Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Princes in the Tower - A Gruesome 1483 Royal Mystery: Solved

As a historian and in my earlier years, a particlarly keen Royal historian to boot, there there were a handful of dates that intrigued me because after all, we all like a good mystery.

What happened to King Edward II in 1327? What happened in 1399 to King Richard II? To what end came of King Henry VI in 1471? How was it that King Charles I met such a gruesome end in 1649?

They all of course run in a similar vein - the unglorious deaths of once glorious monarchs.

The Princes in the Tower
But there's one mystery that as a child, always haunted me. That of the Princes in the Tower in 1483. The fact that they were children themselves probably had a lot to do with it but also of course is the fact that history down through the 500+ years since has thrown up a multitude of differing explanations as to what happened.

Did they in fact survive or were they indeed killed? If the latter, when exactly did they die? How did they die and at whose hand was it at which they perished?

These were answers that I never expected to have a clear answer too and yet, all that has changed.

One of my seasonal reads has been Alison Weir's authoratitive dealings and detailed research on the matter and it has set out as reasonably as can be expected, in the cold light of day, the facts as they are known from the Chroniclers of the time. She deals with all of the various claims and counter-claims in a methodical and balanced manner, which is how I like it.

The Answer to the Mystery
So what happened to the boy King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, the Duke of York?

Well, they were indeed murdered, not surprising really but there you have it. Talk of the younger Richard having escaped are not borne out by the facts as they are known. Indeed, the finding of the bones of two young boys in the Tower in 1674 is generally regarded as being those of the two Royal brothers. An exhumation and examination of the bones in 1933 further suggested as soundly as could be perceived at that time, that this was the case.

But who did it? Well, for any real enthusiast, I would commend Alison Weir's insightful book to you as she clearly rules out the revisionists claims of it being either Henry, the Duke of Buckingham or indeed King Henry VII as the culprits.

Yes, the traditionalists were boringly right all along - it was wicked old Uncle Dick what done it.

As Alison Weir states, the evidence and the motive is clearly there but what she does that I had never seen before is set down the details of the deaths.

The boys in the Tower were never seen in public after Richard's coronation on July 6th. But from the evidence available, Alison King pinpoints the date of death as at the dead of night on the 3rd/4th September. She has enough evidence on which to base this claim. It was Sir Thomas More, writing forty years later, who provides the only clear and unambiguous account of the young Prince's fate. He had access to numerous sources who were alive at the time and who participated in public affairs during Richard III's reign and his comments stand up to the sources of the time who had not seen More's account themselves.

He relates to us, as Alison Weir suggests, that the order was given by Richard, whilst progressing towards Gloucester following his coronation, to one John Green, to carry a letter to Sir Robert Brackenbury, the then Constable of the Tower, to kill his nephews, Brackenbury however, refused to carry out the deed. Richard then approached a close confidant, Sir James Tyrrell to do the deed and as he sought advancements, was receptive to the request.

Richard sent Tyrrell to the Tower with an order that the keys be surrendered to him for one night by Brackenbury. Only on the orders of the King would the Constable have given up the keys to the Tower having done so, More further tells us that Tyrrell employed two men to carry out the murder - Miles Forest and John Dighton. With Tyrrell standing outside the bedchamber to guard, Forest and Dighton suffocated the boy Princes by smothering and stifling their air supply with the feather bed and pillows.

Thomas More reported that their bodies were then buried 'at the stair foot meetly deep in the ground, under a great heap of stones'. He believed that the bodies were later moved but the findings of 1674 sugested that he was right in the first instance all along.

The Court of Law Vs the Court of History
Of course, the limited evidence available would likely not stand-up in a modern day court. But on the evidence that is available as Alison Weir disects it, the court of history looks damningly on Richard and for good reason.

What would lend even extra weight to the explanation given above would be a new examination of the bodies as medical advances since 1933 could probably ascertain the sex and age of the bodies.

Until then, we will know no more than we know now.

But what I know now as opposed to the little that I knew before is enough for me to sumise categorically in my own head, the how, the when and the why of this most Royal of murder mysteries.

It was indeed Richard III what done it.

1 comment:

  1. I have been trying to find contact details for Kenneth Hillier of the Richard III Society.

    He was my history teacher for A Level History.

    Would appear he may be at the Ashby de la Zouch Museum.

    Would suggest you contact him for his advice as your blog article is not a definitive answer as I was expecting as you were quoting the work of Alison Weir.

    Mind you, I have always thought Richard III did it.

    Please try and contact Ken Hillier...