An Unsolved Murder Mystery From before the Hype: The Princes in the Tower

April 28, 2022

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Many people nowadays are mad about true crime stories, even more so if the crimes are unsolved. Most of the mysteries take place in the last century, however, there is one rather unknown, unsolved, and even unconfirmed murder of two young princes, dating back to the 1480’s. The boys disappeared in 1483, after last being seen in the Tower of London. What could have happened? Who could be responsible for this? Are the skeletons even the princes’?

The two princes, the deposed King Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. They were respectively twelve and nine years old when their father died unexpectedly, which meant that Edward would become the new king. Upon hearing the devastating news of his brother’s death, Duke Richard of Gloucester, rushed to London to publicly “pledge his loyalty to the new king”. Traditionally, the king-to-be was lodged in the Tower of London prior to the coronation, where he was later joined by his younger brother. This is when it went sour for the two young princes; it soon became apparent that Richard wanted the throne for himself and he postponed the coronation indefinitely. Not long afterwards, the princes were declared illegitimate children of their parents, as their father, Edward IV, had been married before. This made Richard the heir to the throne and he was later crowned King Richard III of England. After he had seized the throne, Richard moved the brothers to the “inner apartments of the Tower”. They were seen less and less, until they disappeared completely; no one has seen the boys after the summer of 1483.

Other than their disappearance, there is not much evidence the boys were actually murdered. Centuries later, on two separate occasions, two children’s bodies were found, once in the Tower of London and once in St. George’s Chapel. All four bodies are considered possibly connected to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the two princes. Authorities have not allowed either set of skeletons to be analysed for possible DNA matches with the princes.

The bodies found in the Tower of London

In 1674, the Tower of London was remodelled and under one of the staircases – which had not been built yet at the time of Richard III – a wooden box was dug up, which contained two small, human skeletons. (Remarkably, this was not the first time children’s skeletons were found in the Tower; previously, the remains of two children had been found in a room that had been “walled up”, which some historians suggest could also have been the two princes.) Supposedly, the bones were found with pieces of rag and velvet around them, which could indicate that they belonged to aristocrats. In 1933, a team of experts examined the bones  and they concluded from the measurements of certain bones and teeth that they must have been those of two children around the ages the princes had been at the time of their disappearance. However, there was some criticism of this examination, as it had been conducted under the presumption that they belonged to the princes and it concentrated only on whether the bones showed any signs of suffocation, the presumed cause of death of the boys. The researchers did not even attempt to determine whether the bones were male or female. Since then, no further scientific examinations have been conducted on the remains found in the Tower of London, though many people call for DNA analysis to no avail. Experts point out, however, that, even if DNA can be collected from the bones, it can still only be proved whether or not they belong to the princes, and not who or what has caused their death.

The bodies found in St. George’s Chapel

In 1789, repairs were conducted on St. George’s Chapel, where workmen accidentally broke into the vault of King Edward IV and his Queen Elizatbeth Woodville, the parents of the two princes. In the process, they happened upon a small adjoining vault, where the coffins of two unidentified children were found. However, without any examination or inspection, the tomb was resealed. The side-vaults had the name of two other children of Edward IV on them, but elsewhere in the chapel, two coffins clearly labelled with the same names were later discovered. However, at no point in time investigation of the two bodies in the adjoining vault was conducted, so there is no way to be certain whether the bones belong to the princes or not.

Richard III

Because of the lack of hard evidence as to what has happened to the young princes, a number of theories has been put forward. Many historians conclude that Richard III is the most likely culprit for a number of reasons. Firstly, Richard’s claim to the throne was not as certain as he would have liked. When he had managed to get the princes declared illegitimate and lodged them in the Tower of London, there was already an attempt to rescue them, so that the young Edward V could be restored to the throne. Furthermore, rumours of the princes’ death already circulated by late 1483, and Richard never attempted to prove his nephews were still alive by having them make a public appearance. This strongly suggests they had already passed away. Moreover, Richard did not open any investigation into the disappearance of his nephews, which would have been in his interest, if he was not responsible for their deaths.

Also, Richard was not in London at the supposed time of the boys’ death, therefore, if they had died then, he could not have murdered them himself. However, as they were lodged in the Tower of London, which was guarded and controlled by Richard’s men, access to the boys was strictly limited by his instruction. Therefore, it is very unlikely they could have been murdered without his knowledge. It is believed by some historians that the actual murderer was Sir James Tyrell, an English knight who fought for the House of York on many occasions. A few decennia after the supposed murder of the two princes, Tyrell was arrested on another account and sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution, he is said to have admitted, under torture, to having murdered the two princes at Richard III’s orders. However, he was unable to say where the bodies were, as he claimed they were moved. Of course, one of the reasons this confession might not be just, is that it was done under torture, possibly making Tyrell admit these crimes in an attempt to stop the horrors he was experiencing.

Despite all the uncertainties in this accusation, many historians back in the 15th century, as well as today, believe Richard III to be responsible for the death of his nephews. However, there are more suspects.

Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham

Henry Stafford was the right-hand man of Richard III. He can only be a suspect if we know for sure that the princes had already died by November 1483, as that was the month in which Buckingham was executed himself. His motive might have been that he wanted to be crowned king, which is supported by the fact that he rebelled against Richard III in October 1483, to whom he first was very close. There are historians that take the rebellion as a sign that Richard had murdered the princes without Buckingham’s knowledge and that that had shocked him deeply.

However, there is also a document suggesting that Buckingham had murdered the princes himself, as the princes were under his custody when they died; they were supposedly starved to death under Buckingham’s custody. Others suggest that Buckingham and Sir James Tyrell had murdered the princes without waiting for Richard’s orders. To support this, one historian noted: “After the King’s departure, Buckingham was in effective command in the capital, and it is known that when the two men met a month later, there was an unholy row between them.” 

Buckingham is one of the more plausible suspects, however, for two reasons, it is unlikely that he acted alone. Firstly, suppose that he had acted without Richard’s knowledge or orders, it is very unlikely and extremely surprising that Richard did not expose Buckingham for murdering the princes after Buckingham was disgraced and executed, especially considering that Richard III could have cleared his own name in doing so. Furthermore, as stated previously, access to the princes in the Tower of London was strictly limited by Richard, making it almost impossible to get to them without Richard’s knowledge. Therefore, though he is highly suspected to have been involved in the probable murder, it is not widely accepted by historians that he acted on his own without Richard’s knowledge or orders.

Henry VII

The last main, potential suspect is Henry VII, also known as Henry Tudor. After he had seized the throne, he had executed some of the rival claimants to the throne. Henry was out of the country between the princes’ disappearance and August 1485, hence, the only opportunity he had to murder them would have been after his accession in 1485. This means that the princes should have survived for two years without ever being seen by the public before being murdered by Henry VII.

One historian suggests that the princes were executed in the summer of 1486 under Henry’s orders, as he claims it was only after then that the rumours started of Richard having murdered the boys, possibly under Henry’s orders as well. He also states that Elizabeth Woodville, the princes’ mother, knew the story was fake, which is why Henry had to have her silenced, as well.

However, none of the people in his time ever suspected Henry of committing the murders, not even his enemies, who probably would have, had they any doubt of his innocence. As with Richard III, as with Henry, there is no real evidence of his guilt and, if he had murdered the princes himself, he must have quickly gotten rid of the corpses and come up with a story that declared Richard guilty.

Whodunit?

Obviously, there are some other, minor suspects as to who was responsible for the disappearance and probable murder of the two boys. However, there is still a lot that remains uncertain and mysterious. To begin with, were the boys even murdered? Where are their bodies? Who was responsible? And who performed the actual execution? In my opinion, it is most likely that Richard III, the boys’ uncle, is one way or another responsible or at least knowledgeable of the murder. Whether he gave the order or just knew it was going to happen, I think he can be held accountable in some way. What do you think? If you are interested in more details and information about this case, I definitely encourage you to try to find some more information yourself!

Sources

“The Usurpation of Richard the Third”, Dominicus Mancinus ad Angelum Catonem de occupatione regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium libellus; Translated to English by C.A.J. Armstrong (London, 1936).

A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to London. Ward, Lock & Co. 1928. p. 234. Guidebook to London.

Alvaro Lopes de Chaves (ref: Alvaro Lopes de Chaves, Livro de Apontamentos (1438–1489), (Codice 443 da Coleccao Pombalina da B.N.L.), Imprensa Nacional – Casa da Moeda, Lisboa, 1983), private secretary to the Portuguese King Alfonso V.

Bennett, Michael (1993). The Battle of Bosworth (2nd ed.). Stroud: Alan Sutton. p. 46.

Hicks, Michael (2003). Richard III (Revised ed.). Stroud: History Press. p. 210.

Horrox, Rosemary (2004). “Edward IV of England”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 August 2013.

Lysons & Lysons, Magna Britannia, 1812 supplement p. 471. Also in Britton’s Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, 1812 page 45. The move to Edward IV’s crypt mentioned in Samuel Lewis, “A Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain” 1831.

Markham, Clement Robert (April 1891). “Richard III: A Doubtful Verdict Reviewed”. The English Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 6 (22): 250–283. doi:10.1093/ehr/vi.xxii.250.

Pollard, A.J. (1991). Richard III and the princes in the tower. Alan Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0862996600.

Potter, Jeremy (1983). Good King Richard? An Account of Richard III and his reputation. London: Constable. p. 128.

R. F. Walker, “Princes in the Tower”, in S. H. Steinberg et al., A New Dictionary of British History, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1963, p. 286.

Rhodes, D.E. (April 1962). “The Princes in the Tower and Their Doctor”. The English Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 77 (303): 304–306. doi:10.1093/ehr/lxxvii.ccciii.304.

Rosemary Horrox, ‘Tyrell, Sir James (c.1455–1502)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 27 August 2013

Thomas More, The History of King Richard the Third. Accessed 20 September 2013

Travis, Alan (5 February 2013). “Why the princes in the tower are staying six feet under”. The Guardian.

Weir, Alison (2008). The Princes in the Tower. London: Vintage. pp. 151–152.

Weir, Alison (2013). Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 104.

Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. 1992, Random House, ISBN 9780345391780, pp. 252–3.

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