Why Would Richard III Do It?

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.

King Edward IV
King 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 [1478], 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.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (jure uxoris)
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (jure uxoris)

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.

Lady Margaret Beaufort
Lady Margaret Beaufort

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.

He doesn’t seem the type of man to do half a job.

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.


Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.


The Richard III Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube


Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.

10 thoughts on “Why Would Richard III Do It?

  1. I believe that the boys left the Tower in September ’83 en route to Burgundy, in the charge of Sir James Tyrell. Edward died on the voyage or shortly thereafter and Richard survived to reappear as the Tudor-named Perkin Warbeck. Henry VII tried to discover the story (his suspicions) through the persecution of Tyrell (and ultimate murder at the block), but failed to do so. I also believe that the rumours of the death of the boys was invented by the triumvirate of Morton, Beaufort & Buckingham as a preliminary to their insurrection the next month. I can’t vote in the poll because I can’t see how this fits with the choices presented. Thank you so much for your post, from Canada!

  2. My vote is for John DIGHTON. I believe he did “the dirty deed”. As for who directed DIGHTON’s actions, James Tyrell had to have known if not directly ordered the murders.

    1. Hi Tom. What do you base your certainty on? Tyrell never featured in the Princes’ fate until after his execution, when Henry VII suggested to some ambassadors that he might blame Tyrell posthumously. Thomas More only reported the rumour of the Tyrell story. It wasn’t until Shakespeare that it became a concrete accusation.

  3. I voted Margaret Beaufort but I couldn’t decide between her and Buckingham IF the boys were killed at all. I couldn’t vote ‘no-one they lived happily ever after’ because they didn’t… certainly Perkin Warbeck did not and I am more than half way to believing he WAS Richard of Shrewsbury. I have no idea what happened to Edward V. PW was supposedly living in Portugal with Brampton until he came to England. Tyrell WAS entrusted with a secret mission at about the time of the boy’s disappearance. Now there is some thought that Richard of Eastwell, the bricklayer might have been one of the boys.Perhaps I should have voted ‘no-one…..’ because I don’t think they WERE killed …… but then again…….. Margaret would stop at nothing I don’t think?

  4. I’m with Dianne, Margaret had motive, the desperate desire to have her son crowned King, She would have had the contacts through her 3rd husband. Never been convinced of Richard’s guilt, he had it all to lose if the boys suddenly died.

  5. In my opinion Richard, Duke of Gloucester, knew he was going to take the throne before he intercepted Edward V on the way from Ludlow to London. When he met Edward he immediately arrested Lord River’s, Grey and Vaughn and had them incarcerated until he had lulled Hastings into a false sense of security.
    Once Richard murdered Edward’s main supporter Hastings at the Tower he was then free to have Rivers, Grey and Vaughn murdered.
    Surprisingly Edward V and Richard, Duke of York went missing. Who had access to them, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
    Margaret Beaufort was under house arrest in Lancashire, Henry Tudor was in Brittany trying to avoid Richard III’s assassins. The other suspect Buckingham was the man who aided Richard in murdering Hastings.
    I think Richard’s was a long term strategy and he implemented it well and stole the throne from his nephew.

    As for where Richard’s ruthless streak came from. It was always there. Look at his dealings in the North and how he followed his older brother’s example in murdering rivals.
    He even stole estates from an old lady. So Richard was far from the chivalric saint the R3 society want to paint him.

    Richard had the means, motive but most of all he had the opportunity because he controlled the Tower where the Princes went missing.

    1. I disagree Edward. Richard swore oaths of loyalty to Edward V in York before he left and afterward and made others do the same. If he wanted the throne, I think he would have been in more of a hurry to head south and less concerned with causing others to pledge allegiance to someone he planted to supplant.

      Margaret Beaufort was not under house arrest when the Princes went missing. She was so close to the centre of power that she carried Anne’s train at the coronation, walking in front of a Duchess. She wasn’t placed under house arrest until after her rebellion in he son’s name failed, a rebellion that required at least the story of the Princes’ death in order for it to happen. She therefore had a vested interest in seeing them removed and Richard discredited.

      Until 1483, I don’t know a single rival that Richard murdered. He did bully the Countess of Oxford out of her lands and that was deeply unpleasant, but she was a staunch Lancastrian whose son was in prison indefinitely in Calais. How many on the losing side were treated worse over the years? I would be interested to hear your evidence of his poor behaviour in the north, because there are endless instances of good lordship that benefitted all, harmed none and upheld the equitable rule of law. That is why he was so loved and respected in the north.

      Richard had been appointed Protector precisely because of the bitter feuding between the Woodvilles and Lord Hastings. I’m not sure that it is therefore unnatural of him to remove the new king from the influence of both parties as soon as possible. It is feasible that those four deaths prevented open warfare during which thousands could have died.

      The Richard III Society does not seek to paint Richard as a saint. Some individuals might, but the Society’s aim is to seek a re-examination of Richard’s reputation and promote study of the period.

  6. Margaret Beaufort had Lord Stanley execute the Princes in the Tower. Whether her son, Henry became king or not, she wanted to discredit Richard III and the entire York family.

  7. Thanks, Matthew, for answering Mr Tudor. I get so weary of some people thinking that members, legal and otherwise, of the Richard III Society being termed “crackpots” or “wanting to make love to the head” and similar stupid comments. While I agree there are those who are extreme in devotion, all members are not so into it to the exclusion of any other information, ideas, or truths. Many years ago, in the 1980’s 1990’s, when the Southern California chapter of the R3 society were about 28 or 32 strong and very active, someone did an informal poll, which resulted in almost 1/3 of the present members thinking Richard was guilty of the princes’ demise. I personally do not think he did. He probably should have. They would have been ground zero for many plots, attempted usurpations and manipulations. If he was smart those children lived out their lives in obscurity, either in the low countries or Spain. Unlike Henry Tudor, Richard had many good friends and supporters.

  8. Hi everyone. I just discovered this site, so sorry I’m posting a response so late….

    I agree with the hypothesis that (if the boys died during Richard III’s reign, which is by no means certain), Margaret Beaufort was, if not the chief perpetrator, one of the responsible parties. Since she was actually in England it seems much more plausible that she did it than Henry himself. Richard III seems to have underestimated her consistently (as well as being far too trusting of her husband Lord Stanley!), even when he knew that her son was seeking to overthrow him and usurp his throne. She was a cunning schemer, and she seems to have been the one who got Elizabeth Woodville involved in the autumn 1483 rebellion. If Elizabeth ever believed her sons were dead, Margaret was doubtless the one who convinced her of it, but my guess is that the need for Elizabeth’s support was one of the reasons the plan started out with the (stated) goal of restoring Edward V. Elizabeth seems unlikely to have supported Henry Tudor if she knew or believed that her own sons were still alive. Despite the fact that it’s often called “Buckingham’s rebellion” (personally I think “the October Revolution” would be kind of catchy ), the prime movers of this plot were supporters of Tudor: in particular, Margaret and John Morton, then Bishop of Ely (Henry VII would later reward him by making him Archbishop of Canterbury), another great intriguer who seems to have been the one who convinced Buckingham to get involved. Neither of these people had any particular desire to restore Edward V — besides being Lancastrians, they probably, like many people, were less than enthusiastic about having a boy king who had been raised mainly by the Woodvilles.

    It seems to me that Richard would not have considered the two royal bastards a threat, since people seem on the whole to have accepted the explanation for why they weren’t legitimate (which is all too believable, knowing even what we do today of Edward IV’s character!), and would have been worried mainly about people trying to use them as a focus for rebellion. After the attempt to remove them, I think he would have wanted to move them somewhere safer — either to one of his various manors and castles in the North, in the care of someone he could trust, or abroad, perhaps to his sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, or maybe to some of his family’s friends in Ireland (where the Yorks were extremely popular). Surely he realised at some point that Tudor was a problem he couldn’t just ignore (if he hadn’t figured it out already by then, certainly Tudor’s Christmas vow to marry Elizabeth of York made it clear he was interested in making a grab for the throne) If he was concerned to protect them from Tudor and his supporters he would have particularly good cause to keep them separate This way if one of them were kidnapped, killed, died of natural causes, etc., he would still have the other handy.

    Henry, OTOH, did need to get rid of them if he was going to pull off his plan (or perhaps I should call it his mother’s plan). Henry’s claim to the throne was dubious (whether he even had a legitimate claim depends mainly on whether Henry IV’s exclusion of the Beauforts — “excepta dignate regalis” — was legal, something that, in the event, was never tested in court; even if the Beauforts’ claim to the throne is accepted (and Henry did have the best claim, such as it was, of any of the surviving Beauforts)), and even if Henry decided to break his vow to marry Elizabeth of York, he would have to get Titulus Regius overturned anyway, and that would have the effect of legitimising not only Elizabeth but also her brothers, who would then unquestionably stand in Henry’s way. It is for this reason that I believe Richard III was better off keeping them alive and in his custody: even if his coup worked, Tudor couldn’t be secure on the throne as long as they lived. Henry’s mother and biggest fan would have realised this. I can definitely see her doing the deed: she strikes me as someone who would do whatever it took.

    BTW, happy Richard III’s birthday, everyone!

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