What Happened to the Princes in the Tower?

by JoHarrington

It's an enduring Medieval mystery, which has intrigued historians for centuries. But what is really known about the disappearance of the boy king Edward V and his little brother?

If you believe that Richard III killed the Princes in the Tower, then you've been reading too much Shakespeare.

If you have decided that the boys were murdered, then that's one up on their own mother. Elizabeth Woodville accepted that they were dead, but she never once accused anyone of foul play.

If you think that their bodies were found and conveyed to a royal crypt, you may be right. But you'd have to decide which set, because currently there are two pairs of children's bones bearing their names.

The mysteries go on.

Were the Princes in the Tower Smothered in their Beds?

Your guess is as good as mine. For all we know, aliens might have spirited them away in a flying saucer.

Let it first be stated outright that nobody can say for certain that the Princes in the Tower were murdered.

We think we can say that, because so many histories include the conjecture that they were. Plus William Shakespeare is such a widely known playwright. Centuries of performances and scholarly readings of Richard III have 'educated' global populations to possibly fictitious 'facts'.

There is barely anyone left who doesn't naturally contemplate those children smothered in their beds, on the orders of the evil, usurper king.

Yet they don't appear to also muse on the fact that this was the worst possible political situation for Richard III. Illegitimate and under his control was precisely where he would have wanted those two boys.

The person with the most to gain from removing the Princes in the Tower was actually Henry Tudor. He needed them legitimate in order to make their sister and his wife, Elizabeth of York, legitimate too. He needed them gone, so he could take the throne for himself.

But it would be two years, since their disappearance from public view, before Henry Tudor would have access to them.

In truth, no-one can say for sure what happened to the Princes in the Tower. It's merely the most common belief - with some circumstantial evidence - that they died in the Tower of London somewhere between mid July and October 1483.

By autumn of the same year, their own mother seemed to be of the opinion that her young sons were dead. Their most fervent supporters seemed to agree.  The children might have expired of natural causes. Or they could have been murdered. Or they could have been taken to live in obscurity on the continent.

Let's look at the theories and the (usually circumstantial) evidence.

Who Killed the Princes in the Tower?

This timeline may be invaluable to consult as you attempt to solve the mystery of what happened to the Princes in the Tower.

A Useful Timeline of Edward V in 1483

For the moment, and for the sake of running through the list of suspects, we're going to make some assumptions.  Namely:

Crime: Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were murdered

Murder weapon: Unknown

Place:  The Tower of London

Time: Between mid July and October 1483

Two young royal boys disappeared in the Tower of London. But before we can speculate on the mystery, we need to know the history.

Richard III: Martyr or Monster? DVD Documentary

Did Richard III Kill The Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: Everyone from Burgundian ambassadors to Shakespeare has accused Richard III of this murder.

Access:  Richard was the guardian of the children at the time of their disappearance. He had put them into the Tower of London and he could gain access to them at any time.

Motivation: He had usurped the throne of Edward V and many people didn't like it. Rebellions were kicking off all over the south of England, designed to reinstate Edward. If the boys died, it would clear Richard's way to an uncontested crown. However, having them under lock and key, but illegitimate was even better. He didn't kill the other six people between him and the throne.

Alibi: Richard III left on a royal tour from July 7th or 8th 1483, not returning until November 25th later the same year.  He was not in London when the princes disappeared.

Ask anyone with a passing interest who killed the Princes in the Tower. The likely answer is that it was Richard III. But did he do it?

Did James Tyrrell Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: Named by the Tudors as the actual killer. Sir James Tyrrell apparently confessed to it under torture during the reign of Henry VII. He was executed shortly afterwards.

Access:  Tyrrell had no automatic access to the princes. Sir Thomas More wrote that he arrived at the Tower with verbal instructions from Richard III to be allowed in. The Constable of the Tower promptly opened the door.

Motivation: Tyrrell is believed to have been acting on orders from Richard III. His personal motivation would have been promotion within the new Yorkist monarchy.  Plus the king would owe him a favor.

Alibi: On August 30th 1483, James Tyrrell left York on horseback. He was on a mission to collect robes, in which young Edward of Middleham could be made Prince of Wales. He was possibly in London on or around September 3rd. He then left immediately again for York. Otherwise, his movements can be accounted for in the rest of the country.

Alison Weir argues that James Tyrrell was the murderer.
The Princes in the Tower

Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain two of the most fascina...

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Did the Duke of Buckingham Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: Contemporary rumors (within thirty years) pointed towards Sir Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham as the murderer.

A Tudor manuscript, found in the College of Arms, stated that the Princes had been murdered 'be the vise' of the Duke of Buckingham.

Access:  As Constable of London, and one of Richard's closest aides, Buckingham could have successfully demanded access to the boys. He wouldn't even need a letter from Richard confirming this.

Motivation: This is two-fold.  a) Buckingham as a Yorkist would have known that Richard's crown would be more secure without the Princes being alive. He may have decided to help his friend out. Or b) Buckingham's family were traditionally Lancastrian. He may have killed them to further his own ambition, or that of Henry Tudor.

Alibi: When Richard III and his Queen Anne Neville set off on their royal tour, Buckingham did not immediately join them. In fact, he remained in London for several days. When he finally caught up with Richard, on August 10th 1483, in Gloucester, the two men argued violently about something. Buckingham instantly left the king's side and rode to the Welsh Marches, where he began raising a rebellion against the king.

Did Buckingham tell Richard that he'd killed the princes? And did Richard not react with the anticipated appreciation and glee?

Did the Duke of Norfolk Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: Very few suspect John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, of murdering the Princes in the Tower. He's an outrider, beloved of those who've really looked into the case.

Access:  Norfolk was briefly Constable of the Tower for a few days in July 1483. (Several people were.) He could have walked right in then.

Motivation: This was all financial and/or to do with power and titles. Nine year old Richard, Duke of York, was already a widower. He had inherited the title Duke of Norfolk through his young, dead wife. If he disappeared, then John Howard himself would be next in line. (He got it anyway, through the same attainder which knocked Richard from the royal succession.)

Alibi: He has none. He was right at the scene during July 1483.

John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, and the Bloody Tower

Did Margaret Beaufort Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: No-one at the time and CERTAINLY no-one during the Tudor dynasty. Such things could lose you a head.

Access:  Her husband Thomas Stanley was Lord High Constable during the time of the disappearance of the Princes. He could definitely gain access to them.

Motivation: Margaret Beaufort was the mother of Henry Tudor. She spent her entire life doing her best to promote his claim to the throne.

During the autumn of 1483, she was also arranging a marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. This would secure Henry's crown, but only if Edward IV's children were legitimized again.

The ONLY two people who now stood between her son and his claim to the throne were the Princes in the Tower. Without them, Elizabeth of York would be Queen of England.

Alibi: No alibi. She was in London from June 1483. She was sending messages back and forth, via a doctor, with Elizabeth Woodville; and supporting the Duke of Buckingham in his rebellion.

Did Henry Tudor Kill the Princes in the Tower?

Suspect: He would be top suspect, if only we could believe that the princes were still alive in 1485. It would be disastrous for his reign, if they were. 

Henry Tudor as suspect relies upon him finding them still alive in the Tower after the Battle of Bosworth.  Then I'd frankly be amazed if he didn't kill them.

Access:  Henry Tudor had no way of gaining access to the Tower of London until August 1485. He's two years too late for our supposed murder date. After that, he was king and could go wherever he liked.

Motivation: His motivation is exactly the same as his mother's. Henry needed the children of Edward IV to be legitimate, so that his eventual wife, Elizabeth of York could secure the throne. But he needed her brothers both to be dead, so that she became the successor.

Alibi: From June to October 1483, Henry Tudor wasn't even in England, let alone London. He was in Brittany, gathering forces for an invasion of Britain in October 1483. It was very abortive, not least because seriously bad storms intervened.

Did the Princes in the Tower Die of Natural Causes?

There's no evidence to believe that they were even murdered. They just disappeared!

Image: The Princes in the TowerEveryone kind of assumes that Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were murdered. Not least because that's what the Tudors told us happened.

But their own mother believed them dead, without ever stating that murder was the cause. During the reign of the Tudors, it would have even been encouraged for her to say so, but she never did.

There is some evidence that Edward V was sickly before he even entered the Tower of London. He apparently had some kind of jaw disease. Could that have carried him off?

It's also worth noting again where they were living. The boys were confined to a single tower, which didn't do wonders for exercise and fresh air. Said tower was high above the city of London, which wasn't known for its healthy environs.

The moat around the Tower of London was where the sewerage and other rubbish went. In the nineteenth century, the whole moat was drained and filled in, because it was deemed to be the source of cholera and other viral nasties.

There's no reason at all to suppose that being cooped up in the Tower was any more healthy in the fifteenth century. Their deaths from natural causes would have been embarrassing for Richard III. A public relations nightmare in fact. Is that why he kept quiet?

Where are the Princes in the Tower Buried?

They can't be that disappeared, if we have their earthly remains. The trouble is that we keep on finding them.

Image: Princes in the Tower UrnWhen James Tyrrell was tortured into confessing to the murder of the Princes in the Tower, he seemed to have trouble locating where precisely they were living at the time.

We know that they were in the north-eastern (round) turret of the White Tower. He claimed that he buried their bodies under the stairwell of the Bloody Tower.

This left a bit of a plot hole in the story, which generations of historians have scurried to fill.  Alison Weir, for example, has the princes willingly walking over to the Bloody Tower from the White Tower, on a promise of meeting up with their mother, if they're good and quiet.

Tyrrell's tale nevertheless received a great boost in 1674. As part of a huge renovation project on behalf of the Stuarts, workman set about 'pullinge down the Tower against the White Tower'. This was almost certainly the twelfth century fore-building, which had been allowed to be constructed against the south wall. Most agreed that it was not only ugly, but hindered the defense of the White Tower.

As the 17th century demolition crew moved in, they made a grisly discovery. Under the flagstones of the corridor leading into the chapel were the skeletal remains of two children.

Charles II promptly declared them the Princes in the Tower and had an ornate urn sculpted to receive their bones. It still sits in Westminster Abbey, labelled Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.

Scientists got to have a peep at the skeletons in 1933. They determined that some of the bones actually belonged to chickens and the like, but there were definitely two children of roughly the right ages in there. The gender could not be discerned.

(It could now, but Queen Elizabeth II refuses permission for modern forensic experts to open the urn.)

All cut and dry, Princes found and all that. Except for two small details. Why aren't they where James Tyrrell said that he left them? (The semi official explanation is that they were moved from the Bloody Tower to the White Tower after Tyrrell left.) And, if they are the Princes, then who is buried in the crypt in Windsor with their parents?

Where are the Princes in the Tower Buried? Part Two

King - check! Queen - check! Baby George - check! Princess Mary - check! Prince George again... hold on...

Image: Monument to Edward IVIn 1789, workmen were investigating the fact that the floor appeared to be sinking in one area of St George's Chapel, in Windsor.

After carefully removing some flagstones, they found themselves peering inside the crypt of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The former was in a lead coffin and it was still intact. The latter had been laid there in a wooden coffin. It had disintegrated.

They were about to respectfully back out of there and seal it up again, when their torchlight glanced over something strange. It was an unmarked smaller crypt, leading off the official large one.

Shining their light inside, two lead coffins were revealed, small enough to have held children.  This was no great mystery then. The couple had lost Prince George aged two and Princess Mary aged fourteen. It was known that the Plantagenet children had been buried in Windsor. They'd apparently just been found lying alongside their parents.

Which was all well and good, until 1810, when restoration work began on the area of St George's Chapel now called the Albert Memorial Chapel. Here two more lead coffins were discovered, which were clearly labelled for George and Mary of York.

It was decided to pop them back in with their parents, which afforded a second opportunity to inspect those other sealed lead coffins. They were without any labels at all. But what other children could possibly have been buried with such honor? 

Positioned right next to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville within the same crypt, these surely have to hold the remains of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. But if so, then they must have been added around the same time. Elizabeth Woodville probably knew that they were there.

With all respect due, neither of the mystery coffins were opened. It's unlikely that Queen Elizabeth II will allow their inspection now.

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Were the Princes in the Tower Smuggled Out of the Country?

With no evidence that they were murdered as children, then we would expect to see them as adults. And we did!

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, you couldn't throw a stone without accidentally hitting a pretender to the throne.

However, some were more convincing than others. The mystery of Perkin Warbeck is the biggest of them all. Was he really Richard, Duke of York, sneaked out of the Tower of London and raised by Margaret of Burgundy?

Margaret was the sister of both Edward IV and Richard III. She moved to Burgundy upon her marriage in 1466. She invited the young Perkin Warbeck into her home and acknowledged him as her nephew Richard.

In 1495, she even funded his return to reclaim his throne. Warbeck gained support in both Ireland and Scotland, marching with an ever growing army through England.

A Cornish army declared him Richard IV, to much acclaim, on Bodmin Moor.

In October 1497, the proclaimed Richard IV was captured by Henry VII at Beaulieu Abbey, in Hampshire. He was taken to the Tower of London and interrogated.  He refused to shift from his story that he was Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower, grown and back to reclaim his throne.

The man had many powerful supporters, and a story which was difficult to dislodge, so Henry couldn't simply execute him and get it over with. The supposed York king became one of the biggest threats to his monarchy.

For two years, he remained at the Tower, still calling himself Richard IV. Then, in 1499, he attempted to escape alongside Edward of Warwick - cousin to the Princes in the Tower. The two were easily recaptured.

That was Henry Tudor's excuse to torture Richard. In excruciating agony, the man admitted that his name was Perkin Warbeck and that he was the son of a Dutch fisherman. That was good enough for Henry, who promptly had him hanged at Tyburn.

Books about Perkin Warbeck

Check out these histories to uncover more detail about the strange case of Richard IV, Pretender to the English throne.

And Finally...

By now, you must be wishing that you had a time machine, in order to go back and solve this mystery for once and for all.

Fortunately this is Britain and we have the greatest Time Lord of all flashing about the universe in his police box.

In The Kingmaker audio book, the Fifth Doctor did go back to 1483 and entered the Tower of London to find his answers. He found them too.  I'd love to tell you what happened, but...

Spoilers, sweetie.


Updated: 08/08/2013, JoHarrington
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What do YOU think happened to the Princes in the Tower?

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JoHarrington on 10/17/2013

You're very welcome! I've also thought of Dr Who, while contemplating the Princes in the Tower. You're right though, it can drive you half mad with wondering what actually happened to the boys.

About the only person I now think was innocent was Richard III. It was totally not in his interests to kill them.

JoHarrington on 08/03/2013

Ologsinquito - Precisely, but I still have my suspect.

Aingham69 - Oh! You mentioned Anne Neville before, and I haven't given her due consideration. She had the access and Richard would definitely have kept quiet for her. She should be on the suspect list.

AlexandriaIngham on 08/03/2013

Great piece. I've never viewed Richard III as a monster; just a product of his time. If he did do it, I think I could understand his motives at the time. That said, I don't think it was him. While you raise a good point about Margaret Beaufort, my suspicions still like with Anne Neville for some reason. She was the Kingmaker's Daughter and she definitely wasn't as weak minded as so many seem to make her out in books.

Unfortunately, it's something that we'll never find out but history will always paint Richard III in a bad light all thanks to the Tudor propaganda. It's only been since finding his body that people have realised Henry VII and his side lied/exaggerated about a few things.

ologsinquito on 08/02/2013

There are many suspects. They also could have died of natural causes. Who knows?

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Currently, I least suspect Richard III. I am in the minority here.

ologsinquito on 08/02/2013

No, I've lived long enough to realize that anything is possible. Sometimes the person you'd least suspect is the guilty one.

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Glad you liked it. So you're not going to hazard even a gut feeling?

ologsinquito on 08/02/2013

Hi Jo,

It's anyone's guess. Another interesting installment in this series.

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