Edward V was the eldest son of Edward IV. He was born in 1470 in sanctuary while his father was in exile in The Netherlands, as a result of the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion and coup d’état in that year. On his father’s triumphant return and the end of the civil wars in his reign, young Edward was appointed Prince of Wales and assumed the position of heir to the throne. Very little of Edward’s life is known, nor is the manner and timing of his death. What is known is that his upbringing was entrusted to the hands of his mother’s family, the Woodvilles. He was under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Earl Rivers, at the time of his father’s death in 1483, in the royal castle at Ludlow, on the Welsh Marches. It is assumed that he had a conventional upbringing for one of his class at the time.
The key feature of his life is in fact the nature of his upbringing. Edward IV’s greatest disservice to his son was the clumsy fashion in which he treated the various magnates and their factions within the kingdom. He raised his wife’s family to heights that were astonishing for the time, and unwise in the event. They were perceived as being well above their ‘natural station’, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and influential beyond reason. Consequently, there was a dangerous split in England’s body politic – on the one side was the Queen’s grasping family, on the other was the natural nobility of England. This latter group was led, albeit with some reluctance, by Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
While Edward IV was alive, this dangerous split was managed by the king without much difficulty; such was the force of his personality. Gloucester, well rewarded for his years of loyalty and manifest abilities, was the greatest landowner in England, and he dominated the North. At the time of Edward IV’s unexpected death, Gloucester was in the North and upon learning of his brother’s death, he immediately hurried South to London in order to secure the realm.
What happened to Edward V as these events played out? It can be assessed as certain that the youngster played no part in the political manoeuvrings centred on his person. He was removed to the Tower of London in the late spring of 1483 – the Tower was a royal residence, as well as a prison, and there was little untoward about this move, despite later connotations. His brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, joined him in due course. The sources of the time noted that the two boys were seen ‘less and less’ and eventually not at all. The contemporary rumour held that Gloucester had arranged for their deaths so as to eliminate an obvious point of rebellion against his own assumption of the Crown as Richard III. Whether this is actually true remains an open question.
The rumours surrounding Edward’s fate, and that of his brother, were extremely damaging to Richard III, there is no question on that score. And, it is the nature of his accession that provided the motivation for the invasion of Henry Tudor that brought his reign to a sudden end in 1485.
While Richard III definitely had motive and opportunity to do away with his nephews, it is by no means certain that he did so. While the stakes he was playing for in 1483 included his life, it is not necessarily the case that he would have accepted that doing away with his nephews was thereby justified. It is quite possible he had the boys removed from London surreptitiously and that he intended to allow them to live out their lives on an anonymous basis somewhere within his extensive holdings. If this speculation, (and that is all it is), is in fact the case, there is absolutely no surviving proof.
While the above speculation is conceivable, it must be acknowledged that Richard III could have diffused some of the opposition and distaste for his rule, by displaying them as alive and well at appropriate moments. He did not do so. Equally, Henry Tudor could have eliminated a great deal of uncertainty regarding his own claim to the throne had he been able to locate the bodies of the two boys (had they been alive it would have been awkward for him, to say the least). He was unable to do so. When and how they met their end remains an abiding mystery, without much likelihood of ever being satisfactorily resolved.