While science has never proven that King Richard murdered his nephews in the Tower of London, most historians assume it to be the case.
Question: During what war did a king secure his reign by “protecting” (and perhaps assassinating) his nephews in a tower-turned-prison?
Answer: The War of the Roses
House of Lancaster, House of York, then Lancaster, then York, and back and forth—trying to follow who had power in 15th-century England was like watching a tennis match (with a really high body count). The famed War of the Roses pitted distant and not-so-distant relatives against each other, with some players changing sides so often that no one really knew who to trust. Of all the stories of the bloody decades which led to the rise of the Tudors, perhaps the most poignant is that of two of the youngest victims.
At the tender age of 12, upon the death of his father Edward IV, Edward V suddenly faced the prospect of being King. His even younger brother, the 9-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, was next in line to the throne. A date was set for Edward’s coronation, and until then, he was entrusted to the loving care of his uncle, Richard III, who had been named Protector of the Realm.
The boys were sent to live in the Tower of London, traditional waiting palace for expectant monarchs. But the coronation was put off twice before Richard declared the boys illegitimate, and claimed the crown himself. Few were willing to challenge the new King by taking up the boys’ defense—and they were never seen again. Most historians assume that Richard had his own nephews murdered, but without bodies, there was no case. Then, in the following decades, pretenders kept appearing, claiming to be one prince or the other. (One fellow even pretended to be both.)
Two hundred years later, during tower renovations, workmen found a pair of small skeletons entombed under a staircase, along with remnants of velvet fabric. Though not everyone agreed that these were the lost princes, King Charles II ordered the skeletons be interred at Westminster Abbey. Modern forensic experts have never been able to confirm or deny that these were once the boys and the government of Britain has so far refused to submit the remains to DNA analysis. While the War of the Roses has now been over for more than 500 years, the cold case of the Princes of the Tower remains officially open.
Entwined Lives: Women of the War of the Roses
- The Princes’ grandmother, Cecily Neville, was no softie. Though she was initially thrilled that her son Edward IV was king, enough so that she looked the other way when he had his brother murdered, she hated his marriage to the lower-class Elizabeth Woodville (the boys’ mother) and dropped her support. After Edward’s death, she encouraged her other son Richard to declare the marriage illegitimate and seize the throne himself (even though this would likely doom her own grandsons). Though people were expendable, luxury was not: while Richard ruled, she spent the current equivalent of millions of dollars on clothing and was famous for having craftsman create a plush padded seat cover for the royal latrine.
- Elizabeth Woodville married into drama and intrigue by marrying Edward IV. She had to watch helplessly as her sons were swept up in the royal power games, and lost them both. When it seemed that her brother-in-law had won everything, she proved to have a few tricks up her sleeve. She quietly established a relationship with Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, who wished to unseat Richard. The women worked out a plan: Henry would marry Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, and unite the warring houses. (The cherry on top was that she knew Richard wanted to do exactly the same thing.) When Henry Tudor defeated Richard, becoming King Henry the VII, Elizabeth became Queen Dowager. She spent the rest of her life in comfort, and will spend her eternity interred in Windsor Palace.
- Margaret Beaufort was tenacity personified. Widowed and a mother by age 13, she dedicated her life to defending and uplifting her son Henry. She married three times, navigated the shifting tides of fortune, and never took her eyes off the prize. She ingratiated herself into the social circle of Anne Neville, and was such a boon confidante that she was asked to carry Anne’s train at her wedding to Richard III. While they saw her as being on Team Richard, she was quietly working out the deal that would end his rule. For the rest of her son’s life, she was a self-made regent, signing letters, “My Lady, the King’s Mother,” or Margaret R (“R” meaning Regina). She outlived Henry VII and saw her grandson crowned King Henry VIII before her death. She slumbers in Westminster Abbey in a tomb topped by a bronze likeness of herself, its serene face said to be cast from her death mask.
- Anne Neville was a wealthy heiress pledged to Richard III as a young girl, but their wedding was put off when the rebellion against Edward IV kicked into high gear. At 14, she was forced to marry Edward of Lancaster for political reasons, though it was a short union, as he died in the Battle of Tewksbury soon after. Taken prisoner by Edward the IV, she was hidden from sight and forced to work as a kitchen maid to keep Richard from finding her. He rescued her anyway and they married when he was 18 and she was 15. They enjoyed 11 happy years, culminating in their double-coronation ceremony when she was 26. But fate was not kind: her only son died the next year, and she followed him to the grave a year later, during a day ominously marked with a solar eclipse. Unlike Margaret, when Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey, she was entombed in an unmarked chamber. Richard—so cruel to all others—is said to have knelt weeping by the high altar, proof that even a monster can have feelings.
Discover the royal intrigue and the long-lasting impact of the War of the Roses when you explore London on our Maritime Jewels of the British Isles & Ireland Small Ship Cruise Tour.