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Why Did Richard III Spare Edward IV, the Earl of Warwick?

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We’ve all heard the tale of the Princes in the Tower, the young sons of Edward IV who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Tower of London in 1483, presumed murdered, only to be conveniently replaced on the throne by their uncle the Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. It is widely presumed Richard ordered their deaths in July 1483 after a daring plot to rescue them failed. What is lesser known or emphasized is that there was another young blood prince in England who outranked Richard in the royal succession, and who was inexplicably allowed to live. He was even knighted upon Richard III’s ascension to the throne.

This boy, Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, was the son of Richard III’s elder brother George, Duke of Clarence. Clarence was executed for treason for various offenses including plotting against his elder brother Edward IV, and general sedition and disobedience, in 1478. His lands, fortune, title, and claim to the crown were all put under attainder, meaning they were forfeit for him and all his descendants for all time.

Now let’s assume for a moment that Richard was guilty of having his nephews Edward V, aged 12, and Richard Duke of York, aged 9, murdered in the Tower of London in summer 1483. This is when we encounter what amounts to a logical pretzel. The princes had already been declared illegitimate that spring after it came to light that the late Edward IV had a pre-contract to marry Eleanor Butler. By medieval law, this was as good as an actual marriage. So, when Edward later married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, that marriage was illegal and all children born of it, including the Tower princes, were technically illegitimate and ineligible to inherit the throne.

Edward Earl of Warwick was disinherited under his father’s attainder meaning he was also barred from inheriting the throne. However, this could be reversed by a simple act of Parliament. Edward was allowed to inherit the title of Earl of Warwick in 1478 because it came to him through his mother. (Incidentally, Henry Tudor, who wrested the crown from Richard III in 1485, was also barred from the throne as he was a descendant of the Beaufort family who were made ineligible to take the throne by an act of Parliament; this was conveniently ignored once Henry won the Battle of Bosworth.)

So why, if Richard killed off the princes, did he not also rub out Warwick? He was the next candidate in line for the throne, attainders be damned. In fact, numerous pretenders during the reign of Henry VII assumed the identity of Warwick, including Lambert Simnel who was actually crowned King Edward VI in Dublin in 1487 and invaded England at the head of a modest army. Something does not add up.

So, let’s examine the possible reasons Edward was spared by Richard III.

Contemporary illumination by John Rouse of Richard III, his wife Anne Neville, and their son Edward. (John Rous / Public domain)

Contemporary illumination by John Rouse of Richard III, his wife Anne Neville, and their son Edward. (John Rous / Public domain )

Richard III was Innocent and Henry Tudor Killed the Princes

There are many who believe that Richard III did not have reason to kill the princes once they were declared illegitimate and that Richard was, in fact, completely innocent of this foul deed. This is logical, but not borne out when examining the behavior of the aristocracy of England at the time who certainly believed the boys were dead, despite no bodies being found, at least until 1674.

Richard’s most loyal ally, Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham , suddenly switched sides and turned against Richard III helping to lead an abortive attempt to install Henry Tudor on the throne in late 1483. In addition, the dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville began plotting with Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future Henry VII, to marry him to Elizabeth of York.

This seems unusual if the former queen had even the faintest hope that her boys were alive, because putting Henry on the throne would surely put the boys’ lives in jeopardy were they living. The only conclusion can be that she knew, as many others knew, the princes were dead.

Anthony Woodville kneeling, second from left, and William Caxton dressed in black presenting the first printed book in English to King Edward IV and Woodville's sister Queen Elizabeth. (Medieval artist / Public domain)

Anthony Woodville kneeling, second from left, and William Caxton dressed in black presenting the first printed book in English to King Edward IV and Woodville’s sister Queen Elizabeth. (Medieval artist / Public domain )

Richard III Killed the Princes Because They Were Woodvilles

Perhaps it was the princes’ Woodville family that hastened their demise. Richard hated the large and ambitious family of Queen Elizabeth Woodville.

A minor Lancastrian family in the early 1460s, the Woodvilles rose at light speed to prominence based on Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward IV , angering many of the established nobles in England, including Richard III.

When Edward IV suddenly died in 1483, the Woodvilles went from annoying to dangerous. As soon as they got news of the king’s death, they made a play to control Prince Edward and take him at haste to London to have him crowned before Richard could assume his role as Lord Protector .

Richard III, an adept strategist and decision maker if there ever was one, acted quickly to nullify this attempted coup. He intercepted Prince Edward and executed his uncle, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, and his half-brother, Richard Grey. Other members of the family, such as Edward Woodville, Lord Scales, fled England to exile in Brittany, France .

Elizabeth Woodville and her remaining children entered sanctuary at Westminster Abbey . Richard soon collected the younger of the princes, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, under the pretext that he would play a role in his brother’s coronation. However, after being declared illegitimate, the princes vanished.

With the sons of Edward IV out of the way, and their scheming family on the run, Richard may have found a greater sense of security. In contrast, Warwick was an isolated orphan whose remaining relatives were firmly in Richard’s Yorkist camp . In other words, Warwick had no pesky family like the Woodvilles to stage a coup, so Richard at this stage might not have seen him as a threat.

Edward Plantagenet the 17th Earl of Warwick depicted on the Rous Roll of circa 1483, when he was young because he never got beyond boyhood. (John Rous / Public domain)

Edward Plantagenet the 17th Earl of Warwick depicted on the Rous Roll of circa 1483, when he was young because he never got beyond boyhood. (John Rous / Public domain )

For a Time Richard III Named Warwick as Heir to the Throne

Since Richard III knighted Warwick after his ascension, it’s clear he was grooming the boy as a potential heir to the throne, according to the contemporary historian John Rous. Richard’s own son, Edward of Middleham Prince of Wales, had died in 1484 and there was no male heir with blood closer to the Prince of Wales than Warwick himself, since their fathers were siblings as were their mothers.

Did Richard see something of his beloved son in Warwick when he added him into the line of succession? Perhaps Richard even needed Warwick as an heir to promote the image of a stabile royal family until at least Richard, whose wife died in 1485, could remarry and produce a new son. Warwick was the heir to Richard’s crown until 1485 when he changed his mind and named his other nephew, John De la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, as heir.

Warwick May Have Been Intellectually Disabled

There has been much speculation that Warwick was intellectually disabled in some way. This seems to stem from a comment made by the chronicler Edward Hall that the earl had been locked away “out of all company of men, and sight of beasts, in so much that he could not discern a goose from a capon.” However, the evidence for his having a disability is non-conclusive.

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London by Paul Delaroche. The theme of innocent children awaiting an uncertain fate was a popular one amongst 19th-century painters. (Paul Delaroche / Public domain)

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London by Paul Delaroche. The theme of innocent children awaiting an uncertain fate was a popular one amongst 19th-century painters. (Paul Delaroche / Public domain )

Conclusion: Warwick Posed No Threat

The most reasonable solution, often overlooked, is that Warwick posed no threat to Richard because he was not a member of the hated Woodville family, and thus was easily controlled and perhaps was even favored. The Woodvilles were the only threat to Richard and his position as Lord Protector.

He may not have planned to claim the crown himself at first, however, due to the Woodvilles’ unrelenting, ruthless ambition. Richard III becoming king might’ve been his only path to preserving his life. For once Edward V was crowned, Richard’s powers of protector ship would cease, and he would have been defenseless against retribution from the new boy king. He would have likely ended up in the Tower and been executed for treason.

Warwick on the other hand had no clear and present motive to act against Richard III in this way, so hence he lived, at least until the next king came along. Upon Edward’s execution in 1499, the legitimate male Plantagenet line came to an end.

Timeline of Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick’s Life

1475: Born to George Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville

1476: Death of his mother

1478: Death of his father

1478: Created Earl of Warwick by Edward IV

1480: Placed in custody of Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset

1483: Knighted by Richard III

1485: Imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry VII

1487: Displayed to public at St Paul’s Cathedral, London

1490: Confirmed as Earl of Warwick

1499: Executed for Perkin Warbeck plot, aged 24

Top image: The Tower of London, where King Edward V, and the Duke of York were killed by Richard III or someone else. Source: rpbmedia / Adobe Stock

By Alex White

References

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Various editors. “Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.” Britannica.com, October 29, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Stafford-2nd-Duke-of-Buckingham 

Wheeler, Heather. “Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick 1475 – 1499.” Totally Timelines , May 28, 2019. https://www.totallytimelines.com/edward-plantagenet-earl-of-warwick-1475-1499/



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