The Sons of Edward

“The sons of Edward…” (V.3)

The Princes in the Tower. With commentary by John Saunders.



  1. Richard, Duke of York, Canterbury Glass
  2. Edward V, Canterbury Glass
  3. Edward V, Elizabeth of York, and sisters, Little Malvern Glass
  4. Tower in the fifteenth century, from ‘Poems of Charles d’Orleans’
  5. Great Chronicle extract relating to Princes
  6. Easter verses to Edward V by Pietro Carmeliano
  7. Brass of the Princes’ physician, John Argentine
  8. Perkin Warbeck (Recueil d’Arras)
  9. The Tower by Anthony van Wyngaerde, 16th century
  10. Reconstruction of the Tower in the 16th century by H. W. Brewer

Edward IV carefully regulated the education of his son, who resided at Ludlow under the care of his maternal uncle, Antony Woodville, Lord Rivers. The King’s 1474 Ordinances state that each day after hearing matins and mass and taking breakfast the boy was to spend his morning ‘occupied in such virtuous learning as his age shall now suffice to receive.’ His midday meal was accompanied by the reading aloud to him of ‘such noble authors as behoveth a Prince to understand and know that the communication at all times in his presence be of virtue, honour, cunning wisdom and deeds of worship and nothing that should move or stir him to vices.’ In ‘eschewing of idleness’ after his meal, he was to be further occupied about his learning, and then he should be shown ‘such convenient disports and exercises as behoveth his estates to have experience in.’ After evensong and supper he might be allowed ‘such honest disports as may be honestly devised for his recreation.’ The Croyland Chronicler refers to Edward’s ‘most sweet and beautiful children’ and whilst it was no doubt politic to speak with great praise of the Prince of Wales, the boy seems to have been attractive and interesting. The court poet of Bescia, Pietro Carmeliano, arrived in London about 1480 and his first work ‘Easter Verses’ is a Latin poem dedicated to the prince in 1482: ‘The youth of the Nation, the boys and old men rejoice in you and all the stars light in your face; You, most beautiful Prince, are the glory of the noble kingdom. You will rule the realm in happiness after your father, and the fates will give you for long the royal authority.’ The tragic emptiness of the prophecy does not devalue the description. Carmeliano later dedicated a copy of the life of St. Catherine to Sir Robert Brackenbury in which he praises King Richard III in the introduction, but after Richard’s death he became secretary to Henry VII and in a poem written to celebrate the birth of Prince Arthur he charges the ‘tyrant’ with the murder of Henry VI and his own nephews.


[Ms. page ‘Easter Verses’ dedicated to Edward, Prince of Wales by Pietro Carmeliano.]


Contemporary stained glass figure in the ‘Royal Window’ Canterbury Cathedral of Richard Duke of York and King Edward V: the ‘Princes in the Tower.’ Though the figures of the Yorkist Royal Family have been preserved intact, only the faces of Edward IV and his Queen are the original portraits. The princes’ faces are replacements.

A smaller scale version of the Canterbury window was installed by Bishop John Alcock, tutor to Prince Edward, at Little Malvern Priory, Wales. The only complete figures remaining in the glass show Edward V, Elizabeth of York and her sisters.

Rumours of the death of Edward IV’s sons played a large part in the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483, and have continued to reverberate ever since. It is undoubtedly true that the princes had disappeared by October 1483 and there are only two unequivocal records referring to them after the delivery of the Duke of York to join his brother in the Tower on 16 June. One of these is in the ‘Great Chronicle’ [see below] and the other is recorded by Dominic Mancini, who probably obtained his information from the princes’ doctor John Argentine, and may be dated between 16th June and mid-July, when Mancini left London: ‘The physician Argentine, the last of his attendants whose services the king enjoyed, reported that the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him. This context seems to require that I should not pass over in silence the talent of the youth. In word and deed he gave so many proofs of his liberal education, of polite, nay rather scholarly, attainments far beyond his age; all of these should be recounted but require such labour, that I shall lawfully excuse myself the effort. There is one thing I shall not omit, and that is, his special knowledge of literature, which enabled him to discourse elegantly, to understand fully, and to declaim most excellently from any work whether in verse or prose that came into his hands unless it were from among the more abstruse authors. He has such dignity in his whole person, and in his face such charm, that however much they might gaze he never wearied the eyes of beholders. I have seen many men burst forth into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there was a suspicion that they had been done away with. Whether, however, he has been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not been able to discover.’


John Argentine (d. 1507) Doctor to Edward V and later Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII. Provost of King’s College Cambridge where this memorial brass shows him in his scholar’s cap and academic gown.

The ‘Great Chronicle of London’ page showing extract: ‘And during this Mayor’s Year [Edmund Shaa] the children of King Edward were seen shooting and playing in the Garden of the Tower at sundry times.’

The Tower from the ‘Poems of Charles d’Orleans’: In this earliest painting of the Tower, London Bridge and the City, the White Tower lives up to its name, with the grassy slope of Tower Hill behind. The colonnaded building, top right, is either Billingsgate, or the Customs House, whilst on London Bridge can be seen the Chapel of St. Thomas Becket, with St. Pauls and the city churches in the distance. The miniature was painted in England in Flemish style for Henry VII or his son, Prince Arthur, around 1500, and it is the frontispiece to a volume of poems compiled by Charles, Duke of Orleans, captured at Agincourt and held for ransom in the Tower for twenty-five years. He appears several times in the illustration, writing home, just prior to his release, looking from an upper window, greeting his ransomers and leaving on horseback under the Byward Tower. [British Library Royal Ms. 16 F11 fol 153]

The Tower in the 16th century from the panorama of London by Antony van Wyngaerde. [Bodleian Library, Oxford]

Reconstruction of the Tower as it appeared in the 16th century by H.W. Brewer. [‘The Builder’]

Nothing sinister should be seen in the transference of King Edward V and his brother to the Tower in preparation for his forthcoming coronation, since the ceremony was always preceded by a procession from the Tower to Westminster. According to tradition, they were lodged in the Royal Apartments or placed in the ‘Bloody’ Tower, though it was not given this name until the reign of James I. In 1483 it was known as the Garden Tower because its left side gave on to the gardens of the Lieutenant’s lodgings. It adjoins the Wakefield Tower, which once connected with the Royal Apartments immediately behind Traitors Gate. The fact that the boys were seen playing in the garden suggests that they were not at first under close restraint, although Mancini reports that after Hastings was removed they were later withdrawn into the inner apartments, which suggests lodgings in the White Tower.


‘Perkin Warbeck’ sketch in the ‘Recueil D’Arras’. This picture of Perkin Warbeck form a collection of drawings in the Bibliothéque D’Arras shows more than a passing resemblance to the known portraits of Edward IV. Warbeck (c. 1474-1499) claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger son. He gained considerable support in his cause from continental rules, particularly his aunt, Margaret of Burgundy, Richard III’s sister, and James, the King of Scots, who gave him his cousin, the Lady Katherine Gordon, as a wife. Warbeck’s attempt to invade England with troops was not successful and in 1497 his last venture ended in capture and imprisonment. He ‘confessed’ his imposture, saying he was the son of John Osbeck or d’Warbecque, controller of Tournai. After attempting to escape from the Tower in 1499, he was executed shortly before the son of the Duke of Clarence, Edward, Earl of Warwick, met a similar fate.

The Mystery of the Princes

Of all the crimes attributed to Richard III, none arouses more debate and emotion than that of his alleged murder of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York: ‘The Princes in the Tower.’ It is the most contentious issue surrounding Richard III — contentious because it is impossible to prove the case either way.

To the Tudor myth-makers, it was the climax of Richard’s villainy. Based on rumours that circulated throughout England since the summer of 1483, the early purveyors of the myth began to state positively that Richard III had murdered the Princes, who disappeared from public view. John Rous wrote shortly after 1486 that Richard ‘ascended the throne of the slaughtered children’, but he does not expand on this.

Henry VII made his most enduring personal contribution to the myth when he caused the story to be spread that Sir James Tyrell had ‘confessed’ to murdering the Princes on Richard’s orders. His confession was published soon after Tyrell’s execution for unrelated treason in 1502. Henry had his own reasons for allowing this so long after the event — the future of the Tudor line by then depended on the young Duke of York (later Henry VIII) and Henry VII needed to put to rest the recurrent stories that the Princes had survived. Tyrell’s ‘confession’ provided the source for subsequent detailed accounts of Richard’s murder of his nephews. It was Polydore Vergil and Thomas More who gave the rumours and accusations substance. More, in particular, gives the most elaborate details of the murder. He wrote ‘…so began he with most piteous and wicked; I mean the lamentable murder of his innocent nephews, the young King and his tender brother.’ Then there follows the familiar story of Tyrell, Dighton, Forrest, and the smothering of the Princes with pillows. Both Vergil and More reported that this was only one of a number of explanations for the Princes’ disappearance then in circulation. The mid-sixteenth-century chroniclers — Grafton, Hall, and Holinshed — follow the line of Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare goes on to give the ultimate picture of the villainous Richard who casually arranges the murder and has Tyrell report the details of their deaths over supper.

Rumours that he had done away with the Princes were inevitable in the circumstances of Richard’s accession, and also that such stories would be spread and believed. In the fifteenth century there was a tendency for people to believe whatever they were told, mainly for want of any alternative sources of information.

The Croyland Chronicle reported that, after Richard’s coronation, there began a movement to free the Princes ‘…public proclamation having been made that Henry, Duke of Buckingham….being repentant of what had been done, would be captain in chief of this affair, a rumour arose that King Edward’s sons, by some unknown manner of violent destruction, had met their fate.’ The Chronicler, who was well informed, does not himself confirm the rumour.

The French Chancellor, Guillaume de Rochefort, in a speech to the Estates General on 11 January 1484, stated that the English Crown had ‘…been transferred to their murderer by the favour of the people.’ This view, however, may have been motivated more by a desire to damage English interests than by any concern for the truth in the matter.

The two most prominent candidates for the murder of the Princes, after Richard, remain Henry VII and the Duke of Buckingham. In both cases the evidence is circumstantial rather than factual. Henry certainly had sufficient motive and opportunity if the boys were still alive in captivity after Bosworth. His own claim would have been greatly impaired. Buckingham had opportunity during 1483 when he had access to the Tower as Constable of England. His behaviour and subsequent rebellion raise many questions about his involvement with their fate.

It has been suggested that to have murdered his nephews would have been out of character for Richard III. P. M. Kendall wrote: ‘Despite the legend, Richard’s record does not reveal an unprincipled and bloodthirsty tyrant. He spared traitors like Morton and Stanley after a conspiracy which could have cost him his life…this does not suggest the kind of man who would kill the young sons of a brother to whom he had been unswervingly loyal.’ However, others would argue that political necessity and survival create their own expediency for such crimes.

The fate of another nephew of Richard has been held to provide a clue. Clarence’s son, Edward, Earl of Warwick, had a better claim than Richard to the throne, but for his father’s attainder. Richard treated him kindly, at one time making him his heir. Henry VII, on the other hand, imprisoned him in the Tower and later had him executed.

Other factors that might be considered include the behaviour of Elizabeth Woodville during Richard’s reign and her subsequent reaction to the Lambert Simnel rebellion and the uncertainties created in many people’s minds by all the various pretenders claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, who surfaced during the reign of Henry VII. A multiplicity of theories has been developed from these considerations alone.

Despite all the theories, the questions of motive, the debates over character, we are still as far away as ever from finding out what really did happen to the sons of Edward IV. All that can be said for certain is that they were last seen publicly in 1483 and that since that time various theories have circulated in an attempt to explain their disappearance. There are no facts sufficient to find Richard III or any of the other suspects guilty. Indeed, we are no better off than Mancini when he wrote over 500 years ago: ‘…Whether, however, he has been done away with and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered.’ And neither has anyone else since!