The White Queen - What happened to the Princes in the Tower?

Princes in the Tower

In 1483 the 'White Queen' Elizabeth Woodville's two sons were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The exact circumstances of their disappearance has intrigued historians for hundreds of years, but what do we know about what really happened to the Princes in the Tower?

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville had two sons who survived infancy, Edward, born in 1470, and Richard, born in 1473.

Edward briefly became king when his father died in April 1483, but found himself confined in the Tower when his uncle Richard Duke of Gloucester took control of the government.

His younger brother soon joined him there, and although both boys were seen playing in the Constable's garden during the summer, they were 'withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether'. In July Richard of Gloucester took the throne to become Richard III.

What did Elizabeth Woodville think became of her sons?

Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437-1492)

The White Queen

Elizabeth would have been desperate to discover if her two sons were alive or dead. She never made any public comment - or if she did her words went unrecorded - and her actions suggest she entertained different possibilities over time.

At first she seems to have feared the worst, even agreeing to marry her eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth to Margaret Beaufort's son Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) to bolster his slender claim to the throne.

However, Elizabeth went on to make her peace with King Richard, urged the Marquis of Dorset, the eldest son of her first marriage, to abandon Henry, and apparently raised no objection when Richard contemplated marrying the younger Elizabeth himself. This could imply that she had learned that at least one of her royal sons was still living, or that she did not blame Richard for whatever fate had befallen them.

Equally, she may have decided that she had more to gain by working with him than by resorting to opposition.

Elizabeth's brother, Earl Rivers, and Lord Richard Grey, the younger son of her first marriage, had been executed on King Richard's orders in June 1483, but it seemed likely that he would remain king for the foreseeable future.

Elizabeth may have decided that fostering the interests of the surviving members of her family was more important than seeking vengeance for those who were dead.

Princes in the Tower
Who knew the fate of the Princes?

There is no proof that the Princes were killed by anyone, but people at the time assumed that the two boys would follow the other deposed rulers of medieval England - Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI - to an early grave. Several individuals, Henry Tudor, Richard's allies, the Dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk, and even Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, have all been touted as alternative 'murderers', but motive and opportunity are one thing and hard evidence quite another.

Captured on canvas

Princes in the Tower

In 1674, the bones of two children were found in the Tower and reburied in an urn in Westminster Abbey. Were these the remains of the Princes? With the recent discovery of Richard III's skeleton, modern scientific methods could, possibly, tell us if the bones were related to him, but they would shed no light on precisely when the Princes died or by whose hand.

It is sometimes assumed that no one knew what had become of the Princes, but this is impossible. Kings and leading courtiers cannot have remained in ignorance - orders had to be given and carried out by someone. Elizabeth Woodville would surely have known the truth and she would have told her remaining children.

Logically, if both boys had died, the matter could have been discussed and the culprit blamed openly, but if at least one of them was still living, secrecy would have been essential. Richard III, and Henry VII after him, would both have known of the child's whereabouts, but they could not have produced him in order to scotch the rumours of his murder without at the same time admitting that his claim to the throne was better than theirs.

Did at least one of the Princes survive?

The only certain thing we know about the boys, after they were lodged in the Tower, is that the older boy Edward V was receiving visits from his doctor. He could have died from his illness or from misguided attempts to cure him, but there is no indication that his younger brother Richard was also receiving medical treatment.

Pretenders to the throne

Perkin Welbeck
  • Lambert Simnel was presented as Prince Richard.
  • After defeating a rebellion around his claim to the throne, Henry VII pardoned him and sent him to work in the Royal kitchens
  • The pretender Perkin Warbeck also claimed to be the younger prince.
  • An invasion aided by James IV of Scotland failed and Warbeck was executed for treason in 1499

Later pretenders claimed to be the younger Prince. This would suggest that there was a popular assumption that Richard was still living, but that Edward, the elder boy and a more obvious candidate for impersonation, was dead.

Elizabeth could have found someone to take the place of the younger Prince, although the successful substitution of a 'common' youth would suppose some naivety on the part of the nobles and bishops who arranged his transfer to the Tower. Perhaps neither Richard III nor Henry VII would have wanted to incur the disgrace that killing him would have brought upon them.

Hiding him, changing his identity, would have given all the parties a degree of satisfaction and made their future relationships workable, but was that the last the world heard of him?

It has been suggested that Richard may have reappeared as Lambert Simnel or as Perkin Warbeck, both pretenders to the throne, or as Richard Plantagenet, the educated bricklayer of Eastwell in Kent, but more than half a millennium later we are no nearer to discovering the truth.

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