on Duke Charles’s army to ensure that a prolonged campaign on foreign soil was more feasible. Without him, Edward was in something of a bind.
Ever sharp to an opportunity, the Spider King, Louis XI, seized the chance to make Edward an offer the French King knew his English counterpart would struggle to turn down. The terms of the Treaty of Picquigny, signed on 29th August 1475, gave Edward 75,000 gold crowns immediately to withdraw from France along with an annual pension of 50,000 gold crowns. Margaret of Anjou, widow of King Henry VI, was ransomed back to France for a further 50,000 gold crowns and an agreement was reached to marry the French heir, the Dauphin, to Edward’s oldest daughter Elizabeth of York.
This expensive peace was viewed as somewhat dishonourable in some quarters in France, but the ten year truce that accompanied the Treaty allowed trade to flourish again between the two nations. The view in France was of little concern to the now considerably wealthier Edward. The merchant middle class enjoyed the increased trade too. However, many in England also saw only dishonour in the capitulation of the English army. Most prominent amongst them was the king’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard refused to attend the negotiations and was not present at the signing of the Treaty in protest at what he saw as a dishonourable surrender. Richard argued, possibly with some validity, that the king had a force strong enough to win at least one battle against the French while they still mustered their full strength. Then, Richard protested, the king could negotiate the same peace, if he so desired, from a position of greater strength and return home having won the field on French soil and forced them to negotiate possibly an even better settlement. Richard was in the minority on the council, each of whom were to receive a hefty pension from France too. Richard refused his, though he was later to meet with Louis XI and accept gifts from him.
The lack of forethought that I see within this episode relates to Edward’s reputation from that point onwards. In his entire life, Edward had never been defeated on the field of battle. This was an enviable reputation during the Wars of the Roses and may well have kept some potential threats to his rule at bay. On each occasion that Edward had taken the field it had been through necessity, to press his claim to the throne or to defend his crown. Now, presented with the option of stepping back from a confrontation, he backed down. He claimed the French pension was a tribute and a victory, but it exposed for all to see the weakness that Louis XI had perceived. This legendary and feared battle leader, the 6′ 4″, athletic mountain of a man was lost. Edward had the chance to reinforce and magnify this reputation in France but passed it up for money. Of course, he might have lost any battle and risked both his reputation and the money! From that point on though, few could have eyed England and Edward as a real threat. As long as the king wasn’t backed into a corner, he wouldn’t fight. This persisted into the 1480’s when he dallied in leading a campaign against Scottish aggression until he was forced to put the operation into the hands of Richard, who executed it swiftly and effectively. Okay, this doesn’t appear to have cost Edward in the long term, but he had sacrificed a good deal all the same. He had set out to conquer France and been paid off.
In 1478, Edward reversed his previous decision in regard of George Neville, son of John Neville, late Marquis of Montagu. George had been created Duke of Bedford by the king in compensation for the loss of his inheritance, as the Parliament Rolls of January 1478 state, “for the great zeal and love he [Edward] bore to John Neville“. Edward had also intended, for reasons of the same “great love his said highness bore to the said John Neville“, to “have given the said George adequate livelihood to support the same dignity“. For unspecified reasons, George had never received his “adequate livelihood” and this we are assured, “often causes resort to great extortion, corruption and maintenance, to the great trouble of all the areas where such a figure happens to live“. So, outrageously painted as being in the best interests of both the duke himself and all who lived near him, “all the dignities given to the said George or to the said John Neville, his father, shall henceforth be void and of no effect“, so that “George and his heirs shall not be dukes or marquesses, earls or barons“.
Once more, this episode appears to be of little importance, but it surely reinforced the view that Edward was not a man of his word when it suited him. The Neville family had been politically neutralised. George held a great title, but no power or income to maintain himself there. He had no power base, since the bulk of the Neville affinity now looked to Richard, Duke of Gloucester as its head. Edward had gone to France to conquer a bitter rival and been paid off to leave. He had compensated George Neville for a travesty of inheritance law tinkering, never delivered any compensation except in name, and then removed it when it suited him to do so. He was king, so he could do such things if he wished, but that does not make it well advised.
The culmination of much of this trouble came in April 1483 when Edward died, aged 40. Supposedly, Edward made a deathbed plea to his Woodville relatives by marriage and his closest, probably his best friend in every sense, William, Lord Hastings to cease their feuding for the benefit of his son. That Edward knew of this bitter rivalry and had failed to bring the opposing sides to heel speaks too of a lack of foresight. The bag of snakes that he had held tightly shut fell opened as his life slipped through his fingers. Perhaps finally seeing the trouble that lay ahead, Edward altered his will to name his brother Richard as Protector of the Realm. Richard had been unswervingly loyal to Edward for his entire life, ruling the north for the king for over a decade with great success. Yet even this appointment, of an apparently worthy man, lacked real merit.
Richard had been in the north for years. He lived there, ruled there and stayed there. He visited London only infrequently and so was not familiar with the court in the way that many in London at the time were. Edward had placed his eldest son and heir in the care of the Woodvilles at Ludlow, his household there lead by his uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. The sudden change of guardianship, the instantaneous shifting of the custody of both the king and political power in the realm was seismic. The Woodvilles lost their only link to authority. They were unpopular and lacked a real power base in their own right. Hastings similarly had held the ear of the king for two decades and was about to be forced to see another man wield that influence over the young king.
If Edward foresaw trouble, he only made it worse by his solution. He turned two sides into three, his intractable younger brother probably never likely to beg peace from either the Woodvilles or the man reputed to be Edward’s erstwhile partner in vice Lord Hastings. He left his brother with a job he himself had been incapable of resolving. Edward might have been better served to have picked one side and given them all of the power at the expense of the other. Having nailed his colours, and his son’s future, to the Woodville mast for years, perhaps he would have resolved the matter better by reinforcing that and leaving Hastings to chose either to like it or lump it.
Another of Edward’s decisions was to pour fuel onto the kindling political fires breaking out in London. On 4th May 1483, less than a month after King Edward IV passed away, George Neville died, bereft of title, lands and now life aged just 22. He left no children, let alone a male heir to continue the line of John Neville. Richard’s interests in vast swathes of his lands instantly reverted to a life interest only, significantly weakening his position and denying his son most of his inheritance. Perhaps Edward had intended to resolve this obviously unsatisfactory settlement, just as he had intended to properly endow George, but he did neither. Had George lived and been properly invested, perhaps he would have been loyal to Edward and his son and retained enough control over the Neville affinity to prevent Richard seizing such complete authority, and eventually the crown itself, in the summer of 1483. As it was, Richard became devastatingly weakened at a time when he was going to need all of his strength if he was to do the job his brother had intended for him of curbing the squabbling Woodvilles and Lord Hastings. Perhaps this contributed to Richard’s decision to execute both Rivers and Hastings. Maybe the lack of a prospect of correcting the title for as long as the new king remained under Woodville influence drove Richard to seek a new solution.
As I said at the outset, I like King Edward IV. I still do, but I think perhaps I like him in the way I like Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. He’s loveable, but a bit of a rogue; likeable, but always on the make; he could sell ice to the Eskimos, but you trust his word at your peril. And it’s always next year that he’ll be a millionaire. There’s always next year to worry about tackling that. Except that one year, there wasn’t.
Having considered in a previous post what it might mean if King Richard III had killed his nephews, it is worth considering what he actually stood to gain from committing the deed. Many will insist that clearing a path to the throne was motive enough, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
The document by which Richard’s title was presented, later to be accepted by Parliament, was Titulus Regius. The Parliament Rolls of January 1484 recall that the document was presented to Richard “on behalf and in the name of the three estates of this realm of England, that is, the lords spiritual and temporal and the commons”. However, the Rolls note that as Parliament was not officially in session at the time “various doubts, questions and ambiguities are said to have been prompted and engendered in the minds of various people” as to the legitimacy of the document. To correct this, the document was read before Parliament and enrolled as an Act of Parliament to remove this confusion. In spite of the best efforts of Henry VII to have all copies of the documents destroyed, it has remained for us to examine.
The petition refers to the misrule of England of late, particularly since “the ungracious feigned marriage, as all England has reason to say”, between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, “lately and for many years previously calling herself queen of England”. The bill details Edward IV’s supposed pre-contract of marriage to Eleanor Butler, a daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, stating “If all that is true, as in very truth it is, it clearly appears and follows that during his life the said King Edward and the said Elizabeth lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery, contrary to the law of God and of his church”, adding also that “it clearly appears and follows that all the issue and children of the said King Edward are bastards, and unable to inherit or claim anything by inheritance, by the law and custom of England”. The first important matter of note here is the reference to “all the issue and children”. This was not aimed specifically at the title of Edward V or his brother, but included his sisters as well as any other known bastards of Edward IV.
The issue of the young Edward, Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence, and his sister Margaret was dealt with by the recollection that “by the three estates of this realm assembled in a parliament held at Westminster in the seventeenth year of the reign of the said King Edward IV , he then being in possession of the crown and royal estate, by an act made in the same parliament, George, duke of Clarence, brother to the said King Edward, now dead, was convicted and attainted of high treason”. The effect of George’s attainder was that “all the issue of the said George was and is disabled and barred from all right and claim to the crown and royal dignity of this realm”.
The effect of all this, some will maintain to Richard’s delight, was that “there is no other person living, except you, who by right may claim the said crown and royal dignity by way of inheritance”. The Parliament Rolls then record that “This bill was conveyed to the commons of the realm of England being in the said parliament; to which bill the same commons gave their assent in these words: A cest bille les comenz sount assentuz. (To this bill the commons are agreed.)”
Richard was king and his title was indisputable. Or was it? This is the real crux of the issue regarding the Princes in the Tower. If Richard’s title was beyond challenge, the boys posed little threat. Yes, a few may risk the treachery of treason, but the threat of the fate that awaited failure should put off most. When Henry Tudor won the crown at Bosworth, he dated his rule from the day before the battle to allow those who fought for Richard to be convicted of treason. A travesty of justice, but an effective way of dealing with their threat. Henry knew what Richard must have also known; that which had been won could be lost; that which had been handed to them could as easily be snatched away and given to another. Henry’s title was far from incontrovertible and so was Richard’s. As Parliament had granted him his title, so it could be granted to another, or back to Edward V. The last twenty years had demonstrated as much clearly.
So, in spite of being declared illegitimate, it is entirely conceivable that the Princes in the Tower were viewed as a potential threat to Richard’s rule. There were several possible solutions to this problem, only one of which, the most extreme, was to have them murdered. What would Richard actually gain from doing away with a 12 year old boy and his 9 year old brother? The usual answer is the easy one. Removing the boys would eliminate the threat of a revival of the cause of Edward V. But that is not the whole picture.
Edward had never been crowned, though he still holds the title King Edward V. He was not a king anointed by God as Henry VI had been when he was displaced. There was familial loyalty, but by recognising him as a bastard in Parliament, the lord spiritual and temporal and the commons renounced that loyalty. Officially at least. There is also another consideration.
Salic Law was the system in France that prevented inheritance by the female line of any family. It was a clear and established legal principle. No such law existed in England. It is true that primogeniture traditionally meant that the oldest male inherited, but there was nothing to prevent female inheritance. Plenty of titles were held at this time by well known lords jure uxoris – by right of his wife. The famous Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker, only held that earldom by right of his wife Anne de Beauchamp. Anne’s brother Henry died with only one daughter, another Anne. When she died childless, the title passed to his sister Anne as 16th Countess. Warwick’s title was not truly his.
It can also be acknowledged that there was a history in England of shying away from female rule. Matilda had suffered from the perception that women should not rule men and more recently Margaret of Anjou’s attempts to secure power for herself during her husband’s incapacity had pushed men into the arms of Richard, Duke of York. In contrast to this, Henry Tudor was to claim the throne and have himself crowned King Henry VII before he married Elizabeth of York precisely because he knew her title to the throne was better than his and he did not want to restore the House of York to act as a consort to the Queen. He wanted the crown for himself.
So, the real question is this; were the other royal children really any less of a threat than Edward V and Richard, Duke of York? The answer is plain. How did Henry VII recruit disaffected Edwardian Yorkist support? By promising to marry Elizabeth of York, the oldest daughter of King Edward IV. It was the promise of a union with the House of York that bought Henry his throne because men clearly identified Elizabeth as the rightful heir in her brothers’ absence. That was precisely the reason Henry was careful to have himself crowned in his own right, not that of his intended wife. Parliament eventually petitioned Henry to honour his pledge and he was forced to accept that there was no way to maintain his position without doing so. Whether he liked it or not, because he would not claim the crown by right of conquest, he was effectively king jure uxoris.
This situation did not suddenly surface just before Bosworth, either. On Christmas Day 1483, Henry Tudor swore an oath at Rennes Cathedral to marry Elizabeth in return for the support of those men gathered around him in seeking the throne. Elizabeth was now a very real threat in the way that her brother might have been. If Richard had ordered the murders of the two boys just a few months earlier, the natural course of action now was to finish the job and do away with Edward IV’s daughters too, robbing Tudor of the allegiance of those who had made oaths to him by removing the possibility of a union. If Richard did not care about two boys, why care about five girls languishing in sanctuary?
Yet this did not happen. In March 1484, less than three months after Henry Tudor’s oath, Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters emerged from sanctuary and came to Richard’s court as part of his family. He had sworn a public oath to protect them and to find them suitable marriages. This episode is a crucial part of the story but remains as elusive as so many others. It is often asked how Elizabeth Woodville could possibly have handed her daughters into the care of a man who had murdered her sons. Would his promise really be enough if she believed he had done away with her sons? Of course, it is also argued that Richard may well have shown her proof either that he was not responsible for the boys’ death or even that they weren’t dead at all. There is a Tyrell family story that Sir James Tyrell hosted Elizabeth and her daughters at his family home at Gipping Hall when she met her sons on frequent visits arranged by Richard. It has been argued that Elizabeth had little option but to come out of an indefinite sanctuary, but I would have thought remaining there was preferable to risking the lives of her remaining children, particularly if Henry Tudor was intending to rescue them.
Perhaps we should also be asking the opposite question. If Richard had murdered his nephews, the greatest, most immediate threat to his rule was now Henry Tudor, who had attempted one invasion already and would surely try again soon. He was drawing support to him based upon his promise to marry Elizabeth, a woman who was now in Richard’s hands. If he had murdered her brothers, surely he would have no qualms about killing her and her sisters now. He had promised not to, but if he was a murdering monster, what would that promise really be worth, especially against the opportunity to secure his position further? Killing Elizabeth would not be enough – Tudor could simply transfer his oath to Cecily. The others were too young, but in time they would become the same threat. Why not simply dispose of the whole lot right away? That would be the natural response if Richard were an evil schemer.
But the girls lived. Richard fulfilled his promise, at least until his death the following year. Perhaps he would have survived longer had he been the brutal murderer many cannot see past. Mind you, that would still not be enough.
George, Duke of Clarence had a son, Edward, Earl of Warwick and a daughter, Margaret. In the absence of other Yorkist possibilities, they may have become a threat. The Edwardians who were drifting away from Richard may have focussed on Edward as the heir of York in spite of his father’s treason. Margaret might even have become a focus for Tudor if Edward IV’s daughters were all gone. No. They would have to go too. Yet it was Henry VII who was to judicially murder Edward, Earl of Warwick and it was Henry VIII who finally succumbed to paranoia and executed Margaret when she was an elderly lady of 67.
The early Tudors would also feel the threat from Richard’s other nephews, the de la Pole sons of his sister Elizabeth. They carried the cause of the White Rose into the reign of Henry VIII, so were legitimate threats, but John was killed at the Battle of Stoke in 1486, Edmund was imprisoned by Henry VII, handed over on the promise that he would not be executed, and was beheaded in 1513 by Henry VIII, who did not feel his father’s promise bound him. Richard was killed at the Battle of Pavia in Italy, news that Henry VIII enthusiastically celebrated, having been unable to catch him, and William was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1501 and remained there until his death 37 years later. He remains the longest serving prisoner in the history of the Tower.
So, Richard did not kill any of these people. We know this for a fact, in spite of the often potential and even very real threat that they posed to him. Why, then, is it so easy to believe that he murdered the Princes in the Tower? Two out of at least nine, if not more, threats? Why do far less than half a job if securing the throne is your only concern?
The other suspects? Well, these tend to all orbit the cause of Henry Tudor. If they were murdered in 1483, it is possible that it was part of a plot to subvert Richard’s rule by casting the shadow of guilt over him.
Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham was a cousin to Richard and had helped to propel him to the throne. In spite of this, and the rewards that followed, Buckingham apparently wrote to Henry Tudor in exile imploring him to invade to free the sons of Edward IV, quickly altering the purpose of the invasion to seeing Tudor crowned king because there were rumours that the boys were dead. Did Buckingham start these rumours in spite of knowing them to be false? Did Buckingham, with all of his power and influence, arrange the boy’s death and invite an invasion to allow Richard and Tudor to destroy each other, clearing his own path to the throne? His blood was royal and he possessed a claim stronger than Tudor’s. The Stafford line was descended from the daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, son of Edward III. Buckingham’s mother was Margaret Beaufort, daughter of Edmund, Duke of Somerset, and so a cousin of Henry Tudor’s mother. The rebellion’s failure cost him his life and cast a long shadow over his son, who was to fall foul of Henry VIII’s early suspicious nature.
Margaret Beaufort, Tudor’s mother, was married to Thomas, Lord Stanley who was Richard’s Lord High Constable after Buckingham’s fall. This role effectively gave Stanley the keys to the Tower. Was the prospect of seeing a grateful step son on the throne enough to drive the murder of two young boys? It was certainly enough to betray his king on the field of battle at Bosworth, though this seems a risky move for a man famed for walking the fine line of self serving loyalty. Perhaps his wife was more driven and convinced him, or had the deed done herself. She was a staunch Lancastrian who had seen Henry VI killed, his son lost in battle to the Yorkists, her own family, particularly anyone brave enough to bear the title Duke of Somerset, decimated by the bitter Wars of the Roses. Was this revenge, then? She had opportunity and motive, as did Stanley and Buckingham. And, lest we forget, Richard himself.
Unless, as I continually return to, they did not die at all. Elizabeth Woodville may have emerged from sanctuary on the promise of contact with her sons, safely secreted in Richard’s old stomping grounds in the north among men he knew he could trust. Away from court, brought up as his illegitimate nephews. Or perhaps they were quietly installed at the Burgundian court of their aunt, Richard’s sister Margaret, travelling to Gipping Hall to visit their mother under the trusted supervision of Sir James Tyrell.
The frustrating thing is that we may never know the truth, but the possibilities beyond Richard killing two young boys, members of his own family, must bear thinking about, if only so that we consider the whole realm of potential fates. If your final assessment is still that Richard was still the most likely suspect to have had the boys murdered, then I am happy for you to reach that conclusion. He probably is the most reasonable suspect, but too much still does not make sense.