Richard III – Murderer or Martyr?

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The most infamous story that came from the period of English history known as the Wars of the Roses was that of the Princes in the Tower, and their murderous uncle, Richard the Third. Or so we have come to believe.

Richard’s Claim

Edward was born in London in 1470. His brother Richard, Duke of York, was born in 1473 in Shrewsbury. Their parents were Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. Edward IV had come to the throne as a result of the Wars of the Roses and managed to restore a certain amount of stability to the country.

Edward IV died suddenly on 9 April 1483 and his eldest son was proclaimed Edward V at Ludlow. Edward’s uncle, his father’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named as protector. Elizabeth Woodville and her supporters attempted to replace Gloucester with a regency Council, aware of the dislike Gloucester had for them. As the new king, Edward V, travelled towards London, he was met by Gloucester and escorted to the capital, where he was lodged in the Tower of London. In June, Edward was joined by his brother Richard, the Duke of York.

The boys were declared illegitimate because it was alleged that their father was contracted to marry someone else before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.

In July 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was crowned Richard III. The two boys were never seen again. It was widely believed that their uncle had them murdered.

But did he?

The Princes in the Tower

All we can be sure of is that the Princes were seen less and less frequently outside during their imprisonment, until finally, they were never seen again. Their fate was a mystery at the time and has been ever since.

Rumours about the disappearance of the princes and their uncle’s part in it soon began to circulate on the continent, where those who were disaffected by the current regime had taken refuge. However, it was only after Richard’s own death that the accusations became more substantive and they are still popularly believed.

The traditional story – the murder and the skeletons

Tradition has it that that they had been smothered by James Tyrell, Master of the Horse to Richard III, with the help of two men, Miles Forest and John Dighton. The bodies were then buried at the foot of a flight of stairs in the Tower. This story is well known from Shakespeare’s play and from his major source for this story, Thomas More’s ‘The history of Richard III’.

This story seems to be confirmed by the discovery of two small skeletons within the foundations of a staircase in the Tower of London in 1674. In 1678 some bones, said to be the same ones, were interred in an urn in Westminster Abbey as the bones of the princes by order of Charles II. In 1933 they were exhumed and, after examination, were declared to be the bones of two children of the right age and thus assumed to be the bones of the princes. Neither sex nor century of death could be determined, however. With the advance of knowledge and with new techniques available, the conclusions of the 1933 examination are now disputed.

The categorical statements made in the report which followed the examination would not now be made by modern forensic scientists, who would stress the uncertainties in the determination of age, sex, family relationship, date of death and so on. To take just one example, modern forensic techniques show that the ages arrived at for the two skeletons are highly disputable and they may both be younger than they would be if they were the princes.

Furthermore, the age gap between the two children appears to be less than the three years that separate the births of Edward and Richard, the two princes. Assigning a date to the bones could not be done at all in 1933. Using radiocarbon dating, it would now be possible to at least assign a century to them, and indeed probably come as close as a date with a margin of error of plus or minus about 15 years. This would at least enable us to know whether we were talking about late medieval bones or Roman bones, for example. It is likely that in the future even more accurate dates will be possible.

It is also worth noting that these skeletons are not the only pair to have been discovered in the Tower, and that there is a more modern theory that at least one of those skeletons is female.

A lie by Henry Tudor?

The rumours about the princes never really surfaced until after Richard’s death. It is more likely that Henry Tudor (or at least his supporters) perhaps embellished the truth to vilify Richard and to cement Henry’s claim to the throne. It is also strange that Elizabeth Woodville went to her death, never claiming that her sons had been murdered.

Most of our knowledge of Richard and the Princes comes from these two sources. But it must be remembered that they are biased. Both are writing under the reign of two different monarchs, but both monarchs had fierce tempers, and more to the point, both were Tudors.

Did Richard kill the Princes?

We will never truly know what happened to the princes, and it is impossible to say, one way or the other. All we can be sure of is that this is a mystery that has intrigued scholars and historians for centuries, and until someone can develop a time machine, we will never know for sure.