The Mystery of the Princes in the Tower

The disappearance of the sons of King Edward IV is still a mystery and a hotly debated topic by historians. Keep reading to learn about the Princes in the Tower.

Jul 4, 2021By Monique Galloway, BA Archaeology

princes in the tower mysterious death boys


Dubbed “The Princes in the Tower” by romantic Victorians, one of the boys was actually King Edward V. He was never coronated, and he and his brother Richard disappeared from the Tower where they were preparing for the ceremony. Their uncle who was The Lord Protector was crowned Richard III instead. With the discovery and identification of the body of Richard III in a Leicester Car Park, calls are again being made for the skeletal remains thought to be the boys to be re-examined. The DNA evidence required has already been identified and is ready if the Crown ever allows permission to examine these bones again.


Princes in the Tower: The Background Story

princes paul delaroche painting
Edward V, Minor King of England, and Richard, Duke of York, his younger brother by Paul Delaroche, 1830, via Louvre, Paris


The Princes in the Tower were the children of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. They were born during the War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle that saw 7 English Kings in Thirty years come and go. Most of these Kings lost their lives through violence.


Elizabeth, unusually for a Queen, was a widow with children when she married Edward, and she was also a commoner. The marriage caused controversy as she was seen as not a fit consort for a King. A King was to marry a noblewoman and a virgin. Moves had already been made to find Edward a suitable wife. This would be used against his children in later years. There was also some controversy surrounding the paternity of Edward IV himself, but not surrounding his brother Richard III.


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King Edward IV by an unknown artist, 16th century, via Royal Collection Trust


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Edward, Prince of Wales was born in Westminster Abbey in 1470 and sent to Wales when he was three. He was under the care of his paternal uncle Anthony Woodville, Duke of Rivers in Ludlow Castle. He was invested as Prince of Wales and remained there until his father’s death. His younger brother, Richard, Duke of York was born in 1473 and was raised with his sisters in his mother’s household. The two boys did not grow up together and may only have met occasionally.


King Edward VI died unexpectedly after a fishing trip when he was forty on the 9th of April 1483. On his deathbed, he charged his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester to become the Lord Protector of his son Edward, Prince of Wales. King Edward IV’s funeral was held and fealty sworn to the new King. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was the first to swear loyalty to the new King Edward V when he was proclaimed King on the 11th April.


Effectively, Richard would be regent for three years until Edward turned sixteen. However, the Queen’s family, the Woodville faction, who made up much of the former King’s council, opposed the appointment. Richard wrote letters to the Duke of Hastings and Duke of Buckingham warning of the consequences of allowing the Queen’s family to control the young King.


How the Princes Were Sent to the Tower

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Ludlow Castle, the boyhood home of Prince Edward, via Shropshire Star Magazine


The new King Edward V left Ludlow Castle with his paternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, to travel to London for his coronation on the 24th of April. The coronation was to be held on the 4th May 1483. On route Richard, Duke of Gloucester met the party and the adults spent the evening drinking. Early the next morning, 30th April, Richard arrested Woodville and the other members of Edward’s party. He told Edward they were traitors, but the young King protested their innocence. He had known the men all his life, but may not have met Richard many times in his young life, if at all.


Word reached Queen Elizabeth Woodville of her brother’s arrest and of Richard taking control of the new King. The Queen gathered up her other children and fled to safety in Westminster Abbey, just as she had in 1470 when Edward was born. She also took young Richard Duke of York, who was only nine years old, with her.


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The Tower of London, via TimeOut Magazine


On the 10th of May Edward was lodged in the Tower of London to prepare for his coronation. Richard held a council meeting and began dismissing his opponents and promoting his followers. He was declared Lord Protector by the Council and given “the tutelage and oversight of the King’s most royal person.” However, the position was limited until Edward’s coronation, around six weeks away, not the three years Richard was expecting. The Council tried to persuade the Queen to leave the sanctuary, but she wouldn’t. The coronation date was rescheduled to June 22nd.


Three days later Richard called a Parliamentary sitting in the name of Edward V. The Kings Councilors deferred to Parliament the decision to make Richard Lord Protector until Edward reached his majority. Soon Richard was promoting his supporters and promoted the Duke of Buckingham to the Constable of England giving him control of the Tower of London, where the young King now resided.


In late May, the Council began to be concerned about the safety of the young King and Richard’s motives. The Council had found its power reduced in favor of Richard’s supporters – John Howard (Duke of Norfolk), Henry Stafford (Duke of Buckingham), Francis Lovell (Viscount Lovell), Bishop Robert Stillington, John de la Pole (Earl of Lincoln and Richard’s nephew), and Bishop Thomas Langton.


On the 8th of June the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Stillington, presented evidence that King Edward IV was contracted to marry another woman before Elizabeth Woodville. Effectively this makes the Royal children illegitimate and unable to claim the Throne. The loyalty of the powerful Duke of Hastings was then secretly sounded out, he said he would accept Richard as the Lord Protector, but not as the King.


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King Richard III by an unknown artist, late 16th century, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Richard called another Council meeting at the Tower and arrested Hastings and had him immediately executed without a trial. He also arrested others loyal to the old king and his son. By this time, he had also taken the lands of many of the Woodville family. Other councilors were now too scared to speak out.


On the 16th of June, Richard and his forces surrounded Westminster and forced the Queen to give up young Richard, Duke of York. He was taken to the Tower, ostensibly to keep his brother company and help him prepare for the coronation. Neither of the boys would ever leave the Tower or see their Mother ever again. The coronation of King Edward V was deferred again until the 6th of November. The plans for the coronation were then canceled altogether soon after.


In mid-June, the attendants of the Princes in the Tower were dismissed. However, Edward was still seen by Dr. Argentine even when the Princes were moved to the inner quarters of the Tower. Almost immediately, Richard stopped wearing mourning clothes and donned the Royal purple and he began openly discussing the illegitimacy of the old King’s children.


On the date set for Edward’s coronation, the 22nd of June, instead of pomp and ceremony, preachers began giving sermons on the “progeny of King Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been a legitimate King, nor could his issue be so.” The Lord Mayor’s brother gave an inflammatory speech titled “Bastard slips should not take deep root” in the center of London. The legitimacy of both the former and new King was called into question, leaving Richard, Duke of Gloucester the only immediate legitimate heir to the English Throne.


princes in the tower wood engraving 1880
The Princes in the Tower, late 19th century, engraving after Sir John Everett Millais, via Shropshire Star Magazine


Richard had stacked Parliament with his supporters or those too timid to speak out. Parliament accepted the claim that young Edward was illegitimate as his father had been married by proxy to another woman. This made all the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville ineligible for the throne.


The Prince’s maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, and other supporters were executed for treason near the end of June. Then the Parliament formerly deposed King Edward V and entreated Richard to take the throne. Days later the lands of the young Prince Richard, Duke of York were granted to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk.


On the 6th July 1493, King Richard III was crowned at Westminster Abbey, his forces had surrounded London two days beforehand.


The last recorded mention of anyone seeing the Princes in the Tower was soon after Richard’s coronation. They had been seen playing in the gardens and at windows, but the last recorded sighting of them was in mid-July. This may have been the last visit of Dr. Argentine who was attending Prince Edward as reported by Thomas More 30 years later. More claimed that the doctor said:


The young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him


King Richard III began rewarding his supporters and the Duke of Buckingham was promoted to Lord High Constable of England and Robert Brackenbury was made Constable of the Tower. On the 18th of July, a royal writ was issued to pay the wages of thirteen men servants of “Edward, bastard, late called King Edward V.”


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The Princes in the Tower, early 20th century postcard illustrating the interior of the Bloody Tower with two boys holding hands, via Historic Royal Palaces


King Richard III began a great procession throughout his kingdom near the end of July. The Duke of Buckingham left the Royal Party and returned to London after a few days, this short break has been questioned ever since.


At the end of July, a plan to rescue the Princes in the Tower and spirit them out of the country failed. A rebellion formed after the attempt but Richard III did not produce the children to quell the revolt.


On the 31st of July, Robert Tyrell left London to join King Richard in his procession. Later Tyrell became the major suspect of arranging or carrying out the actual murder of the Princes either on this date or on the 3rd of September. He confessed years later under torture to smothering the Princes with bedclothes.


Who Were the Suspects

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Portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Peter Paul Rubens, 1625, via Simon Gillespie Studio


The most obvious suspect is Richard III, he had the motive, access, and power. He did not make any attempts to deflect blame to others or clear his own name of suspicion. He only ruled for two years and has been subjected to a great deal of propaganda during the Tudor period, turning him into a monstrous tyrant. Taking the Throne through murder was almost par for the course during the Wars of The Roses; Edward V had his predecessor, Henry VI, murdered to take the Throne.


No investigation into the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower was carried out during Richard III’s two-year reign. His successor, Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, made the children of Edward IV legitimate and married their sister to strengthen his claim to the Throne.


Both subsequent Kings have come under suspicion along with several noblemen and women for the disappearance and murder of the Princes in the Tower. Buckingham and Tyrell are the biggest suspects for the actual murder of the boys.


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King Henry VII, after Hans Holbein, c. 1600-1625, via SellingAntiques website


It has been suggested that he acted without the consent of King Richard III. Soon after Buckingham and King Richard fell out and Buckingham rebelled, he was executed in November for treason. Yet King Richard did not take this opportunity to add the murder of the Princes to the list of Buckingham’s sins and deflect the blame.


Henry Tudor’s mother is also under suspicion of having a hand in the disappearance of the Princes to assist her son to the Throne. King Henry VII’s throne would have been in jeopardy if either of the Princes were still alive. Especially after he legitimized them and thus restored them to the line of succession in order to bolster his claim through his wife, the Prince’s sister. The accusation against Henry is that he murdered them to smooth his own succession. This could have occurred through his mother during Richard’s reign when he was exiled, or if he found them still alive in the Tower after the death of Richard. During Henry VII’s reign a young man came forward claiming to be one of the lost Princes, but this too would have been a disaster for Henry if proven true.


A Prince or a Pretender?

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Portrait of King Henry VII by an unknown artist, 1505, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Perkin Warbeck (c1474-1499) claimed to be Prince Richard, Duke of York under the reign of Henry VII. He claimed that his brother Edward was murdered and he was spared but spirited away to Europe.


He gained support in Europe before pressing his claim in England. The Prince’s paternal aunt Margaret of Burgundy recognized Warbeck as her nephew in 1490. However, she left England before the Princes were born to marry Charles the Bold and so never saw them as children. She was one of his first supporters and funded his first invasion of England, but she had her own reasons for hating Henry VII.


Warbeck was also recognized by the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of France, and other European notables as King Richard IV of England. King James IV of Scotland even allowed him to marry his niece, Catherine of Gordon.


After several attempts to invade England, Warbeck was captured by King Henry VII in 1497. Rather than executing him for invading England immediately, Henry VII treated him well initially. Prince Richard’s sister was married to Henry VII but it appears she did not make her thoughts known on Warbeck’s identity public and no record has been located.


Warbeck was forced to make a public announcement in June 1498 that he was an impostor, and was executed after a second escape attempt in 1499. Whether Perkin Warbeck really was Prince Richard has been debated ever since.


The Skeletons of the Princes in the Tower

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The urn containing the supposed remains of the Princes in the Tower, via the Westminster Abbey website


In 1674, two children’s skeletons were discovered by workmen under a staircase in the Tower of London. King Charles II proclaimed they were the missing Princes and had their remains placed in an urn in Westminster Abbey.


In 1933, they were taken out for scientific analysis. It was established that the skeletons belonged to children of the right age but they couldn’t determine the sex. The older child’s jaw bone showed evidence of a painful disease that would have deformed the face, and it could also lead to death. The doctor who treated Prince Edward did not mention that the child was suffering such an illness. Records of the Prince’s appearance also do not mention it.


Requests have been made to re-examine the bones with advanced scientific techniques of carbon dating and DNA matching but to date, the Throne has refused. Even if this evidence was allowed, while it may establish if the bones in the urn really are that of the Princes, it can’t narrow down the date of death closely enough to find the culprit. If the bones do not belong to the Princes, then what?


The missing Princes in the Tower will remain a mystery for now, but there is one woman today who is determined to find them: Phillippa Langley. Her revealing Richard III project leads to the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III and positive DNA identification and now she has turned her sight onto the Princes in the Tower.

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By Monique GallowayBA ArchaeologyI’m a former Australian soldier and historical archaeologist with a degree from the University of Sydney. After almost 20 years as a practicing archaeologist I now live in Cambodia and was running a social enterprise to help improve lives here. I have a special interest in the layers of history of a site and evidence of subversion, especially ancient graffiti on monuments.