Murderous May: The Black Legend of Richard III

Tower of London as viewed from the Thames River.

Tower of London as viewed from the Thames River.

After becoming fatally ill at Easter in 1483, King Edward IV of England added a codicil to his will, naming his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) Protector while the King’s eldest son, Edward V, was in the minority. Shortly following the April 9, 1843 death of his father (King Edward IV) Edward V, Prince of Wales, traveled from his boyhood home in Woodville to London. In late April, the party was intercepted by Protector Richard III who arrested and subsequently ordered the execution of the Woodvilles who were traveling with the young king. Edward V (12 yrs old) was escorted to the Tower of London where he was soon joined by his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York (10 yrs old), supposedly to await Edward’s coronation. However, in July 1483, it was Richard III who was being crowned king– The two young princes had disappeared without a trace.

The mysterious disappearance of two princes from the Tower of London has plagued scholars for generations. No one knows exactly what happened to the young boys or their remains. Though there are several suspects, the convenient ascension of Richard III to King and the rumor of foul play has made Richard III suspect number one in the disappearance of Prince Edward V and Prince Richard.

The prime motive for Richard III to have murdered the boys was the throne. Richard III claimed the two boys were illegitimate because Edward IV was supposedly betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Under the laws of the time, that meant Edward IV had a contract to marry Lady Butler. Were there such a contract, it would mean Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous and any children from their relationship were illegitimate and, therefore, ineligible for the throne. An Act of Parliament of 1483 known as Titulus Regius, made this claim official and Protector Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was crowned King Richard III.

Richard III was king for only two years. His reign ended when he was slain during the War of the Roses in the Battle of Bosworth Field, August 1485. Henry VII of the Tudors succeeded to the throne following the death of Richard III.

In 1674, the skeletons of two children were discovered during renovations to the White Tower at the Tower of London. The remains were found buried beneath the staircase leading to the chapel and, in 1678, they were interred inside an urn in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey (along with the bones of several other animals including but not limited to fish, duck, chicken, sheep, pig, ox and rabbit). Based on a study of the bones from July 1933, many scholars believe them to be the remains of the two tower princes, but the findings of the 1933 study are inconclusive.

Tower of London Map

Tower of London Map from "The Official Guide Book: The Tower of London" (English-1997)

The 1933 study of the bones took six days. It did not involve the use of more modern forensic and medical technology– including radio carbon dating, which would have provided an approximate age for the bones. Age of the bones at the time of death was determined by dental records and an assessment of the growth plate, which had not yet fused to the bones. The remains were said to have been aged 12-13 years and 10 years– the approximate age of the two princes. However, the study never assessed the gender of the bones.

Other evidence was gathered and speculations were made to connect the remains to the two missing princes. One such speculation was the presence of osteomyelitis (a bone infection) in the lower jaw of the elder skeleton. The baseless conclusion, since it was never determined with complete certainty whose remains were being studied, was that the infection may have contributed to the depressive behavior of Edward V. This could have been a contributing factor to the young man’s disposition if those were indeed his remains. Scrapings of a possible bloodstain on the facial skeleton of the elder set of bones, explained as possible staining from being smothered by feather pillow as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, were taken from the bone for spectroscopic examination. Unfortunately, there were not enough scrapings to run the test. It is also disappointing that the study concluded the presence of unusual (Wormian) bones was significant as it was actually a fairly uncommon characteristic of bones in medieval populations.

Unfortunately, the Tanner and Wright 1933 investigation of the bones merely concluded the bones were the remains of adolescents aged 13 and 10 who may have been related. It did not determine the gender of the bones, nor did it offer any explanation for the possibility that these were not the bones discovered at the white tower (there was a 4 year gap between the discovery of the bones and their reinterment). This study did not conclusively prove the remains were those of the two princes, but the hypothesis that they are indeed the remains of Henry V and his brother Richard has been heavily emphasized and relied upon by the scientific community.

While a full forensic study of the remains could determine more accurately whether or not these truly are the bones of the two tower princes, it will never conclusively prove whether King Richard III actually had them murdered so he could ascend to the throne.

Despite there being other suspects, Richard III remains the popular scapegoat for vanishing the two young princes. Tudor historians and authors have not been kind to Richard III, and his possible involvement in the disappearance of the young boys has been called the “Black Legend” of Richard III. His so-called involvement in the boys’ disappearance will likely remain a mystery, but the popular verdict of a guilty has since been immortalized in Shakespeare’s play Richard III Act IV, Scene 2:

Why, Buckingham, I say, I would be king,

Why, so you are, my thrice renowned liege.

Ha! am I king? ’tis so: but Edward lives.

True, noble prince.

O bitter consequence,
That Edward still should live! ‘True, noble prince!’
Cousin, thou wert not wont to be so dull:
Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead;
And I would have it suddenly perform’d.
What sayest thou? speak suddenly; be brief.

Your grace may do your pleasure.

Tut, tut, thou art all ice, thy kindness freezeth:
Say, have I thy consent that they shall die?

Give me some breath, some little pause, my lord
Before I positively herein:
I will resolve your grace immediately.

There is further discussion on this topic at our Blog’s forum located here:
The Witching Hour: The Two Princes

* Shakespeare’s play Richard III, Act IV, Scene 2
(This is a great source if you’re interested in other suspects and more details.)
* Bramwell, NH, and RW Byard. “The Bones in the Abbey: Are They the Murdered Princes? a Review of the Evidence.” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. 10.1 (1989): 83-7. Print.
* The Official Guide Book: The Tower of London (English-1997)


2 thoughts on “Murderous May: The Black Legend of Richard III

  1. Perhaps you can clarify where you think I mean “Edward V and his brother Richard” as I do talk about two different Edwards, each with a brother named Richard in the article. There is first King Edward IV whose brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) is uncle to the two young princes–Edward V, Prince of Wales and Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York.

    I really hope this isn’t about the parenthetical (King Edward IV) I’ve used in the first paragraph. I really debated about including that as a clarifyer to reduce confusion about which Edward I was speaking of and to denote the father, but if it makes things more confusing for readers I suppose I’ll have to remove it.

    If there is in fact an error, I’d love if you could point out the paragraph and sentence to me so I can correct the information because I cannot find the alleged error with the information you’ve provided.


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