What happened to the princes in the tower?


It is virtually impossible for the average disinterested reader to easily separate, identify, and memorize all of the persons involved in the rule of England in the 15th century: the sheer number of such persons is staggering, and their names all seem to run together into a sheet of white noise: Henry Edward IV VII, Lord of Norfolk Buckingham (and so on and so forth). Thus, we shall try to simplify this particular story down to six easy to digest main characters:

  • Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York, who initiated the famous War of the Roses with the Lancaster family in 1446. Richard himself was killed in battle in 1460, and thus Edward IV became the heir to the York dynasty, and its potential king. Following quickly in his father's footsteps, Edward took over London in 1461, annihilated the Lancastrian army, and had himself declared king. Despite his apparent victory, he had many enemies within the state, including
  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who, in addition to being the Duke of Gloucester, was also Edward IV's brother. In 15th century England, however, being one's brother offered little familiarity and friendliness - with the crown at stake, backstabbing was commonplace and treachery was always afoot. To prove the point, Edward IV had his other brother George, Duke of Clarence executed for plotting against him. Thicker than water indeed! Richard, of course, wouldn't be seen around town without his trusty sidekick
  • Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The story goes that Buckingham was related to the royal family so many times he was his own first, second, and third cousin! At the age of 12, he was forced into marriage with Catherine Woodville, the younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to - you guessed it - Edward IV. He seemed to really hold a grudge about this, and was always more loyal to Richard than to the crown. All of those relations included a second cousinship with
  • Henry Tudor, a Lancaster and therefore an enemy of the crown. He was exiled to Ireland after a huge 1460 battle ended in defeat for the family. However, he still had many connections in the British government (remember those enemies of the state?) and was certainly plotting for his own takeover of the throne. Part of those murderous plans would most definitely involve
  • Edward V, son of Edward IV. The War of the Roses was waning, but troubles with the Lancasters had not. Edward V was born on November 4, 1470, in Westminster Abbey where his mother lay in sanctuary as the Lancasters temporarily held the throne. With the imprisonment of Henry VI that year, Edward IV was again reinstated to the crown, and at the tender age of 8 months, Edward V was crowned Prince of Wales. He was also the next in line for the kingdom on Edward IV's death. He is the first prince of the tower, along with
  • Richard, Duke of York, born in 1473. The grandson of the first Richard, Duke of York (the one that started the War of the Roses, remember?) he was the younger brother of Edward V, and after him, the heir to the throne of the King of England.

So, we have a king, embattled by civil war and treason in his own family; his scheming and power-hungry brother and his equally power-hungry underling; an exiled contender for the throne; and two young boys, barriers to power through no fault of their own beyond their birth. All of this intrigue and dash led to one of the greatest mysteries of the modern world:

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The Story

Happy-go-lucky young Edward, Prince of Wales, was sent to Ludlow Castle in Wales to serve as the king's correspondent at the new Council of Wales, formed to help consolidate and organize his loyal servant's power. It was here that Edward received the unhappy news that his father had passed away unexpectedly April 8, 1483. This led to Edward's coronation as Edward V on April 9. He was 12 years old. Due to his youth, his uncle Richard was named to be his protector and main advisor.

Amazingly, it took only three months for Richard to find a technical way to the throne: he had the Bishop of Bath declare Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate, making the princes bastards unworthy of the throne. Parliament agreed, and on June 25, 1483, they issued a famous document Titulus Regius, declaring Richard III the new king of England. The boys, of course, were not subject to any criminal actions for the sheer misfortune of being illegitimate. Instead, Edward and young Richard were whisked away to the Tower of London which, in 1483, was serving double duties as both a prison and a palace. The boys were seen on occasion playing on the Tower Green (where Anne Boleyn and Thomas More would later lose their heads), but with less and less frequency, until sometime when they simply were not seen at all.

In October 1483, Henry Stafford, angry with his overlord for stiffing him on a promised deal to return lands to his family taken by Edward IV for the kingdom, began conspiring with Henry Tudor to reclaim England for the Lancasters. He formed a great army in Wales to march on Richard's army, but a massive storm disenchanted his troops, who abandoned him. While attempting to escape the country in disguise, Stafford was caught and beheaded on November 2.

Nobody except Richard saw the boys on a regular basis - and thus their absence was merely a footnote in the history of time. By early 1484, however, suspicions began to arise that the boys were no longer alive, and that they had been murdered by none other than their uncle Richard. There was no proof of this, of course - no one could even go inside the Tower or demand to see the boys alive to prove the theories otherwise. Their deaths were simply an unfounded rumor, and as they themselves were unimportant to the future of the crown of England, nobody seemed to really care. Idle mention of their deaths in chronicles of the years seem uncertain as to even if they were killed at all.

In 1485, Henry Tudor led another major attack on Richard, and this one proved successful (wonderfully dramatized in William Shakespeare's Richard III, with the hapless Richard running across Bosworth field shouting, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"). Tudor became Henry VII, the first in the Tudor line of kings, and the War of the Roses was officially over. Of course, none of this answers the question:

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The Aftermath

In 1674, workers tearing down a staircase at the Tower found a small box containing the skeletons of two young people. The bones were interred in Westminster Abbey until 1933, when a group of forensic scientists checked the bones to attempt to identify them once and for all as the princes in the tower.

They could not do so.

Though they identified the bodies as two young males (roughly the same ages as the princes), there were no distingiushing characteristics, such as the young Richard's alleged dented forehead. Much of the skeletons were in decay, and little information could be gleaned from them. Although it is widely supposed the two bodies are those of Edward and Richard, there is no convincing proof either way.

In 1495 Perkin Warbeck, a Flemish earl, claimed to be the young Richard and heir to the throne of England. So willing to believe him were some members of Parliament and the royal family that they refused to fight against him. Still, Henry VII struck down the small military unit Warbeck brought, denounced him as a usurper, and had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was later executed.

In 1502, while under the effects of the rack, James Tyrell "confessed" to murdering the princes, though he did not provide any information as to their date of death, the location of the bodies, or how they were killed. The confession is highly dubious to have even occurred - Tyrell was a plotter against the throne of Henry VII, and most people suggest this is just a rumor started to throw suspicion off of Richard III.

The Theories

The most commonly held theory is that Richard murdered the boys or had Buckingham murder them. It is very interesting to me that men who were bound to be emperors and kings would go to such direct means to their ends - in today's time, most rulers are at least savvy enough to have the CIA do all their dirty work for them. Still the boys' illegitimacy was only a minor barrier to their own claim to the throne - the declaration was only words, and in 15th century, the sword was still very much mightier than the pen. With a few help from sympathetic family members the boys could very well have overthrown their uncle upon reaching maturity.

Another theory states that Tudor ordered Buckingham to murder the boys in order to make Richard look bad to his people and to also remove the potential thorns from his side before his own bid for the crown. Buckingham was a member of the Lancaster family, and his loyalty to Richard might have been soured after the king renounced an agreement he had with the duke to return family lands to him taken by Edward IV.

A third theory is making its way through secret circles today. It is by far the most implausible theory - and yet its implausibility also makes it the most intriguing one as well. A young Henry Stafford served as third in line to the Lancaster throne, behind Henry Tudor and Henry's mother. He also had loyalties to the current king, being his brother-in-law through arranged marriage. He in fact had the perfect opportunity to play both sides against each other. And so, in a matter of course, he did. He gave away battle positions (discreetly, through "spies") to both sides, allowing them to war each other down. When the Yorks began making large headways, he stepped in - though on the side of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, rather than Edward IV. He remained beneath the scenes, though he corresponded with his cousin Henry Tudor on occasion; innocuous letters, no doubt. When Edward IV passed away unexpectedly, Stafford saw his chance. He murdered the boys, and when Richard took the blame, he defected to the Lancasters, who used the deaths as a pretense to declare Richard unfit for the crown. Were it not for a freak storm in which Henry's armada was soundly destroyed and Stafford's army demoralized into naught, perhaps he, and not Tudor, would have become the next king of England. Such long and winding acts of treason were as common as not in medieval Europe.


One even less thrown about theory is perhaps the most preposterous of all: that the boys were not killed in the tower, and survived not only Richard III and the Duke of Buckingham, but also Henry VIII and others. Some reasons to support this theory:

  • After Henry Tudor became King of England, he ordered Elizabeth Woodville to testify before Parliament as to the facts of his legitimacy to the crown. She acquiesced on all points, except for the one: that her sons Edward and Richard were dead.
  • At no other time during the rest of her life (Woodville died in 1492) did she ever claim her sons had been murdered, or that they were missing.
  • There is no physical evidence that the boys were ever killed in the tower or otherwise. Today, the Queen of England refuses to allow DNA testing of the bones, citing that since the princes are surely dead now - albeit mysteriously - there is no reason in stirring up rumors and hearsay anymore than already exists.

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The short answer is: who knows? Were they killed by their uncle? By a warring Lancaster? By a conniving henchman? Or did they live out their days far away from the responsibilities (and dangers!) of royal life? Without further proof, there's simply no way of knowing. There are many books on the subject, but none of them offer the definitive answer. We might just have to wait until the end of days before a light is shined on the mysterious vanishings in the Tower of London on some dark winter's day, 500 years ago.


  • http://www.holbeinartworks.org/
  • Prisoners of the Tower of London. Perchin Books: London. 1985.

Actually, that's not quite right...

  • Edward IV was not "embattled by civil war", after his restoration in 1471 the remainder of his reign was comparatively uneventful and peaceful by the standards of the day. His brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester remained loyal to him throughout his reign which was why Edward IV appointed him Lord Protector; he never considered him an "enemy of the state" and he never behaved as such.
  • Henry Tudor was not exiled to Ireland, he was actually allowed to live quite peacefully under the care of William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke at Raglan Castle until he took the opportunity to escape into exile in Brittany in 1471. Edward IV never particularly regarded him as a serious threat and neither did anybody else before 1483.
  • Contrary to the assertion made, the 1933 forensic examination of the remains discovered in 1674 was not inconclusive; it reached some very definite conclusions which are referred to below.
  • James Tyrell's confession was not "used by the Tudors to kill him", he was arrested and convicted for treason in relation to an entirely different matter.
  • The Bishop of Bath and Wells did not "declare the marriage invalid", it was the Duke of Buckingham that made the allegation public; the involvement of the Bishop is referred to in a later French source which names him as the source of the allegation on which Richard based his claim.

Etc. I could go on, but let us rather find out what exactly happened.

It is curious that the deaths of the Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, the 'Princes in the Tower' have over the years excited so much interest. One historian, presumably exasperated at the attention paid to them at the expense of other, perhaps worthier but duller subjects was heard to say that "I just do not understand how people can become so upset over the fate of a couple of sniveling brats. After all, what impact did they have on the constitution?".

Be that as it may a proper consideration of the true fate of the princes is required and particularly of the man who is generally held responsible for their deaths, Richard Planatagenet, Duke of Gloucester and later king Richard III.

Now Richard III has received a bad press, for which I think we can largely blame William Shakespeare. After all he wasn't a hunchback and he didn't have a withered arm; he was a generous patron of the church, demonstrated a keen interest in heraldry, founded the College of Arms, was a popular figure in the north of England and on the basis of the evidence of his brief reign, might well have proved to have been a competent and successful king.

But he was also, and we should not forget this, a ruthless bastard quite prepared to kill people to get what he wanted.

The circumstances regarding Richard's seizure of the throne

In 1464 Edward IV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville without, as was customary, seeking the prior approval of his council. This marriage was opposed by almost everybody except Edward and Elizabeth themselves, on the grounds that Elizabeth was a commoner and had previously been married to a John Grey - who was a Lancastrian to boot, killed at the battle of Towton in 1461.

As a result of this marriage, Elizabeth's father Richard Woodville was ennobled as the Earl Rivers, her son by her first marriage Thomas Grey, became the Marquess of Dorset and many other members of the Woodville family were similarly rewarded - Elizabeth had fifteen siblings, so there were plenty of Woodvilles about.

The Woodvilles were never popular, their sudden rise to wealth and influence was resented and was what ultimately inspired the revolt of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick in the years 1469 to 1471 (which led to the brief 'interegnum' when Henry VI was restored to the throne), and later problems with George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence. The politics of the reign of Edward IV was therefore dominated by the divisions between the Woodville party and the anti-Woodville party.

When Edward IV died on the 9th April 1483 the result was a power struggle between the Woodvilles and Richard, Duke of Gloucester for the control of Edward V and therefore the government of the country. On his deathbed Edward IV appointed his brother as Lord Protector, and the anti-Woodville party therefore gathered around the figure of Richard. Both sides were convinced (and with good reason) that the other side would act against the other if they succeeded.

On the 29th April 1483 Richard executed what was essentially a coup, intercepting Edward V on his journey from Ludlow to London. At Stony Statford he seized hold of the young king together with the Earl Rivers (who had been Edward's guardian) and other members of his household and escorted Edward to the royal apartments at the Tower of London.

By means of this preemptive strike Richard and his allies, who included the Duke of Buckingham and the Lord Hastings as well as various members of the Howard family, effectively wiped out the Woodvilles as a political force. At that time no one knows if Richard had already decided to take the crown for himself; he may well have been purely motivated by a desire to exclude the Woodvilles from power.

Certainly by the 13th June 1483 Richard was clearly aiming for the throne when he had the Lord Hastings arrested and killed. Hastings despite his hatred of the Woodvilles was essentially a loyalist who was committed to seeing Edward V crowned in accordance with the wishes of his father Edward IV. And Hastings was therefore an obstacle that stood in Richard's way and needed to be removed.

On the 22nd June 1483 Richard effectively announced his claim to the throne by means of a sermon preached by Ralph Shaw at St. Paul's Cross. Three days later, on the 25th June 1483 the Earl Rivers, together with three other Woodville supporters were killed at Pontefract Castle; on the same day in London the Duke of Buckingham addressed a meeting of the Lords and Commons at Westminster and presented a petition for them to sign, which set out the claim that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth had been invalid, that their children were bastards and that therefore Richard was the legitimate heir.

Irrespective of the actual truth of this claim, and it does not appear that many believed it at the time, it was sufficient pretext to enable Richard to claim the throne; and as the contemporary record of Dominic Mancini explained, the assembly;

consulted their own safety, warned by the example of Hastings and perceiving the alliance of the two Dukes, whose power, supported by a multitude of troops, would be difficult and hazardous to resist; and therefore they determined to declare Richard their king and ask him to undertake the burden of office.

On the 26th June 1483 at Barnard's Castle the Duke of Buckingham formally presented this petition to Richard. It was accepted and therefore marked the day on which king Richard III was to date the beginning of his reign as king of England. Less than a fortnight later Richard III|Richard] was crowned king on the 6th July 1483

The fate of the Princes in the Tower

At the time of the death of Lord Hastings, Edward V's servants were dismissed, and access to the soon to be deposed king was restricted; later in June Edward was also joined by his brother Richard, Duke of York who was released by his mother Elizabeth Woodville after assurances given by Thomas Bourchier the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Son afterwards the two boys were moved from the royal apartments; they were probably not kept in that part of the Tower of London since known as the Bloody Tower, but most likely in the White Tower, in the secure chambers above the royal apartments where it was customary to lodge important prisoners of state.

And after that no more was heard of the two princes.

And after that rumours began to circulate that Richard III had killed them both.

In late 1483 the Dominic Mancini wrote that "I have seen many men burst forth into tears and lamentation" when they talked of the fate of young Edward.

In January 1484 Guillame de Rochefort, the Chancellor of France addressed the Estates General with the words;

Look I pray you at the events that have taken place in that country since the death of king Edward. Think of his children, already big and strong, murdered with impunity and the crown transferred to their murderer by the will of the people.

As the Great Chronicle recorded for the year 1484; but after Easter much whispering was among the people that the king had put the children of king Edward to death.

Later the Spanish envoy Diego de Valera was to write;

It is sufficiently well known to your majesties that this Richard killed two inncocent nephews of his, to whom the realm belonged after his brother's life

Or to put it another way; these were not just idle rumours. It was universally believed throughout Europe that Richard III had killed his nephews. What is interesting is that Richard III never once responded to these accusations; never protested his innocence of the crime, never took any steps to disprove the allegations, never publicly made any reference whatsoever to the princes.

The importance of the Princes in the Tower

It is precisely because people believed that Richard III had murdered his nephews that they turned against him, regarded him as tyrant, regarded him as king who should be deposed. As the Great Chronicle explained regarding people's attitude to Richard III;

the more in number grudged so sore against the king for the death of the inncocents that as gladly would they have been French as be under his subjection

(Note that it doesn't matter for these purposes whether Richard killed them or not, the fact that they believed that he had done so was sufficient.)

People were not indifferent to the fate of the two princes; even in an age when it was customary to execute you defeated enemies on the field of battle and where people scarcely blinked an eye when the deposed Henry VI was beaten to death, people still regarded the killing of two young boys who were not of age as a crime against nature which invited divine retribution.

Now other than the immediate members of his family, nobody took Henry Tudor seriously as a contender for the throne in Edward IV's reign. He was the "unknown Welshman" (as Richard himelf dubbed him) languishing in poverty and exile in Brittany; the king of Portugal had a better claim than he did. It was the belief that Richard III had killed his nephews and the widespread revulsion that crime invoked that inspired people to flock to Henry's banner and offer money and support. Since they believed the princes were both dead, Henry was the only available candidate that could rid the country ofRichard.

Their deaths were therefore not "unimportant to the future of the crown of England"; they were in fact of the greatest importance to the 'future of the crown of England'. They transformed Henry Tudor from a nobody into a serious challenger for the throne of England and ultimately made him king.

The controversy regarding Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

As we have noted above, the belief in Richard's guilt was fairly well established during his reign, a belief that continued under the rule of his Tudor successors. (Although it has to be said that Henry VII never went so far as to directly accuse Richard III of the crime, and generally speaking sought to smooth over the controversies of his predecessors.) It was not until the year 1611 and the rediscovery of the text of Titulus Regius that contained the claim regarding the illegitimacy of Edward V and his brother that the issue of Richard's guilt was reconsidered.

In 1617 William Cornwallis published his The Encomium of Richard III which sought to defend Richard against the charge of murdering the princes, which was followed in 1619 by The History of Richard III which again proclaimed Richard III's innocence. This latter volume was the work of one John Buck whose grandfather had been executed as supporter of Richard III,and was therefore particularly keen to 'restore' the former king's reputation.

Thereafter various individuals at various times have sought to demonstrate Richard III's innocence, often concocting the most bizarre theories in the process, but whose arguments generally boil down to the assertion that since there is no evidence directly linking Richard to the murder of the princes he cannot be said to have been responsible for their murder.

On the whole it would be best to summarise the position by stating that the majority of historians believe, with varying degrees of certainty, that Richard III did indeed kill the princes, and who are therefore known as the 'traditionalists'; then there are a number of 'revisionist' or 'Ricardian' enthusiasts that seek to in some way absolve Richard III or legitimise his actions.

There is no real 'mystery' as such, the evidence, such as it is and almost entirely circumstantial all points to the death of both princes sometime in late 1483 and that the culprit was the man that had them in custody at the time, Richard III.

The real mystery is why some people are so eager to 'defend' Richard III. After all the circumstances of the deaths of the two princes are strangely similar to that of a previous Plantagenet prince, Arthur of Brittany who arguably had a better claim to the throne than his uncle John; and John had Arthur imprisoned at Rouen in 1202, after which Arthur simply disappeared from view. No one seems to doubt that John had Arthur killed and there are no 'King John' societies that seek to redeem that kings' reputation.

The remains discovered in 1674

On the 17th July 1674 some workmen discovered a wooden chest buried beneath the foundations of a staircase in the White Tower at the Tower of London. Inside the chest were the bones of two young children; it was decided that these were the remains of the two young princes which were later translated to Westminster Abbey and laid to rest under a white marble coffin designed by Christopher Wren.

There they remained for some 250 years until George V, acting in response to public pressure authorised an opening of the tomb at Westminster and an examination of the remains.

The two 'forensic scientists' were examined the skeletons were in fact Dr Lawrence E Turner, Keeper of Monuments at Westminster Abbey and Profeesor W Wright President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain. The Tanner and Wright report published in 1934 in th journal Archaelogica concluded that there were skeletons of two children.

They used dental evidence to determine the ages of the children and concluded that the eldest was between 12 and 13, the youngest between 9 and 11. In September 1483 Edward V was 2 months shy of his 13th birthday and his brother was 10 that month, therefore the ages of the skeletons found were a pretty close match. They also concluded from an examination of the remains that the two skeletons showed a distinct family resemblance and were therefore closely related.

For these and other reasons Tanner and Wright concluded that the two skeletons were indeed those of the two princes and stated "that the evidence that the bones in the urn are those of the Princes is as conclusive as could be desired".

Since that time there have been much discussion regarding Tanner and Wright's report, but nothing has come to light to demonstrate that they were incorrect in any respect.

Of course more modern scientific techniques such as DNA anlaysis, would be able to shed more light on the matter, but the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey have so far refused further access to the remains. As Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar they are technically under the authority of the sovereign; whether the current monarch Elizabeth II has any view on the matter or whether she has simply deferred the matter to the officals at the Abbey is not known.

This only scratches the surface of the vast outpourings of text on the subject.

Further information can be found at the Richard III society American branch which has a The Richard III Society Online Library at http://www.r3.org/bookcase/index.html that includes online versions of various source documents, as well as a great deal of other material. In particular there is a useful summary entitled Whodunit: The Suspects in the Case By Helen Maurer see http://www.r3.org/bookcase/whodunit.html (which concludes that Richard II did do it).

There is also the Richard III society at www.richardiii.net and a Richard III foundation at http://www.richard111.com/ but the best summary of evidence is best found offline; The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir (Bodley Head, 1992).

The quotation at the beginning is attributed to Helen Maud Cam and quoted in Whodunit: The Suspects in the Case By Helen Maurer as noted above.

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