Today, 10th August, is my birthday, and on this date in 1485, the last Yorkist king, Richard III, was in Nottingham preparing for the imminent invasion of his realm by his Lancastrian foe, Henry Tudor, who didn’t have much of a blood claim to the throne but touted himself as the last remaining heir of the House of Lancaster.
Richard hadn’t had an easy time since coming to the throne, in fact he’d been through some harrowing experiences. His only legitimate son, 10-year-old Prince of Wales, had died on 9th April 1484, closely followed in March 1485 by Richard’s much-loved queen, Anne Neville. He’d had to repel an earlier invasion by Tudor, which had been aborted at the last minute, and put down the Buckingham rebellion. He’d endured many unpleasant rumours about murdering his nephews, aged twelve and nine, and also of having incestuous/marital intentions toward his own niece.
All this on top of his eldest brother Edward IV’s sudden death in April 1483, the revelation that his, Edward’s, marriage had been bigamous and that consequently Richard himself was the rightful king. He and Anne were crowned on 6th July that same year. Now he was alone, a grieving widower and father, with another invasion imminent. Small wonder he took some time out at Nottingham to go hunting with friends at Bestwood (Beskwood, as it was called then) just north of the city.
It was while there that he heard of Tudor’s landing in Wales, and therefore the battle was fast approaching. On 22nd August 1485 the two armies met at Bosworth, where treachery brought about Richard’s violent death. He was only thirty-two, and was killed while fighting mightily to get at Tudor himself. Perhaps Richard was glad to go, to be with his wife and son again in a better place.
My purpose today is to discuss something that happened over a year earlier a month before his son’s sudden death….the March 1484 appearance at his court of the illegitimate daughters (and possibly their mother) of his late brother, Edward IV. The 19-year-old eldest girl, Elizabeth of York, was the one Richard was soon to be accused of wanting in a way no uncle should.
When Richard died he left behind some mysteries that consume us to this day. First and foremost, of course, is what happened to Edward IV’s two sons, Edward V, aged twelve, and Richard of York, aged nine. On their father’s death, Richard became Lord Protector and took Edward V into his custody. The younger boy had always been with his sisters and mother, Elizabeth Woodville, in sanctuary at Westminster, where they’d fled when the Woodville plot against Richard failed—she had a large family in high places thanks to Edward IV’s indulgence—and the new boy king fell into the Lord Protector’s hands while en route to London. The Woodvilles had intended to seize Edward V, rush his coronation and keep him under their control. Richard would have been assassinated, so Elizabeth Woodville had good reason to fear him. Fleeing into sanctuary probably seemed her only option. As did taking a lot of crown treasure with her! It’s understood she had a hole broken in the sanctuary wall in order to haul all the loot through.
The boy Richard of York was eventually given into Richard’s keeping, to join his lonely brother in the apartments of state in the Tower in May 1483 (it was a palace as well as a fortress). They both seemed to disappear from history after late summer that same year, but had been seen practicing archery and playing in the Tower grounds. And Richard was still issuing writs in Prince Edward’s name as late as 16th September. Richard has always been blamed for their deaths (the usual accusation is that he had them smothered) even though no bodies/remains have ever been found. No, they are not in that urn in Westminster Abbey! Many of those bones are from animals.
At the time it suited the Tudors, Lancastrians and Woodvilles—and still suits Tudorite historians to this day—to trumpet that Richard was the original murderous Wicked Uncle. If he was, why on earth didn’t he dispose of other awkwardly legitimate nephews and nieces too? The two boys weren’t the only Yorkists with claims to the throne. His other brother, George of Clarence, had a son and daughter too, but they were barred from the throne by their father’s treason and attainder. Attainders could be reversed, so these children were dangerous to Richard, if he wanted to view them that way. He could have binned the whole lot, his sisters’ offspring too, had he wanted, but he didn’t. It was left to the blood-drenched Tudors to rid the world of just about every Yorkist they could think of, women and all. Yet Richard is always accused as if he was a mass killer on a jaw-dropping scale.
Every single Tudor is much more deserving of being called a mass murderer. They even executed George of Clarence’s children, who had survived safe and well under Richard. The hero of Bosworth trumped up a charge against the by then 24-year-old Edward, Earl of Warwick, and chopped his head off. He beheaded Richard’s illegitimate son, John of Gloucester, as well. Among others. Henry VIII condemned to the block George of Clarence’s daughter, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who was sixty-eight. But then, the delightful ‘Bluff King Hal’ liked to chop off his wives’ heads for good measure. Including the one for whom he’d caused such upheavals in the Church, leading to the religious bloodbaths of the following reigns.
Tudor propaganda also spouted that, to secure his nephew’s throne for himself, Richard falsely declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate (this was thanks to evidence provided by Bishop Stillington in 1483 that Edward IV had been married to someone else before his bigamous union with Elizabeth Woodville). Well, the children of bigamy couldn’t inherit the throne. Period. Then it was said that once Richard became a widower (having poisoned his now-infertile wife, Anne, of course) he intended to marry his eldest niece, Elizabeth of York.
It would seem that her illegitimacy didn’t bother Uncle Richard as much as it was to bother Henry Tudor, who turned legal cartwheels in order to make her trueborn again. Henry even tried to suppress/expunge all legal evidence of her illegitimacy by destroying royal and parliamentary documents. Indeed, if a copy of Richard’s right to the throne, known as the Titulus Regius, hadn’t survived, we might never have known what really happened. The Tudors were nothing if not thorough when it came to hiding their bloody tracks. See http://www.richardiii.net/2_7_0_riii_documents.php.
The warning signs were there from the moment Richard breathed his last at Bosworth, because Henry promptly declared his own reign to have commenced the previous day. Thus he branded traitor every man who had supported their anointed king, Richard III. It was a dangerous precedent to set, and ever afterward Henry remained jittery about suffering the same fate. Serves him right. But he’d set the guidelines for the Tudor prospectus and it should have alerted everyone who’d supported him that they’d made a monumental mistake! But England was to suffer over a century of the gruesome House of Tudor.
Richard III had every true claim to the crown of England. He was Edward IV’s only surviving brother and had a son and heir of his own whose destiny was to follow his father on the throne. The latter wasn’t to happen, of course, but at the time Titulus Regius was drawn up, Richard’s queen and son were still very much alive.
Contrary to an intention to marry Elizabeth, on being widowed Richard embarked on arranging royal Portuguese matches for himself and his niece. He had no option but to marry again because kings needed heirs to secure their thrones. So these Portuguese matches were purely practical matters. He was still a young man and had no reason not to hope for more children through a much more acceptable and conventional marriage, so why risk a dangerously incestuous match, the very idea of which was anyway bound to be abhorrent to him? He was conventionally pious. Conventional in every way. Marrying his niece would be a line across which he would never tread.
There was, of course, a now-lost letter supposedly written by Elizabeth to Richard’s friend, cousin and ally, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, begging him to intercede with Richard on her behalf. When referring to Richard, this letter was couched in what appeared to be rather inappropriately affectionate terms. Whether the letter ever existed, I don’t know, but it’s certainly lost now. Maybe Elizabeth did have improper feelings for her uncle (Richard was a handsome young man and had been kind to her), but I doubt very much if he returned those sentiments. When he at last felt compelled to deny publicly that he had intentions toward his niece, he was definitely telling the truth. We’ll never know what Elizabeth thought of Richard, except that she didn’t once speak out against him. Nor for him either, of course. She stayed silent. I’m sure Henry Tudor would have loved her to accuse Richard of all sorts crimes, but she held her tongue. In public, at least.
I know you’ve read all the preceding before and have concluded that if anyone really needed to marry Elizabeth of York, it was Henry Tudor, whose success at Bosworth was solely due to the two-timing Stanley brothers, one of whom pulled a sickie to avoid the battle . The other turned Judas and set his men on Richard at a pivotal moment. With allies like them, who needed enemies? But mere conquest wasn’t enough to make Henry safe. You’ll probably be relieved to learn that I don’t intend to drone on about his Beaufort antecedents. The heir of the House of Lancaster? Give me a break. Richard’s supporters weren’t about to take Bosworth lying down, and Henry’s blood-claim to the throne was gossamer thin.
It was this very tenuousness that meant he had to do something to secure for good the support of the countless disaffected Yorkists swarming around his stolen realm. They’d given him their aid at Bosworth solely because they wanted Edward IV’s blood on the throne again, and he had vowed to marry Elizabeth. Should she have died, then he’d marry the most senior surviving daughter instead. If he didn’t keep his word, his reign was going to be as brief as Richard’s, if not briefer. And the good old unreliable Stanleys were just as likely to switch sides again. They were great at watching their own backs and stabbing everyone else’s.
The younger of the brothers, Sir William Stanley, who’d struck the decisive blow against Richard, was said to be the man who found Richard’s crown in a bush and placed it on Henry’s head. I don’t think he stayed happy with the consequences, because he eventually turned coat again to join a Yorkist plot against Henry. Sir William believed the claimant Perkin Warbeck really was the younger son of Edward IV, Richard, Duke of York, and wanted Edward IV’s proper line back on the throne. Henry’s exertions with Elizabeth of York in the marriage bed weren’t enough for Sir William. Their offspring weren’t proper Yorkists, whereas Perkin was the Real McCoy! Hey-ho, what goes around comes around.
To return to the main narrative. Henry had realized before leaving exile in Brittany and France to invade England (France was financing him) on this, his second bid for the crown, that marrying Elizabeth of York was a necessary evil. Without her the clarion calls to the banners of the White Rose would soon echo across the countryside, and the lord regarded as Richard’s chosen heir, his sister’s eldest son, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, had rather selfishly survived Bosworth.
Henry was to dither about Lincoln, at first trying to win him over (what a trophy he’d have been for Richard’s killer!) But Lincoln couldn’t stand Henry or what he embodied, and so the dithering eventually led to the last true battle between the warring houses of York and Lancaster. The Battle of Stoke in 1487 saw the end of Lincoln, and Henry dared to give a small sigh of relief. But the battle only went Henry’s way because Lincoln’s men believed (rightly or wrongly at that precise moment) that Lincoln had been killed. They fled the battlefield, and at some point Lincoln was indeed mown down, which didn’t please Henry, who wanted him alive to be “worked upon” for information..
Henry’s respite wouldn’t last, of course, the shadows and ghosts would always follow him. Lincoln (who had a number of brothers) was probably the reason why Henry began to systematically eliminate the remnants of the House of York, and why the succeeding Tudors continued the bloodfest.
Anyway, to return to 1485. As Henry prepared to sail with his army of English traitors, Frenchmen and other foreign mercenaries, he took a solemn vow in Rennes Cathedral that he would marry Elizabeth and through their children bring the warring factions in England together at last. Noble sentiments, but he just wanted the crown, make no mistake of that.
First, however, Elizabeth had to be legitimized again. Henry was in a delicate enough position already, without adding to it by marrying a baseborn queen, even if she was Edward IV’s eldest daughter. He had to be a legitimate king with a legitimate queen. But he made sure to have himself crowned first on 30th October 1485. He wasn’t about to be dubbed Elizabeth’s consort, so he didn’t marry her until 18th January 1486.
Elizabeth’s own coronation didn’t come until 25th November 1487, after she’d done the right thing and presented him with a son in the September. Hm, yes, the maths are a little iffy. The baby was a bouncing eight-monther. It was said to be a happy marriage, and that he didn’t stray from the marriage bed even once. I’d like to know how they can be sure of that! Was he followed 24/7?
What Henry didn’t need was his wife’s tiresome brothers, whose claim to the throne had become legal and vastly superior to his own from the moment he legitimized her. The boys’ whereabouts were unknown, of course. They certainly weren’t in the Tower, because one of the first things Henry did on reaching London after Bosworth was instigate exhaustive searches. No one knew anything at this point…and so Henry crossed his fingers, but if he had found the boys in the Tower you can bet your bottom dollar he’d have them disposed of. Hellfire, their claim to the throne was going to be infinitely better than his own because he was going to legitimize their big sister in order to marry her and produce the vital half-York, half-Tudor offspring!
So, if any such murdering of boys did go on in the Tower, my money would have been on Henry in the very early days of his reign. But there was no proof they died at all, let alone were murdered. It was all smoke and mirrors. Henry ordered the further spreading of rumours that Richard had done away with his nephews, but the Tudor fingers remained very tightly crossed. Richard murdered them! Richard murdered them! The mantra worked, in a great part because Richard had failed to produce the boys to refute the charges. Down through the centuries the same chant can still be heard by rote. And we all know Shakespeare’s part in the lies. But then, he did want to please a Tudor!
If Elizabeth knew that her brothers were still alive, she couldn’t have told Henry before she travelled south from Sheriff Hutton after Bosworth. They’d never met before then. Perhaps she did tell him—he was going to make her Queen of England, so it was in her interest to hitch her waggon to his. But by then he’d already set the ‘Richard was Evil’ ball rolling. And as he hadn’t found any bodies or any sign of where the boys were, he would ever afterward be angst-ridden that they were going to come after him for their throne. If Richard had set out to torment Henry from beyond the grave, he succeeded brilliantly!
Now, to my main point. (At last, did I hear you cry?) For me, Edward IV’s daughters appearing at Richard’s court presents an important and intriguing indication about their brothers. Two of the three youngest girls were children under Richard but made good marriages as Henry’s sisters-in-law. The youngest girl, Bridget, was little more than a baby in 1483, and became a nun. As for the two eldest girls, Richard not only welcomed them to his court, but treated them well—and he probably welcomed their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, who’d schemed against him and whose family had almost certainly intended to assassinate him before he even reached London immediately after Edward IV’s sudden demise. Whether she returned to court or not isn’t quite certain, but she certainly accepted Richard, gave her younger son into his care in 1483 and permitted her two eldest girls to go to his court.
Would a woman like Elizabeth Woodville have all done that if she really believed Richard murdered her sons? I think not. She had reason to fear Richard, having worked against him, but she apparently came to trust him. It was to be her sour Tudor son-in-law who’d steal her property and kick her off to the wilds of Bermondsey Abbey for the rest of her days. Under Richard she—or at least her daughters—enjoyed the luxury, privileges and entertainments of court life.
Nevertheless, her two senior daughters, Elizabeth and Cicely had presented Richard with a problem. Or so it seems to me. Even though they were illegitimate, they were still a magnet to ambitious enemies (Henry, for one—and if Elizabeth had died, he had his eye on Cicely instead), and what’s more, they were not only marriageable, but of beddable age too. In less than a year they could produce annoyingly legitimate sons whose calculating eyes would soon slide pensively toward the throne. Henry should know, for hadn’t his eyes turned to someone else’s throne?
It seems that Richard solved the Cicely problem first, by marrying her to Ralph Scrope, younger brother of one of his northern supporters, Thomas, 6th Baron Scrope. It wasn’t a particularly grand union for a king’s daughter, even though she was baseborn, nor was it particularly lowly, but it still surprises me. To begin with it was low-key…its very existence was only discovered recently. Perhaps it was a lovematch? Perhaps they married behind Richard’s back? We’ll never know, and anyway, as soon as Henry stepped up to the throne, with Elizabeth of York safely tucked up as his wife, he had the Scrope marriage annulled. Cicely was the second surviving daughter of Edward IV, and had to be plucked from a dangerously Yorkist marriage and placed in the custody of a safe Lancastrian relative. Take one pace forward his dependable half-uncle, Sir John Welles (Henry’s mother’s half-brother), who was rewarded by elevation to the rank of Viscount Welles. And so Cicely became the first viscountessw! ☺
Thus, if we discount Cicely as being married to Ralph Scrope during Richard’s reign, and the three youngest girls as being too young, there remained the most important one of all, Elizabeth of York. There she was, beautiful, charming and desirable, welcomed by Richard and Anne, and wandering freely around court. Her importance would have been enhanced still more if Richard really had done away with her brothers. So, I have to ask, would he really have permitted her such freedom and access to court if her brothers were indeed dead?
Not everyone believed Edward IV’s children were illegitimate, nor did everyone want Richard on the throne. Yet Richard and Anne treated her and her sisters with overt generosity and kindness. Why? Simply because he was a benign uncle? Well, maybe—even probably —but I think he had an ulterior motive as well.
One of the first questions always asked is, if the boys were still alive why on earth didn’t Richard simply produce them and put a stop to the rumours? Why indeed. My feeling is that he couldn’t show them because they were no longer in the Tower or indeed in his personal care. No, they weren’t dead, rather do I think he’d sent them somewhere to safety very early on in his reign, well away from Lancastrians to whom they were a grave impediment to Henry’s ambitions…and from Yorkists who wanted Edward IV’s line back on the throne, illegitimate or not. But something eventually happened to the boys, I don’t know what, but believe it was after Richard’s death. Were they hidden with Richard’s sister, their aunt Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy? Did they die of some pestilence? Accidents? It could have been anything. Margaret—Yorkist to her elegant fingertips—loathed Henry, and certainly wouldn’t announce their deaths. She’d want him to stew in his own juice. Which he did.
Without her brothers, Elizabeth would be the Number One of Edward IV’s children, in the eyes of many the true Queen of England, and Richard would have had to keep a very tight grip on her. But what does he do instead? He promises publicly to do all he can for them and provide for their future, and to always treat them well. Thus he entices them from sanctuary into his care. But he wasn’t saying and doing this under false pretenses. No, he meant every word. He would take good care of them. And they were delighted to go to him. They trusted him, and so enjoyed the complete liberty of court, new clothes, fine company, dancing, music…Oh, how they must have been missing all that when they were banged up in sanctuary.
It’s my contention that after his treacherous cousin Buckingham’s unsuccessful rebellion in October 1483, Henry’s aborted invasion of the south coast at the same time (it seems a two-pronged attack was intended, Buckingham from Wales and the west, Henry from the south, Devon and Dorset) as well as the ever-louder whispers about the murders of the boys in the Tower, Richard felt he had to do something to deal with the rumours and let Henry know that even if a second attempt at invasion were successful, the path to the throne wasn’t quite as pretty and primrose as he hoped. The boys stood in his way.
Richard knew his ploy had to be subtle—guileful even—to persuade at least some Lancastrians, Woodvilles and Edwardian Yorkists not to be too hasty about throwing in their lot with the Lancastrian upstart. Bringing the girls out of sanctuary would certainly give pause for thought in the relevant circles. Surely Richard wouldn’t let Edward IV’s daughters wander freely at court if they were their father’s principal heirs. Therefore their brothers had to be alive and well, and still in Richard’s care.
Henry wasn’t deterred from invading again—I think he’d gone too far to back out—but he was convinced the boys still lived and so scoured the Tower for them after Bosworth. He had to get rid of them, and maybe he managed to do just that. But his subsequent behaviour suggests he hadn’t a clue where they were. They’d vanished. Impasse. Where were they? Safe in some Yorkist haven, soon to grow to manhood and return to claim their rights?
If Richard really had been a murdering monster, he’d have killed and buried the boys and then imprisoned the girls before burying them as well. But he wouldn’t be able to stop there. He had other nieces and nephews, and they were legitimate. They were to die once Henry got hold of them, but they all lived happily while Richard was king, including John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who subsequently became useful as a temporary heir when Richard’s son and then his queen died. Richard obviously expected to have new heirs of his own when he remarried and didn’t for a moment think Lincoln would really become King John II, but if the worst happened, Lincoln was a man grown, experienced and a truly loyal Yorkist. He’d make a fine king.
There was no dark side to Richard III. He wasn’t a bloodthirsty monster or child-killer, but an honest man who in 1483 found himself in an impossible position. He would have become a great monarch if he’d lived long enough to prove it, but Henry got his way, stole the throne and married Elizabeth of York…having first made sure his coronation was safely over. He wasn’t about to be labelled her consort! He was kingy, and she had to wait to be his queeny. But he remained haunted by the missing boys throughout his reign. He dreaded their return. Maybe Perkin Warbeck was indeed the younger of the boys, Richard of York…in case he was, Henry sliced his head off. But there was still the older brother, the more important Edward V, who would have succeeded his father had his illegitimacy not come to light.
Is it a flight of Ricardian fantasy for me to perceive in Henry’s death mask the dying horror of seeing vengeful Yorkists coming for him at last? Yes, probably too much fantasy.
So there you have it. In my opinion, the arrival of Elizabeth of York at her uncle’s court suggests to me that Richard was letting his opponents know her brothers were still alive and under his protection. It was a risk, not least because Henry’s scheming mother, Margaret Beaufort, was also at court, and doing everything she could to support her son. Margaret was very definitely the enemy within, and there were others too, but Richard thought it worth the risk. And, as far as I’m concerned, it worked to some extent. But thanks to Tudor indoctrination, his not having actually produced the boys had the unwelcome side-effect of marring his reputation through the centuries.
Now I don’t doubt that many will disagree with this theory, and will probably say so. There may be holes in my reasoning, but I see these events as a strong indication that the boys in the Tower were still alive and remained so right to the end of Richard’s reign.
And for Henry, Richard’s ghost—and those of his nephews—always waited in the shadows, taunting the first Tudor king. Taunting the entire House of Tudor throughout its ascendancy.