Richard Northcote. The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, 1805.

Oil on canvas, approximately 52 x 69 inches. The Collection of Richard Herner.

There are several versions of this painting by Northcote, an earlier one purchased for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, where the terrible subject made it one of the most popular pictures in the exhibition. Part of Northcote's effect is achieved by the raised lamp, the single source of illumination, that casts its light on the cruel faces of the assassins, the two sleeping princes, and the crucifix on the back wall.

The worst crime in Richard's bloody pursuit of the crown is the murder of the young princes, his nephews Edward and Richard, in the Tower. Richard orders the murders through Sir James Tyrrel, who recruits Dighton and Forrest to carry out Richard's command that the sons of the deceased Edward IV be killed.

We of course do not see the actual deed, but Tyrrel describes it in detail in Act IV, Scene iii:

The tyrannous and bloody deed is done.
The most arch of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, whom I did suborn
To do this ruthless piece of butchery,
Although they were flesh'd villains, bloody dogs,
Melting with tenderness and kind compassion
Wept like two children in their deaths' sad stories.
'Lo, thus' quoth Dighton, 'lay those tender babes.'
'Thus, thus,' quoth Forrest, 'girdling one another
Within their innocent alabaster arms:
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
Which in their summer beauty kiss'd each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay;
Which once,' quoth Forrest, 'almost changed my mind;
But O! the devil'--there the villain stopp'd
Whilst Dighton thus told on: 'We smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature,
That from the prime creation e'er she framed.'
Thus both are gone with conscience and remorse;
They could not speak; and so I left them both,
To bear this tidings to the bloody king.
And here he comes.

Richard asks, "Am I happy in thy news? . . . didst thou see them dead . . . . and buried, gentle Tyrrel?" Richard seems to take a special delight in this particular barbarism and tells his partner in crime, "Come to me Tyrrel, soon after supper, / Where thou shalt tell the process of their death." Richard shows no remorse, but Tyrrel, Dighton and Forrest are overwhelmed by the enormity of their crime.