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What if the Princes in the Tower survived into Tudor England?


For many people, the story of the Princes in the Tower is a brief and tragic tale of murder and betrayal. The sons of King Edward IV are usually accepted as having been murdered in 1483 on the order of their uncle, Richard III. The Survival of the Princes in the Tower examines the widely held contemporary belief that at least one prince and perhaps both Edward V and Richard, Duke of York survived into the Tudor era.

If Henry VII arrived in London in September 1485 and discovered that the Princes in the Tower were not dead, he would have faced a serious problem. He had been swept to victory at Bosworth largely on a wave of Yorkist feeling that had supported Edward IV but could not be reconciled to the rule of Richard III. Henry’s government would have a distinctly Yorkist flavour to it because of his reliance on the experienced former members of Edward IV’s administration. These people had backed Henry primarily because of his promise to marry Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. In order to complete this union, Henry needed to undo the illegitimacy of all Edward IV’s children enacted by Parliament in 1484. The problem was that he would also be re-legitimising her brothers and handing them a better, and probably more popular, claim to the throne he had just won.

In light of this problem, it is striking that there was no recorded investigation or search for the bodies of the boys. Henry didn’t round up anyone who would have known what happened, nor did he tear the Tower apart looking for them – or at least there was no record of him doing so. The uncertainty over their fate would be demonstrated for more than a decade after Henry became king as pretenders appeared to threaten him. The Lambert Simnel Affair is traditionally remembered as an attempt to use an Oxford boy to impersonate Edward, Earl of Warwick, but there are a number of things that have never added up fully about this Yorkist plot. Was Elizabeth Woodville’s loss of property and removal to Bermondsey Abbey as news of the plot reached London a coincidence? Why was her oldest son Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset arrested at the same time too? The answer might lie in Bernard Andre’s writing. The blind poet, who was tutor to Prince Arthur Tudor, insisted that the plot aimed to put a son of Edward IV named Edward on the throne – that can only mean Edward V. Henry VII ordered all of the records of the Irish Parliament that sat in 1487 destroyed, meaning it must have discussed something he wanted to make sure never saw the light of day.

The ability of Perkin Warbeck to torment Henry VII for so long was a direct result of the lack of certainty that the Princes were dead. Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was unswerving and vocal in his support for Perkin as the real Richard, Duke of York, as was James IV of Scotland. Was there more to this than simply seeking to cause trouble for a fellow monarch? Perkin repeatedly claimed that he had three physical marks that would prove who he was to anyone who knew Richard, Duke of York and the claim was never rubbished by Henry, even after Perkin’s capture. Bernard Andre and the Spanish ambassador Pedro de Ayala both described Perkin being beaten and disfigured after his capture, which might have been to hide these features, or at least his undoubtedly Plantagenet looks.

Amateur art historian Jack Leslau believed he had decoded secrets hidden within the family portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein which point to an assumed identity used by the younger of the Princes in the Tower and he also believed he had discovered the secret identity of the older brother too. If true, the latter would have a seismic impact on the politics of the second half of the sixteenth century.

An urn within the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey proclaims itself as the final resting place of the bones of the Princes in the Tower who were killed by Richard III in 1483. The contents of the urn were unearthed in 1674. Contemporary reports describe them being tossed onto a rubbish pile but when King Charles II heard of their discovery, he decided that they must belong to the Princes in the Tower and ordered them recovered and placed in the urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren. There was no evidence at the time that these bones were royal. The location matched Sir Thomas More’s version of the murders, but ignores his assertion that the bodies were almost immediately moved. The reference to velvet frequently used to prove the remains were high status and dated from after the fourteenth century comes from an anonymous, undated and unreferenced sources that is not corroborated anywhere else. When the bones were examined in 1933, it was an entirely subjective exercise that aimed to prove the bones were the Princes rather than trying to establish their provenance. They weren’t sexed, dated or any relationship between them properly established. Nor were these the only remains found in the Tower of London, before and after 1674, that were claimed to belong to the Princes in the Tower.

In the absence of a smoking gun, The Survival of the Princes in the Tower offers a fresh examination of one of history’s most enduring and intriguing murder mysteries by asking how certain we can be that there ever was a murder at all.

By Matthew Lewis

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