Copy Book Archive

The Princes in the Tower Sir Thomas More gives his explanation for the mysterious disappearance of King Richard III’s nephews.

In two parts

King Edward V 1483 to King Richard III 1483-1485
Music: Henry Purcell

By John Everett Millais, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

‘The Princes in the Tower’ by John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Rumour swirled when the princes were never seen again, and the matter became fertile ground for conspiracy and impersonation. One royal impersonator was Perkin Warbeck, who was put to death in 1499 by Henry VII after claiming to be young Richard, and heading up a revolt. With him to the scaffold went another of Richard III’s nephews, Edward, Earl of Warwick, after being impersonated by Lambert Simnel. Henry knew that Edward IV’s children or nephews had a better right to the crown than he did.

The Princes in the Tower

Part 1 of 2

On April 9th 1483, Edward IV’s son acceded to the throne as Edward V. But the boy’s uncle pronounced him and his brother Richard illegitimate, named himself Richard III, and shut the two princes up in the Tower of London. Thirty years later, Sir Thomas More gave his version of what happened next.
Abridged, spelling modernised

AND forsomuch as his mind gave him, that his nephews living, men would not reckon that he could have right to the realm: he thought therefore without delay to rid them, as though the killing of his kinsmen could amend his cause, and make him a kindly* king. Whereupon he sent one John Greene, (whom he specially trusted) unto Sir Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower, with a letter and credence also,* that the same Sir Robert should in any wise put the two children to death.

This John Greene did his errand unto Brackenbury, kneeling before our lady in the Tower.* Who plainly answered, that he would never put them to death.* With which answer John Greene returning, recounted the same to king Richard. Wherewith he took such displeasure and thought, that the same night he said unto a secret* page of his: “Ah! whom shall a man trust? Those that I have brought up my self, those that I had went* would most surely serve me, even those fail me, and at my commandment will do nothing for me.”*

Jump to Part 2

‘Kindly’ here means natural or normal, i.e. of the proper kind.

‘Credence’ is used in the sense of credentials, proofs of authorisation.

Sir Thomas More, who is the source of this account, presents Brackenbury as being at his prayers when Greene accosted him, and implies that this helped him refuse the errand.

In much the same way, Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, refused to murder Prince Arthur for King John. See The Disappearance of Arthur.

‘Secret’ is used here to mean confidential (as in secretary), i.e. a confidential servant.

‘I went’ is in this case the past form of the Middle English verb ‘wenen’, meaning ‘suppose, imagine,’ especially (though not necessarily) in error. A remnant of it remains in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Gondoliers’: “Oh, ’tis a glorious thing, I ween, / To be a regular Royal Queen!”.

This outburst recalls the unguarded words of King Henry II concerning Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, though Henry did not really mean any harm to come to him. See The Assassination of Thomas Becket.

Part Two

© Habib M’henni, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0. Source

About this picture …

The Henry VII Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey has within it a small tomb, designed by Christopher Wren. It is inscribed with the claim that in 1674 the remains of the two princes were discovered in a box buried near the White Tower of the Tower of London, and removed to the Abbey on the orders of King Charles II. Yet doubts persist. Two children buried with King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and formerly assumed to be the boys’ brother George and sister Mary, are now tantalisingly unidentified after a grave marked with the names of George and Mary was discovered elsewhere in the chapel.

“SIR (quoth his page) there lieth one on your pallet without,* that I dare well say, to do your grace pleasure, the thing were right hard that he would refuse.” Meaning this by Sir James Tyrrell. Wherefore on the morrow he sent him to Brackenbury with a letter, by which he was commanded to deliver Sir James all the keys of the Tower for one night.

Sir James Tyrrell devised, that they should be murdered in their beds. To the execution whereof, he appointed Miles Forrest, a fellow fleshed* in murder beforetime. To him he joined one John Dighton his own horse-keeper, a big, broad, square, and strong knave.* Then all the other being removed from them, this Miles Forrest, and John Dighton, about midnight came into the chamber, and suddenly lapping them up among the clothes, so to bewrapped them and entangled them, that within a while, smothered and stifled, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodies dead in the bed.*

Copy Book

‘On your pallet without’: Thomas More (who is writing this account) drily informs us that the conversation took place while Richard was answering a call of nature, ‘a convenient carpet for such a council.’ James had turned in on the King’s pallet as space was at a premium: Richard’s court was on the road, riding to Gloucester.

The verb ‘flesh’ here means ‘initiated into’.

‘Knave’ could be used in the sense of ‘rogue’, but it originally meant simply a serving boy.

Though it is broadly accepted by many historians, More’s account contains several discrepancies and embellishments, and even apparent tongue-in-cheek colour, such as naming an accomplice as ‘Will Slaughter.’ More, at this time an undersheriff of the City of London, early in the reign of Henry VIII, may have been contributing to Tudor propaganda (Henry’s father Henry Tudor took Richard’s crown in 1485) but the man who would soon write the topsy-turvy satire ‘Utopia’ might equally well have been sending such propaganda up, or more likely still, indulging in a little of each.


Abridged and modernised from ‘Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland’ Vol. 3 (of 6) (1577, rev. 1587).

Suggested Music

1 2

Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary

1. March; 2. Man that is born of a woman

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Performed by the Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner.

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Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary

6. Thou Knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; 7. March

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Performed by the Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner.

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Transcript / Notes

THOU knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not Thy merciful ears to our prayer but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, Thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from Thee.

Book of Common Prayer (1662)

How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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