Princes in the TowerEdward 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.
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.
In 1674, some workmen remodelling the Tower of London dug up a box containing two small human skeletons. They threw them on a rubbish heap, but some days or weeks later someone decided they might be the bones of the two princes, so they gathered them up and put some of them in an urn that Charles II of England ordered interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1933 the bones were taken out and examined and then replaced in the urn in the vault under the Abbey. The experts who examined them could not agree on what age the children would have been when they died or even whether they were boys or girls. (One skeleton was larger than the other, and many of the bones were missing, including part of the smaller jawbone and all of the teeth from the larger one.)
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.