Richard III and the Princes in the Tower: Could new research solve British history's greatest mystery?

One day in May 1484, a Silesian knight called Nicholas von Poppelau, arrived in York after a long journey carrying letters from the Holy Roman Emperor. He was a man on a mission. He wanted to gain an audience with England’s new monarch, who was the talk of Europe. In a few years, the man he was due to meet - King Richard III - would become a byword for evil.

But Poppelau, who spent four days with Richard, was charmed by his host. Poppelau described Richard as having a “big heart” and magnanimous disposition, displaying the regal qualities of kindness and generosity. It seems impossible to square this independent first hand account of Richard’s character with the hunchbacked ogre of Shakespeare’s play. Richard’s modern supporters believe Poppelau captured the real man; the noble ruler whose reputation was ruthlessly trashed by Henry Tudor’s court historians after Richard died a heroic death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.

“Von Poppelau talks of Richard being a very friendly man whose company he enjoyed, and who was a good host.’’ said Matthew Lewis, the medieval historian who is chairman of the Richard III Society.

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“He recalls Richard wishing his lands bordered Turkey so that he could lead a crusade there, and sums up his view of Richard by saying ‘O Dear God, what a gracious lord I recognised in that king’. This sense of a good man is what lies at the heart of debate to this day. How can such a gracious lord be a monstrous tyrant?”

Writer Philippa Langley MBE visits QE Sixth Form College, Darlington to talk about her role leading to the exhumation of Richard III in 2012. Writer Philippa Langley MBE visits QE Sixth Form College, Darlington to talk about her role leading to the exhumation of Richard III in 2012.
Writer Philippa Langley MBE visits QE Sixth Form College, Darlington to talk about her role leading to the exhumation of Richard III in 2012.

The prosecution case against Richard runs like this; in 1483 following the unexpected death of his brother Edward IV, Richard staged a ruthless coup, which involved the executions without trial of a number of his enemies and the murder of his nephews Edward V and Richard Duke of York in the Tower of London, which cleared his path to the throne. The flimsy pretext for deposing Edward V was a sermon preached by a theologian which claimed the princes were illegitimate, according to Richard’s detractors.

Richard’s supporters dismiss much of the case against him as Tudor propaganda; they cite the lack of evidence to prove Richard killed his nephews and the testimony of contemporary witnesses like Poppelau and the Bishop of St David’s who praised Richard’s support for the poor and believed “God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all”. So where does the truth lie?

“Richard was a divisive character as king and has remained so ever since,’’ said Mr Lewis. “If you believe him to be a villain, he’s a focus for distaste. If you think him innocent of most of the crimes ascribed to him, he’s a wronged figure seeking a champion. In the space between there is plenty of room to investigate, reassess, and argue.”

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The writer Philippa Langley, who led the successful search to locate Richard’s grave in a Leicester car park, said the documentary evidence of Richard’s lifetime reveals a dedicated administrator and a courageous soldier who earned a reputation for justice and fair dealing.

She added: “As king he introduced enlightened legislation which benefited the ordinary people. He was conspicuously loyal to his family, the House of York, and a loving husband and father. The discovery of Richard’s remains has renewed interest and with it a greater willingness to re-evaluate the traditional story. The Monarchy website, for example, no longer records Richard as a usurper. During the 1470s and early 1480s Richard developed close ties with the north of England, especially Yorkshire where he established a uniquely warm relationship with the city of York and York Minster. Richard’s good lordship and just administration earned the loyalty of a region which had been fiercely Lancastrian and difficult to govern.

“He had undertaken his knightly training in the northern household of the earl of Warwick, where, as a youth, he came to know the leading families, castles, towns and religious foundations of Yorkshire in particular.

“During his reign he established in York Minster, a chantry of 100 priests, the largest in mediaeval Christendom, and the best surviving evidence that Richard intended the Minster as his final resting place Seven weeks after Richard’s death, as Henry Tudor was preparing to be crowned, the city fathers of York described Richard as ‘the most famous Prince of blessed memory’. The city fathers had known Richard, man and boy, duke and king, and their grief at his death is tangible.”

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Professor Tim Thornton of the University of Huddersfield, who recently wrote an analysis of the possible fate of the Princes in the Tower for the History Journal believes our fascination with Richard reflects our “touchingly British” concern for the underdog.

He said: “Richard’s time in the north of England before he came to the throne, and his ostentatious celebration of those connections once he became king, make him for some people a champion of the North against the South, an increasingly prominent theme in contemporary debate across the twentieth century and today.”

“Richard is a fascinating character, although the sources are not as full as they might be, and it is necessary always to be alert to the hostility of many who have written about him. He was a man of determination and energy, bravery, foresight and at times cunning. That could make him an innovator and reformer, and potentially a disruptor. He was also a man of principle with strong religious beliefs and a powerful sense of the destiny of his family.”

Professor Thornton described the fate of the Princes in the Tower as probably the greatest unsolved murder mystery in British history, and there is “inevitably insufficient evidence to arrive at the levels of proof one would expect in a criminal trial”.

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He added: “What’s particularly at stake is the account of Richard and the Princes presented by Sir Thomas More, which for the first time in detail directly accused Richard and which became the orthodoxy propagated by 16th century writers, especially William Shakespeare.

“It is particularly timely that my recent research reinforces the importance of that ‘orthodox’ account of Richard and his guilt. Focused on the connections and continuities between More’s world and the England of 1483 about which he wrote, my research demonstrates More was writing not empty propaganda about a caricature of murder, but about real people and in some cases men and their families with whom he had direct contact.

“The balance of probabilities, which for many was already tipping against Richard – as the man with the motive and opportunity, and for whom the chronology of the boys’ disappearance in the late summer or autumn of 1483 is most damning-, is now firmly inclined in favour of his guilt.”

Ms Langley’s admiration for Richard remains unwavering: “The surviving evidence reveals an enlightened ruler who displayed a particular concern for justice and the welfare of all his subjects, particularly the dispossessed and disadvantaged. If we read between the lines of the traditional account we uncover a good man who became a good king.”

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But does she believe the mystery of the Princes in the Tower will ever be solved?

She replied: “The Missing Princes Project research initiative will be announcing very exciting discoveries later this year, so yes, I think it can be solved.”

According to Ms Langley’s website, this project is employing “forensic analysis” of the events surrounding the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons to open new lines of investigation. It seems the case of the missing princes will never be cold.