Unlike some people – who from their certainty were not only alive at the time, but high in King Richard’s confidence – I honestly do not know what became of the two boys we call for convenience ‘The Princes’. I have read all sorts of theories about what happened to them and none entirely convinces me. However, I very much doubt they were killed by or on the orders of Richard III.
There were rumours that the Princes had been murdered while Mancini was in England (he left round about the time of Richard’s Coronation in July 1483.) But at this time, and for at least a few months more, they were still alive, as it is claimed they were still to be seen in the Tower in the late summer before being withdrawn from public gaze. This demonstrates that public rumour, even when written into a Chronicle, is not the same as fact. Indeed it would be tedious to relate the long litany of false rumours that circulated in the 15th Century – perhaps the most enduring being the belief that Richard II was still alive in Scotland as late as 1417.
It appears that at least some elements of ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ in the autumn of 1483, intended to restore Edward V, but then a convenient rumour spread to the effect that Edward was dead; whereupon the rebels changed their allegiance to Henry Tudor, or possibly Buckingham himself.
Rumour was certainly a powerful weapon in politics, and it is worth remembering that it was more often than not wielded by the sovereign’s enemies.
What was the purpose of murdering a deposed King? Something that was never done lightly. The answer is simple, to discourage risings in his name. It did not always work – as in the case of Richard II. But equally, if often did, as in the case of Henry VI. However, there was no point in murdering the King and leaving an element of doubt for people to build rumours upon. In the cases of both Richard II and Henry VI (and also Edward II, Hotspur and Warwick, to name but three) the body of the dead enemy was put on public display, and, in theory at least, anyone could go to look at him and make sure.
The bodies of the former Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were conspicuously not put on public display. Nor were the deaths officially announced. (And Richard was not above making public announcements and swearing oaths, even when the circumstances were uncomfortable and embarrassing.)
It has been suggested that it would have been ‘too shocking’ for the bodies to be displayed, that people would have been outraged. This misses the point. Some people were outraged, even at a time when the boys were known to be alive. By late 1483, many believed Richard had killed them anyway. So what was there to lose?
But there was something to be gained. No doubt an official explanation could have been put together. Very probably not everyone would have believed the story, just as not everyone believed the official accounts of the deaths of Richard II and Henry VI. But some would. And it would have brought about what we now call a sense of closure, to say nothing of diminishing the chances of any future imposters. What is more, the boys could have been given a proper funeral and a proper tomb, and masses could have been said for their souls. While not wiping out the grave sin of murder, it would at least have been a measure of mitigation.
Instead (according to the opinion of many) Richard just let the matter hang. The result was that many people believed he had murdered them anyway, and they never received a proper funeral, or a suitable tomb, or masses for their souls. (Because as far as I can gather neither Henry VII, or their sister Elizabeth of York, or their mother Elizabeth Woodville, or any of their other sisters, or their grandmother the ultra-pious Duchess of York, or the saintly Margaret Beaufort, ever paid for a single mass for them. Not one! It is almost as if these people believed they were alive, and thought that a mass for their souls would be a sin.)
It is one think to believe that Richard III was wicked – quite another to believe he was stupid. But then again, there are people quite willing to take as historical fact that he had a sturdy Tower staircase taken apart and hole dug beneath it ten feet deep in order to keep the secret. Really, what a secret that would have been!
Written on the 546th anniversary of the death of Lady Eleanor Talbot. Requiescat in pace