Reclaiming King Richard III

So who killed the two little princes in the Tower of London in 1485?  Having just reread Josephine Tey’s wonderful The Daughter of Time, first published in 1951, I am newly impressed with the power of an old mystery when subjected to careful reasoning.

Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacKintosh, chose an enduring legend of English history as the focus of her retrospective mystery.  A Scotland Yard detective, laid up for weeks in the hospital with a work-related injury, fights boredom by unraveling the historical mystery of the death of the little princes, which came at the end of the bloody Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Most of what most people know about the supposed murder of the princes comes from the history plays of Shakespeare, especially Richard the III.  As a boy, I was captivated by a multi-part TV production of those plays called An Age of KingsThat production, in flickering images of black-and-white, featured an amazing cast, including Sean Connery and Judi Dench.

But Shakespeare based his plays on histories written by creatures of the Tudor kings — Richard III died on Bosworth Field battling the mercenaries led by Henry Tudor, who would become Henry VII.  True to the adage that history is a story written by the winners, the Tudor version of history made Richard out to be a monster:  deformed physically and morally, and the murderer of the two young sons of his older brother, King Edward IV. 


Thumbnail image for 372px-Richard_III_Royal_Collection.jpg
Quick recap of the historical sequence:  Edward IV reigns for 20 years, quite successfully, then dies in 1483; Richard III succeeds him even though Edward has left two male heirs, the “little princes in the tower”; In 1485, Henry Tudor defeats Richard and takes the throne.’

Tey’s detective slowly unravels the traditional story of Richard’s crimes, which are based largely on a totally unreliable chronicle of Sir Thomas More, Among the facts the detective develops for us are:

  • Richard had been totally loyal to his brother, Edward IV, for twenty years, betraying no evidence of desperate ambition to become king.  Upon Edward’s death, Richard was named Lord Protector of the young princes, who were not of age, and moved to have the elder boy crowned the new king.
  • The coronation was called off when a bishop revealed that Edward IV was secretly married before he married the mother of the young princes, which made the princes illegitimate.  Richard appears to have been as surprised by this news as everyone else.  He is then crowned king.
  • Richard remained on very good terms with the former queen until his death, a very unlikely event if he had killed her sons.  And there is no contemporary account of their death during Richard’s reign.
  • Richard also did not disturb nine other potential Yorkist heirs to the throne, betraying no anxiety about the quality of his claim to that throne.  Indeed, when Richard’s own son died shortly after Richard became king, Richard named as his heir the son of his brother George.
  • After Henry VII became king, he pushed a bill of attainder through Parliament against Richard, so he could seize all of Richard’s lands and wealth.  That bill recited a variety of crimes by Richard, but never mentioned the murder of the princes.
  • Very early in his reign, Henry VII granted a foreign office (in France) to the man who was later fingered as the murderer of the princes, Sir James Tyrell.  Indeed, Tyrell was not denounced as the murderer and executed until twenty years after the supposed murder.
  • All of the nine other Yorkist claimants to the throne are murdered, executed, or disappear early in the reign of Henry VII.  Plainly, the detective concludes, Henry is the one who did away with the little princes, too, and pinned the blame on his defeated rival, Richard.

As Tey reveals at the end of her book, those arguing against the supposed crimes of Richard III have been losing the battle for centuries to the power of Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More.  Indeed, the Richard III Society is still fighting the fight.  Her triumph was bringing the historical controversy alive, gradually revealing just how biased the traditional sources are and just how poorly they fit the scattered facts we know about these events in the fifteenth century.  It’s a wonderful exploration of the uses, abuses, and potential of history.


  1. Dr Tom Lewis on April 1, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Hi David. Any progress? I have just posted this on the Patrick O’Brian mailing list:

    Following the finding of Richard III’s body I was reading up on some Wars of the Roses history. One interesting book, a novel by Josephine Tey called “The Daughter of Time” argues that the deaths of “the Princes in the Tower” was not down to “bad” King Richard III. As evidence for this it suggests that following his death at the Battle of Bosworth the new King, Henry Tudor, raised a Bill of Attainder which pointed out the bad things that had been done in the previous reign. But the Bill did not argue that Richard did the deed.

    Therefore this was compelling evidence that he did not kill the Princes, as his greatest enemy would hardly miss the opportunity to paint him in a bad light, thus justifying the new claim to the throne even more.

    Checking up on this, I found the site
    The Princes in the Tower; The Defence Case for Henry VII

    which says:

    “In the Bill of Attainder that Henry brought against Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth, specific reference to the Princes was omitted although it did carry an obscure mention of Richard’s ‘shedding of infant’s blood’. This was the closest the Tudor regime officially came to accusing Richard of involvement in the deaths.”

    My old copy of Lockyer’s “Tudor and Stuart Britain” does not mention this, merely saying that “whether or not he really did murder Edward V and his brother, the Princes in the Tower, he would certainly have been capable of it.”

    The website seems primarily concerned with protecting Henry Tudor’s claim. It mentions the confession later of one James Tyrell, but concedes it was extracted under Tudor torture. It doesn’t mention – but they does – that Tyrell’s confession was 20 years later….

    The website finishes off with:

    “With this in mind, Henry Tudor at best is a minor suspect in the case of the Princes deaths and not a serious one. He was accepted as a family member by the Princes’ own sister and mother, was not in the country at the time of the death and won the loyalty of men whom would never disassociated themselves with the Princes had they believed they still lived. As for the real culprit, the jury still remains undecided. From Richard III to the Duke of Buckingham, and from James Tyrell to perhaps another unidentified suspect, there remains a lack of prove to satisfactorily close the case. In my opinion ultimate responsibility would fall on the shoulders of Richard III. His dying brother’s wish was for his loyal and hardy younger Richard to be Protector of his young sons, both in official office and in a familial capacity. Whether Richard ordered the killing himself or not, the fact remained that the Princes did not receive the protection of his uncle and their tragic death by an unknown source remains something that ultimately he must be held accountable for. No amount of revisionism by the Richard III society will be able to undo this blemish against the character of Richard. Henry Tudor…we therefore find you Not Guilty.”

    I was more concerned with Richard’s guilt – or not, as would seem to me that he has been irrecoverably tainted with this murder.

    Tey’s novel was published in the 1950s. There must – or maybe not? – been a great deal of research done on this matter since then.

    What do members of the Gunroom think, or what can they point to in aiding a resident of darwin, Australia, made the poorer through geographical distance from the many resources of Britain?


  2. Hannah on July 20, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Anyone proving Henry VII innocent and Richard III guilty needs to check Richard’s actions before the incident and after Edward IV died. You will see that he was not planing to kill them; plus he proclaimed Edward’s children illegitimate, therefore eliminating the threat to the thrown of Edward V and Richard the Duke of York without killing them. And further more, Henry VII had to un-proclaim the children of Edward IV to marry Elizabeth of York. So, Henry VII had a reason to kill Edward V and Richard the Duke of York, but Richard III did not.

    • John Price on March 22, 2015 at 11:34 am

      The proclamation was just a piece of propaganda. It was worthless in terms of guaranteeing against future threats if the princes had remained alive.

    • Becca on May 22, 2017 at 2:26 pm

      Of course those boys were still a threat you don’t think when Edward V was older and out of the tower he might make war on his Uncle? Of course he would.

      Richard swore an oath to Protect Edward’s throne and did not do so.

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