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Did Richard III Order the Deaths of His Nephews as They Slept in the Tower of London?

New research outlines evidence pointing to the English king’s guilt

Paul Delaroche's 1831 depiction of the princes in the Tower, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

In the early days of Henry VIII’s reign, between about 1513 and 1518, statesman and philosopher Thomas More penned a scathing history of one of the Tudor king’s predecessors, Richard III. Supposedly based on eyewitness testimony, the account painted its subject as a “malicious, wrathful, envious, and … ever perverse” ruler who’d secured his crown by ordering the deaths of the rightful heirs—his nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York—in 1483.

According to More, Richard’s henchmen crept into the princes’ Tower of London bedchamber in the middle of the night, “keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls.” Richard’s demise on the battlefield just over two years later, the scholar added, was simply “mischief he received [in turn for] the mischief that he did.”

More’s version of events shaped the overwhelmingly negative assessments of Richard’s brief reign (June 1483–August 1485) both in the decades following its publication and the centuries thereafter. Shakespeare’s 1592–93 play Richard III, for instance, finds the fictionalized king saying, “I wish the bastards dead; / And I would have it suddenly perform’d.”

Though the Richard III Society and other defenders of the king’s legacy have countered these characterizations, particularly amid the recent wave of interest sparked by his remains’ unprecedented recovery in 2012, new research conducted by historian Tim Thornton is poised to deal a blow to these so-called Ricardians’ efforts to rehabilitate the ruler’s image.

Richard III (left) and Thomas More (right)
Richard III (left) and Thomas More (right) (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As Thornton, an expert in early modern British history at the University of Huddersfield, writes in History: The Journal of the Historical Association, More had previously overlooked ties to the likely killers’ families, strengthening the credibility of the Utopia author’s unnamed sources, who he wrote “much knew and little cause had to lie.”

“This has been the greatest murder mystery in British history, because we couldn’t really rely on More as an account of what happened—until now,” says Thornton in a statement. “But I have shown that the sons of the chief alleged murderer were at court in Henry VIII’s England, and that they were living and working alongside Sir Thomas More.”

Thornton draws on archival records to posit that Tudor courtiers Edward and Miles Forest—who held positions in the households of the king and top adviser Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, respectively—were the sons of Miles Forest, one of two men More claims were tasked with carrying out the princes’ killings. “[A] fellow hardened in murder before that time,” the elder Miles reportedly recruited John Dighton, “his own housekeeper, a big, broad, square strong knave,” to assist.

By the time More started researching the princes’ disappearance, Miles senior was dead. But Dighton was still alive, and, notes Thornton in a blog post accompanying the study, “living just across the Channel” in the English territory of Calais—an area where More “spent many months” around the time that he wrote History of King Richard III.

“[More] wasn’t writing about imaginary people,” says Thornton in the statement. “We now have substantial grounds for believing that the detail of More’s account of a murder is credible.”

Samuel Cousins' print of the princes in the Tower, based on an 1878 painting by Sir John Everett Millais (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Richard III ascended to the throne in June 1483, succeeding his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V, who’d inherited the crown from his father, Edward IV. Explanations for why Richard decided to replace the young king vary, with critics arguing that he’d long coveted the crown and supporters offering more sympathetic interpretations. Writing for History Extra in 2019, biographer Chris Skidmore theorized that fear of violence by warring court factions and “the desire for self-preservation” motivated Richard to declare his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate and, by extension, render their children bastards with no claim to the throne.

Regardless of Richard’s reasoning, historians by and large agree that neither Edward nor his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, were seen in public after the summer of 1483. Two skeletons unearthed at the Tower of London in 1674 may belong to the princes, but their identities have never been confirmed.

As Craig Simpson explains for the Telegraph, modern historians have increasingly dismissed More’s account of Richard III as unfounded Tudor propaganda designed to help legitimize the nascent dynasty. Henry VII, father of Henry VIII and the first Tudor king, “had no blood claim to the throne, since he was only of illegitimate Lancastrian descent,” according to historian Leanda de Disle, and only won the crown by defeating Richard at Bosworth in 1485. (Henry is another oft-cited candidate for ordering the princes’ deaths, as both had stronger claims to the crown than him; pretenders claiming to be either Edward or Richard threatened Henry throughout his reign, underscoring the tenuous nature of his grasp on power.)

Ultimately, wrote historian Nathen Amin for History Extra in 2020, “[T]he best approach to this saga is to weigh up the material available and come to the most rational conclusion, while conceding that it is unlikely we will ever be able to give a definitive answer to the debate.”

Thornton, for his part, doesn’t claim to prove “the absolute truth of More’s account.”

But as he writes in the blog post, the account is “not just a great work of political philosophy, but also a narrative constructed by an author who had access to men and women whose witness takes us very close indeed to the dramatic events of 1483, and the death of the princes themselves.”

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