Why Margaret Beaufort could NOT have killed the Princes in the Tower

Picard - Beaufort - Princes

I’ve always known that a handful of people judge Margaret Beaufort guilty of the death of the Princes in the Tower.  But until I published my series on Richard III – and incurred the wrath of the Ricardians – I had no idea just how widespread the theory was.

Absolutely no contemporary source links Margaret to the crime.  An obscure 17th century biographer attempting to redeem Richard III links the deaths to a ‘certain Countess’ (presumably of Richmond) but offers nothing by way of evidence.   I can’t shake the feeling that this view is currently so popular because of the ‘White Queen’ TV series in 2013.

It is, I believe, credible to suggest that Margaret had a motive.  With the sons of Edward IV out the way, nothing would stand in the way of her son making an alliance with Elizabeth of York, uniting their claim to the throne and over throwing the tyrannical Richard. But a motive is not proof.  It isn’t even close.

At the heart of this debate, in my opinion, is a correct understanding of how closely guarded the Princes were. Mancini tells us that Richard dismissed the boys’ servants and drew them closer into the tower.  Only Richard’s loyalist men had access to them in the context of a high security prison.

How could Margaret possibly have gained access to the Princes, even if she had wanted to?  The usual arguments go like this:

She was a wealthy woman who could have bribed the guards – She was a woman of some means.  But what on earth could she have given Richard’s most trusted men that would trigger abandonment of their master.  Killing princes, even ones deem illegitimate, is a pretty risking business – one you would answer for with your head.  I just can’t believe that you would do it under the orders of anyone but the ruler of the day.

Her husband, Lord Stanley was a mover and shaker at court – Yes he was.  But it does not equate that he would have access to the Princes.  He was powerful; but he was not part of Richard’s inner circle.

I’m worried about the way some people are thinking about the Wars of the Roses at the moment.  I consider myself a feminist and I agree that for too long, historians neglected the powerful impact that women have made throughout the ages.  But we do no favours to anyone when we try and make the facts match our values.  Women were not the key players in the 15th century.  Perhaps they should have been.  But they weren’t.

When engaging with people on this debate, I keep hearing people argue Margaret’s guilt with lines such as ‘she was a powerful woman in a man’s world.’  Perhaps she was; but it’s disturbing that people are almost suggesting that the murder of two young boys is somehow a display of power that we feminists should be proud of.

There’s much we don’t know about Lady Margaret Beaufort.  But what we do know suggests she was a kind, generous, pious, if a little austere figure.  Child murder was not something that was likely to appeal to her and even if it had, she could not have had the means.

Only one man had access to the Princes – only one man can reasonably be assumed to have murdered them.

What do you think geeks?  Am I underestimating Margaret’s ambition?  Have I been naive to the means or access she might have had?  I want to know what YOU think!

Book review: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Richard iii book

In the summer of 2013 I, like the rest of the UK, was absorbed by the BBC’s White Queen.  Like the rest of the UK, I fell in love with the brilliant acting, the dramatic story telling and the fact that for a precious few weeks, the things I loved were becoming main stream; people actually wanted to talk to me about the subjects I was usually told to shut up about!  I even recall a fair few people at work gathering round as I drew a Plantagenet family tree on the white board!

Of course, those that made it to the end of the series (which presumably wasn’t quite so many given the BBC’s decision to axe it) were talking about one thing: who was responsible for the death of the White Queen’s sons, the legendary Princes in the Tower?

It was never something I had looked into but, based on the odd David Starkey documentary here and there, I had always thought that Richard III was the most likely candidate.  But, after this documentary I realised there could be so many others; Margaret Beaufort, portrayed as such a fanatic throughout the series was most in the frame and even Anne Neville may have had blood on her hands.  This was something I needed to research.

A friend recommended that I read Alison Weir’s ‘Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.’  I was so grateful he did.  Because she set me straight immediately.

Not only is the book well researched, thoroughly readable and insightful, I would actually go as far to say that anyone reading it with an open mind, cannot walk away with the conclusion that anyone other than their infamous uncle, Richard III, was responsible for the death of the innocent Princes.  I appreciate that’s a bold claim but, I challenge anyone (who has read it) to defy me!

The brilliance of Weir’s work is not in the unveiling of any new or profound revelation, but in its sheer simplicity.  Many have said that too little is known of the late 1400s and that answers can never truly be reached.  She disagrees.  Instead of focusing on the absence of source material, she relentlessly peruses what is available to us today, orders it with logic and common sense and shows that the pattern of events and other contemporary comments point in one clear direction.

The book also provides a great window into the latter stages of the War of the Roses and brings to life a host of characters who each played their part in the dramatic events.  Although this was actually written before the book ‘York vs Lancaster,’ I recommend reading the aforementioned first, in order to ensure you have the context front of mind.

In the opening of the book (first written in 1992), Weir remarks that when it comes to Richard III we are never likely to have more evidence at hand then we have today.  Interestingly, we have of course since then made an epic discovery in the form of Richard’s remains.  Every further nugget of information that has come to light since then, only backs up the author’s analysis.

No book is perfect.  Every historian, however hard they try, brings some subconscious biases to the table.  But having now read this book three times, and aspects of it far more, I can’t quite believe that there is even a single Ricardian left standing.

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir was first published in 1992 with a revised edition published by Vintage in 2014.  It is available for purchase from Amazon in ebook, paperpack and hardcover format

Richard III part 7: Conclusion

In the past six posts I have attempted to demonstrate why I believe the circumstantial evidence and other reliable sources point firmly to the blame of Richard III who usurped his throne and killed his nephews.  Now I will sum up my conclusions and look forward to the conversation that will follow. Continue reading

Richard III part 6: Two issues that made me think twice…

Early in my research, I started to form the view that Richard III was responsible for the death of his nephews.  However, during my journey I stumbled across a couple of road blocks that gave me more than a little pause for thought. Continue reading

Richard III part 5: MORE of less – can we trust Thomas More’s account?

The most detailed account of Richard III’s murder of the Princes in the Tower was penned by lawyer and philosopher Thomas More c. 1515.  But can his ‘History of Richard III’ be trusted and respected as a credible piece of historical research and writing? Continue reading

Richard III part 4: Alternative theories – who else could have been responsible for the death (or rescue) of the Princes in the Tower?

In the last blog post, I demonstrated that circumstantial evidence strongly points toward Richard’s guilt; who else could really have overcome his defences and murdered the closely guarded Princes?  Nonetheless the centuries that followed have spawned countless alternative theories, some of which are worthy of examination.

Continue reading

Richard III part 3 – a dispassionate examination of the facts

Both unnecessary emotion and an exaggerated sense of mystery surround the question of who killed the Princes in the Tower.  As such it is important to cast any misplaced sense of loyalty aside and ruthlessly examine the facts that we do know from 1483 to discover the most likely destiny of the boys – and the most probable orchestrator of it.

“No!  No,” cried Philippa Langely!

It was a moment of history.  The bones of Richard III were being unearthed before her very eyes.  And it was almost instantly clear that he was in possession of the very curved spine that Ricardians have long argued was a Tudor invention.

Langley is an active member of the Richard III society.  She is also my hero.  Thanks to her stoic efforts over many years, she paved the way to the greatest historical discovery of a generation, perhaps of a lifetime.

But in her loudly expressed disbelief at what she saw, she betrayed one of the fundamental problems in the debate around Richard III.  Too often people are on a quest not to unearth the truth, whatever it might be.  They search for facts that will validate their theories.

This is exactly what we need to counter.  This discussion throws up so much emotion, but there’s no reason it needs to.  Similarly it encourages talk of a dearth of historic records (which to an extent is true), creating an impression that we can never know the truth.

It’s time to clear the fog.  It’s time to leave tribalism and emotion at the door.  For a minute let’s stop focusing on what we can’t know and take a minute to review what we do know.

Two accounts of Richard’s reign are rich in detail about the events of 1483.  One (the Croyland Chronicle) was written by a member of his government and another (Dominic Mancini) was crafted by an Italian visitor who clearly had access to a source at court and a first-hand experience of the public reaction.  Neither of these had any reason to fabricate, and although they could never have seen each other’s work, they broadly corroborate.

And it is by studying these two accounts and ruthlessly examining the events of that fateful year that we see Richard’s guilt to leap out at us, even though neither directly accuse him of the Prince’s murder.

We can, with confidence, be sure of the following:

  • That as soon as Richard became aware of his brother’s death, he rode to intercept the young King Edward V and had him taken into his care.
  • Richard arrested Lord Rivers (the young King’s uncle), Richard Grey (the King’s half-brother) and Thomas Vaughan (a close servant).
  • Richard illegally arrested two of Edward IV’s former supporters the Bishop of Ely and the Bishop of Rotherham and had a third, Lord Hastings executed without any trial. It was widely known that Hastings was one of three loyalist supporters of the young Edward V.
  • Richard and the Duke of Buckingham (his loyal supporter) moved many armed men into London.
  • Richard gained possession of the King’s younger brother, also called Richard (and Duke of York) even though he had fled to sanctuary with his mother. Both Royal heirs were placed into the Tower of London.
  • With both brothers now in the Tower, Richard dismissed the entire young King’s servants, replaced them with his own men and gradually drew them further within the Tower so that they were seen less and less each day.
  • In the days that followed Richard and his party began circulating rumours that Edward IV was illegitimate because of his mother’s adultery and that his children were illegitimate because he had already been pledged in marriage to another before he wed Elizabeth Woodville. They also argued that the aforementioned marriage would have been invalid at any rate because of Eilzabeth’s status as a widow and the nature of their union.  Had any of these reasons been true, only one could have possibly come to Richard’s attention as a result of new information.
  • Richard is declared King as Richard III.
  • Anthony, Earl of Rivers and Richard Grey (powerful and influential uncle and half-brother to the deposed Princes) were illegally put to death without a trial. Commentators remarked that the three men who could have been the biggest support to Edward V were now dead (Hastings, Grey and Rivers),
  • Plots from men in the south and west began to form to liberate the princes from the Tower and to spirit their sisters to safety overseas.
  • The Princes were never seen again and rumours of their death began to circulate.
  • As Richard’s reign continued, rumours that he killed the Princes proved toxic to him; but he never produces the boys to counter them.

As such, we can be confident that at this stage the Princes were dead.  Rumours of their murder were proving disastrous for Richard and driving many into the sympathies of Henry of Richmond, the remote Lancastrian claimant exiled to Brittany.   To prevent this, the new King would have only needed to present his nephews for public viewing.  But he didn’t.

Some would argue, of course, that the fact they were dead does not make Richard responsible for it.  And it doesn’t.  But when you stand back and review the chronology that I have presented above, is there really any other alternative?

All of Richard’s actions are consistent with those of a man who had set out to seize the throne and he had acted swiftly and brutally to anyone who got in his way with expressions of tyranny.  He then obtained custody of both Princes and placed them entirely under his watch.  Rebellions in their favour would have convinced him that his attempts to bastardise them had failed.  He had the motive and means to eliminate them forever.

But surely this is all circumstantial?  Even if he had usurped the throne and taken them prisoner, couldn’t someone else have been responsible for this final, must outrageous of deeds?

No, not really.  Richard had his own, loyal men guarding his nephews.  Only someone acting under his orders could have had access to them.  And if for any reason someone else had managed to get their hands on them, he would have known about it almost straight away.  It is hardly conceivable that he would have had a good enough network of spies to detect rebellions against him across the country, but would have been blind to what was happening on his own watch.

However, as I’m sure my Ricardian friends would rush to remind me, this is just one of many theories.  But as we shall see in the next post, it is a theory that is far more compelling than any other on offer.

Okay geeks…over to you.  Am I being too judgmental toward Richard?  Are their facts from 1483 that I am failing to consider?  I would love to know what YOU think! 

Richard III part 2: A legitimate question – did Richard have the legal right to take the throne?

In 1483, having already been given temporary control of the government following the death of his brother Edward IV, The Duke of Gloucester was declared King as Richard III.  The argument was given that Edward’s children were the result of a bigamous marriage and therefore unable to claim the throne.  But when examined in the cold light of day, can these claims really be justified?

As June 1483 dawned, Richard had assumed control of the government and the person of the King as Lord Protector.  This was probably the most appropriate situation legally and – with the exception of the Woodvilles, the young King’s maternal family and their ardent supporters – most people thought it the right course of action.  But as far as the council, the magnates and the people were concerned this was a temporary measure that would last until the young King’s coronation and then, in a lesser form, until he came of age.  Supposedly, this too was Richard’s expectation.

But then there was a revelation; somehow Richard and his advisors stumbled across evidence that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid.  Apparently – so the story goes – the late King had previously pledged to marry a woman called Eleanor Butler and consummated that betrothal.  Had this happened, it would have created a valid ‘pre-contract’ which was effectively the equivalent of marriage.  If true, Edward’s subsequent marriage would have been invalid and his children bastards.  Bastards could not – and indeed cannot today – inherit the crown.

It was a damning accusation.  Given Edward’s reputation as a womaniser it was certainly credible and helpfully for Richard, everyone involved with was now dead; it could never be disproved.

But we, removed from the situation and in the cold light of day, can be confident that it was a lie.

Firstly, the very convenience of it argues against its reliability.  Why had this been discovered just when Richard was worried about his grip on power?  Why had no one mentioned it in 1464 when Edward and Elizabeth married?  It is understandable to think that no one would have challenged Edward when at the height of his power.  But at the time of his controversial marriage there were many people – who were effectively just as powerful as him – who did not want it to happen.  They would have paid handsomely for any information that would have nullified this marriage – the fact that none came forward suggests none existed.

Similarly, as the contemporary writer Dominic Mancini makes clear, this was not even Richard’s plan A.  He and his supporters first put it about that Edward IV himself was illegitimate – the result of their mother’s adultery.  They also argued that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid because of its secretive and lustful beginnings.  It was a case of throwing around a few stories and seeing what stuck.

And there are other reasons that give us near-certainty that Richard himself did not truly believe the story.  If he had, why on earth did he not pass it on to an ecclesiastical court who would have investigated the matter? They were the only ones that had the power to do so.  He certainly had the illegitimacy of the marriage proclaimed in Parliament; but Parliament had no jurisdiction on such matters.  Some have claimed that the fact Richard received universal support from the council is evidence that the tale was believed.  But, through the execution of Hastings (and later of Vaughn, Grey and Rivers) without trial, Richard had made it clear to everyone exactly what happened when he heard a hint of opposition.

One near-contemporary source states that this information came from Bishop Stilton, Bishop of Bath and Wells who had apparently been the sole witness of the pre-contract between Edward and Butler.  Ricardians have latched onto this to create a cunning and intelligent theory.  Two weeks after the execution of George, Duke of Clarence in 1474 (who was accused of plotting against his brother, Edward IV), the Bishop was arrested and imprisoned for ‘slander of the King’.  He was quickly pardoned and released.  Could he, the Ricardians suggestively ask, have been involved in George’s planned rebellion?  Could he have given George the information he really desired – that Edward’s marriage was invalid and that he, Clarence was heir to the throne.  Knowing as he did that Clarence was in possession of such information, it is claimed, was the real reason that Edward IV finally took action against his pesky brother.

It is possible that the Bishop was involved in the pre-contract story; it is equally possible that he was an ally of George of Clarence, although neither can be proved.  But, if it was Bishop Stilton that gave Richard the Butler story then we can have a high degree of certainty that it was a fabrication.

If Stilton had been the witness to the union, that is of course something that Edward IV would have remembered.  And he would have known that this was a man with dangerous information; the second the King had a sense that he was going to turn against him, it would have been curtains for the Bishop.  Edward may not have been blood-thirsty by nature – but he was every inch the medieval monarch.  In order to secure the succession for his children he had put an old man to death, dragged distant Lancastrians out of sanctuary to be beheaded and even executed his own brother (something that would always play on his conscience).  Is it really likely that he would let a man who had the potential to bring his dynasty tumbling down off with a just a warning, especially once he had demonstrated he was prepared to speak out?

As the validity of the pre-contract story crumbles around us, we have no option but to conclude that Richard seized the throne illegally.  This, of course, does not automatically make him a child killer.  However, every disposed monarch in history had later been murdered, meaning that many suspected the new King would soon orchestrate the death of the Princes.  And as we shall see in the next post, this is exactly what Richard proceeded to do.

Did Richard III kill the Princes in the Tower? Part 1: Introduction

The question of who killed the Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York is one that has puzzled historians and commentators for centuries.  However, as will be demonstrated over this seven-post series, when the facts are objectively examined, there is little reason to cast the blame for the murder of the Princes in the Tower in the direction of anyone other than their infamous uncle, Richard III. Continue reading