Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, we are tackling another art history mystery. Alright, it’s technically a history mystery, but there are some great paintings about the subject that I’m willing to make an exception. The tale of the Princes in the Tower is one of history's enduring mysteries, shrouded in intrigue, conspiracy, and potentially, murder. The disappearance of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the 15th century has fueled centuries of speculation, giving rise to countless theories and debates. In this blog post, I’m going to delve into the enigmatic story, exploring the historical context, the key players, and the myriad theories surrounding the fate of these young royals.
I also want to create a two part series out of this subject. Phillipa Langley, one of the members of the team who discovered Richard III’s body, has recently released a new book called The Princes in the Tower: Solving History's Greatest Cold Case. I thought it would be interesting to present the information before and after I read the book and give my thoughts on the mystery.
Please note that this post isn’t affiliated with or sponsored by the publisher, I’ve just always found it to be a fascinating subject!
The Princes in the Tower were the sons of King Edward IV of England – Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Their lives took a tragic turn when their father's untimely death in 1483 led to a power struggle within the royal family. As the eldest son of the king, Edward V should have assumed the throne without issue. However, he was only 12/13 years old, making him a minor. This led to a power struggle between his father’s family, the Yorks, and his mother’s family, the Woodvilles. Each group wanted to control the regency council, effectively making them the rulers of England.
To add fuel to the fire, “evidence” came to light that Edward IV was married (in secret) to a woman named Eleanor Butler. However, he left her without annulling the union and married Elizabeth Woodvile. This made all the children of the royal couple illegitimate. Unfortunately, both Eleanor Butler and the priest that married them had both died by the time the story came to light.
Regardless, an assembly of Lords and Commons declared Richard of Gloucester , the boys’ paternal uncle, to be the legitimate king on June 25, 1483, just two months after the death of Edward IV. The next day, Richard became King Richard III.
Before the question of legitimacy entered the picture, the two boys were placed in the Tower of London, ostensibly for their protection and perhaps to await Edward’s coronation. However, within a few months, sightings of the boys diminished. Eventually, staff and courtiers at the Tower stopped seeing them all together. To this day, no one is 100% certain about what happened to the Princes in the Tower.
Key Players and Theories:
Richard III: The primary suspect in the mystery, Richard III, the boys' uncle, who I already discussed earlier in the post. As the youngest York son, there were obstacles in the way for his ascension to the throne, including the Princes in the Tower. The traditional narrative implicates Richard III, accusing him of ordering the murder of the Princes in the Tower to eliminate potential rivals. This theory gained traction, particularly after the discovery of two small skeletons in the Tower in the 17th century. It is important to note that these skeletons have never been tested for DNA.
Henry VII: The victor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII became the first Tudor monarch. His ascent to the throne marked the end of the Wars of the Roses. The fate of the Princes in the Tower became a source of political instability and propaganda during his reign as they represented a stronger claim to the throne. Some theories propose that Henry VII orchestrated the disappearance of the princes to solidify his claim to the throne. This perspective suggests that he manipulated events to tarnish Richard III's reputation.
Margaret Beaufort: The mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort played a pivotal role in securing her son's claim to the throne. Some theories suggest her involvement in the disappearance of the princes to ensure Henry's legitimacy as the next king of England. Some theories believe that Margaret and her husband (not Henry’s father) helped fuel rumors and even planned the disappearance to bolster her son’s claim to the English throne.
Perkin Warbeck: An interesting twist to the mystery involves Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York. He was a young man who fit descriptions of the missing prince and was even championed by Edward and Richard’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy. Warbeck's rebellion against Henry VII reignited speculation about the princes' fate, as some believed he was the surviving Prince and were willing to fight for his right to rule.
The mystery of the Princes in the Tower endures as a captivating enigma in English history. Despite the passage of centuries, the ultimate fate of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, remains elusive. Theories abound, each offering a different perspective on the events that transpired within the stone walls of the Tower of London. I’m excited to dive into the evidence and bring you part two! Keep an eye out for it!
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Earliest known portrait of Richard III, c. 1520. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry VII, c. 1505. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Margaret Beaufort, Anonymous 17th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
16th-century copy by Jacques Le Boucq of the only known contemporary portrait of Warbeck. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir