9. Richard III On Trial
William Shakespeare portrayed King Richard III as a hunchbacked usurper who ordered his nephews confined to the Tower of London and later smothered them to death to eliminate any rival to the throne. The discovery of two child skeletons in the Tower in 1674 seemed to confirm the story, and Richard would always be maligned as the most villainous uncle in history.
The facts seem straightforward enough. Upon the death of Edward IV in April 1483, his 12-year-old son Edward was proclaimed king, and his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named as protector. In London, Richard was informed that Edward V and his nine-year-old brother, Richard, were illegitimate. Edward IV had married their mother Elizabeth Woodville when he was already betrothed to another woman. Parliament petitioned Duke Richard to become king instead. The two boys were sent to the Tower and were never seen again.
So why did Richard murder them? If they were already declared illegitimate, then they posed no threat. Richard never made their deaths, which he could have attributed to natural causes, public which is strange if he didn’t want his claim to the throne challenged. It is possible that the princes did not even die in 1483 at all. Richard was a deeply religious person who was loyal to his brother, which points to his innocence.
It is also odd that Richard’s enemy, the Tudor Henry VII, did not order an inquest on the fates of the boys. In fact, it appears that Henry, who seized the throne after Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, had a stronger motive for killing the princes. Henry’s claim to the throne rested on his marriage to the boys’ sister, Elizabeth of York. But since the siblings had been declared illegitimate, Henry had to reverse the situation. However, by proclaiming the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children, he also restored the validity of Edward V’s kingship.
If the princes were still alive in 1485, it was Henry who had reason to get rid of them. Subsequent Tudor propaganda, picked up by Shakespeare, framed Richard for the deed. As the evidence stands, however, no jury would convict Richard of murder.