An enigma at the heart of British history: who killed the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and Richard Duke of York?

In 1483, two young Plantagenet princes – the uncrowned king Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York – vanished from the Tower of London, never to be seen again. Lauren Johnson picks through the clues of this most enduring of mysteries for BBC History Revealed

Oil on canvas of the Princes in the Tower

The grisly discovery was made on Friday 17 July 1674, while building work was being carried out at the Tower of London. While pulling down a ruined building beside the White Tower, the workmen digging down some stairs found a wooden chest containing the bodies of two children, estimated to be around 11 and 13 years old.

Among those present was John Knight, chief surgeon to King Charles II. Knight, and other eyewitnesses who handled the broken bones, quickly came to the conclusion that these had to be none other than the remains of the long-lost Princes in the Tower. Finally, after nearly 200 years, it seemed that an enigma at the heart of British history had been resolved.

The grisly discovery was made on Friday 17 July 1674, while building work was being carried out at the Tower of London. While pulling down a ruined building beside the White Tower, the workmen digging down some stairs found a wooden chest containing the bodies of two children, estimated to be around 11 and 13 years old.

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Among those present was John Knight, chief surgeon to King Charles II. Knight, and other eyewitnesses who handled the broken bones, quickly came to the conclusion that these had to be none other than the remains of the long-lost Princes in the Tower. Finally, after nearly 200 years, it seemed that an enigma at the heart of British history had been resolved.

Who were the Princes in the Tower?

The two boys now remembered as the ‘Princes in the Tower’ were the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: Edward V and Richard. A handsome and charismatic ruler, Edward IV of the House of York had seized the throne during the Wars of the Roses, but spent much of his 22-year reign struggling to establish his rule.

Nonetheless, by the time he died on 9 April 1483, he appeared to have restored a measure of stability. His eldest son and namesake had trained for his role as king for the past ten years in the marches of Ludlow, while the nine-year-old Prince Richard was already a widower and preparing to be a mighty lord.

But Edward IV’s death left their position vulnerable, as there was a worm gnawing at the heart of the body politic: factional fighting for power. The heir was only 12 years old, and a child king was likely to be influenced heavily by those closest to him. Whoever controlled the king, controlled the kingdom, and in 1483, two rival factions vied for authority over the newly acclaimed Edward V. One ‘Woodville’ clan was led by his mother Queen Elizabeth Woodville, while a more disparate collection of interests focused around Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Richard versus the Woodvilles

The Woodvilles appeared to have the upper hand for not only did Queen Elizabeth have her younger son Richard in her care, but her brother Anthony Woodville had the new king Edward V in his keeping at Ludlow. It is possible that in his dying days, Edward IV made efforts to balance the rivalries, perhaps even declaring that his son and heir should remain with Anthony Woodville, one of his uncles, while the Duke of Gloucester, another uncle, serve as Lord Protector until Edward V was old enough to rule for himself. That was not to be the case as Edward IV’s will went missing and exactly what form of government he had hoped to establish was soon overtaken by events.

The White Tower, Tower of London
Caught up in factional fighting, the princes may have died here, in the Tower of London, at the command of their uncle, Richard III (Photo by mtrommer/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

On 30 April 1483, at Stony Stratford, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his ally the Duke of Buckingham had Anthony Woodville arrested and took possession of the young king. When word of this coup reached Elizabeth, she fled with her younger son and five daughters into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. There they remained as spring gave way to summer, and her fears of Richard’s intentions increased.

Edward V’s coronation was repeatedly delayed, despite Richard having escorted him to the Tower of London – the traditional residence of a monarch before being crowned – in readiness. Then at a chaotic meeting of the royal council on 13 June, Richard levelled accusations of treason against those he said were conspiring against him, which were followed by a spate of arrests and the summary beheading of the late king’s chamberlain, William Lord Hastings.

London roiled with anxiety, city watches patrolled the streets by torchlight, and rumours abounded that the lives of both Edward V and the Duke of Gloucester were in danger. Richard, now Lord Protector, dispatched urgent messages to his supporters in the north summoning weapons and soldiers to his aid.

The scene changed again on 16 June, when Elizabeth finally released the younger Prince Richard into the Duke of Gloucester’s custody, but only after the Archbishop of Canterbury stood as surety for his safety. The two princes were reunited in the Tower. Edward V’s coronation was postponed, however, the very next day, this time until the winter. Then Anthony Woodville was executed for treason on 25 June, by command of the Lord Protector.

The most shocking event was yet to come, though. A week after the two princes were brought together in the Tower, a sermon was preached at St Paul’s Cross stating that, to the astonishment and indignation of the assembled Londoners, the princes had no claim to the throne. They were, the preacher Ralph Shaa insisted, the offspring of an invalid marriage, for Edward IV had been secretly contracted to another woman, named Eleanor Butler, at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. If the princes were to be declared as illegitimate, then that meant the true king was their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Was Edward V illegitimate?

The claim of Edward V’s illegitimacy was taken up and reiterated in a speech by the Duke of Buckingham in front of another throng of London’s citizens, this time at the Guildhall. In a bid to convince the mayor and other influential figures, he denounced the Woodvilles and gave his impassioned support for Richard to be seen as the rightful king. With panic mounting and a northern army marching south to support Richard, the ‘three estates’ of England – the noblemen, clergy and commons – united against the princes.

On 26 June, just a couple of days after Buckingham’s speech, they appealed to Richard to take the throne, pronouncing the princes illegitimate. Edward V would henceforth be known merely as ‘Edward Bastard’. On 6 July 1483, his uncle was crowned King Richard III.

That summer, an Italian cleric named Dominic Mancini was visiting London. He left for France shortly after the coronation and penned a report that autumn – most commonly referred to as The Usurpation of Richard the Third – regarding the remarkable events surrounding the princes in the Tower. Their attendants had been removed from them in June, he recalled, and the princes themselves had “withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, until at length they ceased to appear altogether.”

Where in the Tower were the Princes imprisoned?

The history of the Tower of London is long and filled with gruesome details, but only one of the outer towers has become known as the ‘Bloody Tower’ – the one associated with the princes.

In the 15th century, this gateway between the inner and outer wards was known as the ‘Garden Tower’, as it bordered the garden of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings. This appears to match the report of a contemporary London chronicle that the princes were seen “shooting and playing in the garden” during their imprisonment.

But it does not match the chronicle’s claim that the princes had been kept “within the king’s lodging” at the Tower. The royal apartments were further east, securely within the innermost ward, and sure enough a garden lay at the bottom of the Lanthorn Tower there. This seems a far more suitable location for princes, especially once they became captives.

A gateway like the Bloody Tower, with its heavy through-traffic, hardly seems ideal for such highly sensitive political prisoners.

Previous high-status inmates were incarcerated further inside. John Balliol, the Scottish king imprisoned by Edward I from 1296-99, was kept in the Salt Tower, a mural enclosure far removed from possible escape routes.

And the White Tower, right at the heart of the fortress, served as prison for both King John ‘the Good’ of France and Charles, Duke of Orleans, a prisoner of war captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The princes were not the first royal claimants to enter the Tower of London never to emerge alive. In 1471, the deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI had died while imprisoned there. His Yorkist captors claimed the cause of death was “pure displeasure and melancholy”, but Henry’s corpse was seen to bleed in the city streets as it was conveyed towards burial. Displaying the body of a fallen foe in this way, even if you did not publicly acknowledge your role in their death, was commonplace in the Wars of the Roses. As well as ordering that Henry VI’s body be exhibited in London “open-visaged” (with his face visible), Edward IV had commanded that the naked corpse of his rebel kinsman Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ be left on display at St Paul’s.

When did the Princes in the Tower disappear?

There were no such morbid memorial parades for the two young princes in the Tower. They simply disappeared, leaving a lingering unease about their fate. Whispers soon spread that they had been murdered – smothered with a feather-bed, perhaps, or poisoned.

In his account, Mancini related that even before Richard III was crowned, mention of the princes inspired grown men to pitying tears, for “already there was a suspicion that he [Edward V] had been done away with.” He also recorded the words of a physician who attended Edward V in the Tower: “The young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.”

In his calendar for the year ending 15 September 1483, the Bristolian Robert Ricart similarly suggested that “the two sons of King Edward were put to silence in the Tower of London.” Gradually, rumours about the princes’ deaths spread overseas, being reported from Poland to France, and there was a name put forward as the most likely identity of the murderer: their uncle, and usurper, Richard III. Such belief would fuel a rebellion against his rule in October 1483.

Illumination depicting Anthony Woodville
By putting his son in the care of Anthony Woodville (kneeling, second from left), Edward IV thought his line was secure (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

It united surprisingly disparate forces, including the late Edward IV’s followers, Queen Elizabeth, the Lancastrian born Margaret Beaufort and her exiled son Henry Tudor, and even the Duke of Buckingham – the man who had recently been one of Richard’s most public supporters. Such a cohesion of unnatural allies, and their focus on the decidedly distant royal claimant Henry Tudor as a rival to Richard’s throne, would not have been possible without a widespread acceptance of the princes’ demise in the Tower.

That rebellion failed, but Richard III was unable to shake the dark legacy of the coup that brought him to power. In August 1485, on Bosworth battlefield, he was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor, which was seen as apparent proof of divine favour for the Lancastrian.

Could the Princes in the Tower have escaped?

The accession of King Henry VII ought to have drawn a line under the troubling rumours about the princes. Their ‘usurper’ had been killed and, in a politically astute display of unity, Henry married the princes’ eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, to bring together their warring dynasties. Although, he did wait for nearly three months to pass from his coronation, lest he be considered king by dint of his wife.

As soon as he was king, though, the question of the princes’ fate might have been settled. Henry could have produced the boys’ bodies from the Tower and taken them for honourable burial, or revealed that they still lived.

He did neither. Was it because he could not, or would not? Like Richard III, the lingering uncertainty over the princes left his regime vulnerable – not to charges of murder, but to the possibility they had survived and could challenge him for the throne.

Henry’s enemies took advantage of this situation. As early as 1487, an Oxfordshire teenager named Lambert Simnel was briefly put forward masquerading as Prince Richard, before instead claiming to be the Yorkist Earl of Warwick. To quell support for Simnel, Henry VII paraded the real Earl of Warwick through the streets of London, before safely depositing him back in his cell at the Tower and defeating Simnel’s supporters in battle.

But the spectre of Prince Richard arose again in late 1491, and this time, the threat was to endure. According to the story he spun to the powers of Europe, ‘Prince Richard’ – in reality Perkin Warbeck of Tournai – had escaped the Tower with the aid of a powerful lord. Warbeck was convincing enough that he won the support of a wide array of European princes, including the king of Scotland and Edward IV’s sister Margaret, duchess of Burgundy.

It took Henry years to bring the ghost to heel. Only in October 1497, as the rebel army melted away, did the pretender-prince confess that he was really a continental official’s son. Under his real name, and with a final public confession of his subterfuge, Perkin Warbeck was hanged as a traitor in 1499.

Nonetheless, some have claimed that the princes could indeed have escaped, pointing to a royal warrant providing clothing for ‘lord bastard’ in 1485. In fact, this probably referred to Richard III’s illegitimate son John. Henry VII certainly had no desire to foster the notion that royal rivals could still be alive, and if their remains were discovered during his reign, he would have been equally reluctant to remind his subjects of his own dynastically weak royal claim by publicly commemorating the princes.

The guilt of Richard III

Perhaps to ensure no more pretenders rose up against him, Henry VII extracted and disseminated a confession from condemned traitor Sir James Tyrrell that he had murdered the princes on Richard’s orders. The confession in 1502 was reported by contemporaries, most nenduringly by Thomas More.

In his History of King Richard III, he went further, claiming that to hide evidence of the crime, the murderer buried the princes at the foot of a staircase, “deep in the ground under a great heap of stones”. Later, More claimed, a priest connected to the Constable of the Tower dug up and reburied them in an unknown location.

These stories were interwoven to dramatic effect by William Shakespeare at the end of the Tudor period, forging a lasting narrative of Richard III as a callous murderer of children.

Then in 1674, the mystery of the princes’ disappearance finally seemed resolved. During building work beside the White Tower, the “bones of two striplings” were discovered buried three metres beneath a staircase. This eerie echo of More’s story was too compelling to ignore. The remains were proclaimed to be those of the murdered boys, and, in 1678, interred in an urn in Westminster Abbey.

The discovery was undeniably timely for the then-king, Charles II, whose own father had been murdered in the midst of civil war, and was facing ongoing wrangling with parliament about the royal succession. The princes’ story served as a reminder to his restive subjects of the dangers of deposition and of opposing the true succession.

But a question mark hangs over the Westminster Abbey sarcophagus, where these bones reside in a Christopher Wren monument. They are far from the only bones of adolescents found in the Tower of London in the centuries since the princes disappeared, and examination of the remains has only once been undertaken since the 17th century. Even then, the findings were far from satisfactory.

It is possible the princes have still not been found. Despite attempts by monarchs and writers either to silence the enigma of the princes, or spin the tale of their disappearance for their own ends, the mystery endures. Perhaps it always will.

Do the skeletons found in 1674 really belong to the Princes in the Tower?

As well as the two skeletons discovered in 1674, a number of other remains have been found inside the Tower of London over the centuries, which only further the mystery of the boys’ fate.

In the early 17th century, there were curious reports of walled-up chambers in which skeletons were discovered, while an account from the time Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned at the Tower mentions a hollow-sounding wall, which led to a secret room with the skeletons of two children lying on a table.

Another version of the story described a chamber in which “upon a bed two little carcasses” were found “with two halters around their necks”. In both reports, the room was then mured up again so as not to revive the memory of the princes’ deaths.

Most recently, in 1977, archaeologists discovered a young male skeleton in the southeast corner of the inmost ward of the Tower, on the site of the medieval palace. This would, at one time, have seemed highly suggestive. Yet radiocarbon dating established that the skeleton came from around AD 70, meaning it cannot be one of the princes.

Although this level of forensic testing has never been applied to the remains discovered in 1674, they were examined in 1933 by an archivist, an anatomist and the president of the British Dental Association.

This examination conclusively identified the remains as being the Princes in the Tower, but its findings are now rejected by many, not least because no attempt was made to establish if the two sets of bones were related to each other.

Forensic science has progressed to the point where radio carbon dating could determine a probable date of death for the skeletons, and mitochondrial DNA could resolve the question of their identity. But for such testing to occur, the remains in Westminster would have to be once again disturbed.

So far, both Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace have refused permission.

Lauren Johnson is a historian specialising in the 15th and early-16th centuries.

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This content first appeared in the March 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed