Thursday 11 February 2021

Miles Forest and the Fate of the Missing Princes

Five hundred years after Edward V and his brother, Richard duke of York, disappeared, their fate is once again headline news. What do the latest revelations really add to what we already know?

Professor Tim Thornton of the University of Huddersfield has been examining the connections of Sir Thomas More, creator of the most famous account of the deaths of the princes in the Tower. He has uncovered hitherto unrecognised links between More and the sons of one of the men accused of the murder: Miles Forest. According to Thomas More’s story, Forest was one of those charged by Richard III to look after the princes. When Richard decided he needed the boys dead, his servant, Sir James Tyrell, recruited Forest and his own horse-keeper, John Dighton, to assist him in smothering the boys in their beds.

Thornton’s new evidence indicates that Thomas More encountered Forest’s sons, Edward and Miles, in the course of conducting royal business. Consequently, Thornton speculates that it was these two men who had told More the truth about the princes’ fate. More himself described his source only as ‘them that much knew and litle cause had to lye’. The sons of a murderer might perhaps fit that description, he suggests.

But does this evidence justify the conclusion that Richard had ordered the murder of the princes? A deeper look at the evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. Back in 1879 James Gairdner identified Miles Forest as the keeper of the wardrobe at Richard's home of Barnard Castle. According to More, after committing the murder, Forest had ‘at sainct Marten pecemele rotted away’. He gives no date for this, but we know that his widow, Joan, was granted an annuity on 9 September 1484, so Forest clearly died sometime before Richard. Why would a man who had conducted such an important task for the king find himself resourceless in the sanctuary at St Martin’s just months later? It is hard to fathom. No sanctuary register survives so we only have More's word that Forest died in these circumstances. Because More is vague about the date most readers would assume that it was under a Tudor king that Forest died: the idea of Forest 'rotting' in sanctuary during Henry VII's reign because he was a murderer makes some sense. Knowing as we do that Forest really died in Richard's reign, the story is less credible.

If Forest really did die in sanctuary, it might be reasonable to ask why the king felt obliged to give his widow an annuity. It was actually a commonplace of good kingship that if a woman was unfortunate enough to find herself the widow of a felon then she was deserving of charity and should not be made to suffer for her husband’s sins. But we must remember, there is no evidence outside More's story that Forest died in disgrace. The annuity is more likely simply a recognition of Forest's good service at Barnard Castle and indeed Joan's in supporting him.

Forest’s death in 1484 must also have meant that his own boys were far too young for him to have told them of his crime himself. Would their mother have told them? I am well aware of the strong bonds and influence to be found between widowed mothers and their sons, and of mothers' important role in passing on family history, having written so much on Richard III's own mother. But I am not convinced any mother would choose to burden her children with the knowledge that their father had committed the crime of the century. 

Another credibility issue with Thornton's thesis lies in the idea that the Forest brothers would have chosen to reveal this terrible family secret to a man they occasionally met through their work. Henry VIII was reputedly devoted to his mother - what might befall the family of a man known to have murdered her brother? Given that Edward Forest was one of Henry VIII's Grooms of the Chamber and the younger Miles was in Cardinal Wolsey's employ, it would have been a wildly risky step to make.

And what of the other alleged murderers? More claimed that Tyrell and Dighton were both examined and confessed to the murder during Henry VII’s reign. Tyrell was executed but Dighton ‘yet walketh on a live’. Again More’s story is hard to credit here. Dighton confessed to such a murder but was simply allowed to walk free? Unfortunately it is impossible to trace Dighton for certain in other records, but clearly at the time More first drafted his work he had in mind someone he knew was still alive and at liberty.

Tyrell was indeed executed in Henry VII’s reign and, as Thornton notes, More was not the first to accuse him of killing the princes. Yet we have no record that any public statement was made of his guilt at the time of his execution which was for an unrelated charge of treason. His alleged confession does not itself survive.

Time and again in More’s work, we find scraps of truth woven together with plausible names, details no one could have recalled and entertaining direct speech. This makes for a vivid picture but frequently contradicts contemporary evidence (for instance in the controversy around Edward IV's wedding). What we know of More’s work must prompt the question: Was More really reporting what the Forest boys had told him, or was it just that his acquaintance with them had caused him to learn that their father had been a servant of Richard’s which made Miles Forest a convenient name in More's story. 

The fate of the princes is one of the most tantalising gaps in our knowledge of the past. At first sight, More’s novel-like explanation offers an attractively detailed picture to plug that gap. Little wonder so many are eager to believe it. Unfortunately, there are just too many elements that strain credulity or do not fit with what else is known. More's saintly reputation (hair shirt and all) has inevitably made generations of historians unwilling to imagine he was deliberately peddling falsehoods - but that is to assume More expected his readers to receive his work as soberly factual history. Since he never finished the work we cannot be sure what his intentions were, but anyone who has read his famous Utopia will be aware that More enjoyed using fiction under a veneer of plausible facts to explore political ideas.

Thomas More’s connections with the Forest boys are certainly worth adding to our investigation of all available evidence, but as yet they provide no new lead on the fate of the missing princes.


British Library Royal 16 II f. 73 The Tower of London


Tim Thornton, “More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII”, History, 2020.

The Complete Works of St Thomas More, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (Yale University Press, 1963) vol. 2. p. 160