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Like Richard III, Henry VII’s reputation is sullied by the disappearance of the two princes

There is no evidence of endowments set up to pay for prayers for the princes – Henry may have been scared of inspiring a religious cult

By on Thursday, 26 September 2013

The death mask of Henry VII, Tudor King of England 1485-1509, at Westminster Abbey

The death mask of Henry VII, Tudor King of England 1485-1509, at Westminster Abbey

That Richard III has passionate defenders is evident from the response to my suggestion on Tuesday that he had good reason to ‘disappear’ the Princes in the Tower. But what about the role of Henry VII in this murky affair – does he emerge with any more credit that Richard?

In 1485 Henry VII accused Richard of spilling “innocents blood”. Yet Henry did nothing public to discover exactly what had happened to the princes, or where their bodies might lie. Why? The answer is because although his reasons were different, Henry, like Richard, was fearful that they would become the focus of a religious cult.

Henry’s blood claim to the throne was extremely weak. But he was anxious to be seen, nevertheless, as king in his own right, and not that of his wife, Elizabeth of York, the sister of the Princes in the Tower. In support of his claim Henry argued that he was king by divine providence, that is God’s intervention on earth. As evidence for this he claimed that the last Lancastrian king, his half uncle, the ‘saint’ Henry VI, had prophesied his rule a few months before his death in the Tower.

Henry VII was to greatly encourage the cult of Henry VI and he did not want a rival Yorkist cult. Nothing was said therefore in 1485 of the princes’ disappearance, beyond the vague accusation in parliament that autumn that Richard III was guilty of “treasons, homicides and murders in shedding of infants blood”. No search was made for their bodies, and even the fate of their souls was, seemingly, abandoned.

I have not found any evidence of endowments set up to pay for prayers for the princes that century. Yet praying for the dead was a crucial part of medieval religion. It was unthinkable not to help the souls of your loved ones pass from purgatory to heaven with prayers and Masses. On the other hand, it was akin to a curse to say a requiem for a living person – you were effectively praying for their death.

The obvious question posed by the lack of public prayers for the princes was, were they still alive? Then, in 1492 a man appeared in Ireland claiming to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower. Henry VII said he was, in fact, a Dutchman known as ‘little Peter the orphan’ or Perkin Warbeck. But who could be sure?

Henry was more anxious than ever that the princes be forgotten and with them all memory of the past glories of the house of York. When their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, died that June, she was buried “privily..without any solemn dirge done for her obit”.

Perkin Warbeck was at last captured by Henry in 1497 and kept alive to confess his true identity before eventually being executed in 1499. Along with him died the last male Plantagenet, Edward, Earl of Warwick, whom Henry had kept imprisoned since he was eleven years old: Henry’s very own prince in the Tower. The judicial murder of this prince at Henry’s hands shocked England. But even with the male line of the House of York now wiped out, Henry remained anxious about the vanished princes, his wife’s brothers, and their legacy.

When his elder son Arthur Tudor died in April 1502 Henry feared it sent out a message that he was not God’s chosen king after all. The following months, with the execution of a Yorkist called James Tryell, it was put out that the man had confessed before his death to organising the killing the princes on Richard’s orders. But as always, Henry was to insist they were dead, without making any obvious effort to find out where their bodies lay.

Henry VIII’s future chancellor, Thomas More, claimed that Tryell had explained that the murdered boys had been buried at the foot of some stairs in the Tower, but that Richard had asked for their bodies to be re-buried with dignity, and that those involved had subsequently died so their final resting place was unknown – a most convenient outcome for Henry.

Over a century and a half later, in 1674, two skeletons were recovered in the Tower, in a place that resembled More’s description of their first burial place. The then king, Charles II, had them interred at Westminster Abbey. In 1933 they were removed and examined by two doctors who judged them to be two children aged between seven and eleven and between eleven and thirteen. These bones were returned to their urn in the Abbey where they remain. If these are the bodies of the princes, and Henry VII knew where the bodies were, it was shameful that he left them in that miserable hole. Neither had it done him any good during his reign; nor would it thereafter.