Part Five: Richard III & the Death of Henry VI

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Today we’re going to pick up where we left off, but we’re going to focus almost exclusively on the question of whether Richard III was involved in the execution of Henry VI.

Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester returned to London after the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 21, 1471. In their entourage was Marguerite of Anjou, as well as Prince Edward’s widow, their cousin, Lady Anne Neville. Both women were apprehended on the run and taken into Edward’s custody. Anne would swiftly be granted a pardon and placed into George’s custody (as his sister-in-law), but Marguerite was placed under arrest in the Tower of London. Eventually she was released into the care of John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, by way of his mother, Alice Chaucer, in Wallingford Castle. You can read more about her final years here.

Richard’s stay in the capital was short-lived, but whatever family reunion occurred is worth mentioning because of one distinct new addition: a Yorkist Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth was seven months pregnant when King Edward was forced into exile the previous summer. In November 1470, after seeking sanctuary inside Westminster Abbey with their three daughters, she gave birth to a son, christened Edward after his father. Edward – and Richard – met the infant when they returned to London before the Battle of Barnet, but it wasn’t until after Tewkesbury that anything approaching normalcy resumed in Westminster. The Yorkist succession was secure, and one of the Princes in the Tower had arrived.

Long-term this meant that after a decade, George, Duke of Clarence was finally displaced in the line of succession. That would prove a problem, but we’ll return to that later on.

But back to May 21st. The Yorkist procession through the city was essentially a victory lap, but by the next morning the gossip mill was in overdrive with news that Henry VI, again held in custody in the Tower of London, was dead. His body was publicly displayed to discourage rumors of his survival. The official party line of Edward’s government was that Henry died of grief over his son’s death, and had his death not occurred within hours of Edward and co. returning to London, it might have had at least a ring of veracity to it.

As it stands, Henry was clearly executed. Or, given the circumstances, murdered. This was a given even in 1471, with one contemporary writing in the early 16th century that Richard’s name was among the rumored killers in the following days. Matthew Lewis believes that the Warkworth’s Chronicle may be the source for many of the later accusations against Richard – in it, the author writes that Richard was at the Tower of London with several other people, but doesn’t go so far as to accuse Richard outright. The Crowland Chronicle, written in 1486, is similarly vague, but names the killer as someone guilty of “tyranny,” which insinuates a king – either Edward or Richard.

Lewis writes in his biography of Richard:

“The death of Henry VI is an event that requires separation into two constituent elements, the order and the act, about one of which there is certainty, and the other only rumor and conjecture. The instruction for Henry’s death came, without any doubt at all, from King Edward IV. No one, not even one of his brothers, would have attempted such an action without the king’s approval […] Accepting Edward’s responsibility excuses the actual killer from any real liability, at least in a political sense, if not a moral one. Of all the crimes Richard has been accused of, playing a part of some kind in the death of Henry VI is simultaneously the most likely and the least convincing of them all. It is unconvincing because any guilt belongs to Edward. It is likely both because of Richard’s position and troublingly unique nature of the assassination to be undertaken.”

Richard’s position, of course, was that of Constable of England, which is a strong indication that he was somewhat involved. Even if he didn’t wield the dagger (so to speak), it’s a good bet that he was at the Tower that night and oversaw the carrying out of Edward’s orders. That could mean some makeshift trial so that it was all technically legal, or it could mean that he in fact killed Henry. It’s also not out of the question that Edward did the deed – killing an anointed king was no small act, and who better than another?

Desmond Seward, another of Richard’s biographers, points to John Rous, Thomas More, and Philippe de Commines, all of whom baldly state that Richard was the killer. This brings us back to the core issue of how reliable you judge the Tudor historians. Seward notes:

“No one will ever know exactly how Henry VI met his death, but it is certain he died violently. An examination of his skull in 1910 found that his skull had been ‘much broken.’ Tradition has it that the murder was committed in the octagon chamber on the first floor of the Wakefield Tower in the Tower of London. If Edward IV was ultimately responsible, no contemporary or Tudor source says that he was at the Tower on that fatal night. Even Kendall [Paul Murray Kendall – a diehard Ricardian and another Richard biographer] admits Richard’s involvement […] He does not dispute the likelihood of Gloucester having done the deed himself. However he makes no mention of the opprobrium incurred by the Duke as the murderer of an anointed king – something regarded as worse than sacrilege in that extraordinary superstitious age.”

So, there are a few separate strands to unravel. If we accept that Richard was involved in Henry’s death that night, we are left with two possibilities – that he managed the execution as Constable or that, as the highest-ranking man there (assuming Edward was absent), he also carried it out. As Seward touches on, for many this isn’t a deal-breaker in weighing Richard’s character. He didn’t order the death (Edward did), and Henry’s death ushered in a 14-year peace in England, so with the benefit of hindsight, you can make a very valid argument that it was “a cruel necessity” as Oliver Cromwell later described the execution of Charles I.

But Seward also raises another point, which is that laying hands on an anointed king was considered sacrilegious. This was more than a legal execution or killing men on the battlefield, both of which had some moral cover by the Church. If Richard undertook this act on his brother’s behalf then whatever rationalization he wrestled with (if he did at all) ended with the conclusion that risking his immortal soul was worth it – for the good of the country or in loyalty to his brother.

Considering the religious element is always worth keeping in mind when attempting to understand a 15th century thought process…but I also don’t like to get too precious about it. At least two other kings in England’s history also met similar ends – Edward II and Richard II were both quietly killed after being deposed out of necessity. Keeping them alive was a threat to the next king, and the moral argument was that it spared more lives through avoided warfare. I say at least two since we don’t know exactly how William II died (and there’s some wild rumors about Edward VI). So, yes, Richard would have considered the moral implications differently than someone of his ilk today, but he wouldn’t have been the first man to prioritize the reality of his situation over intangibles.

As for whether Richard’s ability to carry out these orders at the age of 18 primed him for the later murder of his nephews…well, I don’t conflate the two. As Lewis noted in the quote above, what we actually know for certain is that Edward IV ordered Henry’s death and he’s not tarnished by the same brush. Edward IV, like Richard, was a brutally effective military commander who oversaw executions, meted out violent punishments, and has been accused of murdering his brother-in-law, the Duke of Exeter, in 1475. Still, he’s often remembered like an affable playboy prince. Arguably the difference is that he’s never been implicated in the murder of children. Or that he had the good fortune not to be ousted from power by England’s most successful royal house (though, to be clear, I’m not a big fan of the ‘Tudor Myth‘).

Personally, I’m of the belief that Richard was there that night, but agnostic on whether he conducted the killing himself. The point about being the highest-ranking man there to lay hands on an anointed head is well-taken, but again, other kings were killed by commoners. Either way, I don’t think the act serves as convincing evidence for Richard having killed the Princes in the Tower.

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