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What really happened to the Princes in the Tower? The Richard III Society seeks answers

There have been many great mysteries in history. Perhaps though none greater than that of the Princes in the Tower – the two young sons of King Edward IV, who disappeared into the Tower of London and never seen again.

According to Shakespeare, the boys were killed by their uncle, King Richard III, a view that is shared by most historians. Members of the Richard III Society – a society dedicated to restoring the reputation of the notorious Plantagenet ruler are in disagreement. They are determined to find out what happened to the two Princes, and possibly prove King Richard’s innocence.

When King Edward IV died unexpectedly in 1483, his 12-year-old son Edward became the new King. As the boy was travelling from Ludlow to London for his coronation, he was met by his Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard, who had been named Protector during Edward’s minority, escorted his nephew to the Tower of London. He would later be joined his younger brother, nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York.


A portrait of the Princes in the Tower, painted by Sir John Everett Millais nearly 400 years after their disappearance.

However, once both of the late King Edward’s sons were safely in the Tower of London, Richard repeatedly postponed the coronation of the new King. During this time, it was discovered that Edward had been contracted to marry Lady Eleanor Talbot, making his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid. All the children produced from that marriage – including the two Princes in the Tower – illegitimate. Within a week, Richard was declared King and ascended the throne as King Richard III.

After Richard’s ascension, the Edward and the younger Richard were occasionally seen in the Tower and on the grounds, until, one day, they disappeared from view altogether. What happened to those two young boys is a mystery, and their fate remains unknown to this day.

The widely held belief is that King Richard himself killed Edward and Richard. According to Thomas More, the Princes were smothered to death with their pillows. In his play, Richard III, Shakespeare implies that the Princes were murdered by Sir James Tyrell, on the orders of The King. In 1502, Tyrell, a loyal servant of King Richard, was executed for treason after he confessed to killing the boys. However, the confession, obtained under torture, has been dismissed by many historians.

There is no evidence that the Princes were murdered on the orders of King Richard, who stood to gain nothing from their death. He had already declared them to be illegitimate, and had his aim been to eliminate any opposition, he would have made the knowledge of the Princes’ death public.

“This is the last big question around Richard III,” said Philippa Langley. “We need to look at what happened to the princes in the Tower because most of the Establishment always state that Richard was the murderer, yet there is absolutely no evidence to support that. Nothing.”

Philippa Langley is a Scottish historian and a screenwriter, and a prominent member of the Richard III Society. It was her effort that led to the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012.

“Nobody has put this to the top of their agenda before, but we’re going to now,” she added. “It was the same with the search for Richard’s remains – everyone presumed they were in the river Soar. Nobody was particularly interested in searching for his lost grave.”

In 1674, during the reign of King Charles II, workmen at the Tower of London found a wooden box containing the skeletons of two children. The remains were accepted to have been those of the Princes in the Tower, and placed in an urn and interred in Westminster Abbey.

But the members of the Richard III Society do not believe that the remains in the urn are those of the missing Princes. The urn was discovered at a depth of ten feet under the staircase, which suggests that it was buried during the Saxon times. However, a request to remove the urn and carbon-date the remains was rejected by The Queen.

Undeterred, the Society’s efforts continue in another direction. Some of Britain’s oldest families – including that of Robert Brackenbury, who was the Constable of the Tower of London when the Princes went missing – have been asked to go through their archives. The national archives of Spain, Portugal and the Low Countries are also being searched in this hunt for the killer of the Princes in the Tower.

“We want to discover the truth,” Ms Langley said.

Photo credit: John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Featured photo credit: lisby1 via photopin cc

  • Ann Tyrrell

    Oh these Tyrrell’s…..William Tyrrell ‘killed’ Red Rufus (William II) in the New Forest in 1200 and Sir James Tyrrell-the princes??? Seems the Tyrrell’s were always up to something or ‘escaping the UK’…..

  • Ricky

    Does anyone know why The Queen wouldn’t allow the remains in the urn to be studied?

  • Bandit Queen

    The remains cannot be useful to identity anyone as a murderer. That is not possible after this length of time, but they can tell us a number of things, the age and sex of the children in the urn, if they are the princes, through DNA or if they are any relationship to the house of York. We may be able to find out more about the cause of death, pathology in their bones, status, life style, ages and approximate year of death. Even if they are not the Princes, modern forensic evidence will tell us useful information and go some way to solving the mystery. We will not know if Richard killed them. However, it may be able to give some clues.

    I suspect that the palace has something to hide. Recently articles have appeared suggesting that the bones found in 1674 were phoney and this was a scam. Maybe the bones were real, but, the workmen, finding bones, made false claims that they had been buried in the stairs, that royal cloth, conveniently since lost was found with them, in order to convince the pathologist and King to accept them as Royal. In fact they were found four years earlier, some of the bones went missing, the King merely assumed that these boys were the Princes. The two examinations, early last century, gave rise to speculation that the boys were killed, but, the findings were divided and doubts about this have been debated ever since. This article also said that the palace of Westminster and the Abbey, together with officials in the Church of England in the 1980s agreed that the urn will never again be opened, the bones never examined again. I don’t know if this is true, I am not normally into conspiracy theories, but this does make the palace look as if they are hiding knowledge.

    The bones may also be in a poor condition, this may be a genuine reason to leave them alone, that is fair enough. The remains of saints have been examined numerous times over the years, only to be found in dangerous condition. I am certain care will be taken, but bones decay unless kept in very particular scientific conditions, that is a fact, so examining them, exposing them to the air is not always a good idea. If the Abbey and the Royal family believe that these precious children are of royal blood, it is understandable that they are protective of them.

    On the other hand, we can create conditions to preserve the bones, we can put a camera scope into the urn to look at the bones first and we can treat them before reburial. We have DNA to compare, we don’t need to dig up their sisters, either Katherine or Elizabeth, DNA finger printing will give us a complete profile of the bones, the urgency to examine the bones is greater than ever, we have more technology than thirty years ago, historians agree that it is important to test the bones, the palace are not doing themselves any favours. I suspect that the palace knows that the bones are not genuinely as they appear and are covering something up.

    Personally, as long as the bones are in reasonable condition I think that testing them would be historically and anthropology interesting. The bones belong to children, that in itself makes them of special concern and interest. The alleged bones of contention are not the only set of bones, either found in the Tower, identified as children, or even claimed to be the Princes, three others were also wrongly claimed to be the boys, but latet dismissed. Bones have been found at the Roman, Saxon, Medieval levels, Tudor, Stuart and Victorian, even the prehistoric levels, some matching the Princes, clearly tbese are not that unique. Being in an area believed identified as their known grave, with cloth, under the stairs, in the Garden Tower, this contributed to these particular boys being claimed and officially recognized as Edward V and Richard Duke of York. Charles ii jumped the royal gun and hey presto royal funeral, Christopher Wren urn and we have our allegedly murdered Princes. Surely now it is time to settle the identification mystery, if not the fate of the boys?

    Another bone of contention was that the boys were not boys. The skeletons are of pre pubity children, said to be undernourished, with some bone cancer, their pelvic and leg bones not yet fully formed and fused, making it hard to determine sex. The pathologists did not agree on this matter. If the bones were under sized, this may cast doubt as Edward was tall and well formed like his father. Malnourished? This has many meanings, especially today, it can mean a lack of vitamin supplements, be applied to someone in hospital for a long time, my husband was in a coma and undernourished even though he was fed via tubes and well cared for, it can mean neglect, it can mean lack of food, starving or just lack of a balanced diet. Vegans are often warned by doctors about lack of nourishment. Edward and Richard would hardly be neglected, but as prisoners could have been given a basic diet. On the other hand we also know that a rich diet can only lead to a lack of correct nourishment. So this statement means nothing. The information about possible cancer of the jaw, however, raises an interesting question, as it was a Plantagenet trait. It also raises the possibility of the boys dying of disease. The skulls were also said to be similar to that of Anne Mowbury, but this is meaningless without further analysis and could point to other relatives.

    The question of guilt remains for me an open question. Richard iii may have had the most to gain, but in 1483, he had the boys under his protection, they were declared illegitimate, he had no immediate motive to kill them. The article states, without any sources to back up the statement, that most historians believe that Richard iii killed the Princes in the Tower. No, this is not true, opinion is very divided as it was back then. Most historians actually agree that nobody knows what happened to the boys. Even historians who do believe that Richard killed them, like Pollard, state that there is no evidence that the boys were killed or that Richard killed them. The sources at the time reported rumour, conjecture and propaganda and were divided on the matter. Some even blamed Buckingham and Norfolk. Margaret Beaufort and Henry Tudor have also been named, although the latter is not the most likely candidate as he was in exile at the time of their alleged deaths. The account in More is not a contemporary report, it is dramatic history, speculation and the bodies were reported moved, so the bones in Westminster Abbey were found in the wrong place. There is no evidence that Richard or anybody else killed them, they vanished, leaving us with a 500 year old mystery. Lawyers have looked at the case, Bertrand Fields for one, detectives and journalists have examined the case, all agree; at present there is no evidence that could convict Richard of murder. It’s a cold case. Maybe the bones in Westminster Abbey would not tell us who killed them, but they should tell us if a murder took place, if they are the princes, that is. Until conclusive forensics or documents prove otherwise, which is what the historical researchers hope to do, solve the mystery, for me, Richard is innocent unless proven guilty.

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