As today marks the accession of Edward V in 1483, I thought I would explore visual representations of one of the most popular mysteries in English history: the princes in the tower. My students certainly love this story: everything stops when we get to this moment, and I have to let them indulge in what if history, at least for a little while. The basic facts are these: the 12-year-old prince succeeded his father Edward IV on April 9, but his uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, assumed the head of a regency government. The boy king, along with his younger brother Richard, was placed in “protective custody” in the Tower of London (then more of a palace then a prison), from which they never left. The Regent Richard produced evidence of their father’s prior betrothal in June of 1483, invalidating their parents’ marriage, rendering them illegitimate and enabling his own succession; at some point in August or September they disappeared. Two years later, in the end game of the long dynastic struggle that was later romantically labeled the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor killed Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth and proclaimed himself King. The Tudor Dynasty commenced and along with it, the demonization of Richard III, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, his every own nephews. This was a campaign waged most effectively by Tudor apologists Sir Thomas More in the early part of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare later on. The skeletal remains of two bodies found in the foundation of a Tower staircase in 1674 were interred in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey, marked with the inscription proclaiming that the the young king and his brother were stifled with pillows…by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.
A Sixteenth-century Portrait of Edward V, National Portrait Gallery, London
And that’s been the standard story ever since, despite continuous Riccardian attempts to point out that there were other perfidious candidates, and other scenarios. And there are. The recent discovery of Richard III’s remains renewed interest in his most famous crime for a bit, but really, curiosity about the princes’ fate always seems to be simmering under the surface: there have been repeated calls for the testing of the urn’s remains which royal and church officials have repeatedly resisted, and Westminster Abbey’s official position is that the mortal remains of two young children widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes in the tower, should not be disturbed. So that’s where we are with this story, and that is indeed what the princes in the tower has become: a story about two young children confronted and overwhelmed by evil, close to home. A Grimm tale. While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly contributed to the outline and character development of this story, it was the nineteenth century that filled in all the details, especially in terms of the all-important visuals. It was actually a late eighteenth-century painting, James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower (after Shakespeare’s Richard III) that set the scene which later artists recreated in variants over the next century: young, innocent, blue-eyed angelic boys, increasingly “real”, either sleeping unaware or clutching each other in fear and apprehension, helpless in the face of encroaching evil (which is always more ominous when it is not in the picture).
James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), 1786, National Trust, Petworth House; Joseph Mordecai, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery; Charles Robert Leslie, The Two Princes in the Tower, 1837, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Paul Delaroche, The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and the Duke of York), mid-19th century, Tower of London; Henrietta Mary Ada Ward, The Princes in the Tower, 1861, Touchstones Rochdale; John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower, 1878, Royal Holloway, University of London. The work of Millais, setting the boys before the staircase where their supposed remains were later uncovered, has been a particularly influential image.