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Portrait of Richard III on red background.
Portrait of Richard III. National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-NC

Richard III’s reign was dogged by more rumours than just the Princes in the Tower

The fate of the 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother Richard, “the Princes in the Tower” (a misnomer as one of the “princes”, Edward, was actually king), has been the subject of much speculation since their disappearance in June 1483. Edward V’s father, Edward IV, died on April 9 that year, leaving his son as king and a relatively peaceful kingdom.

Yet, within two months everything had changed: several stalwarts of Edward IV’s regime were dead after a series of violent coups by his only living brother Richard, duke of Gloucester who took the crown for himself on June 26 1483. The two princes were never seen again after going to the Tower of London on June 16 and rumours about their demise began circulating soon after.

Rumours about Richard’s hand in the demise of his nephews quickly arose. The most famous example is an account by an Italian in London at the time, Dominic Mancini, who reported rumours about the death of the princes almost immediately after their disappearance. Although these rumours were circulating, Richard did nothing to quell them. If they were alive, Richard never proved as much. At the very least, Richard can be charged with making himself easy to smear.

Portrait of two young boys on a staircase.
The Princes in the Tower, Richard Duke of York and Duke of Norfolk King Edward V. National Portrait Gallery, London, CC BY-NC

Richard’s reign and his character quickly became the subject of controversies that have continued for more than half a millennium. The overwhelming attention paid to the fate of the Princes in the Tower has meant the fact that Richard III’s two-year reign was dominated by rumour and conspiracy other than just that surrounding his nephews is often forgotten.

Rumour and political turmoil

Fake news and conspiracy theories need not only be associated with the internet, or even the modern world. Richard III’s dramatic coup allowed rumour and gossip to flourish from the plausible to the outlandish.

On March 20 1485, two weeks after the death of his wife, Anne, Richard publicly denied one such outlandish rumour. The word was that he had poisoned her so he could marry his niece. This rumour was almost certainly false: Richard was grief stricken by Anne’s death and an incestuous marriage to his niece offered little tangible benefit. Yet, the rumour was deemed plausible because Richard’s son had died leaving him with no heir and a new, younger, wife may have given him more opportunities to produce one. Richard did have a ruthless streak and his late wife was his also his cousin. Richard was killed in battle five months later. Had he lived he would have almost certainly remarried but to whom we can only speculate and there is little to suggest that he would have seen his niece as a suitable candidate.

While subject to much gossip, Richard was not beyond using rumours and fabrication to his own advantage. He had his nephews declared illegitimate on the grounds that their father, Edward IV, was already married to another women, Dame Eleanor Butler. This made his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville bigamy and therefore illegal. Illegitimacy meant their two sons could not inherit the crown. This was most likely a fabrication but those living in England during his reign seem to have at least gone along with this story.

Richard III usurped his nephew after several decades of intermittent political conflict. There had been two civil wars in the previous 25 years. Any dramatic changes in the governance of the country were bound to set the rumour mill into overdrive. In such circumstances the job of disentangling fact from fiction and identifying misinformation could be almost impossible.

Public interest

These and other stories are overwhelming overlooked when people talk about Richard III. To this day every shred of new evidence that emerges about the possible fate of the princes gains attention, bringing this sole story back to the fore.

One of the first detailed accounts linking the deaths of the princes to Richard was written by Sir Thomas More, who would go on to become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. In it More cites two men, Miles Forest and John Dighton, as the murderers who he states were recruited by a servant of Richard III. Many have discounted this story as “Tudor propaganda”.

However, a new archival discovery found Thomas More had contact with two of Miles Forest’s sons – one of whom was working for Cardinal Wolsey and the other in Henry VIII’s chamber. It is assumed that More would have had contact with them when writing about Richard III. While this is not conclusive proof of Richard’s culpability it is perhaps as good as we can expect.

Portrait of Thomas More.
Sir Thomas More wrote the first account about the suspected murder of Richard III’s nephews. National Portrait Gallery, London., CC BY-NC

Yet, other evidence has been brought forth claiming that Edward V was kept in hiding for his own safety by Richard after he made an agreement with Edward’s mother. Edward apparently lived out his days in the south west under the name John Evans. This is not impossible, though it is highly unlikely.

What is impossible is to prove beyond reasonable doubt what happened to the princes. Indeed, when the evidence subjected to trial by jury at the Old Bailey around 500 years after the events, in 1984, Richard was found not guilty. Yet, the overwhelming consensus among historians is that Richard probably had some hand in the killing of the two princes. A rebellion in the autumn of 1483 sought to replace Richard with the exiled Henry Tudor (the victor of Bosworth two years later), presumably under the belief that the princes were no longer alive.

The prevalence of this murder mystery in public discussions of Richard III’s life is unfortunate. Richard only reigned for 26 months, being killed at the battle of Bosworth then most likely being buried in Leicester. Talk about Richard’s culpability risks reducing the study of history to a search for heroes and villains, and says little about medieval society or its values.

Without understanding those societies, history becomes no more than a collection of facts designed to create good guys and bad guys. In many cases, who the heroes and villains of history were is a matter of perspective. Surely it is more interesting to consider why people held certain beliefs or why certain rumours and false news flourished than to continually revisit a whodunit?

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