King Henry VI, who contested the Wars of the Roses, in spirit at least, with King Edward IV had only one child, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. In 1469, the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker, had rebelled against King Edward IV with the king’s brother George. In need of support, Warwick allied himself with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, in France and planned an invasion to place the captive Lancastrian king back upon the throne. In 1470 Edward was forced into exile in Burgundy. With him, amongst others, was his youngest brother Richard, who took ship at King’s Lynn for exile on the day of his 18th birthday. King Edward returned in 1471 to reclaim his throne. Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet, leaving the separate Lancastrian army led by Margaret of Anjou as the only remaining force opposing him. George had re-joined his brothers, finding the rewards of a Lancastrian restoration somewhat lacking. On 4th May 1471, Prince Edward took the field of battle at Tewkesbury to press his father’s cause against King Edward IV. The Lancastrians lost the battle and Prince Edward was killed either during the fighting or in the rout that followed.
Shakespeare has Richard as Duke of Gloucester plotting the murder of the 17 year old prince and revelling in the death. Holinshed’s ‘Chronicle’, which was first published in 1577, claims that Richard struck the first blow against Edward. Before that, Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian, wrote in his ‘Anglica Historia’ that William, Lord Hastings, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester killed the young man after the trio had captured him. The most contemporary sources are the Yorkist account of ‘The Arrivall of Edward IV’ which has Edward ‘slayne in the field’ and the Lancastrian Warkworth’s ‘Chronicle’ which has Prince Edward captured by his brother in law George, Duke of Clarence whilst fleeing the field after the battle was lost. Warkworth describes Prince Edward crying to the Duke of Clarence, his brother in law by virtue of their marriages to the daughters of the Earl of Warwick, for mercy. Clarence, until only recently allied to the cause of Edward and his mother, Margaret of Anjou, refuses to listen to the Prince’s pleading and has him executed on a makeshift block in the field.
The closest that we have to an impartial contemporary source is the ‘Crowland Chronicle’, the author (or authors, as it is a continuation chronicle written by several different individuals) of which is unknown. The writer is generally considered to be a well informed, politically active and astute person, perhaps working within the court. On the subject of Tewkesbury and Prince Edward’s death, the Chronicle walks something of a middle line, remaining uncommitted in telling us ‘…there were slain on the queen’s side, either in the field or after the battle, by the avenging hands of certain persons, prince Edward, the only son of king Henry…”. The Crowland Chronicler then lists other notable names slain but is obviously uncertain precisely what happened to each of them, even from a well informed position. The ‘avenging hands’ could belong to King Edward, to Richard or to George as we will see later.
So, it seems, the story of Richard’s personal culpability grew as his reputation darkened. ‘The Arrival’ smoothes over the incident, if there was one, and whilst this may be expected from a Yorkist source, even the Lancastrian Warkworth did not blame Richard, but rather his fickle and ambitious brother George for any atrocity.
It is worth considering, though, what the implications might be if it had in fact been Richard that killed Edward. If the Prince died during the fighting of the battle as ‘The Arrivall’ suggests, then there can be no crime committed here. Although only 17 years old, Prince Edward was, by the standard of his time, of age for battle. His own mother had sent him, or at least allowed him to ride, onto the field of battle and both must have been aware of the risks involved. If Richard personally slew the Prince during the course of the battle then I suspect he and his brother the king would have considered it a reason for celebration.
Edward represented the revitalisation of the Lancastrian cause. His father was a disastrous king who few would wish to see on the throne again. Edward, however, was a young, active and promising candidate to breathe new life into the failing line. It is entirely possible that Edward and Margaret intended to have Henry step aside in favour of his son once the fight was won, so the removal of this last big threat to Yorkist rule would have been a cause for celebration to King Edward IV.
What of an execution after the battle? Well, if Richard had perpetrated such an act it would also, by the standard of the age, have been a fact of war. Distasteful and illegal, yes, but not a singular event. With the battle lost, what other outcome was likely for the young man? Richard, Duke of York, the father of Edward IV, George and Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. At the time, Edward was 18 years old and mustering reinforcements to assist his father. He did not arrive in time. George was 11 years of age and Richard only 8. Alongside the Duke of York died his other son, Edmund, then aged 17, the same age as Prince Edward was at Tewkesbury. The Duke was killed during the fighting and Edmund was supposedly executed in the field afterwards by Lord Clifford, the son of a Lancastrian killed at the earlier Battle of St Albans, in an act of vengeance. This story is not a certain fact either, but bears a striking resemblance to the tale of Prince Edward’s end.
Not only were the Duke and Edmund killed, though, they were ritually humiliated and their bodies brutalised. Richard’s corpse was placed sitting on an anthill, a paper crown on his head while Lancastrian soldiers laughed and jeered, bowing to the dead body. Then, the bodies of Richard, Edmund and the Earl of Salisbury were decapitated so their heads could be placed on spikes on Micklegate Bar at the entrance to York. That kind of cruel treatment of a corpse was distasteful and dishonourable even in those more brutal times. Could this be the motive for the ‘avenging hands’ the Crowland Chronicler alludes to? Hands, of course, could mean more than one person. Did the sons of York exact their revenge at Tewkesbury?
If Prince Edward was, in fact, executed in cold blood after the battle and if the act was at the direction of Richard, Duke of Gloucester rather than George, Duke of Clarence, might it not be at least understandable? The cause for which Prince Edward brought war to England once more was the promotion of a faction that had murdered Richard’s own father and brother and despoiled the bodies. The Lancastrians had set the benchmark and killing as a form of retribution was rife throughout the Wars of the Roses.
So why is this incident singled out? It can only be because it could be used to demonstrate an aspect of Richard’s personality – a proclivity for vicious, cold blooded killing of young people – which could then be extrapolated to make him the potential, if not indeed likely, child killer that he was, by reputation, becoming. Shakespeare cannot be entirely blamed for this fabrication, since by the time Holinshed wrote Richard’s guilty participation had become an accepted version of the demise of the poor, young, innocent Lancastrian Prince of Wales. Richard had done it at least once. What would stop him doing it again, to boys even younger, relations even, if the prize were big enough?
Given that there is no conclusive evidence that this incident even took place, and given that the contemporary material that does claim it as fact blames someone other than Richard, Duke of Gloucester, I do not believe that we could find him guilty, certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt and not even on the balance of probability. That measure would seem to lay the blame for any offence at Clarence’s feet. I believe later writers found accounts of the incident that blamed George and thought that the story would serve a better purpose, be more dramatic and foreboding if George were simply replaced with his brother. With the benefit of hindsight, this and accusations that followed were the foundations upon which Richard was to be accused of his most notorious crime. We will see the laying of those foundations take another dark turn in the next part of the story.