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 Kings. That 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.
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.