King Henry died in the night of 21st to 22nd May 1471, the day that Edward IV of York had returned to the capital in triumph. Practically all historians and writers today agree that he was almost certainly murdered. Apart from anything else, his death was simply too suspiciously convenient.
After his betrayal and capture in 1465, King Henry had been paraded on 24th July by the earl of Warwick (“the Kingmaker”) into London; the spurs struck from his boots, his feet tied to the horse, with a straw hat proclaiming him a “Rebel” – a humiliation designed to destroy any remaining respect the Londoners might still have for their former sovereign's royal dignity. Henry was probably incarcerated in the Wakefield Tower from the start. Edward was not particularly vindictive towards Henry in the first years of his imprisonment, although with the passing of time a certain degree of neglect crept into his treatment. When he was taken from the Tower on 3rd October 1470 at the time of his “Readeption” (his short lived restoration to the throne), he was found “not worshipfully arrayed as a prince, and not so cleanly kept as should seem such a prince.” (Warkworth's Chronicle p.11 in Dockray “Three Chronicles of the Reign of Edward IV”) When Edward IV, having defeated and killed the earl of Warwick, returned to London to coldly retake King Henry at the bishop's palace, Henry greeted him disarmingly with: “My cousin of York, you are very welcome. I know that in your hands my life will not be in danger.” Was it naivety on Henry's part or rather an attempt to embarrass York and force him publicly to guarantee Henry's safety? Notice that he did not address York as “king”. Henry was returned to the Wakefield Tower, never to emerge again.
Why had he been kept alive during those first five years of imprisonment? Firstly, Edward had still been stabilising and consolidating his hold on the crown and government. There were still lords alive and areas of the population who only grudgingly accepted the Yorkist-Neville regime and who still regarded Henry as their lawful king. After all, he had been openly accepted as such for some forty years. However, the main reason was undoubtedly that Henry's son and heir, Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales, was secure in the keeping of his mother Queen Margaret in France. By killing Henry, the Yorkists would merely provide the Lancastrians with a new, young and more dangerous king, safely out of their reach. As long as Henry languished in the Tower, Edward IV held a trump card in his hands: the twice crowned and anointed Lancastrian king! To kill him under those circumstances would have been the height of folly and hardly have contributed positively to Edward's reputation. Edward was quite capable of ruthless and judicial murders (as would be shown later in his trearment of his own unreliable brother, George Duke of Clarence), but Edward was also a shrewed enough politician to recognise that the murder of Henry at this point could bring him nothing good.
What had changed in 1471?
Edward had experienced just how tenuous his hold on the crown and power was. The Neville faction led by the Kingmaker, and other previously loyal Yorkists had rebelled against him. Warwick had changed allegiances yet again, making a humiliating submission to a bitter Margaret of Anjou in France. Warwick had returned and Edward had been forced to ignominiously flee the kingdom to take refuge with his in-laws in Flanders. King Henry, broken and enfeebled after years of hiding and then of imprisonment (and probably permanently weakened by the effects of his great illness of 1453), was brought from the Tower and restored to his throne. This so-called “readeption”
provoked no serious opposition, and indeed there are signs that his restoration was even genuinely welcomed. Edward would find that many gates and doors would be closed against him when he returned, disingenuously proclaiming his loyalty to King Henry (rather a habit by now) and claiming only to seek the restoration of his Yorkist lands and titles. (A touch of Henry Bolingbroke's return from exile in 1399?) The great tragedy was that Queen Margaret, Jasper Tudor and the Lancastrian loyalists so mistrusted Warwick that they moved too slowly and too cautiously. Edward had landed in Yorkshire and had found the city of York itself closed against him. His assurances of his loyalty to Henry enabled him to move south basically unopposed and gaining strength the further south he marched. By the time he confronted Warwick, who was behind the safe walls of loyal Coventry, he had an army. Warwick did not offer battle, apparently awaiting the arrival of other troops to reinforce him. George of Clarence came as expected, but threw off his allegiance to Henry and deserted with his men to his brother Edward. The earl of Oxford also avoided confronting Edward, who now marched towards London, traditionally a centre of Yorkist sympathy. He entered unopposed and sent Henry back to the Tower as we have seen.
London secured, Edward turned against Warwick, who had now realised his mistake in abandoning the capital and had set out in pursuit of the Yorkist army. Battle was enjoined at Barnet on 14th April, in which Warwick the Kingmaker and his brother Montagu both died. On that same day Queen Margaret with her small force belatedly landed at Weymouth from France. Apprised of the loss of London and the disaster of Barnet, Margaret and those Lancastrians that rallied now to her struck out north-west to gain territory of Lancastrian support and where Jasper Tudor had his power base. Edward in a series of astounding forced marches pursued her. He caught her and her army at Tewkesbury before they could cross the Severn into Wales. The Lancastrians were defeated. Somerset and other leaders together with many of the common soldiers sought refuge in the sanctuary of Tewkesbury Abbey. They were taken from there and executed in the town square. Prince Edward had also been killed in the field. Apparently he had been attempting to flee when he was caught and cut down, despite his calls for mercy to his brother-in-law Clarence. Queen Margaret had fled the field to hide, but was soon captured and would grace Edward's triumphant train back into London, locked in a cage for all to see.
With Prince Edward dead and Queen Margaret his broken prisoner, there remained no reason to keep King Henry alive. Indeed, his very existence would pose a threat to Edward's throne, as had just been clearly demonstrated. As long as he lived, Henry would provide a rallying point to all who opposed Edward and the Yorkist regime. Edward re-entered London on 21st May. King Henry died late that same night. A prisoner of Henry's royal station and importance could not be killed without the knowledge and acquiesence of the king. Anything else was unthinkably dangerous. That Edward had decided on the necessity of Henry's death can hardly be doubted. Who conveyed this command to the Tower? It is most probable that Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward's loyal and devoted brother, who was also his Lord High Constable of England, did so. Indeed, John Warkworth in his contemporary chronicle places Gloucester in the Tower at the time of Henry's murder. Writing within a few years of the event, Warkworth says: “And the same night that King Edward came to London, King Henry, being in ward in person in the Tower of London, was put to death, the xxi. day of May, on a Tuesday night, betwixt xi. and xii. of the clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King Edward, and many other; and on the morrow he was chested and brought to Pauls, and his face was open that every man might see him; and in his lying he bled on the pavement there; and afterwards at Blackfriars was brought, and there he bled new and fresh; and from thence he was carried to Chertsey Abbey in a boat, and buried there in our Lady's chapel.” (p.21) Few credited the official Yorkist line that Henry had simply expired on learning of his son's death and the destruction of the Lancastrian army: “The certainty of all which came to the knowledge of the said Henry, late called King, being in the Tower of London; not having, afore that, knowledge of the said matters, he took it to so great despite, ire, and indignation, that, of pure displeasure, and melancholy, he died the xxiij day of the month of May.” (The Arrival of Edward IV in Dockray p.38)
There is no evidence that Richard of Gloucester did the terrible deed himself. There would have been no need for him to do so; there being certainly no lack of guards and cut-throats willing to put their hand to it for the powers-that-be. The Crowland Chronicle recorded: “I shall say nothing, at this time, about the discovery of King Henry's lifeless body in the Tower of London; may God have mercy upon and give time for repentance to him, whoever it might be, who dared to lay sacrilegious hands on the Lord's Annointed! [sic] And so let the doer merit the title of tyrant and the victim that of glorious martyr.” (Crowland Chronicle Continuations, ed. by Pronay & Cox, pp.129, 131) In Paul Murray Kendall's biography of Richard III, he writes: “In his capacity as Constable of England it would officially fall to Richard to bear their mandate to the Tower and receive notification that it had been carried out. The Milanese ambassador to the French court reported to his master that King Edward 'has caused King Henry to be secretly assassinated in the Tower.... He has, in short, chosen to crush the seed' (Col. Mil. Papers, p.157).” Charles Ross in his 1981 biography of Richard III writes: “...an element of suspicion regarding his involvement in the death of Henry VI perhaps remains,.....At most, he may have been the agent, not the director of King Henry's murder, since, as Gairdner long ago pointed out, the decision to murder another king would only have been made by the king personally.” (p.22)
The tradition in the Tower is that Henry was killed while praying in the small oratory of the Wakefield Tower. The examination of the King's bones in St. George's Chapel at Windsor in 1910 discovered the skull to be in pieces, which may or may not be partially a result of his violent death. Some of the remaining hair seemed to be matted with a substance that looked like blood, although this interpretation has also been challenged. A blow to the head would, however, well accord with the King having been on his knees in prayer, but without a new forensic inspection of the King's remains, these open questions will have to remain matters of speculation.
The King's body was laid in state in St. Paul's cathedral with the face exposed so that all might witness that King Henry was truly dead. Warkworth's assertion that the King's body bled on the pavement of St. Paul's and again at Blackfriars before being taken by river for burial in Chertsey Abbey, may be taken with some scepsis. It was a medieval belief that a murder victim would cry out accusing its murderers in the only way it could – by bleeding in the presence of its murderer. This appears to be a variation on this superstition; the King's body bleeding publicly to proclaim that his death was one of violence. Had someone noticed blood stains on the bandages around the King's head, and these had become embroidered into the rumour that Warkworth recorded? Whatever the truth of it, the record of this belief does testify to the general belief among the common people that King Henry had indeed been murdered.