DID RICHARD III MURDER THE PRINCES IN THE TOWER?
I wrote this essay for a forthcoming volume entitled “Great Controversies in History.” This is me being rhetorical;
frankly, I do suspect that Richard had something to do with the disappearance of the Princes in the tower.
There is no positive or conclusive historical evidence of any kind to suggest that King Richard III of England (r. June
1483- Aug. 1485) murdered his nephews, King Edward V (r. April-June 1483) and his younger brother, Richard,
duke of York, or that these princes necessarily died at all during Richard’s reign. The young and tragic Edward V,
whom Richard deposed after a reign of less than three months, has the most shadowy history of all the kings of
England before or after him. In fact, there are no contemporary witnesses to their alleged deaths at all. Instead, all
contemporary eyes and subsequent pens remained focused on the power struggle surrounding his throne, and
failed to notice how, when, or why he and his brother disappeared from sight following Richard’s usurpation of the
crown. Not surprisingly, as historian Alison Hanham once observed, “in general, it would be safe to say that our
picture of English history in the later fifteenth century is deceptively clear because there are so few details to
confuse the eye.” In the case of the probable deaths of the princes, however, there are no solid details whatsoever.
Nevertheless, accusations of Richard’s guilt in their murder have resounded down the centuries, the centerpiece to
his enduring popular reputation as England’s most wicked king. However, the complete lack of contemporary
witnesses describing how and why the princes disappeared renders accusations of Richard’s guilt in their probable
murders, all of which were made after his death at the Battle of Bosworth (August 22, 1485) mere smoking guns
that, in more than one mock trial of recent times (1996 and 1997), has acquitted the last Yorkist king of direct
complicity in the murder of the princes. Because Richard himself lost his crown to another usurper, Henry Tudor
(subsequently king Henry VII), the succeeding Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) had a vested interest in blackening
Richard’s character in order to bolster their own rather dubious legitimacy. By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603),
this evolutionary process of historical character assassination had reached the proportions depicted in William
Shakespeare’s famed historical drama, The Tragedy of Richard III (circa 1591); which regaled audiences with a
grotesque, deformed, morally bankrupt prince, out “to prove a villain,” who had already murdered scores of other
individuals long before he got his hands on the unfortunate princes in the tower. As a host of modern historians
have demonstrated, nothing could have been further from the truth. As the historical evidence is sifted and
balanced, a clear historical case of reasonable doubt emerges concerning Richard’s complicity in the possible
deaths of the tragic and unfortunate princes in the tower.
The Historical Background
Prior to the death of his elder brother, Edward IV, the first Yorkist king (r. 1461-70, 1471-83), Richard, Duke of
Gloucester (b. 1452) had been conspicuous in his unswerving loyalty to the interests of the Yorkist family. This was
exemplary conduct in the context of the later fifteenth century in England, and a highly prized commodity during the
various events collectively referred to as the “Wars of the Roses.” These conflicts, a series of power struggles,
street fights, and occasional pitched battles, occurred from 1455 and 1487 between the rival dynastic houses of
Lancaster and York and their erstwhile and eminently changeable allies among the nobility. This was a particularly
violent and unstable period of English history for members of the aristocracy and gentry, as they competed for
power, patronage, and influence within the treacherous confines of the royal court. Edward IV himself, the dazzling
sun- king of York, king at the age of eighteen in 1461, had been particularly ruthless in the pursuit and maintenance
of his royal estate, both deposing (twice, in 1461 and 1471) and probably ordering the murder of the decrepit Henry
VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-71), the tragic and unfortunate final Lancastrian king, who supposedly expired in the Tower
of London due to “pure displeasure and melancholy.”
During the first phase of Edward IV reign (1461-1470), Gloucester emerged from adolescence as what biographer
Paul Murray Kendall, Richard’s most enthusiastic modern historical defender, once referred to as “the sturdy prop
of his brother’s throne.” This was in marked contrast to the career of the elder of Edward’s surviving brothers,
George, Duke of Clarence, who eventually came under the influence of Richard, “The Kingmaker,” Earl of Warwick,
whose initial influence over the king began to wane over the course of the 1460s. The quintessential “over-mighty
subject” of the fifteenth century, Warwick convinced Clarence to marry his elder daughter Isabel in 1469, in flagrant
violation of the king’s firm refusal. By 1470, these two men entered into a plot that constituted the nadir of 15th
century English political history, in 1470, when Warwick, with a confused Clarence in two, struck a bargain with
Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, to toss Edward IV off his throne and replace him with the previously deposed
Henry VI, Edward’s prisoner in the Tower. Henry VI’s “Re-Adeption” of 1470-71, which placed a previously
deposed, and utterly worthless king back on his throne in order to play the role of royal puppet. This power play
constituted the ultimate dirty deal of dynastic convenience between formerly implacable enemies that aptly
represented the stunning decline of the respect for and sanctity of the royal office that occurred over the long
expanse of Henry VI’s disastrous adult reign. Through all the sudden changes of fortune that Edward IV endured,
Gloucester remained perfectly loyal to his interests. Indeed, prior to his bid to become king in 1483, Richard of
Gloucester’s career as an unwavering supporter of the House of York was without blemish, and provided a startling
and refreshing contrast to the morally bankrupt opportunism that characterized the political culture of his day.
Once back on his throne after crushing the house of Lancaster at the Battle of Teweksbury (May 4, 1471), Edward
IV enjoyed relative stability as king for the remainder of his reign. Indeed, he was a capable administrator and
financier, at least when he applied himself to business, but Edward nevertheless sowed the seeds that ultimately
served to destabilize the Yorkist succession. Three years after becoming king in 1464, Edward IV had impetuously
married, well below his station, the Lancastrian widow Elizabeth Grey (nee Wydeville), while his chief minister, the
Earl of Warwick, had labored in ignorance negotiating a French marriage for the king. Despite two sons from her
previous marriage, Thomas, later created Marquis of Dorset, and Richard Grey, Elizabeth Wydeville bore Edward
four daughters and two sons. The eldest son, named Edward (b. Nov. 4, 1470), was created Prince of Wales soon
after his birth, and sent to Wales to live under the tutelage of his uterine uncle, Anthony Wydeville, Lord Rivers.
Back in London, Edward presided over a court riddled by faction and intrigue. While Gloucester had endeavored to
reconcile Clarence back to his brother in 1471, the Wydevilles had never forgiven Clarence for the role he had
played in the death of the queen’s father, the first Earl Rivers, in 1470, and worked unceasingly to destroy him.
Following Clarence’s execution (February 18, 1478), the Wydevilles, rapacious in their desires for aristocratic
marriages, wealth, and power, competed for power and patronage at court with Edward’s loyal household men and
the rest of the nobility, who ostensible leader was William, Lord Hastings. Though implacable enemies, Hastings and
Dorset were both enthusiastic companions in Edward IV’s lecherous and gluttonous extracurricular activities,
indulging “his passions and desires too intemperately,” which ultimately hastened the king’s early demise.
Apart from these groupings, in the final years of the reign, stood Richard of Gloucester, a tower of moral rectitude,
serving the king as royal viceroy in the north of England, a virtually autonomous jurisdiction that Edward IV bestowed
upon his younger brother on account of his leadership abilities and unwavering loyalty. Because of his complicated
responsibilities in the last few years of Edward IV’s reign, Gloucester had been an infrequent visitor to the king’s
court, and stood aloof from the factional strike that he undoubtedly had no sympathy for whatsoever. However,
there is no evidence to suggest that Gloucester was on bad terms with the Wydevilles, members of Edward’s royal
household, or the rest of the Yorkist nobility.
When Edward IV’s health began to fail rapidly at the beginning of April, 1483, he fully realized the dangerous lack of
consensus among the various factions present at his court, which his deathbed exhortations were unable to
reconcile. Edward’s imminent death meant the onset of a royal minority, that is, the reign of an underage king,
which required some form of regency. The most successful of medieval minorities, such as those of Henry III (1216-
27), which enjoyed the singular leadership of the legendary William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, the loyal servant of
the first four Plantagenet kings, and Henry VI (1422-37) king at the age of nine months, whose minority succeeded
because the lords temporal and spiritual worked together consensually and corporately to govern the realm during
the young king’s protracted minority. While the 1422 precedent pointed towards a conciliar form of regency, in
1483, as in 1216, only one man, Gloucester, could possible have imposed consensus upon the factional strife that
was endemic at the Yorkist court. Thus the king probably put much more faith into the last minute codicils added to
his will, which appointed Gloucester as protector of the king and kingdom during the inevitable minority of his heir.
When Edward IV died April 9, 1483, however, the new king, twelve year old Edward V, and his protector and uncle,
Richard of Gloucester, were both equidistant from London, in Wales and Yorkshire respectively.
The Prosecution’s Case
In the capital, Queen Elizabeth and Hastings squared off for control of the minority regime, as the queen wrote to
her brother and son in Wales, urging them to reach the capital as quickly as possible. The queen did not inform
Gloucester of her actions, in the belief that if the new king could be crowned before Gloucester reached London,
this would nullify his protectorship, in accordance with the 1429 precedent, when Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester’s
protectorship was terminated following seven year old Henry VI’s English coronation. In other words, an expedited
coronation sought to circumvent Gloucester’s appointment as protector, and place de facto power in the hands of
the queen and her adherents. Despite opposition from Edward’s household men, the queen was able to dominate
the initial meetings of a royal council that had come together spontaneously upon Edward IV’s death. As Michael
Hicks has recently argued, the reign opened with a Wydeville coup d’etat, as the queen prevailed upon the council
to endorse her suggestion for a hasty coronation, scheduled for May 4. Gloucester, however, had been informed of
the queen’s machinations, and wrote to Earl Rivers in Wales asking if their parties could meet, so the Protector
could personally escort the new king into London, a request that Rivers, not suspecting any subterfuge, could
hardly have declined.
However, when the rendezvous occurred in Northampton (April 29, 1483), Gloucester only found Rivers; the king
was fourteen miles down the road closer to London in Stoney Stratford. Joined by Henry Stafford , Duke of
Buckingham, a kinsmen of the Lancastrians who had been forced to marry one of the queen’s sisters, Gloucester
enjoyed a convivial evening with Rivers, and the next morning promptly arrested him, the king’s half-brother
Richard, and Thomas Vaughan, and shipped them off to the north of England for safe-keeping. Gloucester and
Buckingham then proceeded to Stoney Stratford, where Gloucester took physical possession of the king, the first
positive step towards Edward V’s deposition. Richard’s historical prosecutors have often claimed that at this
moment Richard was already scheming to obtain the crown.
Despite the naked show of force, Gloucester still enjoyed considerable support among the ranks of Yorkist political
society. Prior to arriving in the capital, Gloucester had written sober letters defending his conduct while accusing
the queen and her kindred of conspiring against him. Gloucester and the king entered London on May 4, 1483, in
an impressive ceremony, while Queen Elizabeth took her daughters, younger son, and all her movables with her into
the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, after failing to attract support for an armed force to challenge Gloucester’s
possession of the king. The majority of the dead king’s councilors, including Hastings, initially approved of
Gloucester’s actions, and quickly affirmed his appointment as Protector, giving him, according to the Croyland
Chronicle, “power to order and forbid in any matter, just like another king.” Meanwhile, the young king himself,
treated with all due deference by Gloucester and the rest of the nobility, was lodged first in the London house of the
Bishop of London and later in the royal apartments of the Tower of London, as he awaited his coronation, set for
Once installed as Protector, Gloucester’s right hand man turned out to be Buckingham, and not Hastings, the late
king’s closest friend and confidante, who apparently expected a significant quid pro quo from Gloucester for his
earlier support. Hastings was apparently resentful, remaining outwardly cordial while maintaining personal access to
the King in the Tower. If not before, by Friday, June 13, Gloucester had irrevocably decided to usurp the crown. At
a meeting of the council in the Tower on the morning of the 13th, Gloucester accused Hastings, Thomas
Rotherham, Archbishop of York, and John Morton, Bishop of Ely, of conspiring with the Wydevilles to gain
possession of the King. Hastings was hustled out to the Tower Green and summarily beheaded, while Rotherham
and Morton were taken into custody. By now an overawed council agreed with the Protector’s demands that the
king should not be crowned without the presence of his younger brother, the Duke of York, still in the sanctuary of
Westminster Abbey with his mother and sisters. On June 16, Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury,
removed the young prince from the abbey, and reunited him with his brother in the Tower. At the same time,
Gloucester secured custody of Clarence’s six year old son, the Earl of Warwick, the only other direct male
descendant of the House of York.
With all the male scions of the House of York in his possession, Gloucester set his usurpation into motion. On June
17th, parliament was cancelled as plans for the coronation were abandoned. The pretext that Gloucester chose as
“colour for this act of usurpation” was the “discovery” that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate, since, according to
Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, a long time adherent of Clarence and foe of the Wydevilles, Edward
had entered into a binding pre-contract with lady Eleanor Butler, prior to his marriage to the Queen. On Sunday,
June 22, Gloucester and a host of other notables came to St. Paul’s Cross to hear friar Ralph Shaa preach that
“bastard slips shall not take root.” Three days later, Gloucester mounted the throne as Richard III. By this time,
Earl Rivers and the king’s half brother Richard Grey, had also been summarily executed.
While Richard had indeed been ruthless in his dogged pursuit of the crown, in the face of allegedly relentless
factional hostility, what exactly happened to the princes nonetheless remains English history’s greatest unsolved
mystery. Shortly after his uncle seized the throne, the deposed Edward V and his brother completely disappeared
from view and contemporary comment. Dominic Mancini, an Italian cleric visiting London during much of 1483,
reported that the princes were still seen shooting butts on the tower green at the end of June, and related how the
ex-king’s physician, Dr, Augustine, reported that “the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought
remission of sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.” Mancini’s
observations, however, are the last recorded contemporary sightings of the princes, who henceforth disappeared
completely from the historical record. At this point, the prosecution has failed to produce a corpus delecti, the fact
of a crime actually committed.
As we have already made abundantly clear, following Richard’s coronation and subsequent reign, the princes are
simply not mentioned in the historical record. Only after Richard had died at Bosworth Field did any contemporaries
speculate on the likely fate of the princes, but apparently by the fall of 1483, it was widely rumored that the princes
were dead, which served as the catalyst for Buckingham’s rebellion in October, fought, according to the Croyland
Chronicle, to place the exiled Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, a descendant of the Lancastrian royal house, on the
throne, as Tudor vowed to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, and unite the two rival dynasties. It
is entirely possible that Buckingham, who had enjoyed great favor from Richard prior to his rebellion, a situation that
perhaps had encouraged Hastings’s alleged treason, arranged for the princes to be murdered in order to smooth
Tudor’s, or even perhaps his own, path to the throne. The continuation of the Chronicle describing Richard’s reign,
written early in the succeeding reign of Henry VII, mentioned that Buckingham repented of his support for Richard III
and left London at the same time that rumors began to be circulated concerning the prince’s fate. However, Richard
swiftly crushed Buckingham’s rebellion, and swiftly beheaded its ringleader without mercy, who took whatever
secrets he had concerning the fate of the princes with him to his grave.
If dynastic security was the primary motivation for the actual murder of the princes (which, remember, has never
actually been proven!), then Buckingham and Tudor had just as much of a vested interest in seeing the princes
succumb to unnatural deaths as did Richard III. Tudor era historian Polydore Vergil, in his Anglica Historia (1555),
described Buckingham’s dynastic pretensions in a particularly lively section of his narrative, as Richard III accused
Buckingham; “What now, duke Henry, will yow chalenge unto you that right of Henry the Fourth wherby he wyckedly
usurpid the crowne, and so make open for yourself the way therunto?" What all this amounts to is a smattering of
circumstantial evidence against Richard, enough to indict, but far short of an actual conviction, as both Buckingham
and Tudor also look like probable suspects.
As Buckingham and Tudor are just as likely assailants as King Richard, the dowager queen, Elizabeth Wydeville,
provides highly contradictory and unreliable testimony and behavior that continues to befuddle scenarios
envisioning Richard’s guilt in the murder of the princes. Were she alive, even if she had knowledge of potentially
damning testimony, the prosecution would probably decline to call her to the witness stand, since her testimony (and
character) would be destroyed under cross-examination. Prior to Buckingham’s rebellion, Elizabeth had agreed to a
dynastic deal hatched by Margaret Beaufort, Tudor’s mother, for the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York,
which suggests that she was aware or suspected that her sons were dead. If, in fact, she knew her sons were dead,
Elizabeth remained focused on securing her surviving children’s dynastic rights, despite the vividly described
grieving mother scene in the narrative of Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III (1513).
Following the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion, the queen’s emotionless, realpolitik attitude was fully revealed on
March 1, 1484, when she and her daughters left sanctuary and were reconciled to King Richard and his royal court.
There are several plausible explanations for her rappaprochment with the man who had executed her brother, and
son, and was widely rumored to have instigated the deaths her two younger sons as well. One is that Elizabeth
knew the princes were still alive, or had died natural deaths. The other is that she was simply tired of remaining in
sanctuary and accepted the reality of the present administration. Elizabeth lived until 1492, but no viable
contemporary or later source mentions any of her views regarding the fate of her two younger sons. Elizabeth did
not apparently enjoy cordial relations with her son-in-law, Henry VII, who shut her up in the Abbey of Bermondsey in
1487, after she had inexplicably lent her support to the Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, which defies any rational
interpretation of her possible motivations. Like the Duke of Buckingham, Elizabeth Wydeville went to her grave
perhaps with some knowledge of the true story of the fate of her sons.
As there are no contemporary accounts of what exactly happened to the princes, all subsequent accounts of
Richard’s supposed guilt in the fate of the princes were manufactured after his death, during the reigns of the first
two Tudor kings, Henry VII and VIII, long after the supposed “fact” of the prince’s demise sometime in the latter half
of 1483. While centuries of historians have uncritically accepted Thomas More’s interpretation of a physically and
morally corrupt, infanticidal tyrant, twentieth century historians have successfully reopened the case and cast grave
doubts upon nearly all of More’s assertions concerning Richard’s character and crimes, including the murder of the
princes he so richly described.
Richard’s modern defence reached the larger popular culture with the publication of Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel,
The Daughter of Time, which, among other things, exposes the weaknesses and biases of More’s History, a
narrative allegedly based in part upon the personal recollections of John Morton, formerly bishop of Ely, who
escaped confinement during Buckingham’s rebellion late in1483, having been incarcerated following the June 13
coup, which resulted in the summary beheading of Hastings, and made his way to Henry Tudor in Brittany. Morton,
described by Dominic Mancini as a man “of great resource and daring, for he had been trained in party intrigue
since King Henry’s [VI] time,” emerged in Henry VII’s reign as lord chancellor, cardinal, and perhaps the principle
architect of Richard III’s historical character assassination. More’s History has also been explained as a rhetorical,
humanistic literary exercise, rather than a precise history, perhaps offering to the youthful Henry VIII an example of
how a prince ought not to behave. In the words of Jeremy Potter, More’s work was “a literary exercise in the
dramatic presentation of villainy,” that bore little relationship to the historical King Richard.
More’s essay, however, is the first to describe Sir James Tyrell’s alleged murder of the princes, a story reproduced
and embellished in every subsequent work of sixteenth century history, through the chroniclers Edward Hall, Ralph
Holinshed, and finally, the bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare. What More did not reveal, however, was the
contradictory and shady relationship that existed between James Tyrell and Henry VII.
Tyrell, in fact, enjoyed great favor under Henry VII, recovering the offices he held under Richard III, and enjoying
frequent employment in the king’s service. In June and July of 1486, Henry VII issued to Tyrell two pardons for
unspecified offences without explanation. Why would Henry VII refrain from publicly acknowledging the murder of
the princes if he knew Tyrell was in fact the murderer? Unless, of course, it was Tudor, not Richard, who had
arranged for the princes to be done away with. Only later in the reign, in 1502, when Tyrell had provided aid and
comfort to the renegade Yorkist prince Edmund, earl of Suffolk, in his capacity as Lieutenant of Guisnes, was he
convicted and executed for treason. How and why Henry VII allowed Tyrell’s supposed guilt in the prince’s murder to
be known, if he in fact did anything of the sort, long after the fact of the deed, remains a mystery, as does how More
himself got hold of the story. Polydore Vergil failed to relate Tyrell’s supposed confession, as did Bernard Andre,
tutor to Henry VII’s sons and the author of his biography. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon
wrote that Henry VII allowed knowledge of Tyrell’s guilt to be circulated. Ultimately, the full historical disclosure of the
career of Tyrell, and his highly suspicious relationship with Henry VII only serves to cast further doubt upon Richard
as suspect number one.
However, before we proceed to our closing arguments, we must admit one final piece of evidence, which was the
discovery of the bones of two preteen children found under a staircase in the Tower of London in 1674. The
location roughly fits with Thomas More’s account of the disposal of the prince’s bodies. King Charles II had the
remains interred in an urn in Westminster Abbey, where they have remained ever since, which has further
contributed to Richard’s enduring reputation as their murderer. In 1933, however, the remains were examined by
scientists armed with the rudimentary forensic science of their day, who rendered an inconclusive verdict regarding
their identity or their sex. Since that time, subsequent British monarchs have forbid further scientific analysis of the
remains. It is unlikely that the monarchy will ever allow their examination again, despite the state of forensic science
today, which could easily identify their DNA.
Ultimately, what all the admissible evidence adds up to is an iron clad case of reasonable doubt. No contemporary
account directly points the finger directly at Richard for the murder of the princes, only subsequent accounts labor
to convince us of his guilt. However, considering his bloody path to the throne, Richard remains the most likely
circumstantial candidate. Like a medieval O.J. Simpson, Richard’s repeated acquittals in courts of law does not
erase the strong presumption of unproven guilt in the larger court of public and historical opinion. As historian
Charles Ross once pointed out, even Paul Murray Kendall, Richard’s most vigorous modern defender, admits that,
“The most powerful indictment of Richard is the plain and massive fact that the princes disappeared from view after
he assumed the throne, and were never reported to have been seen alive. This fact . . . . weighs heavily against
the indications of his innocence.”
If he was guilty, Richard did have a large body of powerful and bloody precedents to draw upon; Edward II’s
probable murder at the hands of his queen, Isabella, and her paramour Roger De Mortimer in 1327, Thomas of
Woodstock’s probable murder on the orders of Richard II in 1397, and Richard II’s own untimely demise upon the
probable orders of his supplanter, Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, in 1400.
The precedents closer in time to 1483 were just as ruthless, and far more numerous. Henry VI’s ferocious queen
Margaret of Anjou beheaded every Yorkist lord she could get her hands on, and placed a paper crown on Richard,
duke of York’s severed head following the Lancastrian victory at the 1460 Battle of Wakefield. Eleven years later,
Edward IV dispatched the decrepit old Henry VI following the 1471 Battle of Teweksbury, after Henry’s son,
seventeen year old Edward of Lancaster, had perished during that battle. Indeed, if Edward had survived
Teweksbury, Edward IV could hardly have allowed the youth to live without putting his recently regained crown at
continued dynastic risk. Perceiving the same threat, the Wydeville’s succeeded in destroying George, duke of
Clarence. This was the political culture in which all of our suspects were constrained to participate in. Fourteen
years after his accession, in 1499, Richard’s supplanter Henry VII beheaded the hapless Edward, earl of Warwick,
son of George, Duke of Clarence, and the last direct male descendant of the house of York, during the negotiations
for the betrothal of his eldest son and heir, Arthur, prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon, youngest daughter of
Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Nevertheless, despite the circumstantial evidence that weighs heavily against him,
there is no contemporary account of the fate of the princes. Dominic Mancini summed it up best in his account of
the usurpation, and subsequent disappearance of Edward V, as he wrote, “I have seen many men burst forth into
tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sights; and already there was a
suspicion that he had been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered.”
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