Princes in the Tower

   The term “Princes in the Tower” refers to the sons of EDWARD IV and their mysterious disappearance while lodged in the TOWER OF LONDON in 1483. Because their guardian at the time, their uncle RICHARD III, seized the throne of his eldest nephew, five centuries of debate have swirled around the question of whether or not Richard was responsible for the boys’ presumed murder. The princes’ disappearance, by creating an alliance of dissident Yorkists and former Lancastrians to support the claim to the throne of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond (see Henry VII, King of England), initiated the destruction of the house of YORK and the last phase of the WARS OF THE ROSES. The only detailed written account of the murders of EDWARD V and his younger brother Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, is contained in Sir Thomas More’s HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III, which was written about 1513. More claimed that his information was based on a confession to the crime given in 1502 by Sir James TYRELL, a former servant of Richard III then facing execution for treason. Because this confession has never been found, it has been dismissed by some writers as an invention of More’s. According to More, Richard, after his coronation on 6 July, sent a trusted servant named John Green to Sir Robert BRACKENBURY, constable of the Tower, with a written order to put the princes to death in any manner Brackenbury chose to employ. Brackenbury refused, saying that he would never do such a thing even if he died for his disobedience. Dejected, Richard wondered aloud to an unnamed servant whether he could trust anyone to carry out his wishes. The servant replied that there was one who waited without the chamber for whom “the thing were right hard that he would refuse” the king (More, p. 86). This ambitious servant was Tyrell, whom Richard then ordered to arrange the princes’ deaths.To assist Tyrell, Richard withdrew all the princes’ familiar servants from the Tower and had the boys placed in the keeping of a man “called Black Will or Will Slaughter” (p. 87). To carry out the actual murder, Tyrell recruited Miles Forest, “a fellow fleshed in murder before time” and one of the four persons then responsible (presumably with Slaughter) for the boys’ keeping in the Tower, and John Dighton, “a big, broad, square, strong knave” who was Tyrell’s horsekeeper (p. 88). About midnight, while the princes were sleeping, Forest and Dighton stole into their chamber, “bewrapped . . . and entangled them” in their bedclothes, and so smothered them to death. The murderers then laid the bodies naked on the bed and fetched Tyrell to view them before burying the princes at the foot of a Tower stair “under a great heap of stones” (p. 88). Richard, upon being informed of the murders by Tyrell, was well pleased, but ordered that the bodies be reinterred in a more fitting manner, whereupon a priest of Brackenbury’s secretly reburied them in a location unknown to More.
   Whether a literary creation of More’s based on tales current during his youth or an accurate account of the murder of the princes, More’s story became the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s RICHARD III and was probably also known to More’s contemporary Polydore Vergil, whose ANGLICA HISTORIA ascribes the murders to an unwilling Tyrell, but otherwise gives no details. Over the centuries, four main theories (among many other lesser ones) have been devised to explain the disappearance of the princes. The most likely and most accepted is that Richard III, whether in the manner described by More or otherwise, was responsible for the boys’ deaths. However, Richard’s many defenders, who have grown steadily in number since the seventeenth century, have made plausible cases that the princes were killed by Henry STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham, who as Richard’s chief ally had access to the Tower in 1483; by Henry VII, whose ability to hold the Crown would have been considerably weakened had he found the boys alive when he took power in 1485; or by disease, the plague or something else the princes may have contracted in the Tower during their confinement. Because none of these theories can now be definitively proved or eliminated, the debate over the fate of the princes and the guilt or innocence of Richard III remains the most passionately argued in English history.
   See also Bones of 1674
   Further Reading: Fields, Bertram, Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes (New York: Regan Books, 1998); Jenkins, Elizabeth, The Princes in the Tower (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1978); More, Sir Thomas, The History of King Richard III, edited by Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1976); Pollard, A. J., Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991);Weir, Alison, The Princes in the Tower (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992);Williamson, Audrey, The Mystery of the Princes (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1986); the text of More’s History of King Richard III is also available on the Richard III Society Web site at

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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