With the reburial of Richard III imminent we are, once again, hearing a lot about his reputation and how he wasn’t the machiavellian monstrosity that Shakespeare made him out to be. But even if he wasn’t at all like that, even if he doesn’t deserve the reputation he has garnered, there is still an enormous shadow hanging over his reign, that of the princes in the tower. Their disappearance is a mystery that has fascinated many and yet no definitive answer has ever been provided. Now I’m not going to say that I have an absolute, definitive answer to the mystery but I think I may, possibly, have found a reason as to why they disappeared.
The basic, certain facts are thus: In April 1483 Edward IV died and his eldest son Edward was declared king. What followed was a brief power struggle between Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, and the clan Woodville (Headed by Elizabeth Woodvile, wife of Edward IV and now Queen Mother) with Richard coming out on top and taking (eventually) both boys into his care at the Tower of London. Then, in June, a few people (notably a man called Ralph Shaa) began to declare that the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was invalid and therefore any children they had (including young Edward) were illegitimate. This claim of illegitimacy was promptly made law by parliament, Richard was declared king and shortly after the princes vanished, never to be seen again.
Now the clearest, most seemingly obvious answer, as to why the princes disappeared was so that Richard could be declared king in their place. But there are many problems with that idea. There’s no hint, beforehand, that Richard was plotting to take the throne. He was, according to the sources, extremely loyal to his brother, Edward IV, and supposedly, also, loyal to his nephew, Edward V. If he wasn’t then why go through all the pretence that he was? He was already, more or less, in charge by the time he seized power. With Edward IV’s death, Richard was declared protector until young Edward came of age. He was essentially king in all but name and de-facto ruler of the nation. Until Edward came of age he was in charge. All he had to do to become king proper was wait around and make sure neither of his nephews reached maturity. Simple.
And yet, both the princes disappeared within three months of Edward IV’s death, a very short space of time. If Richard or someone had wanted Richard to be king there was no need to act so quickly. Edward was still only twelve, his brother only ten. The possibility of either of them having an heir was still many years away and there was plenty of time to take out the boy king (and his brother) if that was what was wanted. If Richard (or someone) had wanted to take the throne it would have looked far less suspicious if they had taken more time to do it and he would have certainly gone about it in a far more subtle way. Don’t forget, if both the boys had died before fathering an heir (entirely possible in 1483) Richard was the next in line for the throne. It would have been far easier and far more natural looking to take the boys out over a longer period, on an individual basis, rather than together and so quickly. If Richard had wanted to be king hewould have wanted to make sure he looked good on the throne… He wouldn’t likely want anything to hang over his succession, and as we know from hindsight the sudden disappearance of the princes did exactly that.
And then there is that illegitimacy claim. If Richard was loyal to young Edward, as he claimed to be, why not just dismiss the claim? Why not execute the claimers for treason? Why legalize the idea and declare himself king? If he was truly loyal to Edward then he wouldn’t have done that… He’d have executed the claimers like I said, like what happened with Richard’s older brother, the Duke of Clarence, when he tried exactly the same trick. But that is exactly what Richard did do. He declared the princes illegitimate and took the throne for himself, which suggests to me that he was behind the claim, that he was aiming to take the throne all along. That he was behind the disappearances. But then that brings us around to the whole timing issue. Why do it all so quickly when both boys could quite easily have died before they reached maturity? It just doesn’t make sense.
But it does make sense if you look at everything within the context of the times. This was the tail end of what was to eventually become known as the Wars of The Roses and the House of York (of which Richard was a part) was far from secure in their position. There was still one Lancastrian left, Henry Tudor, and whilst his claim was not the strongest in the world (in fact it was actually kind of weak) he still had a fair number of supporters and he was still a threat to the Yorkist dynasty. Now the fundamental problem with boy kings is that they are weak and easily controlled. They’re also far easier to depose than adult kings and quite often, as indeed happened with Edward, political factionalism and arguments start to develop over who gets to be the power behind the throne. A kingdom under a boy king is, more often than not, an unstable one. Both Richard and Henry would have known this. Henry would certainly have wanted to use any political instability to his advantage and Richard would have wanted to keep his family on the throne at all costs. He would have been aware that in order to be able to counter Henry, England needed to be stable and it needed to have a strong and capable ruler. And somebody clearly thought that Edward was not that strong and capable ruler.
So, with all this in mind, it once again becomes quite obvious as to why the two princes disappeared. They disappeared so that Richard could be king. They disappeared so that England might have a strong king and a more stable political situation. They disappeared so that Henry Tudor might gain less of a foothold. It would certainly explain why it all happened so quickly. WHY Richard took the throne so soon and why both boys disappeared at once, rather than individually and over a greater period of time. The sooner England had a strong king the better. The longer the nation had a weak, child king, the more likely it would be that Henry would make his play for power and win. In order to safeguard the future of the throne for the house of York, those boys had to go. They were probably declared illigitimate as an excuse to put Richard on the throne and then, afterwards, they were made to disappear. It may not have been Richard who came up with the idea to replace them. It may have been a spur of the moment plan that came about only the week before Richard declared himself king… But at some point, somewhere, somebody decided that those boys had to be replaced for the good of the nation (or more likely the house of York.) If this is the case then one thing is absolutely clear: The princes weren’t murdered. They were sacrificed.
The theory doesn’t provide us with an answer as to who did it… But it gives us a motive: To place a stronger king on the throne. And alas, for his defenders, it is a motive put Richard squarely in the frame. After all, if he was going to be the one to replace the boy king he must have been made aware of some kind of plot right? He did go along with the illegitimacy claim and he did take the crown after all. It is very hard to imagine, if there was a plot to take the throne, that he wasn’t in on it to some degree. And if he just wanted the crown for himself, and the plot had nothing to do with Henry Tudor then why act so quickly? He was only in his early thirties and it doesn’t make much sense that he would want anything making his succession look bad. What makes sense, to me at least, is that the throne was taken to safeguard the house of York from Henry Tudor, to have a strong king on the throne who could quash any form of rebellion. For that, those two young boys would be made to vanish from history forever; another innocent pair of pawns in that bloody War of the Roses.
Of course, if it really was all a plan to prevent Henry Tudor taking the throne then it backfired spectacularly…
If you liked this then why not check out more of my history articles… Like this one on William the Conqueror for example.