“The Children in the Wood (The Babes in the Woods)”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1595? (title of piece in Stationer's Register)
Keywords: orphan money death abandonment family children
Found in: US(Ap,MW,NE,Ro,SE,So) Britain Australia Canada(Mar)


Two young orphaned children are left in the care of their uncle. He decides to murder them for their money. One of the hired killers has pity and spares them, but then abandons them. They die. The uncle meets countless disasters till his crime is revealed


Laws notes, "A three stanza lament on the fate of the children called 'The Babes in the Wood' is widely known in American tradition, but the long ballad is rarely met with." At first glance these two songs are hardly related (they don't even use the same metrical form), but Laws presumably has seen intermediate forms. Though we note that he lists only occurrences of the long form. But splitting seems inappropriate in context.

Hales believes this piece to be by the same author as "The Lady's Fall." - RBW

The Creighton-SNewBrunswick 87 is clearly a fragment of the Bodleian broadside version. - BS

This song is well enough known that it inspired various literary references. In Charles Kingsley's _The Water Babies_ (1863), for instance, we read that young Tom would have been trapped in the rhododendrons "till the cock-robins covered him with leaves" (about two-thirds of the way through the first chapter; p. 22 in the Wordsworth Classics edition).

Various sources for this legend have been mentioned. The Baring-Goulds cite an abandonment that took place at Wayland in Norfolk, but offer no names or dates. Based on the notes in the Opies, this is apparently based on an item licensed in 1595 entited "The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his owne brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it."

Percy, who contributed materially to the popularity of the piece, knew of no relevant legends, but mentions a play of 1601 on the same theme.

Garnett and Gosse's _English Literature: An Illustrated Record_, volume I, p. 307, mentions that _"The Babes in the Wood_ is conjectured, though doubtfully, to have been a veiled allegory of the murder of the young princes in the Tower." This is indeed doubtful; it must surely depend on the continuity from the 1595 Stationer's Register piece to the modern song. If that identity is accepted, though, and if the song is in fact a century older than that date, it makes a good bit of sense to assume that this is one of Henry Tudor's unfair but necessary (for him) attempts to blacken the memory of Richard III, whose throne he had usurped in 1485; it all fits very well with the Tudor propaganda line.

We have, of course, two problems here: What actually happened, and whether the events of 1483-1485 are actually related to this song.

Let's start with what happened -- insofar as we can tell. I'm going to sketch the situation as best I can, but I should note that it is very hard to manage neutrality on the subject of Richard III -- the Tudor historians, since they had to keep Henry Tudor on his throne, were forced to produce the caricature we see in Shakespeare: A malformed, malignant man who could not possibly get away with all he gets away with -- but who did, somehow. The difficulty is, the Tudor historians are the only complete and detailed sources; there is no way to really pick and choose from what they say. You accept it all, and treat Richard as Satan's Spawn -- or you deny it and end up trying to whitewash him.

Cheetham, p. 198, gives a brilliant example of this: John Rous produced a book in the reign of Richard III, which calls that king "an especial good lord... in his realm fully commendably punishing offenders of the laws, especially oppresors of the Commons, and cherishing those that were virtuous." (Note that Rous's patrons were not the Commons but the nobles, so praising Richard for supporting the commons was not something to win him points. This is an argument, though rather a feeble one, that Richard really *did* try to protect the Commons -- i.e. the vast majority of people.) After Henry Tudor took over, Rous wrote a book which he dedicated to Henry, and came forth with the statement that Richard was two years in his mother's womb, born with teeth and shoulder-length hair. Since this is physically impossible, I submit, it tells us nothing about Richard; it tells us only that John Rous was a suck-up -- but his statements have actually been repeated by historians who claim to have been serious.

It is for reasons like this that I am one of those who does not believe the Tudor historians. I can't whitewash Richard either; he murdered several men (Lord Hastings, Earl Rivers) unfairly, and he claimed a throne to which he may not have been entitled. He passed good legislation, but he spent most of his short reign brutally fighting attempted rebellions. I tend to give Richard the benefit of the doubt. But I'll try to give the case against him fairly.

For the sources cited in this section, see the bibliography at the end of this note.

The story actually starts more than a century before, with King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399). Richard was the grandson of King Edward III, who had started the Hundred Years War with France and won the great battle of Crecy in 1346; Richard's father was Edward "the Black Prince" who had beaten the French at Poitiers in 1355. But the Black Prince had picked up some sort of disease in his travels, and died in 1376, a year before his father (Seward-Hundred, pp. 112-113). Little Richard came to the throne as a 10-year-old surrounded by unprincipled uncles (Harvey, p. 152). Culturally, it was a great era -- the period of Chaucer, Langland,a nd the Gawain-poet (Harvey, p. 146) -- but politically it was difficult; the war with France, begun by Edward III, was going badly due to lack of money, and the king's uncles and many of the nobles thought that they had a quick fix to turn the war around. (Highly unlikely, but that's the way nobles thought in those days.)

Richard II did not gain power until 1387 (Seward-Hundred, p. 137), and when he finally took charge, it produced a rebellion by the nobles he had displaced. Richard managed to survive that, but in 1397 he took steps to stamp out the last survivors of the rebellion. Having done so, he tried to rule as an absolute despot (Harvey, p. 149, says that he insisted "upon the sacred and indissoluble nature of the regality conferred on him by his consecration"). In 1399, one of the men he had exiled, Henry of Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster (hence the name "Lancaster" for his house, even though Henry, like Richard, was of the Plantagenet family) returned to England, deposed Richard (who was killed the next year), and had himself crowned as Henry IV (Harvey, p. 160; Seward-Hundred, p. 142).

Henry IV was a member of the royal family, and Richard's closest relative in the male line, but not the true heir of Edward III. That distinction went to certain young members of the Mortimer family, descendents of Edward III's second son Lionel of Clarence by a female line (for their complicated ancestry, see Harvey, p. 192). Richard II had been the only surviving child of the Black Prince, Edward III's oldest son; Henry IV was the son of Edward III's third son John of Gaunt.

The Mortimer claim generally sat quiet, though there was one attempt to assert it in 1403. But Henry IV was too strong. And his son Henry V (who succeeded his father in 1413) had conquered much of France and been declared the heir to the French throne; no one wanted to depose him! But Henry V died in 1422, at the age of 35 (Seward-Hundred, p. 188), and his heir was his son Henry VI, not yet a year old.

Before Henry VI reached the age of thirty, the English had been entirely thrown out of France, and England was in chaos. As for Henry VI himself, he was weak even after he attained his majority, and in 1453 he had a nervous breakdown (Gillingham, p. 75). His government also ran the royal finances into the ground, making it impossible to conduct the war against France or do much of anything else (according to Seward-Roses, p. 5, Henry's government by the end had income of only 24,000 pounds per year, and debts of 400,000; the royal income barely covered household expenses, with nothing left over to service the debt or provide government. Jenkins, pp. 8-9, notes how various nobles had taken over most of the government's sources of revenue, leaving Henry VI with far less than his predecessors.) The Duke of York ended up having to self-finance the war in France and his government in Ireland, something no commoner could possibly afford to do.

There was no question but that the government had to change: Either Henry VI had to go, or someone competent had to take charge for him. But the feeble-minded Henry had no skill to choose a minister to do what he himself could not do. Nor were there any immediate relatives to help out; he had no brothers, and one of his three uncles had died before Henry V, and the other two were both dead by 1447, all without issue. Henry IV had four sons, but only one grandson, Henry VI (Perroy, p. 335). Henry IV had had some half-brothers, the Beauforts, and there were quite a few of them left (including the Earl of Somerset and his heirs), but they were neither particularly competent nor particularly popular, though they would give rise to the ultimate Lancastrian heir, as will be covered below.

I won't bore you with the details of the civil war which followed (there are plenty of books on the subject, plus some brief notes in the entry on "The Rose of England" [Child 166]), but the final outcome was this: In 1461, Edward Plantagenet, the Duke of York, who was by then the Mortimer heir as well as a descendent of Edward III's fourth son Edmund of Langley, was able to crown himself King Edward IV; he then won the battle of Towton, by far the largest battle of the Wars of the Roses, making him the master of almost all of England (Seward-Roses, p. 6). He had to deal with some conspiracies in his reign, and at one time was even deposed in favor of the restored Henry VI (Gillingham, pp. 179-188; Harvey, p. 206), but he managed to crush all the rebellions by 1471 -- greatly helped by his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, whose valiant defence of the right flank had saved Edward's army at the crucial Battle of Barnet (Kendall, pp. 108-114). (Even his worst detractors regarded Richard as a great soldier -- see Seward-Roses, p. 257, who gathers the evidence of the Tudor historians on this point.)

After 1471, Edward IV faced no threat. Henry VI had been killed, as had his only son Edward (though not by Richard; Harvey, p. 188). The closest thing to a Lancastrian heir was the young Henry Tudor, who was a descendent of John of Gaunt by his third wife (Henry IV had been the son of John's first wife) -- but the Beaufort children, as they came to be named, had been born before John of Gaunt had married their mother; Henry IV, although partially legitimizing them, had explicitly barred them from the succession (Kendall, p. 185; Jenkins, p. 14, notes that the Beauforts had been explicitly legitimized by Richard II, with no restrictions on their rights to the succession -- but while probably true, it's hardly relevant, since Richard II still hoped for an heir at the time of his death, and in any case he had at least eight heirs senior to the Beauforts. They were no threat to him. They *were* a threat to Henry IV's heirs, since they were Henry's closest relatives except for his sons. Jenkins suggests that such alterations in the succession were of dubious legality, but in fact the regulation of the succession was one of the key powers of parliament, and was excercised in some form or another in the reigns of Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, John, Henry IV himself, and later kings such as Henry VIII and, notably, Anne. Parliament certainly went along with Henry IV's restriction.).

Henry Tudor was so remote from the throne that he didn't even really have a hereditary title, and certainly not a royal title such as a dukedom. The only thing he could claim was the Earldom of Richmond, which had been given to his father by Henry VI, but which Edward IV took away from him; Jenkins, p. 22.

Henry Tudor was so unimportant that Edward IV, in the latter part of his reign, almost completely ignored him. With his more serious opponents displaced, Edward had time to relax and carouse -- and burn himself out. He died in 1483, after a brief and unexpected illness (Kendall, pp. 181-182). He was only 41, and had made no real preparations for the succession except to name his brother Richard (who was not present in London; he was defending the North from the Scots) Lord Protector. (At least, that is the report; Edward's will does not survive, according to Jenkins, p. 143).

Richard has certainly been subjected to the worst smear campaign in English history. It is now all but universally agree that he was not a hunchback; see e.g. Ashley, p. 622, Seward-Roses, p. 272. Harvey, p. 207, notes that "from his portraits he was by no means ill-looking," though he appears from the portraits I've seen that he had rather thin lips, and Seward-Roses speaks of his "normally somewhat acid expression" -- a description which seems correct to me. Kendall, p. 52, concludes that his only deformity was that one arm and shoulder somewhat larger than the other -- a common condition among those trained to arms in the Middle Ages. Though Kendall here seems to make a mistake; he says that Richard's *right* shoulder was larger, which was normal, but Cheetham, p. 203, quotes More to the effect that it was the *left* shoulder that was larger.

Richard's character is also an enigma. Seward-Roses, p. 257, credits him with being "impeccably loyal to Edward IV" and having much charisma, but also accuses him of "a streak of vicious rapacity." Cheetham, p. 202, considers him an enigma, while noting on p. 204 that "His loyalty to Edward IV during his brother's lifetime is beyond dispute" (so much for Shakespeare...), but concludes that Elizabeth Woodeville "had valid reasons to be afraid of him."

On p. 214, Cheetham describes Richard as follows: "'Old Dick', for all his solid virtues as an administrator and his undoubted courage on the battlefield, lacked Edward [IV]'s knack of making friends. More's observation that he had a 'close and secret' nature hits on an uncomfortable truth.... The extraordinary circumstances of Richard's upbringing cannot have failed to leave their mark on him, just as they did on his brother George. But whereas George's shallow nature gave way to a mixture of paranoia and bravado, Richard became wary, self-reliant and inaccessible.... While he was Duke of Gloucester this self-reliance was a source of strength. But the King was a public figure whose words and gestures would be carefully marked."

Cheetham, pp. 204-205, also notes that Richard had a strong streak of what we would now call puritanism -- he did father two bastard children, but compared to Edward IV, who typically had three or more mistresses at the same time, that's pretty tame. (For a song about one of Edward's mistresses, see "Jane Shore.") In connection with his strait-laced behavior, we note that Sir William Stanley, who was a generation older than Richard and who would betray him, called him "Old Dick," as if the king were uninteresting in his lifestyle (Cheetham, p. 208).

Kendall, of course, makes Richard seem a near-saint.

Looking at the record, it appears to me that he had a soldier's sort of impatience: He didn't like hanging around court, and he didn't like waiting for the slow wheels of justice (even though justice at that time was swift compared to today). Whatever the problem, he leapt in and solved it (just witness the way he died! -- the one and only thing Shakespeare seems to have gotten right in "Richard III"). So he executed men like Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers without trial (Seward-Roses, pp. 258, 265-266). This rushing to judgment, while hardly desirable, was common at the time; patience was not a virtue normally taught to nobles in the 1400s. Richard's brutality was hardly exceptional; Seward-Roses, p. 7, notes that in 1460-1461 alone eighteen peers died in battle or were executed; in the course of the Wars, no fewer than twelve senior members of the Royal Family died. There is a report that, after Towton, 42 Lancastrian knights were beheaded. Seward claims that some 60 were attainted. This contrasts to the first serious rebellion faced by Richard, that of the Duke of Buckingham, resulted in "less than a dozen executions" (Cheetham, p. 211). Richard was, compared to his contemporaries, amazing for how *little* blood he shed.

And Edward IV's death presented Richard with a situation that certainly gave scope -- indeed, produced a desperate need -- for hastiness. All might have been well had not Edward IV's seeming heir been his son Edward (V). The boy was 12 years old, and not yet fit to rule. And he was in the hands of his mother's family, the Woodvilles, who had already shown that they placed their own interests ahead of England's; if they were allowed to dominate Edward V, even pro-Tudor scholars generally agree it would have been disastrous. And they moved quickly to gain control of the prince and set Richard aside -- they didn't even send messages to tell Richard that Edward was dead! (Jenkins, p. 143).

Richard, once he heard of his brother's death, Richard gave overwhelming evidence of grief, according to Jenkins, p. 146. But then the Duke of Buckingham joined him -- and Richard went from grief-stricken brother to man of action.

By a series of clever maneuvers, Richard managed to get Edward V out of the Woodville clan's hands (Jenkins, p. 147, thinks the maneuvering Richard used shows how hard the Woodvilles were fighting him, but Edward V was in the hands of Anthony Woodville, and other sources have said he was the one Woodville who was not really as conniving as the rest.)

It tells you something about the internal conflicts of this period that, the moment she heard Edward V was in Richard's hands, Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her other children immediately fled into sanctuary (Jenkins, p. 151). Edward's younger brother Richard Duke of York was at this time with his mother, but Richard eventually managed to take him from the Woodvilles as well. The events of the next two months form the basis of the great controversy over Richard III, made worse because we have so little reliable data (the Wars of the Roses caused many histories of the period to be destroyed or abandoned; Cheetham, p. 202). When the period began, Richard was Lord Protector and Edward V was expected to be crowned in the near future. When it ended, Richard was on the throne and Edward V was one of the "Princes in the Tower," the subject of the greatest mystery in English history.

The first step was to postpone Edward's coronation -- a fairly obvious need, since it would presumably eliminate the Lord Protector's role and leave England without a government apart from the self-serving Woodville faction. (A good regency law would really have helped, but England didn't have such a thing. Jenkins, p. 145, says that no one even really knew what the Lord Protector was supposed to do.) But, of course, the postponement was also a first step toward displacing the princes. St. Aubyn, pp. 104-107, strongly implies that this was Richard's first move toward the throne, but still admits, "Because Richard finally seized the Crown, it is tempting to see his entire career as directed toward that end. Nevertheless, in April 1483 he had done nothing more than seek his own safety in a swift pre-emptive bid."

Then came the whispers about the legitimacy of Edward V and his family. St. Aubyn, pp. 142-143, thinks Richard arranged for a cleric by the name of Ralph Shaa to preach a sermon on June 23 arguing that Edward IV was illegitimate and that Richard III was the proper heir to the throne (cf. Seward-Roses, p. 271. This is not quite as crazy as it sounds, since Edward IV's claim came through his father Richard Duke of York, and Richard of York was shorter and dark. Edward IV was very tall and blond, as were most of Richard of York's other children. Only Richard III resembled his father. Jenkins, p. 110, says that in fact Edward's brother George had spread rumors that Edward was illegitimate. The problem with these rumors is that George looked a lot like Edward; if Edward was a bastard, then George probably was too.)

Apparently, though, there are conflicting accounts of what Shaa preached (Kendall, p. 318). The other version makes Edward IV legitimate, but still made Richard his heir. And it was much better attested, because there was a bishop behind it: Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, came forward to say that Edward IV, before he married his official wife Elizabeth Woodville, had been engaged to one Eleanor Butler (St. Aubyn, pp. 156-157; Kendall; pp. 257-258). Since engagement was considered equivalent to marriage, and Butler was still alive when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, that made Edward IV's marriage bigamous and his children illegitimate and unable to inherit. (It should be noted that this story cannot be proved either way; according to Bishop Stillington's account, there were only three witnesses, Stillington, Edward IV, and Eleanor Butler, and the latter two were dead. But Harvey, p. 195, thinks it likely on the grounds that so many -- including parliament -- accepted it at the time.)

Richard seized on this, had Edward V declared a bastard (a part of the act of parliament is quoted by Seward-Roses, p. 272), and took the crown himself. It was actually proper and legal -- *if* Stillington's story was true.

But, of course, it shoved aside Edward (V) and Richard of York, the two brothers held in the Tower of London -- soon to be known as "The Princes in the Tower." In a time of relative stability, they probably would not have been a threat to Richard. But what one bishop could declare a bastard, another could re-legitimize (cf. Ashley, p. 623). The princes were a pawn any power-seeker could seize on. And England had been through thirty years of civil war; there were many factions out to feather their own nests. The boys did not immediately disappear, but they were seen less and less often.

Detailed information about their disappearance is limited. Almost the only non-Tudor testimony we have is that of an Italian visitor to England, Dominic Mancini, who wrote in late 1483 that the boys had been seen "more rarely" toward the end of his visit to England (which ended in the summer of 1483), but that no one knew their fate (Kendall, p. 466). Mancini did suspect that Richard would soon dispose of the boys if he hadn't already. By 1484, they had vanished from sight completely, never to be seen again.

Contrary to what Shakespeare would have us believe, the princes' fates are completely unknown. The circumstantial description found in Thomas More's history of Richard III is not even hinted at in contemporary chronicles, and seems to be based on a story Henry VII eventually released that claimed to come from their murderer -- but there is every reason to think he faked it. There were no bodies and no living witnesses; the alleged murderer, James Tyrell, was executed without making a public statement. (Weir, pp. 243-248, devotes a chapter to More's account of Tyrell's alleged confession, then on p. 249, says that Tyrell's confession was "suppressed." This, of course, makes no sense -- Henry VII desperately needed it to be public. Plus, had the story been real, someone would surely have been able to recover the bodies.)

Centuries later, in 1674, a coffin was discovered under some a stairway outside the Tower of London (Weir, p. 252). Details are unfortunately murky. We do know that it contained the bodies of two young children, plus oddities such as pig bones (Weir assumes that some of the children's bones had been stolen and replaced by animal bones). The bodies were claimed to be those of the princes, and they were treated as such. Nonetheless, there was no evidence for this supposition except for the fact that no one knew of any other bodies likely to be there.

In 1933, the bodies were re-examined, and their ages -- twelve or thirteen for the elder, probably nine or ten for the younger though with a larger margin of error -- were consistent with the ages of the princes in 1483 or 1484 (Weir, p. 257, based on both the 1933 examination and more recent discussions of the photographs taken in 1933). Because both children were pre-pubescent, their sexes could not be determined (Weir, p. 255). But no cause of death could be determined; indeed, the 1933 examiners couldn't even determine the approximate date of burial of the bodies. (Weir claims that we can date them based on a casual reference to "velvet" being found in the coffin when they were excavated. It is true that velvet was invented in the middle ages, so the bones had to be relatively recent if they indeed were wrapped in velvet. But this is based on a casual reference in an otherwise unsatisfactory chronicle.)

So we are again stymied. Certainly, if the boys were Edward V and Richard of York, then they must have died during the reign of Richard III -- but it could not be established in 1674 or in 1933 that the skeletons were those of Edward and Richard (Kendall, p. 481). All we can say is that the skeletons fit such minimal details we have.

Today, using genetic testing, we *could* determine if the boys are Plantagenets, and the approximate age of their deaths, and maybe even the cause of death -- but I read in an issue of _Renaissance_ magazine that Elizabeth II has forbidden the re-exhumation of the bodies. The staff of Wesminster Abbey, which holds the bones, is also opposed (Weir, p. 256). And even if the bodies are those of the princes, and they were murdered, Kendall, p. 482, observes that this does not prove that Richard was the one who ordered their deaths -- though an honest person must admit that the probability of Richard ordering it is extremely high.

The examination of the bones did seem to reveal advanced dental problems in the older skeleton (Kendall, p. 472; Weir, p. 255); there is a real possibility that Edward (V) died of this, or of blood poisoning consequent to this, forcing whoever was in charge at the time -- probably Richard -- to cover it up. Modern examinations would doubtless make this clearer, too, but, again, no such examination has been permitted.

Those who most doubt Richard's guilt wonder if it isn't possible that Elizabeth II knows that her ancestor Henry VII, rather than Richard III, killed the two boys, who were an even greater threat to him than to Richard. This strikes me as highly unlikely -- if Richard had had the boys, he would have exhibited them in 1485, when the invasion by Henry Tudor was threatening. So it seems nearly certain that they were dead by then.

Again, though, that does not prove that he killed them -- if either boy had died against Richard's will, either naturally or by murder without his knowledge, Richard would still have been blamed for the deaths; coverup was the best he could do. And, again, it's possible, based on those reburied skeletons, that Edward died naturally. It's also possible that one of Richard's followers killed the boys, not realizing the problems it would cause. It's also possible that someone -- likely the Duke of Buckingham, who had helped Richard to the throne but almost immediately rebelled against him -- killed them in full knowledge that it *would* cause problems (Cheetham, p. 148, 148, summarizes the case against Buckingham hile concluding it unlikely; Kendall, pp. 487-495, offers a much more detailed case, including the statement on p. 494 that "empirically, Buckingham appears more likely than Richard to have been the murderer of the princes").

Cheetham, p. 151, gives probably the best summary: "We have thus come in a full circle back to Richard as the primesuspect [in the murder of the princes] and the early autumn of 1483 as the most likely date. The evidence is not conclusive in a legal sense, and never will be. Richard stands convicted not so much by the evidence against him as by the lack of evidence against anybody else.

"The murders leave an ineradicable stain on Richard's character.... But that does not prove that his nature was warped by a vein of deliberate cruelty. His treatment of the vanquished Nevilles and his defence of Clarence show Richard in a kinder light....

"More important than the moral issue were the political consequences. The murder of the Princes has often been described as a Renaisance solution in the manner later presecribed by Macchiavelli. In fact it was a colossal blunder. Nothing else could have prompted the deflated Woodvilles to hitch themselve to Henry Tudor's bandwagon...."

As Kendall, p. 495, notes, "This famous enigma eludes us, like Hamlet: we cannot pluck out the heart of its mystery. But at least we can do better than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who thought there was no mystery at all."

Still, note the convenience of the claims that Richard III was responsible for the deaths: Henry Tudor's justification for his ascension was that, first, Richard had killed the legitimate heir, meaning that Henry had at least some claim to the throne (in fact, his family had been barred from the succession by Henry IV), and second, that Richard's crimes were so black that he needed to be overthrown.

The claim that Richard was purely evil is patently false; he may well have killed his nephews, but other than that, he promoted learning and tried very much to establish justice; in better times, he very likely would have been a good king. The laws passed in his sole parliament were very positive. Cheetham, p. 158, lists as the major accomplishments laws regulating the granting of bail, assuring that juries were selected honestly and kept free from pressure, and governing the sale of property so that rich landowners couldn't cheat buyers. He gave major endowments to two colleges at Cambridge (Cheatham, p. 163). Protestants might be interested to note that, at a time when the Catholic Church refused to sanction vernacular translations and generally restricted ownership of the Bible, Richard had his own copy of the (officially banned) Wycliffe English Bible (Kendall, p. 386). He established the Council of the North (Cheatham, pp. 167-168, 209), which was maintained even by the Tudors; it lasted until the Union of the Crowns largely eliminated the Scottish border problem. Richard also founded the ancestor of the modern Court of Requests, which gave ordinary people a chance to try to gain justice from their superiords (Cheetham, pp. 207-208).

That respect for the common people reminds us of one of his other innovations -- one which may have been fatal. Richard tried to build his faction of relatively low-born men -- knights and esquires, rather than the high nobility (Cheatham, pp. 161-162). He seems to have chosen men of high ability -- but, of course, the barons would have resented it, and in the period of the Wars of the Roses, they were in the habit of helping to decide who was king. Several authors make the point of how few of the high nobles fought at Bosworth. They usually blame it on repugnance for Richard. This may well be true -- but I suspect that the repugnance was more of a petty hissy fit, "How can he employ people like that? Just because their intelligence and education is greater than mine...."

Harvey, p. 206, says that "Richard was innocent of nine-tenths of the abominable charges made against him," while admitting the likelihood that he killed his nephews. He adds, p. 208, that "in many directions [Richard] gave proof of a genuine desire for conciliation." Ashley, p. 624, writes, "When his brief reign is views in the round, Richard was undoubtedly a worthy king... History... has chosen to focus on the vicious and ruthless side of his character rather than a balanced view. Richard was certainly not someone to have as either your friend or your enemy, but he was a better king than many who had come before him and many who would come after."

Even with Richard III dead without an heir (his only child, Edward, had died in 1484, and Richard's wife was also dead, and her death was too recent for Richard to remarry; Harvey, p. 208), Henry Tudor had his problems. He wasn't Richard's heir by any line of thinking -- but there were three Yorkist possibilities (Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV, blocked by the precontract that had blocked her younger brother Edward V; the Earl of Warwick, son of Richard III's older brother George of Clarence, who however had been attainted; and John, Earl of Lincoln, the son of Richard III's oldest sister, who was Richard's official heir but rather far back in the line of succession if you ignore the precontract and such). The Yorkist confusion made it difficult for them to oppose Henry -- and Henry, though his only Plantagenet blood was in a bastard line from John of Gaunt, had all the Lancastrians behind him simply because English politics was so divided that it was better to support a pretender than a legitimate member of the enemy party. Even so, he had to marry Elizabeth of York to strengthen his claim. (Meaning that, even though Henry VII didn't really deserve to be on the throne, all his heirs did. At least genetically.)

By the late fifteenth century, Henry VII had additional motives for trying to foster this story -- because he really, really wanted people to accept that the princes were dead, and it's likely that he didn't know where their bodies were either.

As early as 1487, a youth named Lambert Simnel had claimed to be the nephew of Edward IV and tried to claim the crown. (There was a real problem with this theory, in that Simnel was claiming to be the Earl of Warwick, son of Edward IV's brother George of Clarence, and Warwick was still alive in Tudor custody!) Henry VII let Simnel live (while executing Edward IV's true heir the Earl of Lincoln, who had been deep in the conspiracy); the boy seemed harmless enough. (For more on Lambert, see the notes to "The Mayor of Waterford's Letter.")

In 1491, an even more serious impersonator showed up in Perkin Warbeck, who eventually claimed to be Richard of York, the younger prince in the tower. Warbeck -- who, unlike Simnel, was an adult directly involved in the plotting -- was executed in 1497, but he had gained a strong following before then. (For more on Perkin, see "The Praise of Waterford.")

Of course, the truth doesn't really matter here. What counts is that many people thought Richard had killed his nephews, and that Henry Tudor definitely wanted them to believe it. Observe the parallels between the Tudor story and the song: An uncle is entrusted with the welfare of his nephews. He orders them murdered for their inheritance. He faces disasters until he at last comes to justice.

And Henry Tudor was definitely capable of propaganda. The first full-length published history of the period, that of Polydore Virgil, which mostly follows the Tudor line, was commissioned by Henry VII (Kendall, pp. 501-502). Of course, histories weren't (and aren't) much good at persuading the common people. He needed something to convince ordinary people. Popular songs would be a good method.

On the other hand, the fact that so few people associated the song with Richard III argues that, if it *was* propaganda, it was a little too subtle. But then, Henry VII was one of the sneakiest creatures ever spawned. Being direct and open probably never even occurred to him.

We might also add that what seems to be the oldest broadside print (Bodleian Harding B 4(30)) differs from the situation of the Princes in the Tower in several important regards:

1. The children are a boy and a girl, not two boys (Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville had sundry daughters, but they lived -- indeed, the oldest became the wife of Henry VII).

2. In the broadside, the wife dies before the children -- but Elizabeth Woodville lived until 1492, dying nine years after Edward IV and at least six years after her sons died.

3. The older child in the broadside is only five, whereas Edward V was twelve when his father died.

To sum up: this song could easily have originated as a piece of propaganda. But, of course, that requires that it be much, much older than even the Stationer's Register date, and we can't prove that even that is this song.

If this broadside represents the original form (not a safe bet, to be sure), the allegory theory is much weakened.

Wild speculation, which I don't believe: Could the short three-verse version be the original which some Tudor boot-licker converted into a propaganda piece? (The problem with this theory, of course, is that there is absolutely no early evidence that anything like this happened.)

For more details on the background to this final phase of the Wars of the Roses, see the notes to "The Rose of England [Child 166]"; also some tangential references in "Jane Shore" and (especially) "The Vicar of Bray." - RBW


My initial draft of this was written out of my own head; the Wars of the Roses fascinate me. In trying to footnote my original version, I've consulted the following sources:

Ashley: Mike Ashley, _British Kings and Queens_, 2000 (originally published as _The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens_, 1998). Mammoth it certainly is, and even so, it covers so much territory that it must necessarily be brief, but as far as I've tested it, it's reasonably accurate though lacking in footnotes. It is mildly pro-Richard.

Cheatham: Anthony Cheetham, _The Life and Times of Richard III_ (with introduction by Antonia Fraser), George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972 (I used the 1995 Shooting Star Press edition). Like Kendall, an attempt at a Richard III biography, without footnotes but making real attempt to weight the material. Generally pro-Richard but accusing him of many mistakes.

Gillingham: John Gillingham, _The Wars of the Roses_, 1981. A good history of the Wars, though it seems to me to have a bit of a Lancastrian tilt. It is clearly anti-Richard. It has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography but no footnotes. It also tries to deny a fundamental fact of the Wars of the Roses: That the wars were the consequence of the deposition of Richard II. (This is fundamental because the Wars were unique. English kings had been set aside before -- notably Edward II -- and would be again, but generally were succeeded by their direct heirs, as in, e.g., the case of James II. But the Wars were between dynasties which had diverged a century before the depositions began, and involved *five* transfers of the throne from a monarch who did not die in peace).

Harvey: John Harvey, _The Plantagenets_ 1959 (I used the 1979 Fontana edition). A short history of the period, with some strange prejudices -- Harvey's main criterion for a "good king" seems to be that there were good works of art created in his reign -- but relatively balanced and supplying a clear overview. He also is one of the few historians who takes what seems to me the middle line on Richard III: That Richard usurped the throne (obvious), that he almost certainly had his nephews murdered (likely), but that he was not deliberately vile and tried to be a good king once he reached the throne.

Jenkins: Elizabeth Jenkins, _The Princes in the Tower_ , 1978. Another attempt at a balanced look at the controversy of the Princes. It strikes me as a little bit Tudor-biased, but relatively fair.

Kendall: Paul Murray Kendall, _Richard the Third_ (1955, 1956). This is *the* modern defence of Richard III. Gillingham calls it "overindulgent" (which given Gillingham's methods may be a compliment); it remains the most thorough and scholarly defence of the King. It is certainly the most heavily footnoted of any of the works cited; it is also the most likely to dig up a pro-Richard interpretation -- so much so that it verges on the unreliable.

Perroy: Edouard Perroy, _The Hundred Years War_ (French edition published 1945; English translation by W. B. Wells, with an introduction by David C. Douglas, printed by Capricorn 1965). This is awfully short for a history of such a long war, and it's not easy to read (a combination, presumably, of the translation English and the fact that the author likes very long sentences), but it's obviously helpful to have a non-English source about a war against France!

Seward-Hundred: Desmond Seward, _The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453_, 1978 (I used the 1982 Atheneum edition). This has nothing at all to say about Richard III, who was busy being born as the Hundred Years War ended, but it is a good, highly readable (though un-footnoted) history of the period up to the reign of Henry VI, showing how the problems of the period came about.

Seward-Roses: Desmond Seward, _The Wars of the Roses_, 1995. This is very different from Seward's other book; it has footnotes, but is built around the biographies of several major players of the period. His particular concern seems Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, whom she considered a major player in the rebellion (for Seward, it seems almost to have been a chess match between Margaret and Richard III). What makes this particularly interesting is the fact that, assuming Henry VII had a claim to the throne at all, he should have been second to Margaret, since she was the one who carried on the Beaufort line. His overall tone is strongly anti-Richard

St. Aubyn: Giles St. Aubyn, _The Year of Three Kings: 1483_, 1983. This book is almost entirely about the death of Edward IV, the brief reign of Edward V, and the accession of Richard III. It seems to me that it is intended to make Richard look as black as possible while pretending to sift the evidence.

Weir: Alison Weir, _The Princes in the Tower_, 1992. The jacket notes to this claim a "conclusive solution" to the problem of the Princes in the Tower. Since its "conclusive solution" consists of following Thomas More at key points, even though his account is demonstrably full of falsehoods such as Richard's deformity and unnatural gestation, I have treated this as a piece of propaganda and used only the information about the examination of the bones that might be those of the princes.- RBW

Cross references




  1. Laws Q34, "The Children in the Wood (The Babes in the Woods)"
  2. Percy/Wheatley III, pp. 169-176, "The Children in the Wood" (1 text -- the long form)
  3. Belden, pp. 106-107, "The Babes in the Wood" (2 texts -- the short form)
  4. BrownII 147, "The Babes in the Wood" (1 text)
  5. Hudson 139, p. 285, "Babes in the Woods" (1 text -- the short form)
  6. Scarborough-NegroFS, p. 57, (no title) (1 text, quite short, but it appears to be a fragment of the long form)
  7. Brewster 71, "Babes in the Wood" (1 text -- the short form)
  8. Gardner/Chickering 141, "The Babes in the Woords" (1 text -- the long form)
  9. Randolph 92, "The Babes in the Woods" (5 texts, 2 tunes -- the short form)
  10. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 113-115, "The Babes in the Woods" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 92A)
  11. JHCoxIIA, #22, pp. 89-90, "Babes in the Wood" (1 text, 1 tune -- perhaps a fragment of the long form)
  12. SharpAp 47, "The Babes in the Wood" (1 text, 1 tune)
  13. Meredith/Covell/Brown, p. 210, "(The Babes in the Wood)" (1 fragmentary text); pp. 295-296, "Babes in the Wood" (1 text+tune of the short form, plus an excerpt from the long form)
  14. Creighton-SNewBrunswick 87, "Babes in the Wood" (1 short text, 1 tune; although only a fragment, it is clearly derived from the long form)
  15. OBB 174, "The Children in the Wood" (1 text -- the long form)
  16. Abrahams/Foss, pp. 121-122, ""The Babes in the Woods (1 text, 1 tune -- the short form)
  17. LPound-ABS, 115, pp. 233-234, "Babes in the Woods" (1 text -- the short form)
  18. Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 285-286, "Babes in the Woods" (1 text, 1 tune -- the short form)
  19. Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #226, pp. 148-149, "(My dear, do you know)" (the short form)
  20. BBI, ZN1966, "Now ponder well you parents dear"
  21. cf. Chappell/Wooldridge I, p. 92, "[The Two Children in the Wood]" (1 tune)
  23. ADDITIONAL: Iona & Peter Opie, The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, pp. 42-46, "The Babes in the Wood" (1 text -- the long form)
  24. Roud #288
  25. BI, LQ34