The Lincoln Roll – the Princes’ Death Certificate?

By David Durose

The Lincoln Roll – the Princes’ Death Certificate?

This article is about the family tree that belonged to John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln and what it says about the fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his young brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. It provides an approximate date for the death of Edward V and disproves the idea that either of the Princes might have survived. It also puts the actions of Lincoln, his younger brothers and Margaret of Burgundy in a new perspective.

While this new evidence supports the ‘traditional’ view held by most historians that Richard III ordered the killing of his nephews, it also completely revises the narrative provided by the various contemporary chroniclers and Thomas More. It supports a view of Lincoln – and by extension, his uncle Richard III – as ruthless in their attitude to the Princes. It eliminates a number of the alternative ‘suspects’ that have emerged in recent years, while introducing a new one – John de la Pole himself.

At the end of this article there will be a link so that the reader may see a video of the digitizing of the manuscript and investigate the content of the roll itself.

Who was John de la Pole?

John de la Pole was the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, being the son of their sister Elizabeth (1444 to 1503) and John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk (1442 to 1491 or 1492).

John was the first-born and was a young adult during the period spanning Edward IV’s death and Lincoln’s death at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. He was made Earl of Lincoln by Edward IV in 1467.

He was treated as one of Richard III’s close family. He supported Richard completely during his seizure of the throne in 1483 and benefited greatly from his uncle when he became king. He was Richard’s spare heir and when Edward of Middleham died he became Richard’s heir presumptive.

Throughout Richard’s usurpation of the throne between April and July 1483, Lincoln was at his side and supporting him throughout.

In an interview for the Nerdalicious web site’s History Salon entitled ‘The Survival of the Princes in the Tower’, four authors discussed the evidence – David Baldwin, Annette Carson, Toni Mount and Josephine Wilkinson have all written about Richard III or the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

In the interview, Toni Mount, who is a member of the Research Committee of the Richard III Society, gave Lincoln as an example of a contemporary of the Princes who believed in their survival. We will see from his genealogical roll that she was wrong in that assertion.

What is the John de la Pole genealogical roll?

In the middle ages most important families would keep family trees and documents in order to be able to prove their descent and as evidence in disputes over inheritance, land and titles. The roll in question is a parchment that has been collected over years and is intended to demonstrate the descent of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln from Brutus, mythical ancestor of the kings of Britain.

The roll belonged to Lincoln and in addition to providing his family tree it contains an element of propaganda. It will be the Lincoln view of things.

The roll is held in the John Rylands Library Special Collection. The library is part of the University of Manchester in England.

The existence of the roll is not a new discovery, it has been known to historians for some time. It was mentioned in Hicks’s ‘Richard III’ and in Michael K Jones’s Bosworth 1485: Psychology of a battle. However its most prominent display to the public was in the television documentary Henry VII: Winter King by Thomas Penn shown on BBC 2. It seems that these historians did not look closely at the detail of the roll, because they were using it to make specific points.

The roll has been used to demonstrate that Lincoln considered himself to be Richard’s nominated heir after the death of Edward of Middleham, which is stated clearly on the document. Thomas Penn used it to emphasise how much opposition Henry faced after 1485 and to demonstrate how Lincoln regarded the new Tudor line as an interloper onto the scene of legitimate Yorkist royal blood.

The roll does demonstrate this very graphically. The descent of the kings, queens and de la Poles is shown with an explanation of their pedigree and small amount of commentary. It is clearly not Tudor propaganda – for it shows Henry descending from his grandfather, Owen Tudor, a servant.

Each individual person in the family tree is represented by a medallion containing a description of the person. The medallions of kings and queens are decorated and include stylized portraits. The lines showing descent are shown in red, however, the invading Tudor line is expressed in thick black.

The roll clearly ceased to be worked on at some point in the early days of the reign of Henry VII, since it shows the marriage to Elizabeth of York. Children of their marriage are hinted at by combined red/black lines of descent, but it is difficult to use the children as dating evidence, since the four red/black lines bear no names or commentary.

What does the Lincoln Roll say about the Princes?

The individual medallions for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville show them as king and queen. In the medallions representing Edward V and Richard of York there is no mention of illegitimacy. The boys are shown in every way as though they were children of a valid marriage. Their legitimacy is not questioned in any way or it was of no interest to Lincoln.

Edward V’s medallion reads

Edward first-born son of King Edward and Elizabeth

“In iunie tute sine liberis decessit”

In June safely without issue deceased in childhood (my translation)

Richard, Duke of York’s medallion reads

Richard second son of King Edward and Elizabeth

“Etiam decessit sine liberis”

 Also deceased without issue in childhood

What is the significance of this information?

The period between the death of Edward IV and the Battle of Stoke incorporating Bosworth is one of the most confused and the most written about in English history. This small new piece of information rewrites much of what has gone before, which was the product of chronicles written by persons who were close to the action, but were not sure of what had happened to the Princes. This information comes from a person at the very centre of power, who was at Richard III’s side throughout the usurpation.

These writings were put into some kind of narrative by people like Thomas More, who will have used some eye witness reports and his imagination to create a believable story. Later writers, like Alison Weir will have followed the clues provided by More to solve the ‘case’ – concluding that the Princes must have been put to death in September.

There have been other documents found that stated that Edward V died in June: Colin Richmond noted that the Anlaby Cartulary stated that he died on 22nd June.

The June date also fits in with the documentary evidence of the dismissal of the Princes’ servants and the authorization of their payment shortly after.

The representation of Edward V in the roll shows none of the decoration of the other kings and queens and the text does not refer to him as king. It is shown as though Richard III had succeeded Edward IV directly because Edward IV had no heirs still alive.

However, it is the use of the word tute – safely that gives the implication of complicity on the part of Lincoln. He viewed the existence of the Princes as a threat and because of the closeness of Lincoln and Richard III it is reasonable to assume Richard felt the same way.

If the Princes were dead by the end of June, it makes the appointment of Brackenbury as Constable of the Tower make more sense. He was a man who seems to be of kindly disposition of whom no-one is critical. So gentle Brackenbury would never need to act out of character because there was no longer any dirty work to be done. It also explains why Richard and Lincoln could embark on a royal progress in July with few worries that Edward V could have been freed while they were away.

The rescue attempt of July can no longer be misconstrued as an assassination attempt and must be seen on face value as a well intentioned act by people who did not know the truth.

Since Sir James Tyrrell’s confession may have been another of More’s inventions, it is possible that attempts to place him at the Tower later in the year are pointless and confusing.

Pretenders during Henry’s reign

Since Lincoln fled to Flanders to raise money to finance the Lambert Simnel rebellion, it is safe to assume that his brothers, who continued to cause trouble for Henry VII throughout his reign, knew the truth about the Princes – as must Margaret of Burgundy. Their complicity would shed a new light on later events. Many Ricardians like to characterize the de la Pole family as unfairly hounded by the Tudors.

The implications of this are far reaching and difficult to even summarize in a short article.

Link to the Roll at John Ryelands Library

The above link allows you to see a video about the roll – to see very high quality images click on the link just above the embedded YouTube video.


David Durose is a recently retired IT Consultant who has always enjoyed history and became interested in the period after family research established his descent from one of Henry Tudor’s Breton knights. He also borrowed the title for this article from a post on Susan Higginbotham’s Facebook page. 

21 thoughts on “The Lincoln Roll – the Princes’ Death Certificate?

  1. Are you sure of your translation? I see “died…without issue” — nothing about dying in childhood. Where did you get that?

  2. Interesting theory but you can’t ascribe the comments about the princes to John de la Pole (& therefore Richard III) because he died in 1487, when Elizabeth & Henry only had 1 child, Arthur. They did have more children but only 4 survived childhood, so that puts the time frame for this roll into the early 16th Century & almost 2 decades after de la Pole died.

    Also, is there any indication of when the comments were added? And by whom?

    And why would John de la Pole & Margaret support a pretender when they knew the princes were already dead?

    Those were the first things that sprang into my head as I read this.

  3. There are a few problems with your theory. I don’t think this information means what you think it means.

    At the time that de la Pole died in 1487, Elizabeth only had one child, not four. On closer examination, it appears that the handwriting in the medallions associated with the princes is the same as that in the medallion associated with Elizabeth of York, which states she “was married.” This suggests to me that all this information was added at the same time, during the Tudor period after Elizabeth had more than one child. I watched the video & there is a reference to something being employed or done in 1484, which was before Elizabeth was married so why would there be any Tudor information on there at that time?

    The roll does not say the princes died “in childhood.” It says they died “without issue.” It also does not say that they died at the same time.

    There is no way you can say that this new “evidence” came directly from de la Pole. There is no evidence that this information came from him at all or was on the roll before 1487. He was dead by the time Elizabeth had more than one child. And besides, why would he, his brothers, & Margaret of Burgundy go to all the trouble to put up pretenders if they knew the princes were dead? Especially if, as you say, John de la Pole was as ambitious for the crown as you claim that he was. Why go to all that trouble for someone else, when he could do it for himself?

    1. Hi David,
      I’m afraid you’ve completely misconstrued the date of the roll and the Latin inscription regarding Edward V. As can be seen from the clothes & hairstyles worn by the little folk in the pictures, and the information on the roll, it dates from some time during the first years of Henry VIII’s reign: it even mentions the execution of William de la Pole by Henry VIII. It was probably made for John de la Pole’s youngest brother Richard, a continental exile known abroad as “The White Rose”, and the John Rylands Library believes it to be of continental manufacture.
      The medallion for Edward V reads that he died “in iuuentute sine liberis” ‘in youth (iuventute) without issue’ – the word ‘iuventute’ is split, and the bar over the ‘e’ is a standard omission mark denoting that it should be followed by an ‘n’. So there is no dating of his death to June, and no callous assertion that he was ‘safely’ dead. And these entries showing both Edward V and his brother as dead were set down during the reign of Henry VIII and so are as compatible with the theory that Perkin Warbeck was Richard Duke of York as they are of the deaths of both boys during Richard III’s reign (particularly as the words ‘in iuventute’ are not used of Richard Duke of York). And, yes, the roll is a propaganda exercise. It shows the de la Poles’ mother, Elizabeth, as the eldest of the sisters of Edward IV rather than the middle one, as she actually was, and it claims that John de la Pole had been recognised as Richard IIII’s heir at a parliament of January 1485 that never took place. So what? All genealogical rolls were propaganda exercises, and they are not the place to be looking for “death certificates”.

  4. The Latin translations are both incorrect. Edward’s should read ‘died safely/ without harm in June (no year supplied) without issue’ or ‘died safely/ without harm in his youth without issue and Richard’s entry doesn’t say that he died in childhood anywhere. Why mis-translate these crucial pieces of evidence if not to slew the evidence to support your theories? Further the writing is the same as that which records the marriage and children of Henry and Elizabeth which would suggest a date well after the start of the Tudor era when it was commonly assumed that the princes were dead and dangerous to suggest otherwise. Really what does this tell us? That the de la Pole family wanted it recorded that both were dead and had no children, it says nothing about when, how or what age they died at or who might be responsible for this. If you interpret ‘tute’ as safely it might suggest that the de la Pole family were relieved by their passing in the same way that Margaret Beaufort reacted to the news of their death as an opportunity to advance her son’s cause (Polydore Vergil’s History of England, Camdem p.185) which just goes to show that the noble families closest to power took a pragmatic view of their fate either at the time that rumours began to circulate or later on. It says nothing whatsoever about Richard’s involvement or reaction to their deaths.

  5. ‘Decessit’ can mean withdrew, departed, retired, went away as well as died so the ambiguity continues. It could read ‘Edward withdrew in June without issue’ or ‘Young Edward withdrew, retired, departed without issue – which would put a totally different interpretation on the sentence and could refer to his removal from the succession by the revelation of the pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot and the provisions of the Titulus Regius. I would hazard a guess that the person who wrote this was deliberately trying to leave the meaning open to interpretation to cover themselves and their masters should the roll come into question or because they did not know what had happened to the princes.

  6. Very interesting … although it is interesting that John de la Pole backed a pretender, instead of going for the crown for himself. Also, is it usual for the medallions to have a month, but no year? I thought the princes were seen alive from June until closer to October of 1483.

  7. Okay, after looking at the picture, it looks like:
    In iuve tute sine liberis decessit,
    The intent of plotting, died without children
    or, roughly;
    Due to [murder] plotting, died without children.

  8. Considering the note for Richard, Duke of York–
    Etiam decessit sine liberis
    Likewise died without children–
    the translation–
    In iuventute sine liberis decessit.
    Died young without children —
    seems to be the most consistent translation with the context.

  9. Dear Mr Durose, as already mentioned by a previous visitor, the sign ^ above the Latin text “june” was a standard sign indicating an abbreviation, or more likely in this case a contraction from the Latin “juvenis” meaning “youth/young”, or better, if we accept the “e” as the ending, “at a young age”, with the “e” being used at the and of the adjective to use it as an adverb. I would not venture on further speculations on a 15th century parchment where even experts would have difficulties in the interpretation of timing of the different inscriptions without the original copy to hand, but we can positively rule out that the original “june” with the ^ above it stands for the English “June”.

  10. David, I’d like to congratulate you on publishing so many comments challenging and questioning your reading of the Lincoln Roll. Considering how swiftly debate is sometimes shut down in other forums, when uncomfortable ‘facts’ get in the way of a particular interpretation, it’s extremely refreshing to find there are still those who welcome debate, discussion and dissent in this way.

  11. Given the errors in translation and the composition of the roll in the sixteenth century (meaning that it could not possibly have belonged to John, Earl of Lincoln, who died in 1487), the reasoning in this article is invalid. Both the premise and the (needlessly provocative) title of the article need to be revised–or perhaps the article should simply be retracted. As others have pointed out, the Latin for Edward V indicates that he died in youth (not necessarily childhood) without issue; the Latin for Richard Duke of York indicates that he also died without issue but says nothing about dying in youth or childhood. This description could well apply to “Perkin Warbeck,” who would have been an adult of 26 at his execution in 1499 if he was indeed Richard Duke of York (born in 1473). Significantly, no de la Pole claimed the throne until after the executions of “Warbeck” and the Earl of Warwick, both of whom (assuming “Warbeck” to be York) would have had a superior claim to that of the de la Poles once Titulus Regius had been reversed. In short, far from providing evidence that the “princes” were murdered and adding Lincoln to the list of suspects, the roll merely states the de la Pole claim as legitimate heirs to Richard III, who is presented as the rightful king. No evidence of murder here, only persistent opposition to Henry Tudor, depicted as a usurper as indicated by the black line, and the equally persistent but ultimately futile hope of restoring a branch of the House of York.

  12. There is a latin inscription below the figures representing the parents of Edward and Richard, in other words, King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth (half-shown at the top of the attached image). What does it tell us about them and do it raise any questions about the validity of their marriage? (Please follow the link to the University of Manchester Library website);lc:Manchester~91~1&mi=6&trs=14

    1. Alan, I am sorry I missed your question. I did include a short section on this in the article. There is no reference at all to illegitimacy.

      “The individual medallions for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville show them as king and queen. In the medallions representing Edward V and Richard of York there is no mention of illegitimacy. The boys are shown in every way as though they were children of a valid marriage. Their legitimacy is not questioned in any way or it was of no interest to Lincoln.”

  13. I agree with the comments / corrections of Ibphilly, Marie Walsh and others in respect of the Latin texts which refer to the sons of Edward IV.
    I’m also amazed that you don’t appear to have noticed that this roll – which you attribute to the Earl of Lincoln – refers to Lincoln’s own death in battle against Henry VII.
    Since it also refers to Henry VIII’s later execution of Lincoln’s younger brother, Edmund, the roll in its present form must date from after 1513!

  14. Interesting that Lincoln was the grandson of another much- maligned figure in the Wars of the Roses, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. Richard III is far from the only maligned historical figure, but about the only one who has his own dedicated fan base.

    Maybe I should start a society devoted to Ethelred, Lord of the Mercians to correct the disservice done to him by wicked modern novelists whose works I have not read!

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