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The Princes in the Tower

In 1483, Richard III came to the throne of England upon the deposition of his nephew, the young Edward V. Edward, with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, was placed in the Tower of London. Shortly afterwards, the two boys disappeared. The second richest and second most powerful man in the kingdom, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, at about this same time joined a rebellion that had begun immediately after Richard’s ascension for the purpose of restoring Edward to the kingship. A rumor was spread that the Princes had "died a violent death, but it was uncertain how" (Littleton, 93).

Naturally, there's controversy over how the Princes died and who was responsible. Richard is believed by most to be guilty, although Richard has a devoted legion of fans. Their usual candidate is Henry VII, Richard's successor. Another candidate, the afore-mentioned Buckingham, is popular with a minority, but most scholars and authors argue that Buckingham was not only not guilty, he could not possibly have been guilty.

Before one can enter into the debate over who murdered the Princes, however, one must first look into the debate as to whether the Princes were even murdered. The prize exhibit in this particular subdivision of the controversy is a pair of skeletons, of two children, found in the Tower in the seventeenth century. They were instantly assumed to be those of the Princes (as were another pair, discovered in the sixteenth century, which later disappeared and have not resurfaced) and were placed in an urn in Westminster Abbey. The bones were given a forensic examination on the 1930’s, and some impossibly definite conclusions were reached. For instance, the bones were declared to be those of two boys; it was then and is now absolutely impossible to determine the sex of pre-pubertal skeletons. The age of the bones, also, was affixed with a certainty simply not possible given the state of forensic scientific knowledge at the time; a more accurate estimate could be reached today. The Richard III Society has petitioned Westminster Abbey to allow the bones to be re-examined, but permission has been steadfastly refused, and until it is granted, the bones prove nothing.

However, the circumstances of their discovery do. A contemporary description of the discovery of the bones says that the bones were surrounded by scraps of velvet. Velvet was only invented in the fifteenth century, and was not made in England until the sixteenth (Weir, 253). Obviously only those in the upper ranks of the aristocracy could wear velvet, and "[a]s no other pair of well-born children disappeared in the Tower during the previous 200 years, it is a fair assumption—forensic evidence aside—the these were indeed the bones of the Princes" (Weir, 253). This fact, coupled with the Princes' disappearance, makes it fairly certain that the Princes died in the fall of 1483. The behavior of the rebels—those affiliated with what came to be known as Buckingham’s rebellion—serves to confirm this. Why would the rebels spread a rumor that the Princes had died violent deaths, an accusation that clearly reflected on their protector and guardian the king, if they knew that the Princes were in fact alive and could be produced at any moment, thus making the rebels look like a pack of fools (Ross, 101-102)?

It is safe to say, then, that the Princes were murdered in the fall of 1483. The question remains, by whom? Richard III is accused in nearly every document; that in and of itself is damning in a historian’s eyes. Unfortunately, most of the documents were written during the reign of Richard’s enemy, Henry VII. While that does not necessarily bar them as evidence, it is cause for suspicion. That suspicion is confirmed by the indubitable inaccuracies in them, and the way stories are embellished from one account to the next; as evidence, those documents written in the Tudor period are worthless. Those documents written contemporaneously with the events that they describe are very few in number. Some accuse no-one; they either refuse to blame anyone for the Princes’ deaths, or simply do not know who was responsible. Others sources accuse Richard; still others at least implicate the Duke of Buckingham (sometimes more than one of these positions will be put forward within the same text—as in Philippe de Commynes’s book, for instance).

A controversial manuscript discovered fairly recently in the Ashmolean Museum states that the Princes were murdered ‘be the vise’ of the Duke of Buckingham. The word vise could mean either advice or device. In the fifteenth century, however, advice could have the meaning ‘by the command of’ as well as ‘by the advice of’. Most scholars take this to mean advice, not device, and that in the meaning exclusive to it now, thus enabling them to argue that this manuscript does not implicate the Duke of Buckingham as any more than an accomplice. That is certainly arguable, but historians and writers on the subject generally do not rely on just the textual or forensic evidence when putting their case for Richard’s guilt, which is as follows.