Who Were the Princes in the Tower? | History Hit
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Who Were the Princes in the Tower?

Peta Stamper

26 May 2023
'The Children of Edward' by Paul Delaroche, depicting the two brothers comforting each other in the tower.
Image Credit: Louvre Museum / Public Domain

In 1483 the English king Edward IV died aged 40. His two sons, the soon-to-be crowned King Edward V (aged 12) and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury (aged 10), were sent to the Tower of London to await Edward’s coronation. His coronation never came.

The two brothers disappeared from the tower, presumed dead, and were never seen again. Richard III took the crown in Edward’s absence.

At the time and for centuries afterwards, the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ caused intrigue, speculation and revulsion, as historic voices including Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare weighed in on who was to blame.

Typically, the princes’ uncle and would-be king, Richard III, has been blamed for their disappearance and probable deaths: he had the most to gain from the deaths of his nephews.

Overshadowed by monstrous depictions of their uncle, Edward and Richard have largely been lumped together as simply the ‘Princes in the Tower’. However, although their stories share the same ending, Edward and Richard lived almost completely separate lives until they were sent to the tower in 1483.

Here’s an introduction to the vanished ‘Brothers York’.

Born into conflict

Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury were born and raised behind the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in England between 1455 and 1485 that saw two houses of the Plantagenet family battle for the crown. The Lancasters (symbolised by the red rose) were led by King Henry VI, while the Yorks (symbolised by the white rose) were led by Edward IV.

In 1461 Edward IV captured the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, and, having imprisoned him in the Tower of London, crowned himself King of England. Yet his victory was not concrete, and Edward had to continue defending his throne. Complicating matters further, in 1464 Edward married a widow called Elizabeth Woodville.

Although she was from a genteel family, Elizabeth had no important titles and her former husband had even been a Lancastrian supporter. Knowing this was an unpopular match, Edward married Elizabeth in secret.

A miniature depiction of the secret wedding of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville at her family chapel.

Image Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public Domain

In fact, the marriage was so unpopular that the Earl of Warwick (known as the ‘Kingmaker’), who was trying to set up Edward with a French princess, switched to the Lancastrian side of the conflict.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Edward had a long and successful marriage. They had 10 children, including the ‘Princes in the Tower’, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would eventually marry Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII, uniting to end years of civil war.

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Edward V

The first son of Edward IV and Elizabeth, Edward was born on 2 November 1470 at the Abbot of Westminster’s house. His mother had sought sanctuary there after her husband had been deposed. As the first son of the Yorkist king, baby Edward was made Prince of Wales in June 1471 when his father regained his throne.

Instead of living with his parents, Prince Edward grew up under the supervision of his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl of Rivers. On the orders of his father, Edward observed a strict daily schedule, beginning with Mass and breakfast, followed by studies and reading noble literature.

Anthony was a notable scholar, which appears to have rubbed off on his nephew. Edward was described by Dominic Mancini, an Italian religious visitor to England, as “polite nay rather scholarly” with “attainments far beyond his age”.

On 14 April 1483, Edward heard of his father’s death. Now the new king, he left his home at Ludlow intending to be escorted to his coronation by the Protector assigned in his father’s will – the former king’s brother, Richard of York.

A portrait of the young king, Edward V.

Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

Instead, Edward travelled without his uncle to Stony Stratford. Richard was not pleased and, despite the young king’s protests, had Edward’s company – his uncle Anthony, his half-brother Richard Grey and his chamberlain, Thomas Vaughan – executed.

On 19 May 1483, Richard had King Edward move to the royal residence at the Tower of London, where he awaited coronation. Yet the coronation never came. A sermon was preached by the Bishop of Bath and Wells in June declaring that Edward IV had been bound to another marriage contract when he married Elizabeth Woodville.

This meant the marriage was void, all their children were illegitimate and Edward was no longer the rightful king.

Richard of Shrewsbury

As his title suggests, Richard was born in Shrewsbury on 17 August 1473. The next year, he was made Duke of York, beginning a royal tradition of giving the second son of the English monarch the title. Unlike his brother, Richard grew up alongside his sisters in the palaces of London and would have been a familiar face in the royal court.

At just age 4, Richard was married to the 5-year-old Anne de Mowbray, 8th Countess of Norfolk, on 15 January 1478. Anne had gained a massive inheritance from her father, including great swathes of land in the east that Edward IV wanted. The king changed the law so that his son could inherit his wife’s property immediately, although Anne died only a few years later in 1481.

When his brother’s short reign ended in June 1483, Richard was removed from the line of succession and was sent to join his brother in the Tower of London, where he was occasionally seen with his brother in the garden.

After the summer of 1483, Richard and Edward were never seen again. The mystery of the Princes in the Tower was born.

Wars of the Roses historian Matt Lewis visits the Tower of London to talk through one of the building’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. He talks through the possibility that the two young boys were not murdered on the infamous King Richard III's orders, but in fact survived their uncle's reign.
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The Survival of the Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis is a History Hit Book Club book of the month.

The History Hit Book Club is the new way to enjoy reading books that spark rich conversations about history. Every month we carefully select a history book to read and discuss with like-minded members. Membership includes a £5 voucher towards the cost of the book each month from leading ethical online book and entertainment retailer hive.co.uk, exclusive access to a Q&A with the author and much more.

Peta Stamper