The fascination evoked by Richard III and the mystery of the ‘princes in the Tower’ continues to grow. The discovery of Richard’s body under a carpark in 2012 and his reburial in Leicester Cathedral in 2015 drew international attention, and a stellar team led by Steve Coogan and Steven Frears will shortly bring that story to the big screen. Yet the heart of this interest surrounding Richard and his reign remains an unresolved question, the fate of Richard’s nephews, King Edward V and his brother Richard, duke of York, who disappeared from public view during 1483 soon after being denounced as bastards and displaced from the succession. It is arguably the greatest missing persons – and perhaps murder – mystery in British history.
The first person to allocate very specific responsibility for the disappearance – and death – of the two princes was the much-celebrated lawyer, philosopher, politician and Roman Catholic saint Sir Thomas More. Writing more than thirty years after 1483, More produced an account in his History of King Richard III that pinned the blame on a servant of Richard’s called Sir James Tyrell. Tyrell had been executed for treason by Henry VII in 1502, and had already been named in connection with the princes by two other sources. But where those other sources had been vague about Tyrell’s involvement, More – writing in the 1510s – added precise circumstantial detail, and in particular indicated that Tyrell had engaged two men to carry out the dreadful deed, Miles Forest and John Dighton, the first of whom was one of those responsible for the care of the princes in their apartments in the Tower.
More’s account of the murder of the ‘princes in the Tower’ has, however, been treated with varying degrees of scepticism over the past century and a half. Richard III’s defenders have denounced it as ‘Tudor propaganda’, contrived years after the event to blacken the reputation of a king whose record was otherwise in many ways good and who, they claim, had little to gain by the boys’ deaths. Others have preferred to focus on the political philosophy in More’s work, as an essentially metaphorical account of tyranny and its dangers. For both camps, the factual errors and omissions in his work reinforce the challenges of using it as precise narrative history. Even those who are more sceptical of Richard’s innocence have had to admit that More’s account stands as their preferred explanation not because it is backed by any clear supporting corroborative evidence, but really for lack of any credible alternative.
More’s History of King Richard III is notable, nonetheless, for the way it provides precise circumstantial detail for the focal point of the succession crisis of 1483. More’s account of the princes’ deaths is particularly striking because central to it were several individuals who were still alive at the time of its writing, survivors of the episode and their immediate families.
My open access article in this January’s History examines those at the heart of the murder story in the context of that story’s writing and re-writing in the 1510s and 1520s, especially the man who may well have been the surviving murderer, John Dighton, and Edward and Miles Forest – the prominent servants of Henry VIII who were the sons of Dighton’s alleged partner in crime, Miles Forest – and More’s contacts with them. In doing so, my article sheds some light, if not on the absolute truth of More’s account, then, at least on the first decades of its development, and the implications for the writing of history and the nature of the contemporary ‘Tudor’ regime.
If I am correct, then two men Thomas More knew well, and with whom he worked, were clearly identifiable as the sons of the leading alleged murderer of the princes. More also knew that, although their father Miles Forest was dead, Miles’ partner-in-crime John Dighton had survived and was living just across the Channel in the English possession of Calais. And in the years during which he shaped his history, More spent many months in Calais and nearby in the Low Countries.
More’s Richard III is therefore not just a great work of political philosophy, but also a narrative constructed by an author who had access to men and women whose witness takes us very close indeed to the dramatic events of 1483, and the death of the princes themselves.
Tim Thornton is Professor of History and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Huddersfield. Tim works on the late medieval and early modern political and social history of the British Isles, spanning the period c. 1400-1650. Tim studied at New College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first in Modern History and later completed his DPhil, under the supervision of Christopher Haigh. In 1997 Tim was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s David Berry Prize for his work on the Isle of Man; in 1999 he was proxime accessit for the Society’s Alexander Prize for an essay on the palatinate of Durham. He was the first scholar based in a new university to win one of the Society’s prizes. In 2001 he won the Yorkshire History Prize for an essay on Henry VIII’s visit to Yorkshire in 1541. His books include Cheshire and the Tudor State, 1480-1560 (2000), Prophecy, Politics and the People in Early Modern England (2006), The Channel Island, 1370 – 1640: Between England and Normandy (2012), and, with Katharine Carlton, The Gentleman’s Mistress: Illegitimate Relationships and Children, 1450–1640 (2019).
Banner Image. Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More (1527). Available online in the public domain.
Figure 1. John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower (1878). Available online in the public domain and recommended by the author.
Figure 2. Unknown artist, Richard III (late sixteenth century). Available online in the public domain and recommended by the author.