Edward IV’s early death in 1483 at the age of 41 was a serious blow to the shaky Yorkist grip on the throne. His military acumen had won him the throne, and his popularity had helped to stabilise the realm. His focus on law and order had won him allies among the merchants of London, and his eye for finances had helped to put the country back on a firm financial footing. His heir was his twelve year old son by Elizabeth Woodville, Edward V, born while his mother sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey from the Lancastrians, during the brief restoration of Henry VI to power. He had been raised by the King’s brother-in-law, Anthony Woodville, the second Earl Rivers. Edward IV had set a strict curriculum for his son, hoping to groom him properly to succeed him. A contemporary report speaks to the success of this approach, as the young Prince was described as having “attainments far beyond his age”. He had been betrothed to Anna of Brittany, heir to her father’s duchy, with the understanding that their first child would inherit the throne of England and the second the duchy of Brittany. This was a political alliance aimed by Anne’s father at preventing the French crown from absorbing Brittany. This would have been a good match – Anne would prove to be an intelligent and driven woman who preserved Breton independence during her lifetime and became the richest woman in Europe. However, it was not to be. Edward V’s doom was set with his father’s early death.
The actions of Richard of Gloucester after his brother’s death are a source of much controversy. There are those who describe him as a villain – Shakespeare, for example, portrays him as a Machiavellian plotter. Others see him as the victim of a propoganda campaign after his death, which sought to vilify his memory. The truth may lie somewhere between. Regardless, it is hard to see his actions upon his brother’s death in a positive light. He had been named as Lord Protector in his brother’s will, and on his brother’s death he marched towards London, meeting the King and his guardians on the road. Earl Rivers had been ordered by his sister, the King’s mother, to immediately bring young Edward to London under armed guard. Richard had Earl Rivers arrested, along with Edward’s half-brother Richard Grey (a child of Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage) and the late King Edward IV’s chamberlain Richard Vaughn. The three men were sent north to Pontefract under guard, and were later executed without a trial after having been accused of plotting to assassinate Richard. Richard himself took the young King south to London, where he was placed in the Tower of London under guard to await his coronation.
Richard’s actions were controversial, but he was not without supporters. The Queen’s family had scandalized the court with their rapid elevation after her marriage to Edward IV, and some saw this as simply a natural reaction against their encroachment on the court. The Queen Mother sought sanctuary, with her daughters and her younger son, Richard Duke of York. Meanwhile, the court tried to pressure Richard to have Edward officially crowned as King – although this would have been unusual, given his age, it would not have been unprecedented, ans it would have helped to stabilise the political situation. On the 13th of June, less than a month after Richard and Edward had arrived in London, Richard accused Sir William Hastings, a man who had been supporting his measures, of plotting to kill him, and had him summarily executed. Hastings had been the one who had warned him of the Queen Mother’s manoeuvring to have her son crowned before Richard could reach London, which had enabled him to intercept the young prince. It does seem unlikely, then, that this would be who the Queen would plot with against Richard, as he accused, but regardless she was forced to flee, while her younger son Richard was sent to join his brother in the Tower.
Matters now began to accelerate. On the 22nd of June, a preacher named Ralph Shaa gave a sermon claiming that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal, due to him having previously secretly married Lady Eleanor Butler, and thus neither Edward nor young Richard were rightful heirs to the throne. The story came from Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who claimed to have secretly married the two as Lady Eleanor had demanded it before she would sleep with Henry. The truth of the story is impossible to determine – Lady Eleanor had died sixteen years earlier, and the convenience of the timing for Richard is hard to dispute, but on the other hand, the King’s marriage to Elizabeth had been similarly unconventional. Richard wasted no time in contemplating this, however. On the 25th of June, the same day as the prisoners in Pontefract were executed, Parliament declared Richard the rightful King. The next day he was crowned as Richard III. The action would be legitimised the following January by Titulus Regius, which not only declared that Edward and Elizabeth’s wedding had been illegal, but also hinted that both Edward IV and his brother George had also been illegitimate, and furthermore accused Elizabeth and her mother of using witchcraft to entice Edward. The accusation of witchcraft was a common political tool used to ensure that any other charge would be upgraded to the death penalty, but Elizabeth was able to avoid this fate.
The fate of the young Edward and his brother remains a mystery to this day. Popular tradition has it that they were murdered on Richard III’s orders. He had certainly shown a ruthless enough streak to have them killed, and it is certain that his one-time friend Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, was able to convince Elizabeth Woodville that they were dead when the two began to conspire against Richard later that year. Other theories have it that the two died of illness, or even that they survived the reign of Richard only to be killed by his successor. Later pretenders to the throne would claim to be one or the other of the princes, and various remains found in the Tower and in the family vault of the Yorks have found remains that have been claimed to be those of the “Princes in the Tower”. The biggest reason to imagine that they were dead by late 1483, however, is simply that rumours of their death were seriously undermining Richard’s reign, but he never produced either of them in public to discredit the rumours despite his frequent denials of the crime. Others who may have killed them in the summer of 1483 are suggested to be either the Duke of Buckingham himself, or else agents working for a woman some see as masterminding the fall of the House of York. Her name was Margaret Beaufort, and though she is not well known to history, her son would become far more well known. He was the man who both Elizabeth Woodville and Henry Stafford would come to support, the man would would conquer England under the sign of a new Rose, the Golden Rose. He was Henry Tudor, and he was the man who would end these wars.