What has been voted history’s greatest mystery?

Back in BBC History Magazine's June edition, we published an extended feature on 20 historical conundrums – all nominated by experts – and asked you to vote for your favourite. The results are in…

What is history's greatest mystery?

Did Richard III order the murder of the princes in the Tower? This question, which has fuelled much debate and controversy for centuries, has emerged as the clear winner in our recent poll of history’s greatest mysteries.

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Back in our June edition, we published an extended feature on 20 historical conundrums – all nominated by experts – and asked you to vote for your favourite. The fate of Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, received 35 per cent of the votes – almost three times as many as the building of Stonehenge, which came in at second place. Also making the top five were: “What happened to Jesus’s body?”, “Why did the Roanoke colony vanish into thin air?” and “What is the Voynich Manuscript trying to tell us?” You can see the full rundown of results in the column on the right.

The princes in the Tower
For scholars of the medieval period, the puzzle of the princes in the Tower is the “enduring mystery of the age”, claims Nathen Amin. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The princes in the Tower disappeared in the summer of 1483, early in the reign of their uncle, Richard III. While many point to King Richard as having orchestrated their killing, a number of alternative suggestions exist, with Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort among the other popular suspects. Some also believe that either or both of the princes may have survived and perhaps returned as one of the Yorkist pretenders to the throne during the early Tudor period. These theories and others have been bolstered by their appearance in fictional accounts, from Shakespeare’s Richard III to the novels of Philippa Gregory.


Listen: Historian Nathen Amin considers some of the possible explanations for their disappearance in 1483 and whether Richard III was behind their murder, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Historian and author Nathen Amin, who nominated the mystery in our June edition, is not surprised that his choice has topped the poll. “Anyone who studies the medieval period, or is interested in the Tudors or the Plantagenets, knows that the princes in the Tower is the great enduring mystery of the age,” he commented. “It has all the classic ingredients of a mystery: shadowy conspiracies, royal involvement and innocent victims condemned to their fates by the machinations of those around them. In effect it is a royal whodunit, and who isn’t captivated by one of them? And of course, it is unresolved, and it’s likely that it never will be resolved either.”

If you’d like to explore some of these mysteries further, then do check out the podcast interviews we’ve recorded with historians, including Nathen, about their nominations. And we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at the princes in the Tower in a special podcast series on the mystery, due to be released later this year. You’ll find all these episodes at historyextra.com/podcast

For scholars of the medieval period, the puzzle of the princes in the Tower is the “enduring mystery of the age”, claims Nathen Amin

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The full results of our history’s 20 greatest mysteries poll

1. Did Richard III order the murder 
of the princes in the Tower?
2. Who built Stonehenge – and why?
3. What happened to Jesus’s body?
4. Why did the Roanoke colony vanish into thin air?
5. What is the Voynich Manuscript trying to tell us?
6. Where did the Ninth Legion meet its doom?
7. Was the Trojan War fact or fiction?
8. Where is Cleopatra’s tomb?
9. Where did Amelia Earhart spend her tragic last moments?
10. Who was the architect of 
Anne Boleyn’s downfall?
11. Why did medieval Europeans dance themselves to death?
12. Could Roman soldiers have reached China?
13. What disaster struck the 
Franklin Expedition?
14. Did Agatha Christie engineer her own disappearance?
15. Where is King Harold buried?
16. Why did Mao’s chosen successor flee China?
17. What befell Abu Bakr and his fleet?
18. What secrets do the kofun 
tombs hold?
19. What was the Feejee Mermaid?
20. Why was the world fooled by the Cottingley Fairies?