1483 AD Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

By A. J. Pollard

There are those people in history that for one reason or another are endlessly fascinating.  Some, for their heroic and inspiring lives, some for their absurdities and bizzare behavior, and still others for their unbelievable wickedness.

Depending upon who you talk to, Richard III could fit into all three categories.

To make a long story short, for those who don’t know, Richard III was the King of England from 1483 to 1485.  Nope, not a typo, that’s a whole two years.  His brother was king (Edward IV), but when he suddenly died, Richard usurped the throne from his 12-year-old nephew (Edward V).  He put Edward V and his younger brother in the Tower of London (which was not commonly a prison at the time, but a castle residence) for safekeeping.  They were seen less and less over the next few months, and those allowed to visit them were weeded off as well.  Four months after first entering the Tower, they ceased to be seen ever again.  At the time of Richard’s rule, as well as for several hundred years afterward, Richard III was credited with the princes’ murders.  Over time, he was turned into an evil and deformed monster, with a humpback and a withered arm, a moral story to warn against wickedness.  Shakespeare based his play Richard III on this version of the story.  Today, while most discredit the deformities (as no contemporary sources or artwork that describe Richard’s person make mention of such), many still believe he was responsible for the murders.  Some, dubbed the pro-Ricardians, believe Richard has been abused by history, his good name sullied, and that he was neither evil, nor murderer.  They credit the murders to, depending upon the historian, several other possible suspects, or claim that the boys (or perhaps just the younger one) were either sent from, or escaped out of, the country to who knows where.

Both sides of the story have their holes, through which the other side relishes in jabbing.  The politics of the time were fairly complicated (not unlike today, I guess) and there were many, many people involved.  Plus, contemporary sources are few, and those that we do have may be biased or simply mistaken in the facts.  In fact, the main contemporary ‘histories’ that we have are mistaken in several places.  You have to remember that the scientific view of history that we have today didn’t exactly exist back then.

I started out with a middle-grade biography, The Little Princes in the Tower by William W. Lace, which was a great introduction for me, since I had little previous knowledge of Richard III.  I then moved on to an adult version, Richard the Third and the Princes in the Tower by A. J. Pollard, which is generously illustrated with pictures of paintings, maps, drawings, letters, etc.  I especially enjoyed Pollard’s intelligent, respectful, and personable tone.  Both authors tried to present a fairly balanced view, pointing out the holes of both sides, nevertheless, both authors are anti-Ricardian.  I am waiting for the biography of pro-Ricardian biographies, Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard the Third from the library.  So far, even with it’s holes, the evidence in my mind is stacked against poor Richard.  It’s not necessarily what was said about him in contemporary sources (which many argue is Tudor propaganda, however, those same authors wrote other things that made the Tudor kings mad…so…but let’s not get off-track here).  It’s not what was said about Richard that has me thinking he did it, but the actions taken by Richard (that are historical fact) that look awfully suspicious and seem to speak against his intentions and integrity.  To be short, I’m very excited to see what the defense has to say.

Here’s a painting of Richard III, painted approximately 30 years after Richard’s death.  None of any portraits painted during his life exist.

And here are a few pictures of the princes, the first painted in 1831, depicting the princes huddled together, the younger one looking up at some sound at the door.

And this one was painted in 1878, with the boys standing at the bottom of the stairs, where a chest containing two young skeletons was found buried ten feet underground.  (These skeletons were found in 1674, and examined in 1933 with then-modern science.  They believed these to be the bones of the princes, but today people argue back and forth…obviously.  A contemporary source that says the boys’ murder was ordered by Richard mentions also that they were buried at the foot of the stairs, but later Richard ordered their remains moved to a more suitable location.  If this is true, and if the bones do truly belong to the boys, then someone failed to follow through.  Alas, it wasn’t on the first order.)