Sir James Tyrell was named in Sir Thomas More’s History of England as being the man responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower. More’s account states that Tyrell confessed to having murdered the boys whilst being interrogated for plotting against King Henry VII. That investigation found Sir James Tyrell guilty of treason, resulting in his execution on 6th May 1502.
James Tyrell’s childhood and wardship
Born c1455, James Tyrell became a ward of Cecily Duchess of York following the execution of his father for treason in 1462. Though his father, Sir William Tyrell, had been implicated in the same plot that resulted in the execution of the Earl of Oxford and his heir, there was no attainder imposed on his estate and heirs. The Duchess of York sold the wardship of James and the Tyrell estates to James’ mother for £50 in 1463.
Tewkesbury, Knighthood, and entering the service of the Duke of Gloucester
As the Wars of the Roses burst back into life, James sided with the Yorkists, which may seem strange given it was the Yorkists who had ordered the execution of his father. Nonetheless, James was present at the Battle of Tewkesbury when aged 15 or 16. He was knighted by King Edward IV after the battle. His status then enabled Sir James to enter into the service of Richard Duke of Gloucester.
High Sherriff of Cornwall
Sir James’ service to the Duke of Gloucester was enough to warrant a promoted position upon Richard’s accession to the throne. It saw James being appointed as High Sherriff of Cornwall in 1484. He played no part in the Buckingham Revolt and was in Calais when Henry Tudor’s army landed and defeated Richard III at Bosworth. Following the Tudor victory, Tyrell returned to England, receiving pardons from Henry VII for his work for the Yorkist regime.
James Tyrell and the Princes in the Tower
This period, in 1486, is when it has been argued that the murder of the Princes in the Tower took place. This assertion, by Sir Clements Robert Markham, places the event in the reign of King Henry VII, and Tyrell as being central to the act. Markham’s arguments have been the subject to much debate, as have other theories. The quote below is his outline of why he thinks it was Sir James Tyrell who arranged the murder of King Edward V and his younger brother Richard Duke of York in the summer of 1486:
Henry Tudor deprived him of his Chamberlainship of the Exchequer, and of his Constableship of Newport, in order to bestow those appointments on his own friends. Tyrrel had to wait patiently in the cold shade. But he was ambitious, unscrupulous, and ready to do a great deal for the sake of the new King’s favour. Here was a ready instrument for such a man as Henry Tudor. The die had been cast. The usurper had married Elizabeth of York and entered upon the year 1486. There was a dark deed which must be done. Henry set out on a progress to York, leaving London in the middle of March. On the 11th of the same month, John Green received from the new King a grant of a third of the manor of Benyngton in Hertfordshire.^ For this favour Green had, no doubt, to perform some secret service vyhich, if satisfactorily executed, vfould be more fully rewarded. This grant was a small retaining fee. We know from the story what that service was. We also know from the story that Green did not succeed. Hem:y VII. returned from his progress in June, only to find that Green had failed him in his need. Then Henry (not Richard) may well have exclaimed ‘ Who shall I trust to do my bidding ? ‘ ‘ ” Sir,” quoth a secret councillor ‘ (called a page in the story), ‘ ” there waiteth without one who I dare well say will do your Grace’s pleasure.” ‘ So Tyrrel was taken into favour, and undertook to perform Henry’s work with the understanding that he was to receive a sufficient reward. He became a knight of the King’s body.’ On June 16, 1486, Sir James Tyrrel late of Gipping received a general pardon.* There is nothing extraordinary in this. It was an ordinary practice, in those days, to grant general pardons on various occasions. But it marks the date when Henry found ‘ one without ‘ who was ready to do his pleasure. Tyrrel, as the story tells us, was given a warrant to the Lieutenant of the Tower, conferring on him the needful powers. The murders were then committed, as the story informs us, by William Slaughter or Slater, called ‘Black Will,’ with the aid of John Dighton. Slater was, no doubt, the jailer. Master Dighton, however, was not Tyrrel’s groom. A John Dighton was a priest, and possibly a chaplain in the Tower. He may have been only an accessory after the fact, in connexion with the interments. The bodies, as we are told in the story, were buried at the stair foot, ‘metely deep in the ground ‘ ; where they were discovered in July 1674, 188 years afterwards. The tale about their removal, and the death of the priest, was no doubt inserted by Henry, to prevent that discovery. On July 16, 1486, Sir James Tyrrel received a second general pardon.’ This would be very singular under ordinary circumstances, the second pardon having been granted within a month of the first. But it is not so singular when we reflect on what probably took place in the interval. There was an offence to be condoned which must be kept a profound secret. Thus we are able to fix the time of the murder of the two young princes between June 16 and July 16, 1486. One was fifteen and a half, the other twelve years of age.
Richard III: his life & character, reviewed in the light of recent research by Markham, Clements R. (Clements Robert), Sir, 1830-1916 via Archive.org
Tyrell appointed Governor of Guines Castle
Whether or not Tyrell had coordinated the murder of the Princes in the Tower is incredibly hard to determine. What is known of Tyrell, is that following his second pardon he was appointed as Governor of Guines Castle in the Calais Marches. The Pale of Calais, however, was a natural haven for exiled Yorkists. In the area around Calais they could meet with merchants, diplomats, moneylenders, and engage in plotting for the overthrowing of Henry Tudor’s regime.
Tyrell implicated in the plot to place Edmund de la Pole on the throne
Sir James Tyrell was to become involved in one such plot to place a Yorkist on the throne. He gave his support ot the cause of the Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, who was in voluntary exile. The English state under Henry Tudor had quickly established a network of spies and informants, Tyrell’s complicity in the planned invasion was discovered, and a force was dispatched to Calais to arrest Sir James, his son Thomas, and others.
James Tyrell’s Trial and Execution
Tyrell’s trial took place in the Guildhall, London, on 2nd May 1502. He was executed by beheading on 6th May 1502. No contemporary records of his interrogation remain and no contemporary observer of his trial, or gossip surrounding it, makes any reference to Tyrell’s supposed confession to the 1486 murder. That is not to say that Sir Thomas More is wrong, but any evidence to support the claim has been lost over the years if he is accurate, and it was noted down.
Sir James Tyrell, biography from the Dictionary of National Biography
Note: the Dictionary of National Biography is Public Domain in the United Kingdom. A more recent version is available that takes into account research from the past hundred years. It can be found here.
TYRRELL or TYRELL, Sir JAMES (d. 1502), supposed murderer of the princes in the Tower, was the eldest son of William Tyrell of Gipping, Suffolk, by Margaret, daughter of Robert Darcy of Malden. Sir John Tyrrell [q. v.] was his grandfather. James Tyrell was a strong Yorkist. He was knighted after the battle of Tewkesbury on 3 May 1471, was appointed to conduct the Countess of Warwick to the north of England in 1473, and served as member of parliament for Cornwall in December 1477. An order to pay 10l. signed by him and dated 1 April 1478, has been preserved and is in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 18675, f. 1. In the war with Scotland he fought under Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, and was by him made a knight-banneret on 24 July 1482. The same year, when the office of constable, held by Richard, was put into commission, Tyrell was one of those appointed to execute it. At the coronation of Richard III he took part in some capacity. His brother Thomas was master of the horse, and he just afterwards was made master of the henchmen; and, no doubt on his brother resigning what was meant to be a temporary office, also master of the horse.
The whole interest of Tyrell’s career centres round the murder of the two sons of Edward IV. The story, as told by the author of the ‘Historie of Kyng Rycharde the Thirde,’ makes Richard send John Green to Sir Robert Brackenbury, the constable of the Tower, with orders that the deed should be done by him. This was while Richard was on his progress to Gloucester. On Brackenbury’s refusal, Green returned to Richard at Warwick, and while the king was in a state of anxious uncertainty, a page suggested that Tyrell would do what was wanted. The writer explains that Tyrell had been kept in the background by Ratcliffe and Catesby, and was therefore likely to stick at nothing that could secure his advantage. Tyrell was then sent to the Tower with a letter to Brackenbury, commanding him to give up the keys for a night. The two princes were accordingly smothered by Miles Forest, one of their keepers, ‘a felowe fleshed in murther before time,’ and John Dighton, Tyrell’s horsekeeper, ‘a big, brode, square, strong knaue.’ Tyrell, having seen that the murder was carried out, ordered the bodies to be buried at the stair foot, and rode back to Richard, ‘who gave hym gret thanks, and, as som say, there made him knight.’
This account contains much matter for dispute and involves a larger question, the character of Richard III. Sir Clements Markham has attempted to fix the guilt of the murder on Henry VII, but his contentions have been opposed by Mr. Gairdner, whose view is accepted by Professor Busch. In either case Tyrell is admitted to have been the instrument (see English Historical Review, vi. 250, 444, 806, 813; Busch, England under the Tudors, p. 319).
Tyrell’s reward was certainly not in proportion to his service. He became a knight of the king’s body, and on 5 Nov. 1483 received commissions to array the men of Wales against Buckingham. He was also a commissioner for the forfeited estates of Buckingham and others in Wales and the marches. On 10 April 1484 he benefited at the expense of the traitor Sir John Fogge. On 9 Aug. 1484 he was made steward of the duchy of Cornwall for life, and on 13 Sept. 1484 he became sheriff of the lordship of Wenlock, steward of the lordships of Newport Wenlock, Kevoeth Meredith, Lavenitherry, and Lanthoesant, for life. He also was allowed to enter on the estates of Sir Thomas Arundel, a relative of his wife. At some time in the reign he was made one of the chamberlains of the exchequer.
He is said to have wavered in his allegiance to Richard III towards the end of his reign, but of this there is no proof, and Richard seems to have employed him in some unknown capacity in Flanders. Just before Bosworth he was clearly in the king’s confidence, as, though holding a command in Glamorgan and Morgannock, he was sent to Guisnes, certainly no place for trimmers.
Henry VII, however, took him into favour, or at all events employed him. He lost the post of chamberlain of the exchequer and his Welsh offices, but on 19 Feb. 1485–6 he was made sheriff of Glamorgan and Morgannock, with all it involved, including the constableship of Cardiff Castle, for life, at a salary of 100l. a year. He received a general pardon on 16 June 1486, another on 16 July following. These two pardons are important, as Sir Clements Markham considers that it was between their dates that the murder of the princes took place.
On 15 Dec. 1486 Tyrell is mentioned as lieutenant of the castle of Guisnes in a commission appointing ambassadors to treat with those of Maximilian, and on 30 Aug. 1487 he received the stewardship of the lordship of Ogmore in South Wales. A curious commission of 23 Feb. 1487–8 recites that for his services he is to be recompensed of the issues of Guisnes for property he had held in Wales at the beginning of the reign, and a schedule is annexed showing what that property had been. He is also here mentioned as a knight of the body. Tyrell was present at the battle of Dixmude in 1489 and took a prominent part in the ceremonial attending the making of the peace of Etaples in 1492; he was also present at the creation of Prince Henry as Duke of York in 1494.
In the summer of 1499 Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk [q. v.], fled from England, and, on his way to the Netherlands, he stayed some time with Tyrell at Guisnes. Henry was merciful or politic, and sent in September 1499 Sir Richard Guildford [q. v.] and Richard Hatton to persuade the earl to return, and, though he had left Guisnes, he did so; Tyrell was ordered to come with him. He may have been regarded with suspicion, but nevertheless he was one of those prominent in 1501 at the reception of Catherine of Aragon. About July or August 1501 Suffolk fled again, and Tyrell was induced to surrender Guisnes by a trick, which is alluded to in a letter of Suffolk written just after Tyrell’s death, and long afterwards in a letter from Sandys to Cromwell of 19 Jan. 1536–7 (cf. Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, xii. i. 151). With his son he was imprisoned in the Tower. He had helped in the first flight, and doubtless through his agents Henry had certain knowledge of his treason. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on 6 May 1502, and attainted 1503–4.
Knowing that he was to die, Tyrell made, it is said while in the Tower, a confession of his guilt as to the princes; Dighton, his accomplice, was also examined and confessed. It is the substance of this confession that forms the history of the murder as we know it, though the text has not been preserved. He had by his wife Anne, daughter of Sir John Arundel of Cornwall, three sons; Thomas, his heir, who was restored in blood; James, and William. One pedigree given by Davy mentions a daughter Anne and does not give William (cf. Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 5509, f. 41).[For genealogy see Davy’s Suffolk Pedigrees (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 19152); Visitations of Essex, Harl. Soc. pp. 100–11; Gairdner’s Richard III, Ramsay’s Lancaster and York (vol. ii.), Bacon’s Henry VII, and Busch’s England under the Tudors, supply the historical part of Tyrell’s life. On the murder in the Tower, the articles in the English Historical Review, Archæologia (i. 361 &c.), Kennett’s History of England (i. 552, notes on Sir George Buc, one of the early apologists for Richard III), the History of Richard III’s reign (attributed to Sir Thomas More), the Continuator of Croyland in Gale’s Hist. Angl. Script. (i. 568), Polydore Vergil, Rous, and the French evidence in Commines, and the Proceedings of the States-General at Tours in 1484 are the most important. The grants in Richard III’s reign are to be found in App. ii. 9th Rep. Deputy-keeper of Public Records. See also Return of Members of Parliament, i. 363 (no returns have been preserved for the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII); Metcalfe’s Knights, pp. 3, 6; Rolls of Parliament, vol. vi.; Letters and Papers of Richard III and Henry VII, and Campbell’s Materials for the Reign of Henry VII, both in Rolls Ser.; information furnished by A. P. J. Archbold, esq.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 57
Tyrrell, James (d.1502) by William Arthur Jobson Archbold