Monday, 1 May 2017




We’ve heard it said time and time again: history is written by the "victors". Those in power are at liberty to shape public perceptions and historical narratives. King Richard III of England's notoriously poor reputation is a prime example of the power of public memory. Richard III is infamous for the alleged murder of his young nephews in the Tower of London, and the unsolved mystery of their disappearance poses an interpretive challenge in the absence of hard evidence.

Late 16th century portrait of King Richard III
by an unknown artist, housed in the National
Portrait Gallery of London.
In 1485, only two years after his ascent to the throne, Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses. Richard the Yorkist was succeeded by his Lancastrian enemy Henry Tudor (later crowned Henry VII) and was buried without ceremony. 

To legitimize their claim to the throne, the Tudors engaged in a smear campaign against Richard III, and Tudor propaganda succeeded in tarnishing his character. Richard III’s reputation for unmatched tyranny has endured throughout the centuries, thanks in no small part to William Shakespeare’s ungenerous portrayal of the last Plantagenet king in his play Richard III.

While one Richard III mystery was solved in 2013 when the bones discovered under a Leicester car park were confirmed as Richard’s, another question still lingers: what really happened to his nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury?

Though Richard III was reburied in 2015, the mystery of his nephews’ fate was not. In June 1483, when Richard was Lord Protector of the realm, his late brother King Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was deemed invalid, making his two young heirs illegitimate. Twelve-year-old Edward V’s coronation never took place, and his uncle assumed the throne instead. Despite the fact that Richard’s nephews were ineligible for the throne, they disappeared in August of that year and were never seen again. Richard III is commonly believed to have murdered the boys; historical narratives by Robert Fabyan, Thomas More, and Polydore Vergil also implicate the late king. Indeed, Richard certainly had motive, as his accession to the throne was fragile and occurred during tumultuous times.

Paul Delaroche, The Death of the Sons of King Edward in the
(1830). This painting is currently at the Louvre in Paris.
While remodeling the Tower of London in 1674, workers found two small skeletons in a box buried under the staircase near the White Tower’s chapel. In 1933, Westminster Abbey’s archivist, Lawrence Tanner, anatomist Professor William Wright, and the president of the Dental Association, George Northcroft, examined the bones and established that they belonged to two children around the ages of the princes. In 1789 two separate, unidentified coffins were also found in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, but the remains within have not been tested.

Evidence against Richard III is circumstantial at best, and there is no proof that the boys were indeed murdered. The Church of England has not permitted DNA testing of the skeletons to concretely identify them as the sons of Edward IV (though this test would not prove cause of death). Historian Philippa Langley, who spearheaded the Looking For Richard project that resulted in the discovery of his remains in Leicester, hopes to solve the mystery of the princes with the help of cold case investigators. In this case, however, a concrete verdict may be unattainable. As Richard was away from court when the boys disappeared, confirming his involvement is extremely difficult. There is no evidence to prove that he ordered someone (such as courtier Sir James Tyrrell) to kill his nephews, though the possibility remains.

When giving tours, Yeoman Warders draw upon their storytelling skills to share stories of the Tower
of London's history. In the case of the Princes in the Tower, an age-old mystery, the details are murky. Source.
Interpreters at the Tower of London therefore tread carefully around the story of the princes’ deaths. In discussing the Bloody Tower, where the boys were purportedly imprisoned, Historic Royal Palaces can only provide a few facts and contextual information on the rumours surrounding the incident. How, then, do the Tower staff frame the disappearance of the princes without delving into speculation? Historic Royal Palaces commissioned the animation below to illustrate the disappearance of Richard III’s nephews without making false claims. However, due to the fact that the mystery is so widely popular, the video may serve to confirm visitors’ existing assumptions. Regardless, this rendition of the story uses nuanced interpretation to provide visual stimuli using the little information available.

Interpreting mysteries with little evidence is always difficult, and so too is the search for “the truth” in divisive histories. Perhaps the most controversial king in English history, Richard III inspires passionate opinions on the part of visitors and staff alike. The Tower of London takes a measured approach in the portrayal of past monarchs, as tyranny, violence, and deceit often characterized early English politics. Thus, Richard wasn't the only king to perform morally questionable acts, but the prevalence of the "Tudor Myth" made him an infamous figure. While Richard’s character has since been re-examined by contemporary historians, the mystery of the princes’ disappearance endures.

Without tangible evidence to prove whether Richard III murdered his nephews, interpreting the legend of the Princes in the Tower remains complex and limiting. Will we ever find out what really happened? Maybe. But ultimately, visitors continue to engage with the story partially because the truth is uncertain: the search for answers is often the most compelling part of the experience.

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