Was King Richard III innocent of his nephews’ murders?

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III is displayed at a news conference in central London, Tuesday. –– Reuters

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III is displayed at a news conference in central London, Tuesday. –– Reuters

Now that we have the confirmation that the remains of the “king in the car park” are, as suspected, those of the last English king to be killed in battle, King Richard III, many of us rejoice. Perhaps at last justice will be done to this unfairly maligned noble king, a devout Catholic, as we take another look at the extremely shaky evidence for which his name has been famous these last 600 years – the double murder of his nephews.

Here is a good argument by an unnamed historian, on a question and answer forum, who has carried out a systematic analysis and examination of the known facts of Richard III, and which I reprint below.  

– How could a man who seems to be so fiercely loyal to his brother, kill said brother’s children after his death? This is one of the questions that Josephine Tey takes up in her mystery novel, The Daughter of Time. By the end of the story, Tey concludes that the man who is looked at by over 600 years of history as a murderous villain, Richard III, did not kill his nephews. This paper, like Tey’s novel, is an attempt to clear Richard’s name, by citing various arguments for his innocence, or at least argue that there is not enough evidence, at least not beyond a reasonable doubt, to condemn a man of a murder that is very unlikely to benefit him.

First, there is his character: according to contemporary sources, Richard was “a man universally liked and admired (Tey 113). He was very loyal to his brother, King Edward VI. “Even [Richard’s] worst detractors agree that he was loyal to Edward.” When George of Clarence, Richard and Edward’s brother conspired with the Lancastrians to overthrow Edward, Edward fled the country and Richard never left his side. The argument here is that there seems nothing personally ambitious about these actions, only a desire to serve his brother.

Moreover, Richard was loyal to his brother even after Edward’s death. Richard on his way to London “arranged for a requiem mass at York, to which all the nobility of the North…took an oath of loyalty to the young prince” (114). According to historian Oliphant, Richard was a loving parent who displayed “‘signs of desperate grief'” at the death of his son (139). It is very doubtful that a man who grieves so heavily at his own son’s death could ruthlessly kill his two nephews.

Even if Richard were capable of murder, it would not be wise for him to kill the princes. Richard had already discredited the legitimacy of Edward’s children, in his issuance of the Titulus Regius act, which, according to Tey, gave “Richard the title to the crown” (126). Having gone to such great lengths to discredit the princes, Richard had no reason to kill them. Furthermore, as their protector, Richard surely was aware he would be the first one fingered in their death. To kill them would be a foolish act. With his nephews declared illegitimate, the young princes were no longer an important factor.

A further argument for Richard’s innocence is there is no proof that those children were murdered. Certainly there would have been rumors. According to Tey, “there was no general rumour of disappearance or foul play where the boys were concerned” (161). Furthermore, the failure of Henry Tudor to bring up the murder of the princes as a crime in the act of attainder against Richard, wears all the appearance of their not having been murdered. Had they been murdered under the supervision of King Richard, the invading Lancastrians would have certainly “use[d] the murder of the children as a rallying cry” (140).

One cannot forget that after Henry Tudor was crowned, he immediately had the Titulus Regius act revoked. The reason behind it is that he wanted to legitimize his new wife, Elizabeth, the princes’ sister. That way he would at least be married to the legitimate heir. Had Richard really murdered the princes, the people would have been thrilled to have the murderer overthrown. The fact that Henry VII had to repeal the Titulus Regius act proves that the people were not happy with Richard being overthrown. Marrying the legitimate heir would have given him some legitimacy.

It could be argued that Richard had the motive. However, Henry Tudor had just as strong a motive, if not stronger. Henry Tudor could have had those boys killed after his usurpation of the crown. That way he could legitimize his wife without worrying about the princes. Henry Tudor had someone write an account of a confession by the boys’ allegedly hired killer Tyler in 1502. He than had Tyler secretly executed for another unknown crime. This sequence of facts must at least ring an alarm bell. If Tyler had really confessed, then he “would have been tried and executed for the boys’ murder…in 1485” (171). Henry Tudor didn’t come up with the excuse until 1502, then he had Tyler executed to prevent him from defending himself.

There is a saying that goes “history is written by the victors.” In this case, the victors were Henry Tudor and his followers. Henry Tudor wanted the people of England to accept him as their king. He therefore wanted them to remember King Richard as a callous and wicked man. Having all the writers and historians in his pocket, he simply had them write what he wished. In fact, much of the blacking of Richard’s name seems to come after his death. Therefore, in conclusion, with all this evidence, King Richard III must be exonerated of the princes’ murder, or at least one must admit that there is plenty of reasonable doubt. We cannot condemn a person of a crime without proof, therefore barring a miraculous appearance of some piece of evidence; we will never truly know what happened to the two princes. Since sufficient evidence does not exist, Richard’s guilt does not exist. Therefore, he is innocent.

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21 Responses to Was King Richard III innocent of his nephews’ murders?

  1. Gertrude says:

    After more than five hundred years the fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower remains an unsolved mystery. Nobody knows for certain whether they were murdered, disappeared, or even survived. Richard has been accused of ordering their deaths even though there is no direct evidence to convict him. Similarly the duke of Buckingham, Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, and the duke of Norfolk have also been suspected of committing the crime, but once again there is no direct evidence to convict them.
    The truth of the matter is that we are no closer to discovering what really happened to the princes than we were in 1483 when they first disappeared from view. But following Richard’s death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 Tudor propagandists turned this uncertainty into a definite murder and laid it firmly at Richard’s door. Since then Richard has become established as an unprincipled usurper of the throne and a ruthless killer of defenceless children. Although there is not enough surviving evidence to prove that a murder actually took place, English history has by and large deemed that Richard remains guilty until proven innocent and since both the Crown and the Church of England will not ( or will ever be likely) allow their remains to be exhumed for analysis it is unlikely that we will ever have a definitive answer..My own feeling is that this ‘mystery’ owes more to subsequent Tudor propaganda and Shakespearean literary licence than actual fact. In this context it is worth remembering that the Bard was writing his plays mostly under the patronage of Elizabeth lst, and as with many of his plays, not necessarily historically correct.


  2. NEO says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that we will never know who (if anyone) killed the Princes. I see nothing that rules out anyone mentioned above, or leads to them either.

    As to Richard, I’ve always had the same problem, he was an exceptionally good man while Gloucester, loyal, able, and conscientious. My own theory which doesn’t really rule out, or rule in Richard’s guilt, is that his sense of duty (to England) led him to supersede the Princes, not least because of the reputation of the Woodvilles, and historical experience of child kings. I spelled this out more clearly here:

    And don’t miss Jessica’s articles that flank it.

    I sense a similar conflict of duty here to what we Americans know of R.E. Lee’s decision to serve Virginia rather than the United States.


  3. kathleen says:

    Thank you for your great comments, NEO and Gertrude. As I mentioned in your comment section NEO, your article you link to is really brilliant!

    No, I doubt we shall ever know the truth, but surely “innocent until proven guilty” should be the norm?

    “Give a dog a name”…. and it will stick! Posterity’s view of Richard has, without a doubt, been coloured by Shakespeare’s talented but unfortunate depiction of him as an evil, ambitious usurper, and a murderer. Many would like to stick to that view because it suits them to do so, or because they have invested interests for this (religious, political, etc.).

    But with a time lapse of well over 500 years, Richard III’s guilt or innocence will most probably never be proven. It will remain one more of those unsolved mysteries that men will continue down the ages to argue and wonder about. The only thing we should recognise is that there is no firm proof whatsoever that Richard is guilty of the murder of his nephews. Besides, from all the evidence we are able to gather about his character, such a dastardly deed even seems unlikely.


  4. JessicaHof says:

    The problem here is that there is no evidence the Princes were even alive by the time Tudor took the throne. To suppose he killed them is simply that, supposition.

    Richard, on the other hand, had many motives. What was the usual fate of a medieval king who was deposed? He was killed by the man who deposed him. One of the few exceptions was Henry VI in 1460; his supporters used him in 1470 to rally support to depose Edward IV; once he’d won the throne, he rectified his mistake and had Henry killed. Why would Richard have made the mistake of leaving Edward alive?

    Edward was under the control of the Woodvilles, a family avaricious for money and power; the fate of the Duke of Gloucester under a Woodville monarchy would have been insecure. There was the motive for the coup. That there was a coup, and that Richard masterminded it is clear. That he would then have been soft-hearted enough to have left rivals to the throne alive is to apply twenty first century standards of sentimentality to a time to which they do not apply.

    If there was the slightest bit of evidence that the Princes were still alive at the time of Bosworth it would be different. There isn’t, and common sense suggests that Richard did what Isabella and Mortimer did to Edward II, and what Bolingbroke did to Richard II and Edward IV did (second time) to Henry VI – made sure he could never be used against him.


  5. johnkonnor72 says:

    …Dont know much abt it..not too interested..suppose its patriot games…anyway the story made me think of the lyric…A broom is drearily sweeping
    Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life
    Somewhere a queen is weeping
    Somewhere a king has no wife
    And the wind, it cries Mary…kind of melancholy with a tinge of hope in the wind…


  6. The Raven says:


    I think that what you have written is correct, but I would like to chuck another observation at you: the incidence of childhood diseases in that period was pretty high; the lads could simply have caught an infection and died and Richard may have covered it up to prevent the sort of allegation that we are debating from being aired during his lifetime.


  7. JessicaHof says:

    That is perfectly possible, of course.


  8. kathleen says:

    King Richard III did, undoubtedly, have a motive for making his nephews disappear, but many unscrupulous characters, notably Henry VII, had an even greater motive….. as the author of the article above carefully points out. Insisting that Richard is the most likely culprit (just because that is what has always been believed) just doesn’t hold up.
    Richard loved his brother Edward, so surely he would have loved his brother’s children too. Although it does seem that murder (or executions) were certainly more the order of the day then, I disagree that “twenty first century standards of sentimentality” are any greater now than they were, over 500 years ago. Didn’t he grieve greatly at the death of his own son? Besides, since the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, it is well known that murder has always been a grave sin.

    Something I find disturbing from the reading of the many articles flying around the internet at the moment on the topic of Richard III and the discovery of his skeleton, is the way some of his detractors appear to be taking a malicious delight in the affirmation that Richard did indeed have a notably curved spine. It is almost as though this physical disability (which must have caused him extreme pain and discomfort) is a sort of indication of an equally twisted personality! Such reasoning seems to me to be incredibly uncharitable.
    Richard, in spite of his disability, went forth gallantly to meet his rival on Bosworth Field. He did not allow this impediment to deter him from fighting for his kingdom. The sad thing is, he lost, and with the crowning of Henry Tudor as king, the path was being laid for the coming tragedy of the English Reformation under Henry VII’s son a few decades later.


  9. Toad says:

    i>CP&S is to be congratulated for finding a topic; Did Richard kill the Princes in the Tower, or not? ..which is even less relevant to the lives of us common folk than “Gay Marriage.”

    Interesting though, and some lively comments.
    “Although it does seem that murder (or executions) were certainly more the order of the day then, I disagree that “twenty first century standards of sentimentality” are any greater now than they were, over 500 years ago…”
    Kathleen‘s first point here seems to be directly at odds with her second. It is evident that life was valued far more cheaply back then, as Jessica says, or implies.
    We are generally relatively more sentimental these days.

    Though no less vicious..


  10. chloe says:

    who killed the two young princes


  11. kathleen says:

    @ chloe

    The blame was put at King Richard III’s door by the Tudors who were his enemies, but as the article (and various commenters) have pointed out, the evidence for this is pretty flimsy.

    There is the added possibility that they died naturally (as has also been mentioned above) and were never murdered at all!


  12. Campanile says:

    What puzzles me is, if Richard was Edward’s protector why wasn’t Edward protected? If Richard loved his brother’s children where was Richard when they disappeared? Poof, they are gone and what is Richard’s response to this shocking course of events? Please show me some action Richard took to solve the disappearance. I can not reconcile Richard’s hate for the Woodvilles that was so great that he was willing to bastardized his brother’s children and at the same time accept that he “loved” them. Why did he wait until Edward produced two male heirs and died to invalidate his marriage?


  13. kathleen says:

    The Tower of London in the time of Richard III was more like a Palace or a Castle than a prison, assumed to be a safe place away from would-be dangers, so therefore the princes very presence there should have kept them safe.
    There is not much I can find on the response of Richard when his nephews disappeared, but it seems he did not remain silent on the matter. Raphael Holinshed, in his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, written in 1577, reports that Richard, “purged and declared his innocence concerning the murder of his nephews towards the world….”

    The answer to your final question can only be conjecture, but it could have been that Richard felt, in those anxious years after the war of the Roses, that the country needed a man for king; Edward (V) was only 12 years old. Richard had been loyal to his brother and fond (perhaps even very fond) of his brother’s children, and a man of deep religious convictions.


  14. Campanile says:


    You can not find much on the matter, because Richard did not have much to say. It seems to me if someone I promised to protect, someone I placed in the tower, whether it was a prison or a palace, disappeared I would at the very least lodge an investigation. Richard did nothing. Doing nothing only makes sense if he already knew what occurred.

    It also seems strange to me that when Richard took his nephew from his mother’s relatives, Richard Anthony Woodville and Richard Grey (half brother) they were imprisoned and later executed. Why immediately imprison them and kill them? It only makes sense if Richard had nefarious plans for the boy.

    Richard accepted a holy charge on his brother’s death bed. It was to be the the young King’s protector. I sincerely doubt he had deep religious convictions, because he failed to do what he promised. And as far as the country needing a man for a king, history shows that Richard’s actions ended the peace that England enjoyed under Edward’s reign.

    As a person of Irish heritage I have no fondness for English royalty, but I do care about logic.


  15. kathleen says:

    Thanks Campanile for your very logical argument. Naturally logic is in important when studying this mystery from all sides, or we may get carried away by our own beliefs and convictions. Unfortunately it is a ‘mystery’ that may never be resolved unless new evidence for or against Richard’s supposed guilt is unearthed.

    All that is being said in this article by the historian drawing on the book by Josephine Tey, is that there is “reasonable doubt” to exonerate Richard III of the murder of the princes, his nephews. He is undeniably a suspect (among others) but due to “history being written by the victors”, he was made the definite culprit. That is illogical.

    By the way, I also have Irish heritage from my father. 🙂


  16. Campanile says:


    I thought by your name you just might be Irish!

    My take on this subject is that it can never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, unless some definitive contemporary evidence is discovered. I applaud the amazing scholarship and effort that led to the unearthing of Richard’s body, but I also cringe whenever I read the comment that Richard did not have the face of a murderer. Neither did Ted Bundy, but we know by facts they were both murderers. Richard wantonly killed three people after his wife died.

    I am amazed that these murders are overlooked when judging Richard. To me they are red herrings.They make me wonder if he poisoned Anne himself and then attempted to cover it up with misdirection.

    I question his character, just as I do the character of all the royals. Schemers and plotters. They operated in much the same way the greedy corporations of today operate. All that matters is the outcome, “the bottom line,” whatever it takes to achieve the goal must be done, whatever the cost, whatever the collateral damage.


  17. Rodney says:

    The king is above the law and taking the princes off the throne was saving England from a regency situation like what happened when Henry V died and left a infant as king which lost England all French land save Calais so you could say he tried to save his people from corrupt government since a lord protector doesn’t have the same power as a king


  18. jrlarner says:

    Campanile, you are presuming Richard is guilty with no proof! As regards your questioning of why he did nothing when they disappeared, what about the possibility that he, himself, had them removed from the Tower to a place of safety (either the North where other dependent children were lodged, or his sister in Burgundy). There had been an attempt to abduct the Princes just before they disappeared so this action is possible. His silence in the face of accusations (which although existing at the time, were not widespread) would be an added means of protecting them – he protected and honoured his other nephew, Edward, George’s son. He didn’t expect to die at Bosworth, so who knows what he would have said or done after – they may have been produced once Tudor was dealt with. And Tudor may have found them after the battle which would give him the opportunity of their disposal (as he disposed of George’s son and many other Plantagenets). This is just one possibility of course, but no-one knows one way or the other. I agree Richard was innocent until proved guilty – he has been found so in numerous ‘trials’. Also, he was an excellent King as regards his laws and judgments.


  19. kathleen says:

    This old article has taken on a new popularity owing to the final re-burial of King Richard III’s remains this past Sunday in the Anglican cathedral of Leicester. The “guilty/not guilty debate” on the supposed murder of the two little princes, Richard’s nephews, continues in various media articles, but it is unlikely we shall ever find out what became of them this side of our own graves! Under any proper justice system, Richard should be considered “innocent” for lack of any incriminating evidence against him… save that of the presumed motive the princes could have become contenders for his throne.

    Just in case anyone has missed it, this article in the Catholic Herald of Card. Nichols Requiem Mass for Richard is good news for those who wished to see a Catholic burial for a devoutly Catholic king.

    “Cardinal Vincent Nichols has said that offering a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Richard III was “a profound and essential Christian duty” and that it is what the former king of England would have wanted.

    The Archbishop of Westminster made the comments in his homily during a Requiem Mass for King Richard at Holy Cross Priory in Leicester today.

    “We know that Richard was a man of anxious devotion who kept and marked his own book of prayers and who must have attended Mass throughout his life,” Cardinal Nichols said.”

    There was also this interesting article in the CH on 11th March.


  20. johnhenrycn says:

    Hmm…watched a bit of the funeral procession. Was hoping to see the usurper’s coffin carriage drivers, apparently young women, one wearing a mini-skirt. No luck. But I did see what resembled a Crown of Thorns on top of his (or should I say His?) coffin. The English penchant for pageantry has descended into parody since Diana’s funeral, although personally, I felt more sadness on her passing than I can rustle up for this desiccated corpse. The whole event was a nice little money-earner for Leicester, I suppose. Interesting to note that this “devoutly Catholic king” has been re-interred in an Anglican building. Like I say – parody.


  21. Becca says:

    I don’t call declaring my brother’s children bastards loyal behavior. He swore an oath to protect than had them declare the kids bastards based on flimsy evidence. The two people were dead and neither mentioned it in their lifetime.

    Of course they were still threats Parliament can easily declare them unbastards.

    Henry VII used Richards actions to win people to his cause. His vow always was he would marry Edward’s now heir Elizabeth. If that was a threat so were the boys.


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