15th century stained glass from great east window St Nicholas Chapel, Gipping. Did Elizabeth Wydeville gaze up at this very window if the family tradition is correct. Photo thanks to Gerry Morris @ Flikr
While there is much information on Sir James Tyrell, c.1455-1502 available, unfortunately some of it is erroneous and distortion at its best, a fine example of history being written by the victor. As we know Sir Thomas More in his History of King Richard III painted a slanderous characterisation of Sir James who he said ‘devised that they ( the princes) should be murdered in their beds..’ which has been and still continues to be used to malign a loyal Yorkist and I have to say Sir Thomas was a writer of rubbish. There may be some small kernels of truth in his History, for example the meeting of the Council in the Tower on the 13 June 1483 does have some ring of truth about it but on the whole and as the story of Richard waving a withered arm about perfectly illustrates the bulk of History is so far removed from the truth to the point of silliness. Sir Thomas did add as a kind of afterthought that ‘some remain in doubt whether they were in his (Richard’s) day destroyed or no.. ‘ but by then the damage was well and truly done. Recently, and thank goodness for it, more enlightened historians have shredded Sir Thomas’ daft version of events. I won’t go into it too much here as it’s readily available for those who wish to delve deeper other than to point out one of the most blatant errors/lies, besides the gammy arm, is that there was no need for a page to introduce Richard, while he was sitting on the loo – really Sir Thomas! – to Sir James as Richard already knew him very well. Sir James had fought for York at Tewkesbury in 1471 and had in fact been knighted by Edward IV after the battle. ‘By the following winter he was in the service of Richard Duke of Gloucester. He became a ducal councillor and feoffee and was used by Richard on sensitive business'(1). For example Sir John Paston wrote ‘The Countess of Warwick is now out of Beaulieu Sanctuary, and Sir James Tyrell conveyeth her northward, men say by the King’s assent‘. However Sir Thomas was not going to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The Tyrell Knot found carved above a door in the Gipping Chapel along with the words Pray for Sir Jamys Tirrell. Dame Anne his wyf. Photo thanks to Simon Knott.
Moving on Sir James was not at Bosworth and was able to transfer his services to Henry Tudor. However and cutting to the chase, he become involved with Edmund de la Pole in 1499 which set off a chain of events that led to his arrest as well as that of his son, Thomas, in 1502 and to their imprisonment in the Tower of London. After a trial in the London Guildhall he was convicted of treason on Monday 2nd May and executed on the 6th. After his execution it was given out that Sir James had confessed to the murder of the princes back in 1483. No copies of the ‘confession’ have survived, quelle surprise!
Now here’s a thing. I have recently become familiarised with the mystery of Coldridge Church in Devon and a very plausible story with some compelling evidence that John Evans, who had been given the deer park and manor of Coldridge by none other than Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, could actually have been Edward V incognito. Dorset was of course half brother to Edward V. This mystery is now being investigated by The Missing Princes Project led by Philippa Langley, who along with the late John Ashdown-Hill played such a pivotal role in the discovery of Richard’s remains in Leicester in 2012. Philippa’s Devonshire team have uncovered much information, records and clues particularly in the church and also the connections that certain persons such as Robert Markenfield and Sir John Speke had to John Evans.
Surprising it is as well as a huge coincidence that it transpires that Sir John Speke was related by marriage to none other than Sir James Tyrell. Anne Arundel, wife to Sir James, had a half brother Thomas Arundel, who in turn had a daughter Alice who was married to, yes none other than Speke (2). Which leads me to the crunch point of my story – at last I hear you groan. Audrey Williamson in her excellent book the Mystery of the Princes first published in 1972 unearthed a curious and intriguing story from a lady called Kathleen Margaret Drew, a member of the Tyrell family, who contacted Williamson following publication of her article in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1973 to inform her of a ‘longstanding and specifically worded tradition‘ that had been handed down in the Tyrell family. This family tradition had not been made public due to the stigma that was still, sadly, attached to Tyrells’s name as a murderer of the boys as well as the mistaken belief that Elizabeth Wydeville and her sons stay at Gipping Hall prior to the supposed murder of the princes. For had not the sainted Sir Thomas More himself named Sir James as the murderer ? – ergo it must be the truth. This story had been handed down orally since before the 18th century (3). I would suggest that the earlier Tyrells had felt it unsafe to talk openly about this family tradition having received a stark warning by the execution of Sir James that it was dangerous to know or speak about the whereabouts of the missing princes. The story told to Audrey Williams is that after Elizabeth Wydeville left the sanctuary of the Abbots House at Westminster Abbey, she and the princes were ‘allowed to live at Gipping Hall by the permission of the uncle‘ i.e. Richard III. The whereabouts of Elizabeth and her sons after Richard become king has always been a tantalising mystery.
The Tyrell Crest. A Boar’s head with peacock feathers issuing from its mouth. 15th century glass from the great east window Chapel of St Nicholas Gipping. Photo thanks to Gerry Morris @ Flikr
Towards the end of 1484 Sir James, this ‘ right trusty knight for our body and counsaillour ‘ was sent by Richard III ‘over the See into the parties of Flaundres for diverse maters concernying gretely oure wele’ ( 4). Was this task escorting one of the Princes to the continent where he may have surfaced later as Perkin Warbeck? Perhaps both princes even? Or did one of them, Edward, remain at Gipping Hall until after the Battle of Bosworth after which there was a change of plan and he was removed elsewhere? Possibly to Coldridge? More himself quoted the Duke of Buckingham, who in one of the earlier attempts to get Elizabeth Wydeville to agree to allow her youngest son, Richard join his brother Edward in the Tower suggested that she would be allowed to live with her sons in a suitable designated place – ‘And we all, I think content that both be with her if she come thence and bide in such a place where they may with their honour be‘. Was this exactly what happened in early 1484 – was the offer repeated to her and she realising that the game was up accepted? We do know that she appears to have made her peace with Richard and send word to her eldest son Dorset to return home.
One question that lingers for me is why did Henry Tudor, after the execution of Sir James, feel it necessary to put out the story of his confession to what is now becoming clearer was a non existent murder and hopefully one day will be proven to be so. Why Sir James? Was it because Henry had some knowledge of the fact that Sir James had indeed had some link to the princes but what exactly that was he had been unable to figure out.
After Sir James’ execution his family were able to take his body for burial in the west wing of Austin Friars church where his father William who had been executed in 1462 lay at rest. Nearby, in a poignant coincidence, lay the grave of Perkin Warbeck – Pretender to the Throne or possibly a true son of Edward IV who may as a child have lived with his mother and brother for a time at Gipping Hall, home to the Tyrells.
St Nicholas Chapel Gipping. Sadly the manor house was demolished in the 19th century.
1. Tyrell, Sir James c.1455-1502. Rosemary Horrox ODNB 3 January 2008.
2.Sir James Tyrell: with some notes on the Austin Friars London and those buried there. W E Hampton.
3. Audrey Williamson explained that ‘Mrs Drew was directly descended from one of three French boys refugees from the Revolution adopted as sons and given the Tyrell name by a descendent of James Tyrell in the 18th century. Mrs Drew’s grandmother obtained a story not only from her husband but also from her mother, the daughter of the original French adopted sons. It is said to be already a tradition of long-standing in the family’.
4. Harleian MSS 433
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