Isolde Wigram, “Were the ‘Princes in the Tower’ Murdered?”

By Isolde Wigram
Vice President, Richard III Society

The short answer is ‘No, not together nor in the Tower’, but as to their murder elsewhere, it all depends on the definition.

It has been convincingly argued in D.M. Kleyn’s Richard of England [1] that ‘Perkin Warbeck’ was, as he claimed to be, the younger prince, Richard Duke of York. Now Gordon Smith in a recent article in The Ricardian [2] has argued for the theory that the ‘Edward VI’ crowned by the Irish in Dublin in 1487 was none other than the former Edward V of England, the elder prince. If this be so, then according to Gordon Smith’s theory Henry VII was ready to substitute the obvious impostor ‘Lambert Simnel’ after the death of ‘the King from Dublin’ at the battle of Stoke in June 1487, which he must therefore have been expecting. ‘Perkin Warbeck’ was hanged at Tyburn in 1499 for allegedly plotting to escape from the Tower and overthrow the king. In other words both were killed for being who they were: the sons of Edward IV. Let us now examine the evidence.

In 1483, the date of the last incontrovertible sighting of the princes, we are faced with two conflicting accounts, those of the French spy Dominic Mancini and the Great Chronicle of London. According to the latter the boys were seen ‘shotyng and playying in the Gardyn of the Tower by sundry tymys’ [3] during the mayoralty of Sir Edmund Shaa which ran until 28 October, while according to Mancini they were simultaneously ‘seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether’ [4] .If both reports are to be believed, the ‘sundry tymys’ would have had to be between 16 June, when young Richard of York joined his brother in the Tower, and the early days of July when Mancini left England. In fact the phrase ‘sundry times’ implies a longer period than about three weeks and one may well doubt the accuracy of Mancini’s informant(s). The fact that there were already rumours about the probable death of one or both of the boys need surprise no one. Imagination tends to run riot where rumours about royal personages are concerned, and the journalistic mind certainly pre-dated the media.

That the removal of the princes was essential for the success of Henry Tudor was early recognized, and by no one more eagerly than his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort/Stanley, the former Countess of Richmond, so aptly described by Buck as ‘of a politic and contriving bosom’. [5]Polydore Vergil, commissioned by Henry VII to write an updated version of English history, admits that when she heard of the reported death of the princes, Lady Margaret ‘began to hope well of hir soones [son’s] fortune, supposing that that dede wold withowt dowt proove for the profyt of the commonwealth’. [6] The use of rumour in the 1483 rebellion, ostensibly to rescue the princes from the Tower, served the Tudor interest admirably when ‘the rumour was spread’, to quote the Crowland Chronicle, ‘that King Edward’s sons, by some unknown manner of violent destruction, had met their fate [7], and this conveniently switched support to Henry Tudor. Since Lady Margaret and the princes’ mother, the ex-queen Elizabeth Woodville, were by this time in close contact, it would be interesting to know how, and from whom, Elizabeth heard of the death of her sons, the prerequisite for her consent to the marriage of her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York with Henry Tudor.

However this meant that Richard III’s enemies had shown their hand, and after the collapse of the rebellion the actions of both Elizabeths from then on do not suggest that either believed Richard responsible for the murder of the princes, or indeed that they had been murdered at all. If they appeared no more at the Tower, this need not mean that they were dead, but simply that they were not there.

At this point it would perhaps be relevant to consider the supposed bones of the princes in Westminster Abbey. The findings from the examination in 1933 of the surviving bones by Professor William Wright, the foremost anatomist of his day, and Dr George Northcroft, President of the Dental Association, were reported by Mr. Lawrence Tanner, Keeper of the Muniments at Westminster Abbey in Archaeologia vol. 34 (1934), pp.8-26 and were exhaustively analysed, with reference to many of the existing authorities with published works on the subject, by W.J. White and P.W. Hammond in ‘The Sons of Edward IV, A re-examination of the evidence on their deaths and on the Bones in Westminster Abbey’, Richard III, Loyalty Lordship and Law (Yorkist History Trust 1986).

Some salient points which emerged were that there were indications in existing and unerupted teeth of a greater likelihood of the origin being a female skeleton, and that the age gap between the two sets of bones seemed to be less than the nearly three years between the princes. Although the possibility of sexing pre-pubertal skeletons existed in 1933, Professor Wright assumed throughout that they were those of boys, and of course there was no indication whatever of the period when they had been buried.

This last point, in relation to the place where the bones were found, is crucial. The two sets of bones were discovered in 1674 by workmen demolishing a stone staircase connecting the royal apartments with the White Tower. John Knight, Principal Surgeon to Charles II, an eye-witness, reported ‘about Ten Feet in the ground were found the Bones of Two Striplings in (as it seem’d) a Wooden Chest, which upon the survey were found proportionable to the Ages of those Two Brothers, viz. about Thirteen and Eleven Years. The Scull of one being entire, the other broken …'[8] Sir Christopher Wren, commissioned by the King as ‘Surveyor General of His Majesties Workes’ to provide a marble urn for the remains, added ‘about ten feet deep in the ground… as the workmen were taking away the stairs which led from the royal lodgings into the Chapel of the White tower’ [9] .

Sir Thomas More, who gives the most detailed account of the supposed murder, clearly stated that the bodies were removed from the place where they were first buried ‘at the stayre foot, metely depe in the ground under a great heape of stones’ to a ‘better’ site ‘because thei were a kinges sonnes’ [10] by a priest of Sir Robert Brakenbury who then died, so that no one knew where they were buried – this presumably to explain why Henry VII was unable to find and produce the bodies. In spite of this statement, the discovery of the skeletons of children ‘at the stair foot’ was eagerly seized on both in 1674 and in 1933. The Herculean task of an excavation ten feet deep in the ground would clearly have been totally unnecessary for the supposed murderers of 1483 or the workmen of 1674, and it seems more likely that the bodies – whosever they were – were inserted within the stairs from the bottom or side, perhaps ten feet down from the stair landing, or even that they had been in position before or at the time the staircase was built. In any case the 1933 findings have been much questioned by experts.

Moreover this was not the first pair of children’s skeletons found in the Tower to be identified with the princes. Two accounts, probably referring to the same discovery, report the finding of children’s skeletons in a sealed up room in the Tower in 1603, which were promptly assumed to be those of the princes although the ages are too young. The Australian scholar John Morgan’s paper on this, ‘Have the Princes’ Bones been found in the Tower ?’ is in the Barton Library of the Richard III Society, and I reproduce here his diagram of the relevant sections of the Tower showing the sites of both discoveries: (Figures 1 and 2).



Figure 1: Cole Harbour Tower


Figure 2: Buildings near the White Tower
Morgan, Diagram of White Tower-page-0

If therefore the supposed bones of the princes in their urn in Westminster Abbey are a red herring, we can now turn to other possibilities. Even if Richard III were devoid of feeling for the young sons of a much-loved brother who had entrusted them to his care, it could be argued ‘Why should he, an intelligent man, not have seen the fatal damage to his reputation by their murder, beyond all possible gain ? Such a scandal at the very outset of his reign, when he was on a triumphal progress, would have been the action of a lunatic, besides clearing the way for Henry, as he was probably aware of the latter’s hopes. In order to take every precaution therefore it is possible that he sent the boys abroad, which is why they disappeared from the Tower and Richard was silent in face of the rumours’. [11] .

He had of course twice been briefly for safety in Flanders himself, with his brothers George and Edward respectively, and while the Dowager Duchess Margaret of Burgundy, their sister, held her own court at Malines it would be natural to turn to her for help.

However, this may have come later, because Audrey Williamson in her The Mystery of the Princes recounts an interesting tradition in the family of Sir James Tyrell, Richard’s ‘knight of the body’ and confidential agent. This tradition, she writes, ‘was longstanding and specifically worded… going back well before the eighteenth century, and handed down from generation to generation: “that the princes and their mother Elizabeth Woodville lived in the hall by permission of the uncle”‘. [12] The reference is to Gipping Hall near Stowmarket, Suffolk, the then home of the Tyrell family. This must have been after Elizabeth left sanctuary, and the reference to “permission of the uncle” could only mean Richard III.

Let us assume then that the boys left the Tower to go to Gipping Hall. The period before Bosworth could thus have been passed in a suitably secluded ‘safe house’ and in the care of a man on whom Richard could rely. Then came news of the expected invasion of Henry Tudor, backed now by the French, and it may have been decided to send them to Flanders. At any rate there were widespread rumours in 1486, rarely mentioned by historians, that the princes, or one of them, ‘were not indeed murdered but conveyed secretly away, and were yet living’. [13] D.M. Kleyn inRichard of England cites two documents in Harleian MSS 433, the docket book of Richard’s Privy Seal, authorising entry permits for messengers from the Duchess of Burgundy, one of them ‘1 without any Serche’, and there was an intriguing entry referring to a journey of Sir James Tyrell in late 1484 ‘over the See into the parties of Flaundres for diverse maters concernyng gretely oure wele…’ [14] Sir George Buck, Richard III’s first real apologist, writes that there were ‘English noblemen and gentlemen which were privy to the conveyance of the Prince Richard… and who knew where he lurked or lay close’. [15] If the pretender ‘Perkin Warbeck’ were indeed Prince Richard, it seems that he must have had some contact with the Werbecque family of Tournai, and although this is pure surmise, it could have been through trading contacts with Sir Edward Brampton, alias Duarte Brandao, the converted Portuguese Jew who served Edward IV and Richard III and was knighted by Richard, as Madame Werbecque, whose maiden name was Faro, may have been of Portuguese descent. At any rate ‘Warbeck’ was with Brampton and his wife in Portugal in 1487.

However the movements of the elder prince remain a mystery. At an early stage the survival of Prince Edward seems to have been dropped and all rumours concentrated on the younger one. Buck writes: ‘some write that they were both secretly taken out of the Tower and both set afloat in a ship and conveyed together over the seas. But because I find no mention of the being of the elder brother in Flanders, but very frequent mention of the younger brother’s being there and of his other adventures and travails, I will let the elder brother, Edward, rest, and speak of his brother’s transportation and the rest of his actions and life’. [16] The ‘Lambert Simnel’ rising in 1486 is a mass of confusions because the four early chroniclers of the rebellion the Burgundian Molinet, Henry VII’s own historian Bernard Andre, Polydore Vergil and Francis Bacon [17] – each give a different version of the claim. Molinet, the earliest account, takes the pretender for the genuine Edward Earl of Warwick throughout, the son of the late unlamented George Duke of Clarence. Warwick was widely rumoured also to have escaped from the Tower, where Henry VII had confined him since Bosworth, and there is an enigmatic reference in the household accounts of Margaret of Burgundy to a gift of wine to the ‘sone van Claretie uit Ingelant’ (son of Clarence from England) in 1486. [18] It was believed that the pretender, launched in Ireland because of its devotion to the House of York, was claiming to be Warwick, and certainly he was crowned in Dublin in May 1487 as Edward VI. Bernard Andre says he was an impostor impersonating a son of Edward IV, and at first referred to the second son, i.e. York. Vergil says he was an impostor claiming to be Warwick, and Bacon that the impostor first claimed to be York and then changed the claim to Warwick. However as Gordon Smith has shown in his Ricardian article, there was a serious discrepancy in age between the ‘King from Dublin’, whom the chroniclers imply was sixteen or seventeen in 1487 (the right age for Prince Edward) and Warwick, who was only twelve. If Henry VII held the real Warwick, he exhibited him at St. Paul’s in 1487 to show that the Irish had crowned an impostor, but Smith believes that it was Henry who made use of Warwick as the supposed claimant when it was known that the pretender was called Edward. When the army of German mercenaries supplied by Margaret of Burgundy, and the almost unarmed Irish, led by Richard III’s nephew and heir the Earl of Lincoln, who had come to ‘restore’ their prince to the kingdom, were annihilated by Henry’s army at the battle of Stoke in June 1487, the boy – described in a later Act of Attainder as ten years old – officially called ‘Lambert Simnel’ (probably a made-up name) was possibly substituted as the pretender. It can be assumed that ‘King Edward’ was killed.

Meanwhile Henry’s extraordinary decision at the start of the rising to deprive his mother-in-law Elizabeth Woodville of all her property and confine her in the convent at Bermondsey, while sending her son the Marquis of Dorset to the Tower for the duration of the rebellion, has a perfectly logical explanation. They knew that one or both of the princes were alive and that one of them was the youth whom the Irish had crowned in Dublin. Henry could therefore expect them to support or at least identify the boy. He had of course by this time repealed Richard III’s Titulus Regius, thus reversing the bastardy of Edward IV’s children and making the princes the true heirs of York, setting aside their sister the Queen.

Although the fate of the elder prince remains problematic, it is impossible to believe that the pretender known as ‘Perkin Warbeck’, with his striking likeness to Edward IV, presumably flawless English and English handwriting, princely bearing and marriage to the King of Scotland’s cousin, was Pierrequin Werbecque, the son of a boatman of Tournai. He was of course acknowledged as her nephew by Margaret of Burgundy after close questioning, and was acknowledged as the prince by many others. Indeed Bacon wrote that ‘the news thereof came blazing and thundering over into England that the Duke of York was sure alive’ [l9] But when four years later he fell into King Henry’s hands there was ultimately no way out but death.

It may therefore be concluded that we have enough evidence to state boldly that the Princes in the Tower were not murdered there, nor by Richard III.

–Isolde Wigram


(1). D.M. Kleyn, Richard of England, Oxford 1990. [ISBN 0 946041 63 6]

(2). Gordon Smith, “Lambert Simnel and the King from Dublin”, The Ricardian Vol. X No.135 (December 1996) pp.498-536.

(3). Great Chronicle of London, ed. A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley, London 1938, p.234.

(4). Dominic Mancini, The Usurpation of Richard III, ed. C.A.J. Armstrong, second edition, Oxford 1969, p.93.

(5). George Buck Esquire, The History of King Richard the Third, London 1646, p.36. This delightful comment appears only in the corrupt version of Sir George Buck’s History published by his great-nephew of the same name. The true version left by Sir George Buck himself was edited by Arthur Noel Kincaid and published in 1979, see below.

(6). Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, ed. H.Ellis, Camden Society 1844, p.185.

(7). The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486, ed. N. Pronay and J. Cox, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986, p.163 [ISBN 0 948993 00 6]. Where the Pronay and Cox translation gives ‘a rumour arose that King Edward’s sons, by some unkown manner of violent destruction, had met their fate’ (vulgatum est dictos Regis Edwardi pueros quo genere violenti interitus ignoratur decessisse in fata), compare the earlier translation in Ingulph’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland, translated and edited by Henry T.Riley, Bohn’s Antiquarian Library, London 1854: while a rumour was spread that the sons of King Edward before-named had died a violent death, but it was uncertain how’.

(8). Lost Ms, quoted in Davey’s Tower of London; cited by Tanner and Wright, Archaeologia Vol. 34 (1934), pp.9-10; F. Sandford, Genealogical History etc. 2nd edn. (London 1707), p.427.

(9). Wren’s Parentalia …. , quoted in Tanner and Wright, op. cit. pp.8-9.

(10). Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. R.S.Sylvester (New Haven 1963), p.83-86. [ISBN 0 300 09844 4]

(11). I. Wigram, ‘Richard III and the Princes by A.J. Pollard: review and comments’, The Ricardian, Vol. IX No.116 (March 1992) p.216.

(12). Audrey Williamson, The Mystery of the Princes, Gloucester 1978, p.122. [ISBN 0 904387 28 3]

(13). F. Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, ed. R. Lockyer, London 1971, p.40.

(14). R. Horrox and P.W. Hammond (eds), British Library Harleian Manuscript 433, 4 vols. Upminster and London 1979-83, Vol. 2, p.114. [ISBN 0 904893 05 7]

(15). Sir George Buck, The History of King Richard the Third, ed. Arthur Noel Kincaid, Gloucester 1979, p.144. [ISBN 0 904387 26 7]

(16). Ibid. p.142

(17). J. Molinet, Chroniques de Jean Molinet (1474-1506), ed. G. Doutrepont et G. Jodogne, 3 vols., Brussels 1935-37; B.Andre, De Vita atque Gestis Henrici Septimi Historia in J.Gairdner, Memorials of King Henry the Seventh, London 1858; P. Vergil (see n.6 above); F. Bacon (see n.13 above).

18. G. Weightman, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy 1446-1503, Gloucester 1989, p.145. [ISBN 0 312 03104 1 (USA) 0 862995 55 8 (UK)]

(19). Bacon, p.137.

Further Reading

M.Bennett, Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke, Gloucester 1987.

J. Morgan: ‘Have the Princes’ bones been found in the Tower ?‘ Barton Library, Richard III Society

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