On November 2, 1470, Elizabeth Woodville delivered her first royal son: Edward. Born in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey while his father, Edward IV, was in exile abroad, Edward’s inauspicious birth was, sadly, a harbinger of his fate. Sometime in the late summer of 1483, Edward and his younger brother Richard, confined to the Tower, vanished from sight. Most likely, in my opinion, they were murdered at the orders of their uncle, Richard III. Even if Richard did not murder them, he can hardly be found guiltless. If his nephews died at someone else’s hands, Richard never named the culprit or expressed any public outrage at their deaths. If they died natural deaths, Richard never saw fit to announce the fact or to give them the sort of funeral a king’s sons should have received. If they survived Richard’s reign, their identities and whereabouts had been so thoroughly obliterated by the time of its end that their fate will probably never be known. In short, even if Richard did not kill the boys, he nonetheless succeeded in turning these two princes, once the pride and joy of their royal father, into nonpersons.
Unfortunately, just as some of Richard’s defenders have chosen to purify his name by blackening those of his enemies, notably the Woodvilles and William Hastings, others have chosen to minimize his acts by dismissing the lives of his nephews as being of little or no importance. Those Ricardians who tear up at the thought of little Richard of Gloucester and little Anne Neville gamboling together as children in Yorkshire, or at the thought of the untimely death of Richard’s own young son, can be remarkably cold-blooded when it comes to the sons of Edward IV.
One can browse through the Internet and find a certain breed of Ricardian expressing open contempt and disdain for these boys, aged twelve and ten at the time of their last sighting. Others, however, demean the brothers in more subtle ways. One common means is to imply that because of his upbringing at Ludlow amongst his Woodville kin, Edward V was not a true Plantagenet, but a Woodville, and therefore apparently not worthy of his uncle Richard’s regard, or ours. As Paul Murray Kendall writes, in his chapter where he imagines Richard’s thoughts in deciding to take the throne, “When Richard tried to find a nephew, he met only a Woodville. The boy’s rearing had drained out of him the blood of his father.” Kendall’s statements have been most recently echoed by Annette Carson, who writes blithely, “Edward had been brought up as a Woodville, surrounded by Woodville handlers.” (The term “handlers” in itself neatly objectifies the boy, making him sound like a prize show dog or a package.) Historical novels that are sympathetic to Richard III generally take some variation on this tack, portraying the boys, or at least Edward, as having been so thoroughly brainwashed by their Woodville relations that they are unable to establish any rapport with their worthy uncle, or with the reader.
Another group is the pragmatic Ricardians, who point out that having been exposed as bastards, the boys therefore lost all importance, to which they were never entitled to in the first place, and were naturally destined to sink into obscurity. Those who have some sympathy for their plight are portrayed as bleeding hearts with a poor knowledge of the realities of fifteenth-century England. But assuming that the boys were in fact bastards, which is by no means proven, one is left with the fact that bastardy, at least royal bastardy, did not necessarily equate to low status or obscurity. Richard III made a countess of his bastard daughter Katherine, marrying her to the Earl of Huntingdon, and he created his bastard son, John, Captain of Calais, with more honors likely to have come had Richard reigned past 1485. If researcher Barrie Williams is correct, the supposed bastardy of Edward IV’s offspring by Elizabeth Woodville didn’t stop Richard III from trying to marry Elizabeth of York to Manuel, Duke of Beja, who eventually became King of Portugal. Richard might have even considered marrying Elizabeth himself; certainly, he had to deny such an intention publicly. In short, the boys didn’t have to be cast out into outer darkness once they were proclaimed to be bastards: Richard pushed them there.
Distasteful as it might be to some of Richard III’s defenders, the boys’ contemporaries do not seem to have regarded them as inconveniences to be casually tossed aside. Dominic Mancini wrote of young Edward:
He had such dignity in his whole person, and in his face such charm, that however much they might gaze he never wearied the eyes of beholders. I have seen many men burst forth into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there was a suspicion that he had been done away with.
Annette Carson, who is quite ready to give credence to Mancini when it suits her purpose, less so when it does not, pours scorn on this account. Accusing Mancini of “over-egg[ing] his pudding,” she writes, “Such outbursts are thoroughly unlikely on the part of sober medieval English townsfolk, of whom no more than a handful outside of Court circles could even have clapped eyes on the boy. Any tearful men observed by Mancini were perhaps not entirely sober.” It’s notable that while Carson is inclined to be flippant about Edward V (one explanation that she gives for Edward’s reported statement to John Argentine that he believed he was facing death is that he was “indulging in the dramatics of a typical twelve-year-old”), no such tendency occurs when she speaks of the fates of Richard III’s short-lived son or of the young Earl of Warwick, imprisoned and eventually executed by Henry VII.
Carson’s sallies at the expense of Edward V aside, at least four men showed their regard for Edward and his brother in the most convincing manner possible: they risked—and lost—their lives for them. Robert Russe, a sergeant of London, William Davy, pardoner of Hounslow, John Smith, a groom of Edward IV’s stirrup, and Stephen Ireland, wardrober of the Tower, “with many others” entered into a plot to set fires throughout London, with the intent of using the attendant distraction to free the princes from the Tower. According to the antiquary John Stow, the four were beheaded. The existence of such a plot (which was followed by others that would eventually grow into the uprising of October 1483 known as Buckingham’s Rebellion) is confirmed by a contemporary account of Thomas Basin, a Frenchman who reported, in the words of historian Michael Hicks, “a plot by fifty Londoners on the princes’ behalf which failed to attract support and led to the execution of four of them.” As both Hicks and Rosemary Horrox point out, this plot may be the unnamed “enterprise” to which Richard III alluded in a letter to his chancellor on July 29, 1483.
What did these four men have to gain from their plot? Royal favor, of course, if they succeeded in freeing the brothers and restoring Edward V to the throne, but the rewards these men could have hoped to receive seem far outweighed by the risks they ran: imprisonment at best, execution at worst. Had these men been motivated by selfish concerns, it would have been much easier, surely, and much less risky, simply to concentrate their energies on currying favor with Richard III and his cronies. Instead, they risked all, and lost all, for the cause of two young boys. They did not regard them as the mere collateral damage of Richard III’s ascent to the throne or as creatures of no worth. Neither should we.