New evidence: Was Richard III guilty of murdering the Princes in the Tower?

Records in Canterbury could hold a clue to the king’s role in his nephews’ demise.

The recent discovery of Richard III’s bones has reignited the debate over the fates of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. An urn in Westminster Abbey contains the mixed bones that were discovered buried under a flight of steps in the White Tower, in 1674, and may hold the final key to their identities. However, even if royal permission were granted for the extensive DNA testing required, this would only prove the fact of their deaths, rather than the names of the perpetrators. The true story of the unfortunate boys’ murder(s) when they were aged twelve and nine will probably never be known. However, while undertaking research for my biography of Richard III’s wife, I discovered information that could imply their uncle’s guilt.

Last seen in early July 1483, the boys vanished from sight after being declared illegitimate in a sermon preached by Dr Shaa at St Paul’s Cross, just days before Richard became king. Their father, Edward IV had died at the age of forty, fully expecting his eldest son to inherit his throne. But on his way to London from Ludlow, the Prince was intercepted by his uncle, removed from his mother’s relatives and lodged in the Tower. Hidden away deep behind its age-old walls, the princes’ royal blood made them dangerous claimants to the throne, to whom many of their father’s former staff would prove unfailingly loyal. With their parents’ marriage called into question, as well as rumours regarding the circumstances of their father’s conception, Richard may have hoped that the problem of the two little boys may simply have disappeared. They did, but the problem didn’t. It is still raging, over five centuries later.

Now new evidence has come to light, suggesting a possible solution that is resonant of another English king, the sort of indirect murder through wish-fulfilment that had seen Henry II’s knights dispatch his archbishop, Thomas Becket in the 12th century. Undertaking research on Richard’s reign, I unearthed records of his activities in Canterbury, six months after the boys’ disappearance, which may offer evidence that the King had something weighty on his conscience.

Richard was in the north during the summer and early autumn of 1483 when the deaths of the Princes are thought to have occurred. While it is generally accepted that he did not wield the knife in person, popular theories – and Shakespeare’s famous depiction – have his agents stealing into the Tower at dead of night and smothering the boys in their sleep. Richard’s servant, James Tyrrell, who confessed to the murders during the reign of Henry VII, was in London early in September 1483, collecting clothing from the Tower for the investiture at York of Richard’s son, Edward, as Prince of Wales. He had the opportunity to commit the crimes in the King’s absence, but did he have royal permission?

Following the Becket theory, Tyrrell may have understood his King’s secret wish that the inconvenient boys be dealt with. In an unguarded moment, Richard may even have wished out loud that they would vanish into thin air, which a loyal but unscrupulous servant could have taken as an indirect order. Perhaps it was even intended as such. Tyrrell or another may have carried out the deed without royal sanction, in anticipation of rich rewards. He was appointed as High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1484 but then went to France, returning only after Bosworth; his confession was “extracted” following his support of Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole in 1501. Whether or not Tyrrell was responsible, at some point in the autumn, the murderer found a way to communicate their deed to the King, whose reaction can only be wondered at. It was a political godsend for Richard, but in terms of his immortal soul, it was disastrous.

A statue of King Richard III stands in Castle Gardens near Leicester Cathedral, close to where the body of Richard III was discovered. Photograph: Getty Images

This is where my research comes into play. Back in the 1980s, Anne F Sutton identified that a visit Richard made to Canterbury soon after his reign must have taken place early in 1484. Until then, he was busy dealing with Buckingham’s rebellion, establishing his new royal household and preparing for his first parliament. Under the aegis of visiting the port of Sandwich, Richard stayed in the city, being offered £33 6s 8d in gold, contributed by the mayor, councillors and “the better sort of persons of the city,” although he did not accept it. The mayoral accounts indicate how he was catered for, through payments made to a local supplier: John Burton received £4 for “four great fattened beefs” and 66s 8d for “twenty fattened rams.” Payments were also made for carpentry work and for the carriage of furniture and hangings to the royal lodgings.

Traditionally, visiting monarchs would reside in the well-appointed, central Archbishop’s Palace or at St.Augustine’s Abbey, as Henry VIII frequently did and Elizabeth would do in 1573. However, I uncovered a reference in the city accounts to Blene Le Hale, outside the walls, suggests Richard did not stay within the city itself. He may have lodged at Hall Place, which from 1484, was owned by a Thomas Lovell, a possible relative of Richard’s childhood friend Francis. It is more likely, though, that he stayed in “large temporary buildings around a great tent called le Hale” on the edge of Blean forest, elsewhere called the Pavilion on the Blean. This was on the top of the hill still known as “Palmer’s (or pilgrim’s) Cross,” where the modern village of Blean overlaps Upper Harbledown. As a local resident, who studied the history of the area whilst doing my MA, I was aware of the significance of this location along the Canterbury pilgrimage route. Just as the devout did in Walsingham, many pilgrims removed their shoes in Harbledown, or “hobble-down” for the final mile and walked, penitent and barefoot, down the hill to Becket’s shrine.

In Chaucer’s late 14th century work, The Canterbury Tales, the village was also known as “Bobbe-up-and-down,” due to the poor condition of its roads. In the 1483-4 city accounts, payments were listed for repairs to the road in advance of Richard’s visit. If the King undertook the barefoot walk to make offerings at the shrine, he would have been walking in the footsteps of another notorious monarch. Three hundred years earlier, Henry II had taken that route as penance for his role in the death of Thomas Becket. Did Richard make an offering at the sainted Archbishop’s tomb? Did he, like Henry, have a burden on his conscience that he sought to alleviate?

There is no question that Richard made any sort of public penance. He did not moan or flagellate himself in public as the former King had. He was however, a devout man, even by the standards of the time, whose religious conviction is one of the aspects agreed upon by many of those who debate his motives and reputation. Of course he could not have openly bewailed their deaths in public, as this would necessitate confessing his guilt by association. Instead, he may have visited Canterbury Cathedral in order to make his peace with God. No court of law would convict Richard of the boys’ death on the surviving evidence alone; a Channel 4 televised court drama of 1984 put Ricardian and pro-Tudor experts into the witness box but after much discussion, the jury were forced to conceded that the case was not strong enough to convict him.

The truth of the Prince’s fate will probably never be known, even if the bones in the Westminster urn one day confirm that they suffered a violent death. If one of Richard’s servants had carried out the boys’ murders in his name, as I suggest, this may have represented a struggle between the nature of his succession and his religious conviction. He may have benefited, so he thought, from the boy’s deaths but gone on to undertake this atonement for the sake of his own soul. In actuality, though, it was their disappearance that underpinned his downfall and blackened his reputation for centuries after.

Amy Licence’s biography “Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen” (Amberley Publishing) is due out this April, containing information about the recent excavations at Leicester.


A painting of King Richard III by an unknown artist is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide