This week on MysteriYES we’re going further back in time than we ever have before. We are going all the way back to 1461 for the mystery of The Princes in the Tower https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princes_in_the_Tower. Before I get started it should be noted that this is our first HISTORICAL mystery. Meaning that there is a lot of over simplification, and, because everyone in this story is named either Edward, Elizabeth or Richard, I’m going to change some names. This isn’t supposed to be like school. It’s supposed to be fun. School is for dweebs. Do drugs and drop out.
In England in the 1400s, there were two families, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, fighting an incredibly complicated and difficult to follow war to claim the English crown. This war was called the war of the roses. This thing is super complicated (again because literally everyone has the same first name) and it lasted 35 years. There were battles and seiges and bribery and betrayal and murder and clergymen. It was a whole bit thing, and seriously, this thing is so convoluded. I honestly can’t make it through most of the wikipedia pages on this war let alone any deeper historical texts. I was even trying to summarize this story to my girlfirend and I honestly couldn’t do it. Suffice it to say, I am not an expert.
Our story takes place kind of in the middle of the war of the roses. In 1461, the house of York took control of the English crown, and Edward of York became Edward IV.
Edward was pretty much everything you want in a king, he was young, handsome, an excellent military commander, and a notorious womanizer. He had a ton of siblings, but the one who matters for this story is his youngest brother: Richard III. This is the same Richard from the Shakespearean play but Shakespeare was also writing the play under the reign of queen Elizabeth (who was a Lancaster) so the play’s depiction of him as evil, deformed, and conniving is probably extremely inaccurate.
Richard had scoliosis. Apparently it was noticeable, but it wasn't severe enough to stop him from riding a horse and being a well renowned soldier. He was Edward's second-in-command and adviser. This is in a time where pretty much nobody could trust their family, but Edward and Richard seem to be the exception. Richard was loyal to Edward through the ups and downs of his reign. He was even loyal when their other brother George turned against him. There's pretty solid evidence that he was the person Edward trusted most in the world.
A few years after becoming king, Edward married Elizabeth Woodville. Together they had a dozen children, but only three of them really come into the story. The two oldest sons were Edward, who I am going to refer to as lil’ Eddy, and Richard, who I’m going to refer to as Dick. The eldest daughter was of course named Elizabeth. We'll call her the Lizard
Not only was Elizabeth Woodville extremely fertile, but she was also a shrewd politician. She spent a considerable amount of time getting appointments for her family, and by 1483, the Woodvilles were a major force in English politics.
In April 1483, Edward died. His health had apparently waned quite a bit in his later years. It’s been theorized that he died of typhoid, pneumonia, and even poison. (Just to keep the Game of Thrones comparison alive he reportedly was very inactive and lazy in his later years). When Edward died liil’ Eddy, who was 12 at the time, became king. Edward made a decision (that surprisingly few kings made) he created a will and named his brother Richard as Protector - meaning that Richard was in charge of Edward's children and of overseeing the country until lil’ Eddy was old enough to rule the country on his own.
When he took over the country, the first thing Richard did was get rid of all the councillors related to lil’ Eddy’s mother. Then he brought lil' Eddy and his brother Dick, to London, where they into the Tower of London. Now when pretty much anyone hears that someone was kept in the tower of London they probably assume it was as a prisoner. It is important to not that at this point the tower was not yet a prison and this would be the normal place for a king in waiting to be kept.
After moving lil’ Eddy and Dick to London, Richard began to prepare for lil' Eddy's coronation – but on 22 June, a clergyman claimed that he had formally betrothed Edward to another woman before Edward married Elizabeth. Betrothal was a big deal in 1400s England, and it basically meant that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was invalid, and, therefore lil' Eddy, Dick, their sister Lizzie and all the other children were illegitimate.
After Edward’s children, Richard was next in line to the throne. So, a couple days later, an assembly of Lords and Commons declared lil' Eddy and Dick illegitimate and Richard King of England. This was later confirmed and publicized by something called 'Titulus Regius'. After he was coronated he was apparently a good king, continuing Edward's restoration of law and order after decades of war and chaos.
Over time, lil' Eddy and Dick were seen less and less, and then not at all. After a while, rumours started to spread that they had been murdered.
Two years later, in August of 1485, a guy called Henry Tudor, who was kind of related to the Lancasters (but let’s be honest everyone was related to everyone) led a rebellion against Richard. Richard was killed and Henry took over the throne.
Henry didn’t have a very strong claim, and a lot of people weren't happy about someone with a shaky claim to the throne ruling the country, but they also weren’t thrilled about more war. Henry came up with a brilliant solution to this problem. He nullified the Titulus Regius that had been declared (thereby making Edward’s kids legitimate again) and he married Lizzie. Now his claim is much more legitimate: he was married to the legitimate heir to the throne - as long as, that is, lil' Eddy and Dick were didn’t show up.
Henry also put out a Bill of Attainder against Richard - basically a document explaining why Richard sucked and wasn't fit to be king. He brought up just about everything bad that had ever been said about Richard. And yet he made absolutely no mention of what should have been the prime weapon in his arsenal: the accusation that Richard had murdered lil' Eddy – *murdered the rightful king*, which was about as big a deal as you could get – and Dick.
A lot of people try to point to Richard’s actions after his brother tied as an attempt to usurp the trone' but that doesn't make a lot of sense. What those actions do suggest very clearly is that he didn't like or trust the Woodvilles , and he was obviously concerned about their influence. Richard was worried about them basically taking over lil' Eddy, and therefore the country, so he took steps to isolate lil' Eddy from them as much as possible. Dick was brought along either to keep lil' Eddy company or because he was the heir to the throne, so Richard wanted him away from Woodville influence as well. By June of that year, Richard definitely believed the Woodvilles were plotting to kill him in order to regain their influence over lil' Eddy.
lil' Eddy and Dick were never seen again. Two people claiming to be Dick turned up along the way, and some historians believe that, while lil' Eddy was killed or died of illness in the Tower, Dick got out alive.
In 1674, the bones of two children around the right ages were found in the White Tower, but the royal family has refused permission for DNA testing - which in any case wouldn't answer the core question: what happened to the Princes in the Tower, and who happened it?
The most common theory is that they were both murdered, and the usual suspect is Richard. This is partly because of Henry's propaganda machine - almost everything we know about the princes comes from Henry's historians or from people whose knowledge was based on material from Henry's historians. Partly it's because of Shakespeare, who - writing under Elizabeth I, Henry's granddaughter, so not exactly unbiased - made Richard into one of the great villains of all time.
The main alternative suspect is Henry.
Richard was legally and solidly established as king. (There's no evidence that he had ever wanted to be king - contrary to Shakespeare's portrayal of him as wildly resentful and ambitious - but there he was.) He had nothing to fear from a challenge to his actual right to the throne; the only way lil' Eddy could have been a threat would have been as a focus for rebellion. And if Richard did want to eliminate that focus for rebellion - want it enough to murder the children of the brother to whom he had always been loyal, who had trusted him more than anyone else - he would have needed lil' Eddy and Dick to be not only dead, but seen to be dead. He would have announced that they had died 'of a fever', or whatever, and given them a fancy state funeral where everyone got a good look at the bodies, so that everyone would know they were dead and no one would get any ideas about organising a rebellion in lil' Eddy's favour. Having them just sort of vaguely melt away would have done him a lot less good. It would have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. And Richard was, beyond a doubt, very far from stupid.
Henry, on the other hand. He obviously wanted to be king very badly. In order to solidify his position on the throne, he needed Lizzie to be legitimate. Which meant lil' Eddy and Dick would be legitimate, and lil' Eddy would be the rightful king of England. If they were alive when Henry seized power, he had a big problem. And he couldn't pull the 'Oopsie, fever' routine, because nobody would have believed him, and an already stirred-up and unsettled country might well have exploded into rebellion and chaos - plus his mother-in-law-to-be Elizabeth and the powerful Woodville contingent would not have been one bit happy, and he badly needed them on side. Henry needed the boys to just vaguely melt away. Which they, conveniently, did.
An alternative theory is that they weren't murdered at all. Richard smuggled them out of the country to prevent them becoming a focus for rebellion; or lil' Eddy died of illness and Henry, when he came to power, had Dick killed; or lil' Eddy died of illness and Henry had Dick shipped off somewhere to get him out of the way.
If Richard did in fact have the princes killed, in the way that was obviously going to do him the least amount of good, what the hell was he thinking?
If the princes were alive, then why didn’t he produce them, in order to quell the rumours that he had murdered them?
If the princes weren't there when Henry came to power, why did he not mention this in the Bill of Attainder?
Here's what I think. I'm not set on this theory, but it seems to make the most sense, given the facts.
For Richard to eliminate the boys as a focus of rebellion, his undoubted best option would have been to show everyone their dead bodies. We know he didn't do this. It's not a big leap to infer that he didn't have any dead bodies to produce.
So why didn’t he produce the boys alive and well, to quell the rumours that they were dead?
I think he decided it was to his advantage to let the rumours keep going for a while. They weren't doing him any actual harm, and if no one knew where the boys were or whether they were alive or dead, they would be a good bit less likely to be a focus for rebellion. I think Richard just kept the boys in the Tower and played it cool. As far as he knew, he had a long reign ahead of him. Once the dissatisfied contingent had settled down and given up the idea of rebellion, he could bring the boys back out to normal life.
I think Henry genuinely believed the rumours. Then he seized power, got to London and nearly had a heart attack when, surprise, there were the boys - not just a potential focus for rebellion but, once Titulus Regius was repealed (and repealing it was an essential part of Henry’s plan), the actual king and his heir. The fact that he didn't accuse Richard of their murders in the Bill of Attainder suggests that the boys were still alive, Henry had been taken off guard by this, and he was still deciding what the hell to do about them.
What he eventually did, I don't know. He may have had them killed outright, or had them shipped off somewhere far away, or just left them in the Tower and suggested to a retainer that it might not be a bad idea if they didn't get quite enough food and water.
In a chain of almost unbelievable and seriously cool events, Richard's remains were found a couple of years back, buried under a parking lot, and were definitively identified via DNA. You can see a forensic reconstruction of his face, based on his skull, http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/royal-history/art52050-head-of-richard-third-reconstructed-in-four-hour-operation-based-on-dna-test-results