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Richard III, myth and murder

Leanda de Lisle puts in a word for the princes

Leanda de Lisle | March 23rd 2015

With Richard III’s reburial at Leicester to televised fanfare, there is a “cry to be heard...from heaven to earth”. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” the murdered king walks the Earth, having been given “no noble rite nor formal ostentation”. Richard III’s murdered nephews—the Princes in the Tower—were treated similarly. There is no hatchment over their bones to match Richard’s grand new tomb. Their little ghosts haunt this story.

It was only after the 12-year-old Edward V, and his nine-year-old brother, had been declared illegitimate that Richard was crowned on July 6th 1483. It had just been “discovered” that their father, Edward IV, had married bigamously. Richard was holding the princes “under protection” in the Tower of London, and many feared for the boys’ lives—deposed kings rarely lived long; two had died in mysterious circumstances already that century.

By the end of the summer rumours were spreading that the princes had indeed been killed. Yet nothing was said in public. No bodies were displayed. No requiem sung. This has allowed a modern myth to flourish that Richard never killed them, and even that they were still alive after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485—the final clash in the Wars of the Roses when Richard was killed and his victor, Henry Tudor, took the throne as King Henry VII.

Richard’s defenders argue that the fact the princes were illegitimate means he had no motive to kill them. But not everyone accepted that the princes were bastards, and they remained a focus of opposition and division. The real question is: why did Richard not follow the pattern of earlier royal killings?

A generation before, in 1471, Edward IV of the House of York (and father of the princes) ordered the murder of the deposed Henry VI. It was announced that Henry VI had died suddenly of natural causes, and his body was laid out as proof of death, thus allowing loyalties to be transferred to Edward IV from the rival House of Lancaster. However, as Henry VI was mentally ill and seen as an innocent, he was popularly acclaimed a saint after his death. And Edward IV failed to suppress what became a huge cult.

In the case of the princes, it is their disappearance that lies at the heart of the conspiracy theories about what happened to them. Yet the solution is found in the sequel to Henry VI’s murder. Richard chose to make the princes disappear because there was a high risk that they would attract a still-greater cult; for in them, the religious qualities attached to royalty were combined with the purity of childhood. But without a grave there could be no focus for a cult, and without bodies, there would be no relics either.

By 1485 and the Battle of Bosworth, Richard discovered he had made a crucial miscalculation. Edward IV was a successful king, and there was still tremendous loyalty to his sons. Some of the anger against Richard can be seen in the way his body was treated after the battle: his corpse was thrown naked over a horse like a “hog or other vile beast”, according to “Fabyans Chronicle”, and a sword was thrust into his buttocks. In Leicester the body was laid out to be seen by all, with only a dirty cloth covering “his privy member”. His hands were still tied when he was thrown into the hole his body was discovered in, under a car park in 2012.

Sadly, the new Henry VII was not to treat the princes with any greater respect than Richard had. Henry had no blood right to the throne and insisted he was King by divine providence—his proof was that his “saintly” uncle Henry VI had prophesied his reign. He encouraged the cult of Henry VI and, to ensure there was no rival cult of the princes, he made no effort to find their bodies. Most shockingly there were no public prayers or Masses for their souls.

Nearly two centuries later, in 1674, the skeletons of two children were recovered in the Tower, dumped in a hole at the foot of some stairs. It resembled a description of the place where the princes were said to have been buried following their murder. Today these skeletons lie in Westminster Abbey, near the magificant tomb Henry VII had built for himself and his heirs. The bones could be tested to see if they are, indeed, Richard’s nephews. And, if so, they should have the tomb and the requiem Richard III—and Henry VII—denied them.

Read more: Debunking the myth of Lady Jane Grey

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