Could the mystery of the Princes in the Tower finally be solved?
In 1674, workers (while remodeling the Tower of London) came upon two child skeletons that were hidden in box under a staircase. Instantly, to the 17th century contemporaries, these bones were assumed to have been the lost Plantagenet princes (Edward V and Prince Richard). Sir Thomas More, in his histories, wrote specifically that the princes were buried “at a stair-foot” (possibly this information came from interviews with those who lived during the time of Richard III or maybe More was just making assumptions). This was enough for Charles II who had the bones buried at Westminster Abbey where they have remained to this day.
But, these bones have never been tested. There is no proof that these were the Princes except that they were found in the last location that the Princes had lived and were bones of children. Now, there might be a chance to solve this mystery once and for all. A direct descendant of Jacquetta of Luxembourg (the prince’s maternal grandmother) has been found and has allowed a sample of her DNA to be used to test against the bones found in the tower. From what I have read, it has been very difficult search to find a direct descendant (which makes sense due to the over 500 year time gap). The only hurdle now is to get permission from Westminster to exhume the bones once again in order to complete this test. Again, from what I have read, it seems that Westminster has been unwilling in the past to allow this, but maybe with having this solid DNA sample they may be more accepting.
Edward V and Prince Richard were the two surviving sons of Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. They lived towards the end of the ongoing conflict of the War of the Roses (Lancaster v. York, cousin v. cousin). This civil war had been continuing for over 30 years, but towards the end of Edward IV’s reign there seemed to finally be a relative peace. The succession also seemed extremely secured. Edward IV and Elizabeth had 12 children which included two sons (an heir and a spare). When Edward IV died of an unexpected illness, he left his two sons who were only aged 12 and 9 years old. Edward IV named his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, to be his son’s regent. Duke Richard had always proven himself to be one of Edward’s most loyal subjects, so who would suspect what happened after?
Duke Richard quickly took control of the heir, Edward, as Lord Protector. The Woodville family did not quite agree with the situation and preferred the heirs to be in hands of their own family (who had quickly grown powerful under Edward IV’s reign). Duke Richard knew this and quickly arrested and executed the boys uncle Anthony Woodville and their half brother, Richard Grey. Dowager Queen Elizabeth quickly took her daughters and remaining son, Richard, into sanctuary.
Once Duke Richard was able to convince the dowager queen to let his nephew out of sanctuary, the coronation for young Edward V was indefinitely postponed. Richard was sent to join his brother in the Tower of London, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. In 1484 Parliament declared that Edward IV’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville invalid due to a “pre-contract” with a Lady Eleanor Butler. I personally believe this was false. Duke Richard use this existing rumor as an excuse to take the throne once the nephews were proven “illegitimate.” He was crowed as Richard III on July 3 of that year.
There are recorded sightings of the boys playing outside on the Tower ground, but eventually were restricted to the inner apartments of the Tower. There were less and less sightings of the boys outside until they seemly disappeared. Many believe they were murdered by 1483 and others believe they were alive until 1484. It is really one of histories enduring mysteries as to the fate of the poor Princes in the Tower.
The main theory, of course, is that Richard III had the boys killed then hid their bodies. This would make sense as he did have them initially imprisoned in the Tower. The Princes were also an obvious threat. Despite Parliament declaring the Princes “illegitimate”, it would not stop those who believed in them from starting another revolt against Richard III. They were a clear danger for Richard. Allegedly, Sir James Tyrell later gave a confession that he smothered the princes under orders from Richard III. Tyrell obtained the keys and orders from the Constable of the Tower, Brackenbury and proceeded with the act. But, this “confession” has never been documented. When Henry VII later had Tyrell executed, the death of the princes was not one of the reasons. One would think that Henry VII, being so paranoid about his position on the throne, would have done anything to show his Yorkist predecessor was a kin slayer and that there was no chance the boys were still alive.
The potential DNA test, if it comes back a positive match, would be very incriminating for Richard III. There are many who, recently, have been working on rehabilitating Richard III’s reputation and often argue he was not the one who caused the disappearance of the boys. This test may hurt their cause.
There are other theories out there addressing what happened to the boys. The next most popular theory suggests that the princes were murdered due to a plot by Henry Tudor and his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Henry was out of the country during the suspected time of the disappearance, but were the boys possibly still alive by the time he took the throne? Did he have them murdered then? Were agents sent to commit the deed? Henry would definitely have a cause to eliminate the last Yorkist heirs and pave the way for his own claim.
Another popular theory is that one of the boys survived. I remember Philippa Gregory in her Cousin’s War series, suggesting that Richard was whisked to safety and a replacement child was sent to Richard III (I don’t know if she believes in this theory or if it just made good fiction). This is an intriguing theory as there were two later instances where rebellions were started led by one claiming they were Richard Plantagenet, son of Edward IV. The two main rebellions revolved around Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.
Lambert Simnel was used as a puppet in 1487 to start another Yorkist rebellion against the new King Henry VII. Simnel was under the control of the Earl of Lincoln John de la Pole and Richard Simons. Initially, they rallied support claiming young Simnel was Prince Richard who had miraculously escaped, but later flip flopped to make him Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick (the princes cousin). They gathered support in Ireland, but once the invasion began could not get the support of the English nobles. The rebellion fizzled out and poor Simnel was spared by Henry VII. Simnel went on to work in the royal kitchens.
Perkin Warbeck is a little more interesting. Warbeck always claimed he was Prince Richard, son of Edward IV and to many this was supported by his appearance. It was not until he was captured that the full confession came out revealing he was a peasant’s son (but was this induced by torture?) Margaret, Duchess of Burgandy and sister of Edward IV, brought Warbeck to her court in Flanders and groomed him for his role to revolt against Henry VII for the Yorkist cause. They gained the support of many European sovereigns, who believe Warbeck was the true heir. James IV of Scotland even arranged a marriage with a noble born wife, Catherine Gordon, who was the daughter of the Earl of Huntley. This caused extreme anxiety for Henry VII and the current English government. From 1490-1497 Warbeck and his followers worked to bring back a Yorkist government, but were eventually defeated and imprisoned by Henry VII. The rebellion failed and Warbeck was made to give those confessions about his humble origins. Then he was eventually hanged for treason on November 23rd 1499. Yet, Warbeck never wavered from his claim he was Prince Richard, until he was under the influence of possible torture. This brings up the questions: Did Prince Richard somehow survive?
I am not sure when the DNA test will be performed or if permission will be granted, but I am eager to hear the results. My personal belief is that Richard III had the boys killed discreetly to solidify his claim. The Henry Tudor theory seems a little far fetched and, while intriguing, I don’t think any of the boys escaped. The leaders of those rebellions used young men who could pass for one of the Princes as a pawn in their game.
I am always interested in hearing other theories as this mystery has always fascinated me. Do any of you have any theories as to the fate of the Princes? Do you think the DNA test will have a big impact in solving this cold case or do you think it won’t make a difference?
First read about the DNA testing from History Magazines Sept Edition 2018
A good reading on this topic is Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower published in 1992. She is one of my favorite historians, though the book isn’t without its biases. As this is a cold case there are many different interpretations of who was reaponsible and why.