When Edward IV died early in April 1483, his elder son Edward was in Ludlow on the Welsh border, carrying out his duties as Prince of Wales. The twelve-year-old was duly proclaimed King Edward V, and leisurely arrangements were made for him to travel to London for his coronation. But on the 30th of that month, with little more than a day’s riding to go, the royal party was intercepted by the King’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, at Stony Stratford on the outskirts of modern-day Milton Keynes.
The thirty-year-old Richard was the energetic and ambitious younger brother of Edward IV. He had been ruling the north of England with firm efficiency,and he claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy to seize control of the new King. He took charge of his nephew and escorted him back to London where, after a spell in the bishop’s palace, the young Edward V was dispatched for safekeeping into the royal apartments in the Tower. There the boy was joined on 16 June by his nine-year-old brother, Prince Richard of York.
But only ten days later, claiming that the two boys were illegitimate, Uncle Richard proclaimed himself King. It was an outlandish charge, but he was formally crowned King Richard III on 6 July 1483, and the children were never seen at liberty again. With a poignant report in the Great Chronicle of London that they were glimpsed that summer‘shooting and playing in the garden of the Tower’, the young Edward V and his brother vanished from history.
Few people at the time doubted that the King had disposed of them. But there was no solid evidence of foul play until, nearly two centuries later, workmen digging at the bottom of a staircase in the Tower of London discovered a wooden chest containing the skeletons of two children. The taller child was lying on his back, with the smaller one face down on top of him.‘They were small bones of lads…’ wrote one eyewitness,and there were pieces of rag and velvet about them.’
The reigning monarch of the time, Charles II, ordered an inquiry. All agreed that the skeletons must be those of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother, murdered in 1483 by their wicked uncle. In 1678 the remains were ceremonially reburied in Westminster Abbey, with full dignity, in an urn beneath a black-and-white marble altar.
But over the years historians and physicians queried the authenticity of the bones. Did they really belong to the so-called‘Princes in the Tower? And even if they did, what proof was there that they were murdered by anybody, let alone by their uncle? By 1933 the controversy was such that King George V, grandfather of the present Queen, authorised the opening of the tomb.
The two medical experts who examined the contents came to the conclusion that the remains of the young skeletons were almost certainly those of Richard III’s nephews. Both indicated a slender build, with very small finger bones. Dental evidence set the age of one at eleven to thirteen years old, the smaller at between nine and eleven. Professor W. Wright, a dental surgeon who was president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain, declared that the structure of the jaws and other bones in both skeletons established a family link, and he further suggested that a red mark on the facial bones of the elder child was a bloodstain caused by suffocation.
The notion of the victims having been suffocated made a neat connection with the first detailed account of the boys’ deaths by Sir Thomas More back in 1514. Writing thirty years after the event, More pieced his story together through first-hand research — plus a certain amount of what he honestly described as‘divining upon conjectures’. Acting on Richard’s orders, he alleged, two men had crept into the princes’ bedchamber about midnight,‘and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes, so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather bed and pillows hard into their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls’. More went on to describe how the murderers then buried the bodies‘at the stair foot, meetly deep under the ground, under a great heap of stones’.
We shall meet Thomas More. His name has become a byword for both learning and courage in standing up for principle, and his unpublished account was written at the behest of no particular patron. While clearly disapproving of Richard III, he nonetheless made several attempts in his story to separate fact from rumour. But his research was seized on by others for commercial and political reasons — most notably by William Shakespeare, whose Tragedy of King Richard III, first performed in 1597, gave birth to one of the most exquisitely chilling villains of English drama:’Conscience is but a word that cowards use…’
In Shakespeare’s play we see the King ruthlessly order the murder of his two nephews, along with the deaths of a whole catalogue of other rivals and opponents — actually uttering at one point the immortal words‘Off with his head!’ The evil that festers in the usurper’s mind is graphically symbolised by his twisted and deformed body, reflecting sixteenth-century superstitions that Richard spent a full two years in his mother’s womb, before emerging with teeth fully developed, a mane of black hair and a hideously hunched back.
In reality, King Richard III was lean and athletic. His portraits show quite a handsome-looking man, who may possibly have carried one shoulder a little higher than the other but who was certainly not the crookback of legend. Modern X-rays show that the higher shoulder in one portrait was painted in afterwards. He was a devout Christian — something of a Puritan. He was an efficient administrator. And while he was certainly ruthless in sweeping aside those who stood in his path to the throne — including his helpless nephews — he was not the hissing psychopath of Shakespeare’s depiction. The popular image of‘Crookback Dick’ is quite certainly a defamation — one of history’s most successful hatchet jobs — and it is not surprising that over the centuries people have come to Richard’s defence. Founded in 1924, the Fellowship of the White Boar, now known as the Richard III Society, has become the most thriving historical club in the entire English-speaking world, with branches in Britain and North America.
In a testament to the English sense of fair play, the Ricardians, as they call themselves, campaign tirelessly to rescue their hero’s reputation, and central to their argument is the absence of solid evidence linking Richard III directly to the disappearance of his nephews. More himself wrote, for example, that, having initially been buried beneath the staircase in the Tower, the princes’ bodies were later dug up and reburied some distance away. So, argue the Ricardians, the skeletons discovered in the 1670s could not possibly have been the princes — who might even have escaped from the Tower.
As for the‘experts’ of 1933, their techniques do not stand modern forensic scrutiny. To take one instance, there is no possibility that a single stain on an ancient bone could be plausibly linked to suffocation. In 1984 no less than four hours of television were devoted to a court-room inquest and trial in which this evidence and much more was minutely dissected and argued over by prominent lawyers and historians. Did Richard III murder the Princes in the Tower? The jury reached a verdict of‘not guilty’.
The debate will doubtless go on for ever — or, at least, until some conclusive new evidence is discovered. Modern DNA analysis could determine, for example, whether or not the bones that have lain in Westminster Abbey since 1678 are genetically linked to those of the boys’ father, Edward IV, lying for over five centuries in his tomb at Windsor — though that would not tell us who disposed of the children.
Richard III’s contemporaries had little doubt:’There was much whispering among the people,’ recorded the Great Chronicle,‘that the king had put the children of King Edward to death.’
’I saw men burst into tears when mention was made of [the boy king] after his removal from men’s sight,’ wrote the Italian traveller, Dominic Mancini,‘and already there was suspicion that he had been done away with.’
Medieval folk were not surprised by skulduggery and death at the top. In the previous two centuries England had seen three kings deposed (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI), and all were subsequently disposed of in sinister circumstances. But to eliminate children — and your own brother’s children — went one big step beyond that. Even if the physical evidence to convict Richard III of murder was missing, he was guilty of appalling neglect, for he had had a duty of care to his nephews. When it came to explaining what had happened to them, he never even tried to offer a cover story.
In any case, history’s debate over the’Princes in the Tower’ lets Richard off too lightly. The younger boy was indeed a prince, but the elder one, Edward V, was a properly proclaimed and fully acknowledged king, until his uncle went riding out to meet him at Stony Stratford on that late spring day in 1483, Richard might wriggle off the hook of modern TV justice. But he was found guilty in the court of his own times, and he was soon made to pay the full penalty.
THE CAT AND THE RAT 1484
Europe was scandalised by Richard III’s seizure of power. ’See what has happened in England since the death of King Edward,’ declared Guillaume de Rochefort, the Chancellor of France, to the Estates-General, France’s Parliament, in a speech that positively oozed gloating disapproval. ‘His children, already big and courageous, have been slaughtered with impunity, and their murderer, with the support of the people, has received the crown.’
In fact, the support of England’s people for their self-appointed monarch was anything but whole-hearted. The opening months of Richard’s reign, as he disposed of his critics and enemies, saw five executions, and this made London an uneasy place to be.’ There is much trouble,’ reported one newsletter to the provinces, ‘and every man doubts the other.’
The new king’s favourites ruled the roost, and Richard’s roster of unpopular sidekicks prompted a famous piece of doggerel:
The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our Dog
Rule all England under the Hog.
The Cat was Sir William Catesby, a sharp-witted lawyer who was Speaker of the House of Commons — his job it was to make sure that MPs toed the line with the new regime. The Rat was Sir Richard Ratcliffe, one of Richard’s oldest cronies; Francis, Lord Lovell, who had a silver dog on his crest, had grown up with Richard in the household of Warwick the Kingmaker; and the Hog was Richard himself — a derisive reference to the white boar of his crest.
Today it is our sacred right to make fun of our rulers. Satirists and cheeky impersonators make up a major branch of the entertainment business, sometimes becoming so famous in their own right that they outshine the national leaders they deride. But things were very different in 1484, when the authorities tracked down Sir William Collingbourne, the Wiltshire gentleman who had dared pen the scornful verse that had ended up pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral. Collingbourne was one of several West-Countrymen accused of plotting rebellion, and while the others were spared, the lampooner received special treatment for his’rhyme [in] derision of the king and his council’. He was strung up on the gallows, then cut down while still breathing, to be castrated and disembowelled.
To his credit, Collingbourne seems to have retained his sense of humour to the end. ‘Oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble,’ he sighed, as the executioner reached inside his body to yank out his intestines.
THE BATTLE OF BOSWORTH FIELD 1485
One day in the summer of 1485, the French chronicler Philippe de Commynes encountered Henry Tudor at the court of the King of France. It was the young Welshman’s latest port of call in more than twenty years of exile. Moving from castle to castle across Brittany and France, he knew what it was to live from hand to mouth. From the time he was five years old, Henry told the Frenchman, he ‘had always been a fugitive or a prisoner’.
Now all this was about to change. With his faithful uncle Jasper Tudor beside him, Henry was preparing his bid for the English throne. Since Richard III had seized power two years earlier, an increasing trickle of Englishmen had been making their way across the Channel to throw in their lot with the young man whose descent through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort — and, to a lesser extent, through his grandfather Owen’s romantic marriage to Queen Catherine of France — made Henry the best alternative to Richard.
On i August Henry set sail with a force of a thousand or so soldiers, including a group of French pikemen he was paying with borrowed funds. They were heading for the south-west tip of Wales, Jasper’s home territory, where Henry himself had been born, and they dropped anchor in Milford Haven on Sunday the 7th. Their plan was to head north in a loop across Wales, gathering support as they marched. Local poets, we are told, had been primed to proclaim the coming of y mab darogan, ’the man of destiny’.
In the event, the response was far from overwhelming. Few Welshmen were willing to risk their lives on Henry’s threadbare enterprise, and when he reached Shrewsbury and the English Midlands there was further disappointment. Henry had been counting on the support of his stepfather, his mother’s third husband Thomas, Lord Stanley. But anticipating such a move, Richard III had seized Stanley’s eldest son and was holding him hostage.
The Stanley family certainly had the power to determine the course of the forthcoming conflict — they were the major magnates in the area. But they had not achieved their standing by taking chances. In battle, they had a history of holding back their troops till the very last possible moment — and in the high summer of 1485 this was as far as they were prepared to go for young Henry. When the armies of Henry Tudor and Richard III finally confronted each other on Monday 22 August, Henry’s forces were considerably outnumbered by those of the King — though Richard’s army also lacked the reinforcements he had been promised, with the Stanleys keeping their troops on the side.
Tradition has set the momentous Battle of Bosworth Field not far from Leicester. But modern research suggests that the armies may have clashed several miles further west near the modern A5 and the village of Mancetter, just north of Coventry, where Boadicea made her last stand fourteen hundred years earlier. The A5 follows the great curve of Watling Street, the Roman road connecting London with north Wales. So as Henry’s pikemen made their uncertain way towards Richard’s army, they were tracing the route of the Roman legions.
By one account, Richard was plagued by bad dreams and premonitions on the night before the battle. But he put on a brave face. He clad himself ostentatiously in glorious kingly armour, setting the gold circlet of the crown over his helmet. Then, when he caught sight of his rival’s standard at the back of the Tudor army, he launched a cavalry charge directly at it.
’This day I will die as a king,’ he cried, or win.’
There is some speculation as to why Henry was stationed to the rear of his men. The cautious claimant seems to have had an eye to cutting his losses if the battle went against him — he had left his uncle, Jasper, even further to the rear to cover his getaway. But Henry was saved by his French pikemen, who presented Richard’s charging horsemen with a tactic never before seen in England. Swiftly, they formed their five-metre-plus steel-headed staves into a bristling defensive wall around their leader, and as Richard’s cavalry hit the pike wall, the King was unhorsed. An eyewitness account by one of the mercenaries, written the day after the battle and recently rediscovered in a nineteenth-century transcription, describes Richard crying out in rage and frustration: ‘These French traitors are today the cause of our realm’s ruin!’
This seems to have been the moment that prompted the Stanleys, at last, to intervene. Cagey as ever, Lord Stanley himself continued to hold back, but his brother Sir William deftly moved his troops across the battlefield, overpowering Richard’s soldiers and cornering the King. Richard fought on, bravely refusing his friends’ offer of a horse on which to flee.
A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Richard III dramatically portrays the hunchback monarch screaming for a fresh mount to carry him to the personal showdown he craved with Henry Tudor. And in this depiction of defiant courage, the playwright finally does right by the King. By most eyewitness and contemporary accounts, Richard fought to the very last, until he was finally overpowered and cut down, his crown rolling off his helmet as he fell. Sir William Stanley picked up the gold circlet and placed it on Henry Tudor’s head. ‘Sir, here I make you King of England.’
As always after a battle, the victors turned to plunder. Stanley was allowed to take whatever he wished from the dead king’s tent — he picked out a set of royal tapestries for the Stanley residence, enduring evidence of the family’s decisive, if less than heroic, doings on Bosworth Field. Richard’s miniature Book of Hours, his beautifully illustrated personal prayer book, went to Henry’s mother Lady Margaret — while Henry himself chose to keep the delicate gold crown.
Richard’s corpse, meanwhile, was stripped of all clothing —‘naught being left about him so much as would cover his privy member’. The body was then slung over a horse, with arms and legs hanging down on both sides, ‘trussed… as a hog or other vile beast and so all bespattered with mire and filth’. He was taken to the Greyfriars Church at Leicester, and there he was buried ‘without any pomp or solemn funeral’.
Five decades later the tomb was broken open when the friary was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. To this day, the bones that are said to have belonged to the little Princes in the Tower rest in honour in Westminster Abbey.
The exhumation and reburial of Richard III of England began with the discovery of the king’s remains within the site of the former Greyfriars Friary Church in Leicester, England, in September 2012. Following extensive anthropological and genetic testing, the remains of Richard III, the last English king killed in battle, were ultimately reinterred at Leicester Cathedral on 26 March 2015.