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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