The Princes in the Tower by Matthew Lewis

I am excited to share with you a guest post by Matthew Lewis, author of the upcoming book, ‘The Survival of the Princes in the Tower: Murder, Mystery and Myth’. The disappearance and alleged murder of Edward IV’s sons, Edward and Richard, remains one of the greatest mysteries in British history. In this article, Matthew explores the question, “Who, if anyone, killed the Princes in the Tower?”.

The Princes in the Tower

By Matthew Lewis

One of the primary reasons that I wanted to write a book called The Survival of the Princes in the Tower is that none of the traditional list of suspects accused of their murder has ever been entirely satisfactory to me. The disappearance of the sons of Edward IV remains one of the most compelling murder mysteries of all time and it continues to exert a strong pull, provoking passionate reaction on all sides, in no small part because there is no definitive evidence to support any version of their fate, creating a boiling pot of opinion that is frequently defended with vehemence.

My biggest problem lies with the traditionally accused King Richard III and it boils down to two key holes in the case against him. Richard III must remain the prime suspect in any investigation, if the boys were indeed killed. The first problem with accepting that Richard III killed his nephews to prevent them being a threat to him is his failure to act against other nephews and nieces. If Richard chose to dispose of Edward IV’s sons to secure his own position, why would he fail to deal with Edward’s daughters and the children of his other older brother, George? It is true that they probably represented less of an obvious threat than the Princes in the Tower, but by October 1483 Henry Tudor was invading with the intention of marrying one of Edward’s daughters to improve his own claim to the throne, so within weeks of the disappearance of the Princes, their sisters were being identified as clear threats. George’s children Edward, Earl of Warwick and Margaret, later Countess of Salisbury lacked a personal affinity but nevertheless, Edward possessed a male line claim senior to Richard’s. He was barred by his father’s attainder, but that might be overturned by Parliament in an instant. Every other niece and nephew of Richard’s that was alive at the start of his reign was still alive at his death, so why not the sons of Edward IV?

The issue I have never been able to get past is simple but defies any explanation. If Richard III had his nephews murdered, it was to prevent them from being a threat. They would only then cease to be a threat if it was made known, and clear, that they were dead, yet Richard did not, ever, declare them deceased. However unlikely, he might have blamed illness or an assassination. It didn’t really matter whether people believed his story, but they had to understand that the sons of Edward IV were dead. After the October rebellion, Richard was provided with the perfect fall guy in Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He could have blamed the vain and ambitious Buckingham for killing the boys and again made it clear they were dead. In maintaining his silence, Richard allowed the threat they posed to continue, as demonstrated by Henry VII’s problems with pretenders. Murdering them and keeping it secret simply makes no sense and defeats the purpose of the murders.

Nineteenth century painting of King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London by Paul Delaroche.

Few other suspects are ever given much credence. Lip service is often paid to the idea that someone else might have killed the boys, but it is only ever to offer some semblance of balance prior to a conclusion that Richard did it. The Duke of Buckingham is the most frequent second-in-line as a suspect. Buckingham had been largely excluded by Edward IV but quickly allied himself to Richard in the spring of 1483, becoming a key figure in the events that unfolded when they arrived in London. Within a few months of Richard’s accession, Buckingham had become embroiled in the rebellion that failed in October and had been executed. Contemporary and near contemporary writers in England and abroad pointed to Buckingham as one rumoured to have killed the Princes and it is feasible that he intended to launch his own bid for the throne and killed the boys to clear the path, but it has been equally posited that Buckingham rebelled in disgust when he found out Richard had killed his nephews. The motive is hard to prove, though Buckingham would have had access to have the deed done had he wished. If Buckingham had been behind a murder, it seems likely that Richard would have publicised it after his rebellion and execution to remove the threat of the boys and exonerate himself, yet still he maintained his silence on the matter.

Margaret Beaufort is a contentious suspect. For many, the suggestion is ridiculous, though little evidence can be provided to exclude her. The October rebellion began with the aim of restoring Edward V, but switched to an attempt to place the exiled Henry Tudor, Margaret’s son, on the throne. It is therefore clear that Margaret had a vested interest in promoting her son’s claim and perhaps in clearing the path for him. Margaret’s house arrest is frequently cited as a bar to her involvement, but this restriction was only put in place after the October rebellion when her part in it became clear. At Richard and Anne’s coronation in 6 July 1483, Margaret carried Anne’s train, walking in the most senior female position behind the queen, ahead of Richard’s own sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk. Margaret and her husband Thomas, Lord Stanley were in high favour at the centre of Richard’s government in the summer of 1483 and access to the busy Tower of London, then a favoured royal residence rather than a prison with a dark reputation, was by no means beyond their reach. Still, some maintain that it is ludicrous to even consider the mother of Richard’s successor as a part of the plot to destabilise and overthrow him, even though her part in such a scheme is well documented. Margaret was undoubtedly the architect of the Tudor dynasty and I maintain that the possibility of her involvement should not be dismissed.

In order for Henry Tudor himself to be considered a suspect, we must accept that the boys were alive and well on 22 August 1485 when Henry won the Battle of Bosworth and became King Henry VII. Prior to that, he was out of the country and the only instrument of his faction at work in England was his mother Margaret Beaufort. If the boys had lived through their uncle’s rule, Henry would undoubtedly have been presented with a serious problem. His invasion and success had relied heavily on former supporters of Edward IV because of his promise to marry Elizabeth of York. Many considered Elizabeth’s claim better and preferable to Henry’s but Richard III had declared her illegitimate along with her other siblings. Henry had to remove her illegitimacy in order to marry her, but in doing so, he also legitimised Edward IV’s sons and handed them a far superior and more popular claim to the crown. If he found them alive in 1485, he might have been hard pressed to keep them that way. My real problem with this theory is that Henry and Elizabeth went on to enjoy a reportedly happy and loving marriage, which seems unlikely if Elizabeth believed or indeed knew her husband (or his mother, for that matter) had killed her brothers.

The preoccupation with proving who killed the Princes in the Tower has, for far too long, prevented a proper discussion and examination of the possibility of their survival. Rumour swirled around Richard III and the Duke of Buckingham, but as many rumours of their survival litter contemporary and near-contemporary sources. Accepting at least the possibility of their continued existence can help to explain several later events that otherwise make little sense. Why did no one, from Henry VII to Elizabeth Woodville, their mother, ever denounce Richard III for murdering the sons of Edward IV? Why were Elizabeth Woodville and her oldest son Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset under some form of suspicion that led to her being stripped of lands and income and his imprisonment in 1487? Why was Henry so haunted by Perkin Warbeck for so long, until his unconvincing and shifting confession after his capture and well documented torture? Why was Perkin’s face repeatedly beaten to obscure his looks, both before his arrival in London and during his time as a prisoner there? Jack Leslau’s theory has fascinated me for years, so is it possible to see one or both of the Princes alive into the reign of Henry VIII?

For some people, the guilt of Richard III and the death of the Princes in the Tower is a comfortable, warm blanket. It is something we think we know, almost for certain. All that I ask is that readers of this book set aside 500 years of prejudice and received wisdom and view the evidence with an open mind. We only think we know Richard III did it because we have been told that is the truth. As the philosopher Pierre Bayle suggested: ‘The antiquity and general acceptance of an opinion is not assurance of its truth.’

Pre-order your copy of The Survival of the Princes in the Tower at Amazon UK or the Book Depository.

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  1. I had been 100% sure Richard III killed the princes, until I found out they beat Perkin’s face into an unrecognizable bloody mess…Why? He wasn’t allowed to speak. Why? Now I have room for doubt.

    • This fact would indeed be quite persuasive if it were true. See my reply to Richard below for a criticism of the sources. Your logic is slightly faulty, JoAnn. If Richard the younger Prince were in fact the same person as Warbeck it only means he wasn’t actually killed by Richard III. It is still probable that Richard III ordered the killing and succeeded in the case of Edward V, because that was Warbeck’s cover story. He said that Richard ordered them to be killed, but that the unnamed lord sent to do the deed had pity on him because of his youth.
      I don’t think it at all likely that he was prevented from speaking, since he was actually at liberty for a long time between his capture and his being sent to the Tower, during which time he attended banquets and followed the court on progress.

  2. I often question why Elizabeth was never allowed to meet Perkin Warbeck. A sister would surely be able to prove one way or the other whether the ‘imposter’ was indeed that or whether he was her brother Richard. Even if she couldn’t have recognised him as a grown man, there would have been past shared experiences that only they would have known about. Henry VII didn’t want it to be true and had to keep declaring him as an imposter. I also believe Elizabeth Woodville had information that at least one of her sons was alive and certainly didn’t believe Richard had killed them. My own personal theory is that Edward died, possibly through ill health, and that Richard was sent away.

    • It is true that there is no specific source that records a meeting between Warbeck and the Queen, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Between his capture and his meeting with de Puebla (one of the sources for the ‘beating’) Warbeck was treated well by Henry. It was 11 months during which Warbeck was free at court, followed the court on progress and attended royal banquets. The probability of his not meeting Elizabeth is virtually zero. In any case, Henry sent Dorset (Elizabeth’s half brother) with others from his household to capture Warbeck. He failed to recognise them.

      • I agree which is what makes the story so gripping. Did Dorset fail to recognise him because it wasn’t Richard or just not admit that he recognised him? The same goes for Elizabeth although as you say there is no evidence of a publicised meeting between the pair. Perkin/richard was allowed the freedom of the court but it wouldn’t have been hard for him to be kept from her presence as much as possible if Henry wanted that to happen. The downfall of Henry would have meant the downfall of Elizabeth too, although she would have seen her brother re-instated to the throne. For Dorset to admit he recognised Richard would also have put his own life in danger. Henry’s greatest weapon would have been to have those closest to Richard stand up and declare he was not their brother/son etc but that never happened. But then maybe Henry didn’t feel the need to do this because he knew it categorically couldn’t have been Richard because he knew of the princes’ fate? There are more questions than answers although how sad for Richard/warbeck if he was who he said he was and his family couldn’t or wouldn’t stand behind him. I believe the one woman who may have fought for him was shut up in Bermondsey at this point (through choice or royal command, another debate!) and probably never got the chance to meet him.

  3. Richard P. McArthur says:

    I’ve never read, before now, of any beating of Perkin Warbeck’s face. What is the source?
    And what is the source for any torture of him?

    • Hi Richard, I asked the same question on a different forum and the author answered. The beating and torture claim rests on two sources – Bernard Andre says he was beaten up when he was caught and the Spanish ambassador describes him as disfigured shortly before he was sent to the Tower.

      Andre was a poet who freely invented all kinds of stuff and he wasn’t there. Machado who was there, does not mention it. The second quote is usually translated as ‘much changed’ by his captivity. Neither source mentions torture at all.

      Since the two sources are nearly a year apart and Warbeck was meeting all kinds of people, the sources look a bit thin.

  4. Banditqueen says:

    We don’t know what happened to the two sons of Edward iv and I don’t believe they should be called Princes as they were legally illegitimate. We still call Edward and Richard Princes as it is easier. However, as Edward iv was married previously while wedded to their mother, Dame Elizabeth Grey or Elizabeth Wydeville, to Lady Eleanor Talbot, none of these so called sons and daughters were legitimate.

    Having got that of my chest, one possible fate of these children was their survival as we don’t have their bodies, or at least proof that we have their bodies. Two unidentified children are in an Urn in Westminster Abbey, buried as Edward V and his brother, Richard of York. All of the sources rely on rumours alone, nothing more claiming that Richard or someone else killed his nephews. The fact that “men’s eyes swelled up with tears when they thought of the fate of those innocent boys” does not prove anything. It proves that Londoners had been told the sons of their late King Edward were dead, killed by the present King. Most people today believe anything they are told and with no other sources other than gossip, it was even more true of people in the fifteenth century. Social media didn’t invent gossip and false accusations, human beings did and rumours and lies spread just as fast back then as they do now on Facebook and Twitter. Nobody bothered to even question these lies and they took on a life of their own via Shakespeare and More.

    Even the sources which claimed the so called Princes were dead could not agree on either a suspect or method of death, let alone time of death. The Duke of Buckingham was also blamed and later on talk also pointed the finger at Margaret Beaufort and the Duke of Norfolk. What about Elizabeth Woodville herself? What about Elizabeth of York? I know these later two seem unlikely but in modern times they have been added to the suspect list. But as the author says what if nobody killed them?

    Mathew Lewis is not the first person to look at the possibility of the Survival of both boys. Richard Plantagenet, the younger brother has been widely speculated about. The late David Balwin looked at this in The Lost Prince based on an old tale that Richard lived into old age and died in Southern England somewhere at a place called Eastwell where he is buried. Another theory is that he ends up in a painting as a member of Thomas More’s extended family. It is all speculation but possible.

    Now we have new research and I have just today received my copy of the book and can’t wait to see what new paths the story takes. In her book Richard of England author D M Kleyn believed that Perkin Warbeck made a true confession at first but it was changed and he was forced to say he was not the Prince to save his wife. Many were taken in by Warbeck but his identity is not as certain as history was made to believe. His confession is full of holes and he contradicted himself as to who he was on more than one occasion. He may have been an illegitimate son of Edward iv as suggested by Dr John Ashdown Hill. There are a number of unanswered questions and it is very true that his face had been hit, as noted by eye witnesses at his public execution. There is no evidence that he was tortured, but it is very possible he was made unrecognizable on the morning of his execution. I cannot recall the sources.

    Again, it is very possible that Edward died as he may have been ill. He was not as robust as is often believed and a few of his siblings died between 12 and 15. The first born son of his sister, Queen Elizabeth of York the wife of Henry Tudor, Prince Arthur died when he was sixteen. There are a few theories around his death, from sweating sickness to tuberculosis, but it could have been an inherited illness from his mother. Henry Viii lost two sons in their teens, Edward Vi aged fifteen and his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy aged seventeen. Another Tudor male child, the son of his sister, Mary Tudor, died aged 11 to 15 and tuberculosis hit the Tudors hard. Could they also have had bone diseases from the Yorkist line? This is one theory about young Edward that he was suffering from bone diseases and this is why his doctor attended him daily. Edward could have died in the transition period or before and been buried quietly. However, had he died then why not a proper burial? If he died and had something infectious or around the time of Bosworth, may it not have been easier for Henry Tudor to say nothing?

    Of course, this again is pure speculation. Richard may well have gone to the Court of Margaret of York in the Netherlands and been raised up by her but we cannot know this for certain. Every theory raises as many new questions as it attempts to resolve. I admire people who believe the Princes were killed by Richard iii and many well respected modern scholars have said they believe this and presented evidence they say proves it. The same evidence is then shown not to support this. I am with Bertrand Field, the author of Royal Blood who is a lawyer who argues why you can’t find Richard or anyone else guilty of murder without proof and today nothing can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if Richard did kill them, the evidence and sources don’t prove that he did. I am open to well researched and argued debate and fresh evidence. I am as anxious to read this book as any other on the subject and maybe the project which is now being conducted to find evidence in lost archives, will finally give us true clues. I also hope that one day we can examine the bones in Westminster Abbey afresh and shred some light there as well.

  5. How does Sir Edward Brampton, aka. Jaoa Brandao, fit into this?

  6. Richard P. McArthur says:

    IIrc, Brampton allegedly employed Warbeck at some time between the mid-and late 1480s. Assertedly, Warbeck received from Brampton some knowledge of the English language, and of England, its politics, and dynastic set-up.

    • Eva Arnott says:

      This is happening within a decade of 1492. Could Sir Edward Brampton have been working to have Perkin Warbeck, as king, allow Jews like himself to come to England when they were expelled from Spain

  7. You can not rule that out entirely, but the impression I have of Brampton is that of a clever, ambitious chancer and liar. I would recommend Arthurson’s book on Warbeck and the Jewish Historical Soc article.
    Note that he had converted with Edward IV standing as his godfather.

  8. Richard P. McArthur says:

    Has anyone any indication that Brampton actually played any part in the Warbeck affair?

  9. Richard P. McArthur says:

    Thanks for that link. It repeats and expands on an earlier article in THE MEDELAI, by Joshua Cherniss.
    I agree that to some extent Mr. Brampton seems to remember his feats/rewards to advantage. I’m not sure that any really malicious mendacity can be shown.

    If Warbeck was 17 in 1487, he should have looked a bit too old in 1491-97 to have really resembled young Richard of Shrewsbury.

    It does not appear that Brampton actually played an intentional role in the imposture.

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