The Princes in the Tower
The Three Kings:
In order to understand the context of the murder of the princes, its helpful to know something about the politics of the second half of the 15th century, particularly about the three kings that ruled England at that time. The princes, after all, were pawns in the elaborate game of power seeking, and the players --- for the most part --- were those who wanted to be king. Certainly, the personalities of Edward IV, his younger brother Richard III, and the man who overthrew Richard, Henry VII, are central to the story.
Edward IV (reigned from 1460 to 1483): the father of the two young princes.
Even before he assumed the throne, Edward of York had a reputation as something of a rake. He stood six feet three and a half inches tall, fully a half foot taller than the average Englishman of the age, and was, by all reports, remarkably handsome. Edward did not restrain his interest in women, and enjoyed numerous liaisons. Marriage to Elizabeth Woodville did not interfere with his sexual adventures. A handsome, affable, charming man was, it appears, forgiven his appetites. He was, at the beginning of his reign, a fair and benign ruler, and well liked by his subjects.
Pleasant as Edward was, it didnt stop him from doing whatever was necessary to secure his reign. After defeating the forces of Henry VI, Edward had Henrys heir, the young Prince of Wales, murdered. Allegedly, even Henry VI, a simple-minded and ineffectual old man who was imprisoned in the Tower, may have also been murdered at Edwards request.
Another threat to Edward was the unpredictable loyalty of his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, who allied himself with Henry VIs wife in her attempt to overthrow Edward. Younger brother Richard played the role of peacemaker in reconciling his two older brothers, but George remained troublesome, eventually giving Edward no choice but to execute him for treason. Interestingly, George and Richard had married sisters. The older of the Neville girls, Isobel, married George, and the younger, Anne married Richard. Family connections aside, George had to go, and so he met the usual fate of 15th century traitors.
These relationships --- the execution of George, Duke of Clarence, and the marriage of Richard to Anne Neville --- are changed quite dramatically in Shakespeares play. According to Shakespeare, George, a gentle soul slandered by Richard, is drowned in a butt of malmsey. Most likely, the reference to this comes from his love of wine, and the drowning in malmsey is a metaphor for his drunkenness leading to his eventual death. The fascinating courtship of Anne by Richard, her husbands (Henry VIs heir, the Prince of Wales) corpse between them, is pure invention, since Anne never met the Prince of Wales, her husband, and was still little more than a child when Richard courted and married her.
During his reign, Edward continued to indulge himself. One of his mistresses, procured for him by his loyal aide, Lord Hastings, was Jane Shore. As he tired of her, he turned her over to Hastings. His appetites included not only women, but food and drink as well, so that by the time of his death at the age of 44, he was grossly fat.
Richard had been a loyal youngest brother. At the age of 18, he performed admirably at the Battle of Tewksbury against the forces of Henry VI, and for a number of years thereafter governed the northern counties for Edward with skill.
Edward had married Elizabeth Woodville secretly, over the objections of his mother, who found Elizabeth, a widow, an unsuitable candidate for a queen. In addition to her unsuitability, she brought with her a group of relatives, brothers and sons, who were ambitious and grasping. Edward, as long as he was left to his own pleasures, did not seem to mind the machinations of his in-laws and stepsons. It was one of these pleasures that eventually kept his own son from inheriting his throne.
One of the ecclesiastical laws of the time was that the promise of a marriage carried the legal force of an actual marriage. Edward evidently used the promise of marriage as a means to entice women into his bed, and by all accounts he used the device successfully. However, with at least one of these promises, to Eleanor Butler, he made the mistake of promising it in the presence of a bishop, Bishop Stillington. This was several years before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (who probably had the same promise made to her, but made Edward keep it). The net effect of this promise to Eleanor Butler was, years later, to invalidate his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, rendering his children from that marriage illegitimate, and hence ineligible to inherit the throne.
In the meantime, throughout the reign of Edward IV, younger brother Richard was a loyal soldier and administrator. He was so trusted by his older brother that he, Richard of Gloucester, was named in Edwards will as protector, the guardian of Edwards oldest son and heir. Protectors ruled as king until the designated heir reached majority, which had varied throughout the centuries, but was generally about 14 years of age. England had experienced political turmoil in the past when the heir had not yet reached majority, and the naming of a protector was a reasonable practice.