Sir James Tyrell was a trusted supporter of the House of York, and Richard III in particular. More’s account of his introduction to Richard by a unnamed page is too risible to mention, except that it exhibits yet another flaw in More’s account, that fine work of literature, roughly equivalent to – well, name the modern novel of your choice, although some have been written with greater accuracy – which is still inexplicably regarded as a source by many of Richard’s critics, including some who do not merely claim to be historians, but possess serious academic qualifications in the field.
Tyrell’s father was one of those executed in 1462 with John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, on the basis of a supposed plot against King Edward. The evidence for the plot was rather thin and the trials rather brisk and summary, but as this was during the reign of Edward IV, no great fuss is made by those who spend so much time bewailing the plight of such innocents as William Hastings and Anthony Woodville.
James Tyrell was allowed to have his father’s lands, once he came of age, and perhaps sensibly decided to side with King Edward at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where he was knighted. According to Rosemary Horrox he soon after joined the affinity of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was, of course, in the process of securing Anne Neville’s hand and setting himself up as Lord of the North. At some point, presumably after he was granted Glamorgan in the aftermath of Clarence’s fall, Richard appointed Tyrell Sheriff of Glamorgan and Constable of Cardiff. The importance of Glamorgan is little understood or recognised in Ricardian studies, but this was certainly a key job, and one of the most important at Richard’s disposal. The practical effect – given that Richard was mainly occupied either in the North or at King Edward’s court – was that Tyrell was his deputy in one of the greatest – if not the greatest – of the Marcher Lordships. It was a position of considerable power, and almost certainly considerable income.
Later Tyrell fought with Richard in Scotland and was one of those whom Richard saw fit to advance to the rank of Knight Banneret in July 1482. This was as far as Richard could advance him – only the King could give him the Garter or elevate him to the peerage. So it seems certain that Richard saw Tyrell as a valuable ‘member of staff’ who was useful in a number of roles and well worth keeping on board.
Once Richard became king, he granted Tyrell a number of additional offices including Knight of the Body, Master of the Horse and Chamberlain of the Exchequer. Taken together with his existing appointments this made him a man of considerable importance, both at Richard’s court and in the country. Unlike many of Richard’s followers, Tyrell was not a northerner, but hailed from Gipping in Suffolk. This may actually have been an asset to his career, given that so much emphasis is put on the unpopularity of Richard’s Yorkshire supporters in the southern shires.
If Richard had wanted to dispose of the Princes – a very big if in my opinion – then Tyrell would indeed have been a plausible candidate to arrange it; a loyal supporter, who was both trusted and competent. However, we can safely say it would not have required some random page to call him to Richard’s mind. Nor, as we have seen, could Richard have knighted him for performing the deed as Tyrell had been knighted long before. Of course, what Richard could have done was raise him to the peerage, a modest reward for so foul a deed. But he did not. Tyrell remained plain Sir James.
In 1484, Sir James was chosen as High Sheriff of Cornwall. This may be seen as another case of ‘transplantation’ of Richard’s followers into areas of dubious loyalty, although in this instance of course the incomer was not a northerner.
According to Annette Carson (Richard III the Maligned King pp. 162-63) Tyrell was sent to Flanders on a covert mission, for which payment was issued in January 1485. Whatever this mission was, it must certainly have been of importance for such an influential agent to be employed. Also in January 1485, Tyrell was appointed to command the important castle of Guisnes in the marches of Calais. Here he received a very large and unexplained payment of £3000. (Carson, op.cit, plus Harleian MS 433, vol 2, p191.)
Tyrell’s appointment to Guisnes served him well, as his duty there meant that he was not present at Bosworth, and could not be attainted for following his lawful king into battle. At first Henry VII deprived him of certain offices, but on 16 June 1486, and again on 16 July of the same year, Tyrell received a royal pardon for all offences he might have committed. (Bertram Fields, Royal Blood, pp.197-198.) The reason for his receiving two pardons so close together is unknown, although the possibility of an administrative error should perhaps be considered.
Be that as it may, Tyrell was now apparently in Henry’s favour and was allowed to continue in charge at Guisnes. Given Henry’s deeply suspicious nature and the key importance of Guisnes in securing Calais, this is rather hard to understand. Henry would have been well aware of Sir James’ high standing under King Richard. It seems almost incredible that such a man should have been left in so important a role unless Henry had good reason to believe in his loyalty. The new King surely cannot have had the least suspicion of Tyrell as a possible murderer of the Princes; and yet, this is the very time when one might have expected Henry to make a thorough investigation of the whole issue, in his own interests. You might think that at a minimum he would have had the Tower staff questioned, and that if Tyrell’s name had been mentioned Henry would have wanted to ask awkward questions of him as well. Instead he left him in charge of a very important garrison.
Tyrell attended the Coronation of Elizabeth of York, and fought for Henry at the Battle of Dixmunde in 1489. Given his apparent closeness to Richard, he had made the transition better than most, and looked as if he was accepted as a loyal supporter of the new regime. But in 1502, Sir James made the mistake of giving the fugitive Edmund, Earl of Suffolk, temporary refuge at Guisnes. By this time, Suffolk was the most promising of the available Yorkist heirs, and Henry ordered Tyrell’s arrest. This, as far as it goes, is quite understandable. Tyrell, who was in a position to hold Guisnes for a long time, was tricked into surrendering by a false promise of safe conduct. Once taken prisoner he was removed back to England and in May 1502 was privately executed on a charge of assisting Suffolk. Subsequently, in 1504, he was attainted, although his son, who was arrested with him, was subsequently pardoned and his attainder was later reversed.
According to Thomas More’s account, Tyrell confessed to murdering the Princes, as did a man called Dighton. But the strange thing is that Tyrell’s attainder makes absolutely no mention of the crime. You might think that a little matter of regicide, or murder of the present King’s brother-in-law (depending on whether you believed Edward V to be a lawful king or not) might just receive a line or two in Tyrell’s attainder. Moreover, conveniently, Tyrell’s actual confession is not extant. And even More admits that the man Dighton was still alive at the time when he wrote his account. Really? A common fellow, who committed regicide, or at least murder, one who had actually confessed to it at that, allowed to walk free by that lover of justice Henry VII? It beggars belief.
Thomas More was of course writing some years after these events. It is just possible he was privy to written records that no longer exist, or that he was relying on the word of some informant. (In this case it cannot have been Morton, who died in 1500.) It may even have been decided, at some point after Tyrell’s death, to pin the deed upon him. But the gap in the attainder on this matter, and Dighton’s alleged survival are very hard to explain.
Sir Francis Bacon, writing many years later, claims that this was the account the King ‘gave out’. But if Henry did tell such a story, he must have done so only to a select few, as even Bacon states that Henry did not mention the matter in any of his formal announcements. It seems a very odd way for a king to behave, when in possession of information that could only damage his enemies, and prevent the possibility of any more ‘Perkin Warbecks’ popping up in Flanders.
In addition neither Bernard André, Henry’s personal biographer, or Polydore Vergil, mentioned Tyrell’s confession. Indeed Vergil states that the exact means of the Princes’ death was not known.
While we must make allowances for the fact that Henry VII was a very strange and secretive man, who did not always act logically, the most likely explanation seems to be that Tyrell’s alleged confession simply did not exist. And if it did not, More’s account of the murder must be regarded as pure fiction.