This question has been asked many times in history. Both kings had certainly done some terrible things during their reigns and neither king was shy when it came to getting rid of someone who stood in their way, including their wives. But standing back and putting things into perspective, were all the grizzly stories told about them actually true?
The character of King John is well known. His brother Richard I has been likened to a lion, hence the name Richard Lionheart, and most would agree that there was no animal in nature that combines the conflicting qualities of John. He was a hardened warrior with the subtlety and cunning of a Machiavellian and from time to time during his furious rages, his cruelties were executed with cold, inhumane intelligence. He lied, he cheated, he manipulated and he more than likely had his nephew Arthur murdered, if he didn’t do it himself, because Arthur was next in line in the queue to the throne after his uncle Richard. John wasn’t the first to do this and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. It almost seems like a predisposition for most rulers in history.
But when you think about it, most of the books transcribed in the Middle Ages were written by monks and we know that King John quarrelled endlessly with the Church, was even excommunicated, so most monks hated him. And sure, he lost Normandy to King Philip II of France and he ripped up the Magna Carta after promising with his hand over his heart to uphold it.
But of late, some historians are thinking outside the box. He was a hard-working king who improved the law courts and made the barons, who had free reign due to Richard’s absence, obey the law. Without condoning anything that John did, perhaps in his own way, he was doing the best he could in a very difficult situation while trying to stop the English economy from going belly up. He may have gone about it rather badly by throwing tantrums and taxing everyone to the max and he certainly had an escalating cruel streak, but maybe this escalation began for a very good reason. He had an unreliable brother who was taking every bit of spare cash he could lay his hands on out of England leaving John frustrated and scrambling around trying to make ends meet. At the time, Richard had gone on his merry way to the Crusades with every bit of available cash he could find to fund his crusades. In my humble opinion, the minute Richard set foot in England he regarded the country as a cash cow that he fully intended to milk leaving John struggling during Richard’s absence. To me, it seems to have been the catalyst that started John on his downward spiral into absolute cunning, cruelty and deviousness. But then again, he was a Plantagenet.
And then we have Richard III, evil incarnate if we are to believe some historians. His two nephews certainly would have thought that as they sat captive in the Tower of London waiting to be released. But we know they never left the Tower and were never seen again after Richard kissed them both on the cheeks and virtually shoved them through the gate. That they died is understood. In the futue reign of King Charles II, during the restoration of a staircase in 1674, two small skeletons were found buried under a mass of rubble. They were examined and declared the remains of the two princes. But was it actually Richard as we have been led to believe or was it someone else who orchestrated their death?
Suspect Number 1. There have been a few names pulled out of the hat and the first one for sure is Richard III. He had the most to gain from their death and he had the personality to do it, or so says William Shakespeare, (a Tudor supporter, by the way). He had been implicated in the death of Warwick as well as the untimely death of his brother Edward still in his prime, which is something we should not forget as Richard gained dramatically because of that death as well.
But the deaths of the princes would certainly not have been by his own hand. He had people to do that sort of dirty work for him if he so commanded it. And so we move on to suspect number 2.
Suspect Number 2. No man had done more to place Richard on the throne than the Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Yet strangely and suddenly, during the first three months of Richard’s reign, Buckingham suddenly changed his allegiance completely and became Richard’s mortal enemy. Why did he do that? Was it perhaps his dislike at being an accomplice in what was seen as the usurpation of the throne and the murder of two young children? Perhaps he feared for his own safety? Ah, but then we ask wasn’t he of royal blood as well, being a descendant firstly through John Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and secondly, through the bloodline of Thomas of Woodstock, Edward III’s fifth son? If anything happened to Richard’s son, Buckingham’s bloodline could be strong enough to claim the throne for himself. Knowing the York’s relish for using the chopping block it wouldn’t have made him feel very safe. Not at all.
So very soon after the coronation, Buckingham changed sides dramatically and no one knows why. What we do know is that his job was one of responsibility and he was in charge of the safekeeping of the boys between June and July. As there was no physical injuries on the small bodies in 1674, suffocation was probably the method of killing them and it was a tried and true means of getting rid of someone you didn’t want around.
Suspect Number 3. In the background was Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor. No other mother in history, with the exception of Margaret of Anjou of course, seems to have been as dedicated as she was to having her son sit on the throne. But again, she would not have done it herself. There would have been a third party involved.
In 1472 after the death of her second husband, Margaret did the unthinkable and arranged for her own marriage to a prominent widow, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby who was in good standing with Edward IV. By all accounts, the marriage was one of pure convenience. This marriage enabled her to return to the court of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville and she was chosen by Elizabeth to be her daughter’s godmother. After Edward’s death and Elizabeth’s rush to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, Margaret became Anne Neville’s lady-in-waiting carrying the train at her coronation. Richard had already stripped Margaret of her titles and estates and had given them all to her husband, Lord Stanley, which was a meaningless gesture as he would already have had the rights to her property as her new husband anyway. During all of this (and she must have been absolutely furious), she was actively plotting with Elizabeth Woodville and had betrothed her beloved son Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter, young Elizabeth of York. She has been called a formidable opponent of Richard III, habitual conspirator and dedicated promoter of her son's cause.
Within a couple of months of Richard’s coronation, Margaret’s nephew Buckingham from her previous marriage, (yes it is complicated), raised a rebellion against Richard in favour of Henry Tudor and you can bet she used every bit of her influence on him to encourage the rebellion. She would have promised him anything for his support. I guess my question right now is: why did Buckingham raise the rebellion in favour of Henry and not for the princes since nobody apparently knew they were already dead? Was he the one who gave the orders to kill them? In view of that and the fact that Buckingham had no immediate motive to move against Richard except that he had a very distant claim to the throne himself, what could he hope to gain by attacking the king in such a wild and reckless rebellion after having sworn his loyalty one month previously? My guess is Margaret Beaufort had a hand in it. As a consequence of the failed rebellion, Margaret’s current husband, Lord Stanley, was promoted to the position of High Constable in charge of all prisoners in the Tower. Mmmmmmmm.
All Margaret wanted was for her son Henry to sit on the throne at any cost. At the beginning of Buckingham’s rebellion, she sent word to Henry Tudor who was living in abject poverty in France with Jasper Tudor and told him to gather forces and hurry home. To me, it seems she was pulling the strings and had everything planned and under control.
And here is something else to think about - if Henry Tudor defeated Richard III in battle, Henry would not necessarily become king, as the throne would theoretically be restored to young Edward V who may be in the tower. However, both princes' removal would leave her son Henry as the prime candidate for the throne. Another mmmmmmm.
Suspect Number 4. Henry Tudor had a great need to be king and he was the plausible alternative … but only if the two princes weren’t around. Henry was a Welshman, whose grandfather, Owen Tudor had been a page in the court of Henry V and as we know, Owen is reported to have secretly married Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. One of their sons was Edmund Tudor, who in turn married Margaret Beaufort.
Perhaps at this stage, I should remind you that Henry Tudor’s grandmother Catherine of Valois was the sister of Charles VI of France who had sadly inherited a ‘crazy’ gene and we saw this gene pop its nasty head up during Henry VI’s reign. Although Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was through his mother and the House of Beaufort as far back as John of Gaunt and Edward III, this gene from his paternal French grandmother should not, perhaps, be forgotten regarding future generations and their actions.
It has been suggested by some historians that Richard had stashed the princes in the Tower of London for safe keeping while he ruled in peace. It has also been suggested that it was in fact Henry Tudor, when he was King Henry VII, who had the princes executed between June and July of 1486 when his stepfather was High Constable of the Tower two years later. Richard was long gone by then. It was only after this date that orders went out to circulate the story that Richard had killed the princes. This could easily have been to cover up Henry’s own involvement in their murder. It has also been suggested that Elizabeth Woodville knew that this story was false, and so Henry had to have her "silenced" by confining her to a nunnery where she died six years later. All very plausible. And let's not forget it was William Shakespeare who sowed the threads of doubt by writing his story about Richard III. His living, and life I have no doubt, depended on showing his full support for the Tudors.
When you think about it, it seems impossible that no one will ever know what happened to the Princes after they entered the tower. Richard III, Henry VII and Elizabeth Woodville would have had their spies out and all of them would have known the boys' whereabouts and welfare. If both boys had died, the matter could have been discussed and the culprit would have been blamed openly. But neither Richard III nor Henry VII did so with the reason being that if the princes were alive, the boys' claim to the throne was better than either of theirs. The princes would simply have had to go in either case. It’s something we will never know and it is history’s best-kept secret.There have been many suspects’ names drawn out of the hat and of course, Richard’s name always comes up first. He had the most to gain from their death and he’d already been implicated in his brother, Edward IV’s death.
So, did these men actually deserve their reputations? The answer is subjective and personal. But what a lot of fun along the way.