Who Killed the Princes in the Tower? – A Medieval Whodunit

INTRODUCTION

 This is a summary and review of Phillipa Langley’s recent scholarly book, The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case (The History Press, 488p, 2023. ISBN 978 1 80399 542 7).

Langley is an enthusiastic amateur historian and prominent member of the Richard III Society.  In 2012, this enabled her to persuade the Leicester City Council to allow her to excavate below one of their car parks. This resulted in the discovery of the 527-year-old remains of King Richard III of England. In 2015, Langley set up the crowd-funded Princes in the Tower Project to seek new evidence on the fate of Edward IV’s two young sons Edward V and Richard of York, traditionally thought to have been murdered by Richard III. Realizing that English archives had already been exhaustively searched by generations of historians, she and her team sought new original documents in Europe – documents immune to Tudor censorship.  The book tells her results in the form of a Police Cold Case Investigation, making use of all available evidence, including explosive new documents that the Project Team have discovered in the Netherlands. The depth of Langley’s research puts mainstream academic historians to shame. Her book is a well written and is a fascinating read that I strongly recommend.

I summarize Langley’s narrative below. It is a complex tale, but I have retold it as a continuous narrative, avoiding discussion on possible alternative explanations and confining much non-essential detail and commentary to footnotes. My own brief comments are bracketed.

THE BACK STORY

The story begins more than 80 years before the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.

In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Lancaster, deposed and murdered his cousin Richard II and had himself crowned King Henry IV. Richard was a tyrant who deserved his fate, but the murder split the ruling Plantagenet family into two warring factions that came to be known as the House of York and the House of Lancaster.  As the symbol of York was a white rose and that of Lancaster a red, the resulting almost 90 years of on and off civil war came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. It was a deadly family feud between cousins.

Father and son, Henry V and Henry VI followed Henry IV in a succession of uneasy reigns.

In March 1461, the young and energetic Edward Duke of York, defeated his hopeless and hapless cousin Henry VI at the bloody Battle of Towton, enabling Edward to seize the throne as Edward IV. He then arranged for Henry VI’s murder – a tit-for-tat for the fate of his great-grandfather Richard II.

THE PLOT

Edward IV reigned for 12 years and died unexpectedly April 1483. He was survived by his Queen Elizabeth Woodville, daughter Elizabeth of York (aged 17), sons Edward Prince of Wales (12) and Richard Duke of York (9). Young Edward was immediately proclaimed as Edward V. Paternal Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester [1] became the Protector of Edward and Richard and assumed the role of Regent until young Edward came of age. In May he moved the boys to the Tower of London – a secure royal residence as well as a prison – for their protection, pending Edward V’s Coronation, which was arranged for November of that year.

But the late king’s untimely death had shaken a skeleton loose from his cupboard.  Within a few weeks, Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells [2], came forward with explosive testimony to the effect that, many years prior to Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had officiated at a secret but legal marriage contract between Edward (then Duke of York) and Lady Eleanor Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Richard of Gloucester acted swiftly and decisively on these claims. In July 1483 he had himself crowned Richard III in Westminster Abbey. But the constitutional crisis did not go away. A special sitting of the Three Estates of Parliament was convened to examine the truth of the bishop’s claim. In 1483 this should not have been too difficult. Although Lady Eleanor was dead, then, as now, legal marriage – especially of nobility – required witnesses and written records. Parliament concluded that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 was bigamous, and the children of their union therefore illegitimate. Thus, Richard of Gloucester was the legitimate and rightful King. This conclusion was made into Law in February 1484 by an Act of Parliament called Titulus Regulus, which formally legalized the status of King Richard. (But the fact that, two years later, Parliament was happy to re-legitimize the boys at the request of Henry VII (see below), gives no confidence that they were truly independent judges on the matter.)

Richard’s reign was brief. He was killed in August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, fighting a Lancastrian army led by Henry Tudor. Henry was the grandson of a marriage between Catherine de Valois, the widow of Henry V, and one of her servants, an obscure Welshman called Owain Tudor. Henry Tudor’s father (Edmund Tudor) was thus King Henry VI’s half-brother, making Henry himself around No 36 in line to the English throne. But by right of conquest, if not by lineage, Henry declared himself Henry VII, dating the start of his reign to the day before the Battle, thus making all who fought against him traitors to the crown.

But back to the young sons of Edward IV, last seen by an independent observer happily playing in the Tower gardens in July 1483, and never seen in public again. The fate of the princes has become a 500-year-old mystery. A Medieval cold case.

Princes in the Tower

Edward V and Richard of York. A still from a BBC TV docudrama – the pose a deliberate copy of a famous Victorian romantic painting.

Were they -

A     Murdered by order of their Unspeakable Uncle (Richard, eager to remove all threats to his crown)? Richard had motive and opportunity in 1493. People who support this scenario are known as Henricians (as in – Henry VII was innocent). or..

B     Murdered by order of the Wicked Welshman (Henry, eager to protect his usurping dynasty in the face of at least 35 living Plantagenets with better claims)? Henry had motive and opportunity in 1485 (or if not then, in 1487 and 1490).

People who support this scenario are known as Ricardians (as in, Richard III was innocent). or..

C. Neither of the above.

THE PLOT THICKENS

At Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry had won a battle and killed a reigning King, but he had not yet won the War. In the febrile atmosphere after Bosworth, Henry had to act immediately to shore up his self-declared reign. If Edward IV’s sons were still alive, questions on their legitimacy notwithstanding, his hold on kingship might be short lived. He sent emissaries to scour the northern centers of Yorkist power in search of the boys, while at the same time workmen were set to searching every nook and cranny of the Tower of London, excavating cellar floors and grounds, in search of recent burials. Henry also issued a Proclamation:

“.. if there were a claimant to the crown by descent from the King Edward, He was to show himself; and He (Henry) would help him to get crowned”. (Henry VII, August 1485)

Henry’s ruse (if ruse it was) failed to flush the boys out. No one came forward. The search failed to find them, either dead or alive. In a calculated gamble, Henry then declared them both dead at the hands of Richard III – at the time he probably believed this. That left the boys cousin, the 12-year-old Edward Earl of Warwick (the son of Edward IV’s long dead brother, the Duke of Clarence), as the legitimate heir to the throne. With possibly feigned outrage, Henry had just accused Richard III of infanticide, so he could hardly murder Edward of Warwick, not straight away at any rate. So, he locked him in the Tower, pending a more suitable moment for his disposal.

Henry wished to marry the Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York as this would strengthen his reign by a union of the Houses of Lancaster and York. He could not do this while Elizabeth was still officially illegitimate, so Henry’s next steps were to persuade Parliament to re-legitimize all Edward IV’s children by Elizabeth Woodville, gather up and destroy all copies of the earlier disinheriting Act Titulus Regulus [3], and (a necessary step) arrest Bishop Stillington for perjury. That done, Henry married Elizabeth, who naturally had no say in the matter. She became the mother of Henry VIII.

Thus, the Tudor fix was in. Richard III had murdered the legitimate heirs to the throne because Henry Tudor said so. Publicly gainsaying this was treason, resulting in immediate separation of your head from your body (or worse). All evidence to the contrary was systematically destroyed.

Twenty years later, two historians writing in the reign of Henry VIII (Polydore Vergil in 1513 and Sir Thomas More in 1519) sexed-up the Tudor narrative of the events of 1483-85 with added drama and evidence-free detail. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Thomas Moore’s history was used by William Shakespeare as the basis for his play Richard III. Shakespeare portrayed Richard as not just guilty of infanticide but as a physically and mentally deformed psychopath to boot (but Richard got all the best lines).

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

This is the area where the 2022 discoveries of Phillipa Langley’s team offer dramatic new information and lead to a plausible revision of traditional (i.e. Tudor) history.

With his 1485 declaration that Edward IV’s sons were dead, Henry had committed himself. If anyone subsequently came forward claiming to be Edward V or Richard of York, his only option would be to declare them imposters.

And that is exactly what happened in the dramatic events that followed in 1487 and 1490-95.

1. The “Lambert Simnel” Rebellion.

In 1487, Edward V, now 16 years old, appeared at the Netherlands court of his aunt the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy [4]. History records nothing of where Edward had been or what he had been doing during his four missing years. His aunt and leading Yorkist nobles recognised him and assembled a formidable 8000 strong army made up of mercenary German heavy infantry (landsknechts), Irish light infantry (kerns) and English troops supplied by Yorkist Lords. The Princes in the Tower Project unearthed a 1487 receipt from a French arms manufacturer recording supply of weapons to Margaret of Burgundy for the use of “Margaret’s nephew, son of King Edward“.

Edward led [5] this army against Henry Tudor, only to be defeated (and most likely killed and buried in a common grave [6]) at the closely fought Battle of Stoke [7].

Henry declared that the failed rebellion was not led by Edward V (Henry had long declared Edward dead), but by an imposter called Lambert Simnel who was impersonating Edward Earl of Warwick. To “prove” this, in a piece of theatre, Henry produced a young man captured at the Battle called Lambert Simnel who was the son (so Henry said) of an Oxford organ-grinder (or, in other accounts: a joiner, a tailor, a baker or a shoemaker’s son). The real Earl of Warwick was then taken from the Tower where he had been languishing and paraded through the streets of London. There was an obvious flaw in Henry’s story: why would thousands of Yorkist supporters have acclaimed a low-born youth as the Earl of Warwick when it was widely known that the real Earl of Warwick was locked in the Tower? The “Edward” cheered for by Yorkists at the Battle of Stoke could only have been someone they believed to be Edward V. Henry’s version was a crock, as almost all at the time must have known. But, in a repressive regime, speaking Truth to Power is Treason, and people sensibly held their tongues. Lambert Simnel (a convenient nonentity) was then magnanimously forgiven by Henry and set to work in his kitchen. Lambert presumably thought the charade a small price to pay for a secure job for life in the royal household.

As a bonus for Henry, the young Earl of Warwick could now be safely beheaded.

(Why have generations of historians accepted it Henry’s account of the invasion of 1487? The best explanation probably is probably to be found in the sayings of that modern day master of lies, Josef Goebbels:  “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” )

2. The “Perkin Warbeck” Rebellion.

In 1490, 16-year-old Richard of York appeared in the Netherlands and met his aunt, Margaret of Burgundy. She had not seen him for nine years but was in no doubt who he was. As she wrote (in Latin) to her cousin Queen Isabella of Spain:

“I recognised him easily as if I had just seen him yesterday or the day before…and that was not by one or two general signs, but by so many visible and specific signs that hardly one person in ten hundred thousand (a million) might be found who would have marks of the same kind.” (Margaret of Burgundy, 1493).

At the likely instigation of his aunt and remembering the lies told by Henry Tudor at the time of his brother Edward’s rebellion in 1487, Richard wrote a detailed account of his movements during his missing years. Dutch researcher Nathalie Nijman Bliekendaal, a member of the Princes in the Tower Project, relocated a contemporary copy of this document in a dusty Dutch archive. The copy is a handwritten translation into Old Dutch from a lost French original and has been dated by experts on linguistic and handwriting evidence to around 1500. In it, Richard tells how, in July or August 1483, he and his brother Edward were separated, and he never saw Edward again. Richard was secretly taken from the Tower in disguise and transported to France by two trusted retainers of John Howard (the Duke of Norfolk), and Viscount Francis Lovell, both loyal subjects of Richard III [8]. In the care of these men, Richard stayed in France for a few years. Fearing recognition by agents of Henry Tudor who were actively searching for him again after the Battle of Stoke, he fled to Spain, and thence to Portugal. When he reached his majority, and knowing he was the rightful King Richard IV of England, Richard made his way to Burgundy to make himself known to his aunt Margaret and claim his inheritance.

Besides his aunt, Richard was accepted as Richard IV of England by Phillip I (Duke of Burgundy), Maximilian I, (the Holy Roman Emperor), Albert III (Duke of Saxony) and James IV (King of Scotland). With the support of these monarchs in finance, manpower and shipping, Richard raised an army and, over a 3-year period, attempted several invasions of England: first from Ireland, then from Scotland and finally from Cornwall. But support for the Yorkist cause was waning as Yorkist numbers and enthusiasm had been shredded by ten years of lost battles and judicial executions. Lacking substantial English support, all Richard’s attempts were defeated, and he finally was captured by Henry in 1495. Under torture, Richard signed a prepared statement saying that he was Perkin Warbeck, the son of a boatman from Tournai in France, who had been recruited and schooled in his deception by Margaret of York. The “confession” did not save him. In 1499 Richard was beheaded at the Tower of London under the name of Perkin Warbeck (or, in other accounts, Piers Osbeck). Thus passed the last Plantagenet King of England – a dynasty which had ruled England for over 350 years.

THE URN IN THE ABBEY

In 1674, workmen demolishing an external staircase near the SE corner of the White Tower discovered human bones at a depth of 10 feet. They tossed them onto a pile of building rubble. When Charles II was told of the bones, he ordered them retrieved and examined by his personal physician, Dr John White. White determined that the remains were of two young boys. Both Dr White and King Charles were influenced by Sir Thomas Moore’s account that the princes had been buried “beneath a staircase”, although they both chose to ignore Moore’s added detail that the corpses were then later exhumed and buried “elsewhere”. On Charles II’s orders, the bones were placed in an urn and reburied at Westminster Abbey under a plaque positively identifying them as the remains of Edward V and Richard of York.

The urn was exhumed and opened in 1933 and the contents examined by two anatomists, I.E. Tanner and W.J. Whyte. From the start, Tanner and Whyte assumed that they were dealing with the remains of the Princes in the Tower (after all, that’s what it said on the label). They took a series of measurements, X-rays and numerous B&W photographs. Their conclusion was much the same as that of Dr White 260 years before: the jumbled and incomplete bones of two young boys, one aged around 8 years, the other around 12. They thought they could see bloodstains on the bones consistent with strangulation.

Church authorities will not allow another exhumation. The Princes in the Tower Project commissioned a leading Dutch bioanthropologist, Professor George Maat, to independently re-examine the data, X-rays and photographs published by the 1933 team. According to Professor Maat’s Report (2019) the urn contains the bones of two humans, but possibly three, with age ranges of 9-15 and 8-12 years. However, Maat found no evidence for the sex of the remains, no evidence for cause of death, no evidence for or against consanguinity, and no evidence for how long they had been in the ground prior to 1674.

So, good candidates for the Princes in the Tower? Perhaps, but there are other possibilities.

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in 1277 on the site of a Roman fort which was itself built on the site of an Iron Age fort and settlement. In 1950, very close to the place and at the same depth as the 1674 discovery, the complete skeleton of a 13–16-year-old boy was excavated. It did not occur to anyone at the time that this might be the remains of Edward V, but luckily the skeleton was preserved and is still available. It has recently been dated by Carbon14 methods to around 3000 years old.

Until and unless it is possible to re-examine the remains in the Westminster Urn with modern techniques of DNA analysis and C14 dating, their significance is unknown. If such results were to indicate they are exactly what the label on the Urn says they are, then the mystery of the Princes in the Tower will be definitively solved.

But until then, we are back to square one. Which leads me to some …

FINAL THOUGHTS

The tale is a classic whodunit, but as a real-life case, there is no truth reveal by the great detective in the final chapter.

People, events, and dates in Phillipa Langley’s book are based on contemporary documents that are widely accepted as factual.

Motivations, and reconstructions of events not recorded, follow “balance of probability” arguments rather than the tougher criteria of “beyond all reasonable doubt”. With the winnowing of evidence through the passage of time and the passage through the hands of Henry Tudor, this is probably the best that can ever be achieved.

For me, Phillipa Langley’s account of the period offers a more believable history than the carefully crafted Tudor version that is still, by and large, accepted by mainstream historians. For that version, you can read the Wikipedia accounts of the people and events described above.

After reading the book I have become a convinced Ricardian. But, but …

“…one has always to remember that the probable need not necessarily be the truth and the truth not always probable.”  – Sigmund Freud



[1] Richard had been a loyal and competent deputy to his brother throughout his reign. At the time of Edward IV’s death, Richard was High Constable of England.

 [2] Stillington was a significant and respected figure – a former Chancellor of England under Edward IV, a leading churchman and a Doctor of Canon and Civil Law.

 [3] A single copy of Titulus Regius, missed by Henry VII’s censors, was located by an historian in 1980. But vital appendices, referred to in the text as containing detailed evidence, were missing.

 [4] Margaret of York was a sister of Edward IV and the widow (and third wife) of Charles I (the Bold), Duke of Burgundy.

 [6] In 1490, Edward V’s younger brother Richard proclaimed himself Richard IV. Richard would not have done this if he not been certain that his brother was dead.

 [7] Edward V’s army at Battle of Stoke was commanded by experienced military captains – the German mercenary Martin Schwartz and the Yorkist Earl of Lincoln. Both men were killed in the battle. Henry’s army was led by the Earl of Oxford. As he had done at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry (a fast horse ready to hand) watched from a safe distance. Lancastrian cavalry dispersed the Yorkist light infantry, but, through a long day, the German heavy infantry fought stubbornly, only to be eventually overwhelmed by arrow storms from Lancastrian longbowmen. The Battle – the last of the Wars of the Roses – was larger, bloodier and more closely fought than the better-known Battle of Bosworth and could easily have been won by Edward. Had it done so, the entire subsequent course of British and world history would have taken a radically different path.

 [8] Thomas Howard and Francis Lovell both fought for Richard III at Bosworth. Howard was killed in the battle, but Lovell escaped the slaughter and fled to the Low Countries. Two years later, Lovell fought at the Battle of Stoke as one of Edward V’s military commanders. He survived that too, but his subsequent history is unknown.

 

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