Forensic Case Files: The Princes in the Tower

In the last Forensic Case File, I discussed the remains of Richard III, finally discovered in Leicester (pending confirmation). Richard III is infamous for supposedly killing his two nephews, Edward V, 13, and his younger brother Richard, 10, the sons of Edward IV. But because Parliament ruled Edward IV’s marriage invalid and his sons illegitimate, the crown legally went to Richard III in June of 1483. That month, Richard sent his two nephews to the Tower of London. They were seen playing on the grounds over the following months, but were never seen again after the summer of 1483. Surely they had been killed, but the question was by who and when?

The two most famous accounts of the deaths of the young princes were written by Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, and William Shakespeare, the famous poet and playwright. Both accounts paint Richard III with a dark brush, portraying him as a villainous monster. But the truth of the matter is that both accounts were written by men who were never witness to the supposed crime—More was eight years old when Richard fell in battle, and Shakespeare was born seventy-nine years later. History tells that More’s account of Richard III came from John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury during Henry VII’s reign and a sworn enemy of Richard III. It’s a well-known fact that history is written by the victors; in this case, the House of Tudor was legendary for removing any and all rivals to the throne. It’s not much of a stretch to suppose that the story of Richard III as a menacing hunchback who murdered his nephews was used to blacken the name of a defeated rival family, the House of York.

The truth of the matter is that Richard III had no concrete reason to kill the boys and nothing to gain from their deaths. His claim to the throne came with the approval of both the English public and Parliament. Had Edward IV’s marriage been upheld and his royal line remained intact, there were three other male heirs closer to the throne than Richard, so simply killing his nephews would not have assured him a place as monarch.

So if Richard III wasn’t responsible, who else stood to gain from the princes’ deaths?

In her classic 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, novelist Josephine Tey makes a convincing argument that Henry Tudor had to most to gain following Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field when he was crowned Henry VII.

Henry never missed an opportunity to vilify Richard posthumously, yet when he came to London he never remarked on the fact that the boys were missing from the Tower. It’s been suggested that he would have happily pinned the disappearance and murder of the boys on the fallen king simply to make himself look more favourable by comparison. But perhaps he didn’t want to bring the princes’ disappearance to light because he had ordered their deaths. The boys were also a threat to him—following the death of Richard III, Henry VII repealed the Titulus Regius statute that made Richard III king, nullifying Richard’s reign while simultaneous declaring Edward V King of England and his brother the heir. The boys were a direct threat to his reign as monarch. The boys were never seen after 1483, but it is possible that they were still alive in the Tower as late as 1485 when Henry VII arrived in London. Killing the princes would have ended the last remaining hope that the House of York would be able to reclaim the throne.

Officially, the murder has been laid at the feet of James Tyrrell, an English knight in the service of the House of York and under Richard’s command. Nearly twenty years after the rise of Henry VII, Tyrrell supposedly confessed to smothering the boys and was hanged for his crime. But there was never any transcript of the confession, no formal charges were laid, nor was there ever a trial. In fact, the account was only released after Tyrrell himself was already dead. According to the reported confession, the only witness to the crime conveniently died at the Battle of Bosworth Field along with Richard III.

In 1674, nearly 200 years after the princes’ disappearance, the skeletons of two children were found in a wooden box beneath a stone staircase during renovations in the White Tower. Since it was assumed that these were the remains of the missing princes, the bones were interred with royal honour in an urn in one of the walls of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

In 1933, Professor William Wright, one of the foremost anatomists of his day, was granted permission to examine the remains. Inside the urn Dr. Wright found the incomplete remains of two children he determined to be between the ages of 7–11 and 11–13 years of age, mixed with several animal bones and a handful of rusty nails. There was no sign of any skeletal trauma on the remains, supporting the theory that the princes had been suffocated. But as the sex could not be determined on the pre-pubescent bones and DNA analysis was decades away, that was the only information learned and the bones were re-interred. Current osteological research now gives scientists methods to determine age of pre-pubescent individuals (although it remains a somewhat inexact science) and DNA analysis could identify the remains if a female family member could be found. Since relatives found to test against Richard III’s remains are not in the same female line as Edward IV’s sons, a new family member in the maternal line would have to be located for confirmation.

So, the mystery surrounding the death and identity of the lost princes remains. If scientists are allowed to examine the remains again, some new answers may come to light. But, unfortunately, it remains a real possibility that the fate of the princes may remain lost to the ages.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons