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Princes in the Tower

Edward V of England (1470 - 1483?) and Richard, Duke of York, (1473 - 1483?) were the two young princes, sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville, who were declared illegitimate by the act of parliament known as Titulus Regius. Their uncle Richard III of England placed them both in the Tower of London (then a palace as well as a prison) in 1483, and no one knows what happened to them after that, although they are presumed to have been killed there.

Three major suspects have been identified, and the arguments in favour of each potential culprit are, in brief:

Richard had eliminated the princes from the succession. However, his hold on the monarchy was insecure, and the princes remained a threat as long as they were alive. Rumours of their death were in wide circulation by early 1484, but Richard never attempted to prove that they were alive by having them seen in public.

The Duke of Buckingham was Richard's right-hand man and sought personal advantage through the new king. Many regard Buckingham as the likeliest suspect: his execution, after rebelling against Richard in October 1483, might signify that he and the king had fallen out because Buckingham had taken it on himself -- for whatever reason --to dispose of Richard's rival claimants.

King Henry VII of England was undoubtedly a ruthless man, who, following his accession, proceeded to find a legal excuse to execute rival claimants to the throne. He married the princes' eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, to reinforce his hold on the throne, but her right to inherit depended on both her brothers being already dead. Realistically, Henry's only opportunity to murder the princes would have been after his accession in 1485, but it has been suggested that Buckingham, if he was responsible, was acting on Henry's behalf rather than Richard's.

The Croyland Chronicle, Dominic Mancini, and Philippe de Commines all state that the rumour of the princes' death was current in England by the end of 1483. In his summary of the events of 1483, Commines says quite categorically that Richard was responsible for the murder of the princes, but of course he had been present at the meeting of the Estates-General of France in January 1484, when the statement was taken at face value. The other two sources do not suggest who was responsible. Only Mancini's account, written in 1483, is truly contemporary, the other two having been written 3 and 7 years later, respectively. The Great Chronicle, compiled 30 years later from the contemporary London municipal records, says the rumour of the princes' death did not start circulating in London until after Easter of 1484. Historians have speculated, on the basis of these contemporary records, that the rumour that the princes had been murdered was deliberately created to be spread in England as an excuse for the October 1483 attempt of Henry Tudor and Buckingham to seize the throne. If the princes were not already dead by the end of 1483, this of course removes any possibility that Buckingham, who was executed on November 2, 1483, could have murdered them.

No discussion of this episode would be complete without mention of Sir James Tyrrell, the loyal servant of Richard III whose "confession" to having murdered the princes has always been taken with a pinch of salt. It is mentioned by Tudor sources (which, naturally, must be treated with caution) as having taken place in 1502, under torture. A confession under torture would not nowadays be regarded as reliable, and Tyrrell was unable to say where the bodies of the princes were.

Why were the princes barred from the throne?

Part of the controversy still surrounding Parliament's ruling that Edward (and his brother Richard) could not be rightful heirs to the throne arises from confusion about why Parliament ruled that their parents' marriage was invalid. There were two separate but related issues:

As a matter of law, the marriage was, indeed, invalid if the story of the precontract between their father and Lady Eleanor Talbot was true. Under both canon law and civil law, a "precontract of marriage" was a promise to marry, and it was enforceable in court as if the promised marriage had actually taken place. (The concept of a "precontract" still exists in law, but it usually arises today in the context of precontracting to make a contract for a business deal, like a sale of property or a corporate merger.) A precontract with Eleanor Talbot would have invalidated the king's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. This was the law in England, and many other contemporary examples can be pointed to. The purpose of publishing the "banns of marriage", and then asking in the wedding ceremony if anyone knows of just cause why the marriage should not take place, was to prevent marriages that were invalid, because of a precontract or for any other reason. Marrying in "secret" (or "private", which usually meant "not in a church") wedding (without the calling of the banns, as Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville did) was considered virtually an admission that there was a legal impediment. If Parliament was presented with evidence of Edward's marriage to Eleanor Talbot or his precontract to marry her, it was bound to rule that his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous, and therefore any children born to them were bastards.

The fact that the princes were technically bastards (following his deposition from the throne, Edward V was referred to by his uncle's followers as the "Lord Bastard") did not necessarily mean they could never inherit -- William the Conqueror was neither the first nor the last bastard to inherit lands and titles. "Bastardy," the legal term for illegitimacy, was a legal status that could be changed by the law, either the law of the church or the law of the state -- as shown by the number of times King Henry VIII changed the status of his children. Parliament could have legitimized the princes and allowed Edward V to remain king, but it used that excuse for what it wanted to do for practical reasons. Boy kings Henry III, Richard II, Henry VI) had always been disasters for England -- and the Wars of the Roses had been halted by the accession of Edward IV as a capable adult. The Yorkists were in power, and Edward V's numerous Woodville relatives had always been Lancastrians at heart and had already made many enemies. Richard III, on the other hand, was considered the Yorkists' best all-round candidate for the job of king at the time.

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