Written by Naomi Wallace and Marnie Camping-Harris
On 17th July 1794, workmen renovating the Tower of London discovered a box below the stairs of the White Tower containing the remains of two human skeletons. Unbeknownst to these workers, they had possibly just uncovered the most important clue that could solve a 539-year-old mystery: The Princes in the Tower. The young boys were the sons of King Edward IV, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, and their sudden disappearance in 1483 has sparked numerous theories since. In this article, we discuss the possibility of forensic testing on the skeletons and what this could offer to the historiography of this centuries-old mystery.
But to fully appreciate the significance of this revelation, the history behind who the bones might have belonged to must first be examined. The Wars of the Roses encapsulated a power struggle that had plagued England for decades, between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It pitched families against families, and brothers against brothers. The fight for power began due to the instability posed by Henry VI’s catatonic episodes, but the series of events that are most relevant to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower occurred after Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464.
Edward was originally betrothed to Princess Bona of France, an alliance his mentor, The Kingmaker, had worked very hard to obtain. However, Edward had in fact married a Lancastrian widow in secret. This revelation angered many influential nobles at the time and continued to serve as reasoning for their uprisings. After multiple rebellions and losing and regaining the throne in the space of a year, the period of Edward’s reign from 1471 to his death was a relatively peaceful one. Edward left behind two young sons, Edward (aged twelve) and Richard (aged nine), as well as five daughters. Due to Edward V’s age, a Lord Protector was appointed to mind the throne for him until he turned old enough; this was to be Richard, Duke of Gloucester, more commonly referred to as Richard III.
At the time of Edward IV’s death, his eldest son and heir, Edward, was at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. Alongside his retinue comprising his uncle, Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers, and his half-brother, Sir Richard Grey, the junior Edward travelled to London to meet with his mothers and sisters to prepare for his pending coronation. In order to deter the young king from his mother, Richard Duke of Gloucester intercepted him and his entourage on the 29th of April and took Edward into his care; Anthony and Richard Grey were imprisoned and executed two months later. On hearing the news of her brother and son’s imprisonment, as well as fearing that her other son was effectively a hostage, Elizabeth Woodville took her remaining son, Richard Duke of York, and her daughters into sanctuary for protection against the power Gloucester was now assuming due to this political vacuum. On the 18th of May, Edward V was lodged in the Tower of London by his uncle, as was the tradition before the coronation of a monarch. The date of Edward’s coronation kept being postponed by Richard until it was finally set for the 22nd of June and Elizabeth relinquished her second son, the Duke of York, into the Tower of London for him to help his older brother prepare for the coronation. However, despite all this planning, on the date set for Edward’s coronation, Richard declared all of Edward IV’s children illegitimate through Titulus Regius, meaning that neither Edward nor his younger brother could rule. The suspicions surrounding the legitimacy of Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage had long been discussed, as it was believed that Edward had married another woman before Elizabeth, named Eleanor Butler. Richard pronounced himself as the rightful king and was crowned Richard III on the 6th of July. During all of these events, the princes in the tower could be sighted playing in the grounds or looking out of windows. Yet after the end of the summer of 1483, the boys were never to be seen again.
Thus, the fate of the boys has remained a mystery for the past 539 years. The most popular theory is that Richard III had the boys murdered, which certainly seems the most obvious answer. After all, the children were under his care, and he surely had the most to gain by eliminating them. Revisionist historians and Ricardian sympathisers, however, have argued that it would have been illogical for Richard to dispose of the boys when he had already rendered them bastards and, therefore, they were not a threat to his rule. Henry VII was then put under scrutiny, with some suggesting that he found the boys alive after the Battle of Bosworth and subsequently had them killed. Either way, speculation around the subject is ubiquitous, and the lack of primary evidence to support each argument makes it all the more frustrating for historians. Advancing the investigation by undertaking forensic testing on the bones in Westminster Abbey could be of huge benefit to discussions on the topic.
While there has been a great deal of debate, the most common consensus since the bodies were found is that they do belong to the young Edward and Richard. The location in which the remains were found was exactly that which Thomas More had described, “at the stair foot, meetly deep under the ground, under a great heap of stones”, though More had claimed that the bodies had subsequently been moved. Furthermore, they were found with “pieces of rag and velvet about them”; according to Alison Weir, velvet was not invented until the fifteenth century which rules out the bones as predating the Princes significantly.
George V gave his permission for the skeletons to be examined in 1933 by Tanner and Wright. They estimated that the elder child was twelve and the younger was between nine and eleven; both the correct ages for the young Princes when they disappeared in 1483. There was also evidence that there was a blood relation between the sets of remains. Additionally, the elder child was found to have evidently suffered from bone disease in the lower jaw – Edward V was being treated by his doctor before he disappeared, so this further corroborates the idea that the bones are the Princes.
All of this would surely be enough to convince most people that the skeletons in Westminster Abbey are those of Edward and Richard, but there has nevertheless been resistance to this verdict. The sex of the bones was not even determined, nor was the technology available in 1933 to DNA test for a clear identification. With advancements in modern science, these are things we could now prove.
As the bodies are interred in a royal crypt at Westminster Abbey, those seeking to carry out tests would require permission from the Monarch, which Elizabeth II, alongside the Church of England, repeatedly refused to give throughout her reign. Even after the body of Richard III was found in Leicester in 2012, exhumation of the bones in Westminster was denied. While no specific reason was provided, this may have been down to Elizabeth’s own religious convictions, or possibly her reluctance to set a precedent for exhuming members of her own ancestry. Some speculate that the results could influence the line of succession, but this is highly improbable. Either way, the investigation was impeded by the unwillingness of The Firm to allow forensic testing to take place.
Despite this, the ascendancy of King Charles III to the throne this September has spurred a new excitement surrounding the 539-year-old mystery. Rumours that Charles would be the monarch to grant the permission to analyse the bones have existed for a long time, particularly as Charles studied archaeology at the University of Cambridge and therefore holds a personal interest in the subject. Various news outlets have stated that Tracy Borman, joint Chief Curator for Historic Royal Palaces, claimed at a recent talk that Charles “would like an investigation to go ahead”.
When Retrospect spoke to Borman, however, we were informed that she was misquoted; all that she said was that it had been rumoured that when Charles was Prince of Wales, he had indicated that he may give permission. While she has “long been fascinated by the story of the Princes in the Tower and very much [hopes] that the remains in Westminster Abbey might one day be investigated,” it appears that no formal campaign for an investigation is currently taking place.
There certainly remains a possibility that Charles will grant permission to the historians who have long been eager to see the bones tested, but as of yet there is no confirmation of this. We can expect pressure from a range of people to be placed upon the King to agree. It seems unlikely that this would happen before his coronation next May.
Whether the bones should be tested, however, is a contentious matter. We spoke to the Richard III Society, who say they would support testing of the remains “with some important caveats that must influence the ethical considerations,” mainly the issue as to how useful forensic testing could actually be. Whether it confirms that the bodies belong to the boys or not, technology can not inform us what their exact fates were, nor who was responsible. There is an argument to be made that disinterring the bones in order to satisfy our morbid curiosity is unethical.
Matt Lewis, chair of the Richard III Society, does not believe that the remains in Westminster Abbey are those of the Princes, and thus forms part of his argument as to why they should be tested. While testing cannot necessarily prove Richard’s innocence, proving that the bodies, which have been viewed as a major piece of evidence of his guilt, are not those of Edward and Richard would encourage a significant re-evaluation. The bones are officially buried under the names of the Princes and if it is confirmed that this is incorrect, it also allows us to decide what to do with them. After all, whoever the remains belong to, they are the bodies of at least two children who deserve a proper burial.
What must be weighed up is what could potentially stand to be gained from forensic testing. Radiocarbon dating could only accurately prove when the children died within a few years, and as the events of 1483-1485 happened within such a short space of time, this would not clarify whether the boys died before or after Richard did. It also could not demonstrate exactly how they died, or by whom they were murdered. Regardless, proving whether it is them, which can certainly be achieved, seems reason enough to test them alone.
The other ethical consideration about testing the bones is whether this has the potential to set a precedent for others to be dug up. This is likely the reason that Elizabeth II so ardently opposed it, as royal crypts contain many members of her own family. If we allow the urn in Westminster Abbey to be opened, can a case be made to exhume other bodies about which there are significant questions in the historiography? Perhaps some would also be in favour of examining the body of Anne Boleyn to help determine her appearance (and number of fingers) or discovering the age of Katheryn Howard at the point she died. This, however, is speculative, and most historians can surely appreciate that solving this mystery is of greater importance and could alter the historical record significantly.
While valid and important considerations, the ethical implications are arguably outweighed by how major a contribution this could be to the study of Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. Determining for definite who the remains belong to is a huge step; if it is confirmed to be them, we know that they certainly died in the Tower of London and were most likely killed by Richard. If not, then new explanations can be explored. Did they survive? Are they buried elsewhere? These are questions historians will be prompted to ask if the results of testing prove that the bodies in Westminster are not the Princes.
If the bones are not the Princes, some have asserted the possibility that they survived. This is highly significant as it would mean that those who challenged Henry VII under the claim that they were one of the boys regain credibility. One of the most notable pretenders that appeared during the reign of Henry VII was Perkin Warbeck. He claimed to be the real Richard, Duke of York (the younger of the princes), and his claim was supported by many influential European figures, including Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, the Princes’ aunt. Pretender or not, he claimed that his brother had been murdered in the tower and that the murderers spared him due to his age and innocence. He then was taken into the care of Sir Edward Brampton, who was a protege of Edward IV, and together they resided at Margaret’s court in Burgundy.
After Brampton’s return to England, Warbeck revealed his identity as Prince Richard of York and made his claim on the English throne. Support was drawn from the Holy Roman Empire, temporarily in France, strongly in Scotland, as well as old Yorkist’s remaining in England – even Henry VII’s uncle, Sir William Stanley. At the funeral for the Holy Roman Emperor in 1493, he was acknowledged as King Richard IV of England. Scottish support for Warbeck went so far as a marriage between him and a Scottish noblewoman, Lady Catherine Gordon, who together had a son. After numerous failed attempts at defeating Henry VII in battle, Warbeck fled into sanctuary, but was captured by Henry’s forces and he subsequently surrendered in 1497.
At the court of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Richard’s older sister, Warbeck was treated well; he was given his own rooms and was even allowed to participate at banquets; however, he remained under house arrest. During this time, and under duress, Warbeck confessed to being the son of a boatman from Tournai, and that he was only a simple cloth merchant. However, this confession is only thought to be partially true by historians, due to the threatening nature of how it was taken. This period of house arrest lasted approximately eight months, until Warbeck attempted to escape. He was captured and placed in the Tower of London in solitary confinement. On the 23rd of November 1499, Warbeck was hanged.
A very recent discovery might suggest that Edward V was also spared by his murderers. Historians have recently been investigating the story of John Evans, a deer parker who is buried in St Matthew’s Church in Coldridge, Devon, and they believe that he may have actually been Edward V (the elder of the princes). There is no pre-history to Evans before he became a deer parker, not even deeds to show this job agreement, pointing historians to believe that Edward was simply placed in Devon and given a new name and occupation. Multiple clues within Evans’ shrine point to him being more than just a local landowner and deer parker. This includes a horde of Yorkist symbolism as well as a stained-glass window of Edward V with a crown above him facing the effigy of Evans, which is one of three depictions in the country. Within the display, the ermine is decorated in 41 deer, which would have been the age of Edward V at the time the chantry was commissioned by Evans. The effigy itself also depicts a scar on Evans’ chin, which would have matched with the doctor’s reports for Edward before his imprisonment. The name plack beside him also stands out, as it reads ‘John Evas’, not Evans, and has the word ‘king’ carved beneath it; historians believe ‘Evas’ to be a symbol for EV (Edward V) AS (in sanctuary).
There were also family connections within the area. For instance, after Elizabeth Woodville struck a deal to leave sanctuary with her daughters in 1484, one of Richard III’s entourage was sent to Coldridge – was this to oversee the relocation of Edward V as part of Elizabeth’s deal with Richard? Moreover, Edward’s older half-brother, Thomas Grey, owned land in Coldridge so would have been able to help and take care of him while he was establishing his new life. This information poses the question, again, that if the bones in Westminster Abbey were to be tested, then why can’t the bones inside John Evans’ tomb be so as well. If science was to reveal that the Princes are not to be found in Westminster, perhaps this theory will gain new traction.
The mystery of the Princes in the Tower has enraptured historians and the public across the five centuries since the two boys disappeared and were never seen again. Shakespeare explored it in his infamous history play Richard III, and this episode in history has formed the inspiration for many pieces of media since- including Game of Thrones. We are in a position today where testing the bones in the urn in Westminster Abbey can prove for definite whether they belong to Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. While this cannot answer every question or facet of the mystery, knowing whether or not the children died in the tower is a vital piece of historical evidence about which we can only speculate at present.
Cann, Rhiannon Du. 2022. “King Charles III ‘Supports’ Princes in the Tower Investigation.” Express.co.uk. October 14, 2022. https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1682819/king-charles-iii-princes-in-the-tower-investigation-richard-iii-spt.
Eden, Richard, and James Robinson. 2022. “Is the 539-Year-Old Princes in the Tower Murder Mystery about to Be SOLVED?” Mail Online. Daily Mail. October 13, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11313563/Is-539-year-old-Princes-Tower-murder-mystery-SOLVED.html.
Evans, Tom. 2020. “Prince Charles ‘Poised to Solve 550-Year-Old Royal Mystery’ on Throne.” Express.co.uk. May 30, 2020. https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1289146/prince-charles-news-royal-family-mystery-princes-tower-richard-iii-spt.
Nicholson, Kate. 2020. “Real Reason Queen Refused to Allow DNA Tests on Remains of Princes in the Tower.” Express.co.uk. September 4, 2020. https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1331220/queen-elizabeth-ii-news-princes-in-tower-richard-iii-westminster-abbey-dna-spt.
Weir, Alison. 2011. The Princes in the Tower. Ballantine Books.
Weir, Alison. 2009. Lancaster and York. Arrow.
Pollard, A J. 2002. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Stroud: Sutton.
Arthurson, Ian (1994). The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy, 1491–1499.
Carpenter, Christine (1997). The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c. 1437–1509.
Featured image credit: Józef Simmler (after Paul Delaroche), Children of King Edward, 1847, Oil on canvas, National Museum in Warsaw.