What terrible fate befell the princes in the tower? Well, as far as murder mysteries go, this one is still unsolved.
Our story – which is one of the most notorious tales of British history – takes place in 1483 in the Tower of London.
It’s the sad tale of two little princes named Edward and Richard. Edward was around 12; Richard was nine. The death of Edward’s father, King Edward IV, meant that the young boy had technically become King of England.
Of course, at the tender age of 12, he was too young to rule. So his uncle, Richard III, took over as protector to the throne.
Young Edward would never have the chance to become king. He, and his younger brother, disappeared in about 1483. Almost everyone believes that the boys were murdered.
But who did it? And why? The grisly remains of two buried skeletons, found in 1674, may hold some clues. But we can’t be entirely sure – even today.
The Unexpected Death of King Edward IV
In 1483, the old king of England – Edward IV – died unexpectedly of a quick and terrifying illness.
We’re not quite sure what finished him off. It was probably a violent infection, but it could have easily been a heart attack or diabetes. He was getting very fat in his later years.
The king was aged 41, and his death left the country in a state of shock. He had sons who could succeed him – Edward [V] and little Richard – but Edward was just 12.
As a result, the old king’s brother – Richard – assumed protectorship of the throne of England.
Richard shepherded the old king’s boys from their lodgings in different corners of England, and brought them to the Tower of London.
It was common for a monarch-to-be to stay for a few days in the Tower of London before they were crowned. So no-one thought this was particularly strange.
What’s odd, though, is that the date of young Edward’s coronation slipped. First it was 4 May, then it became 25 June. Then, on 16 June, Richard postponed it. Indefinitely.
You see, Richard was rigging a silent coup. In June, he persuaded a group of gentry to declare him the true King of England. He then manipulated Parliament to declare the two young boys illegitimate.
And so he was crowned King Richard III of England. The two princes remained in the Tower – once the sons of a king; now cast as illegitimate offspring, irrelevant to the English crown.
The Disappearance of the Two Princes in the Tower
Let’s call forward our first witness. Dominic Mancini was an Italian friar, who was probably staying in the Tower of London at about the same time as the two young princes. He wrote down what he’d seen of the boys during their imprisonment.
“[As time went on], all the attendants who had waited upon [young Edward] were debarred access to him.
He and his brother were withdrawn to the inner apartments of the Tower… and day by day began to be seen more rarely… until at length they ceased to be seen altogether.”
The last report we have of the princes alive is during the summer of 1483, when they played together in the garden at the Tower. They were never seen again after that.
It’s almost certain they were murdered. But by who?
Murder Most Terrible: Were the Princes Suffocated in Bed?
Writing some years later, the Tudor loyalist Thomas More blamed the murder on Sir James Tyrrell, one of King Richard’s closest friends.
Thomas More wrote that King Richard ordered the death of the boys, and asked Tyrrell to mastermind the murder. Tyrrell chose not to get his hands bloody, and delegated it downwards to two of his own men.
Thomas More wrote that the boys were suffocated in their bed, and they were then were buried “at a stair foot”.
Was this true? Well, in 1674, we’ve some evidence which might corroborate it.
Digging Up The Bones of the Boys
The next piece of evidence emerged many years later – in 1674.
Builders were working on the Tower of London, and were adapting some of the parts of the White Tower. To do that, they knocked down an old staircase.
Beneath it – at the ‘stair foot’ Thomas More wrote of – they discovered a wooden box, containing the skeletons of two children. The bones were found with pieces of fine fabric, long rotted. They suspected that the remains belonged to the two young princes.
It was only many years later – in 1933 – that scientists began to analyse the skeletons.
The work of the scientists has been widely criticised in modern times.
The two men who analysed the remains did exactly what you’re not meant to do as a scientist – they set out to prove that the bones belonged to two young boys. (Setting up an experiment this way makes it instantly flawed, as you’re biased from the very beginning).
Nevertheless, the scientist’s project ‘proved’ that the bones belonged to two young boys aged about nine and 12 – the ages of the two princes.
As a result, the skeletons were widely proclaimed to be of the princes in the tower. This means that they’re now interred in Westminster Cathedral, alongside other royal remains.
This is a big problem for modern detectives who’d like to conduct more tests on the bones.
Because the skeletons are thought to be royalty, anyone wanting to test them for DNA samples would need the Queen of England’s permission.
The Queen, and Church of England, aren’t willing to let this happen.
Whodunnit?! Our Lineup Of Suspects
So, who killed the princes in the tower? We’ve a few key suspects, although you’ll need to make up your own mind.
Our Prime Suspect: King Richard III
King Richard has been the prime suspect, ever since the murder of the princes took place.
He was meant to be the protector of young Edward V. Instead, he swiped the throne for himself and declared the boy illegitimate.
It would make sense that Richard would want the princes dead: if the boys were alive, he’d have a much better claim to be king.
Open-and-closed case? Well, maybe not. Richard III has a pretty vocal online fanbase who claim that he’s been framed.
You see, in 1485, King Richard was killed in battle by Henry VII. Richard was from the Plantagenet dynasty; Henry was a Tudor.
Henry was now king, and needed to convince England that he was the rightful monarch. To do so, his supporters spread scurrilous rumours about the defeated Plantagenets.
Claiming that King Richard had killed his nephews in cold blood was a pretty powerful story. And many Tudor writers and supporters – such as Thomas More, who I quoted above – peddled tales of this cruelty.
Suspect Number Two: King Henry VII
King Richard’s apologists point the finger directly at King Henry VII.
Their theory is this. King Henry wrested power of England in 1485, but he was in big danger of being usurped, too.
We know for a fact that King Henry VII executed of a lot of potential claimants to the crown, including an illegitimate son of old King Richard.
The theory goes that, if the princes in the tower were still alive, they’d pose a headache for Henry – they had a better claim to be king than Henry did. So, the theory goes, Henry killed them both.
Is it plausible? Well, Henry has an excellent alibi – he wasn’t in Britain until 1485, and the two princes were last seen in 1483!
It seems quite unlikely that no-one saw the princes for two years – and then that Henry found them and killed them in secret.
Our Other Suspects
We’ve got a number of other suspects – all of them who were close friends or allies of Richard III.
One is Henry Stafford – a close friend of Richard, and a man who had a (tenuous) claim to the English throne. He’s named in a document written at around the time of the murder, which says that the deaths occurred at his “vise” (advice? Device? We’re not sure!).
There are other potential suspects. As mentioned above, one of Richard’s closest allies, Tyrrell, has been implicated in the killing of the boys.
The central question is did these men act independently – killing the boys of their own initiative, because they knew it’d help their king? Or did they follow the orders of Richard, and do the dirty work for him?
We’ll probably never know the exact truth. But one thing’s for certain – the murder of the princes in the tower will remain one of the blackest moments in British history.
If you’d like to read more stories about the Tower of London – including tales of royal execution and those pesky ravens – click here.