The Princes in the Tower

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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People are going nuts these days for true crime stories about cold cases—murder mysteries that have gone years without closure.

This isn’t only a modern phenomenon. People have always been fascinated by high-profile crimes and mysteries. Take, for example, the disappearance of two English princes in 1483. The boys, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, around ages 12 and 9, respectively, were heirs to the throne. That is until their uncle, Richard III, had them locked up in the Tower of London.1

From there, theories vary on what happened. But most historians seem to agree that the boys were sent on a one-way trip to Belize. If you didn’t watch “Breaking Bad,” then here are some other euphemisms for “murdered” that you might recognize: whacked, mercked, offed, sleeping with the fishes, dispatched, snuffed out, wasted, life-fired, bizarro-born, and enthusiastically encouraged to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Another unsolved mystery: why did these wealthy princes have DIY haircuts?

What I’m saying is: the two young princes were killed. Probably. You don’t just lose two princes who are heirs to the English throne, especially when they’re trapped in the Tower of London. Not by accident, anyway.  

But who might have killed these poor young lads before they ever had the chance to rule England with an iron fist, or get through puberty? And to paraphrase O.J. Simpson, if they did it, why?

Setting the Stage

If this case rings a bell for you, then you’ve probably already heard about it through the words of the Immortal Bard. In 1991, alternative rock band Spin Doctors released the single, “Two Princes,” which—wait, hold on; I got my notes mixed up here.

Ah, here we go: what I meant to say is that the Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare, wrote a little play called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. And, if you’re anything like me, someone made you read that play in college.

What’s that?

You’ve read the play, but don’t remember every detail?

All right then, quick recap: it’s about Richard III, who was reputedly one of England’s most evil kings, thanks largely to his portrayal as a real son of a gun in Shakespeare’s play.

Richard III’s sh*t reputation comes largely from the fact that he’s history’s prime suspect for the murders of the princes in the tower. And that’s fair enough, if he did it.2

But Shakespeare’s play was a play, and while it helps us understand why Richard III is history’s most popular suspect, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Plus, Shakespeare’s kind of hard to understand.

Here’s the historical context, in brief: After the War of the Roses, Edward IV ascended to the throne. He was the first king of England from the house of York, after the defeat of the Lancasters.3

Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury were his boys, and his heirs—with Edward V next in line for the throne. They had some older sisters, but, you know, this was literally the patriarchy, so they don’t really factor into this story politically. The boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, also happened to be the first commoner to marry a king of England.

Things started going south for the boys when their dad, Edward IV, contracted an unknown illness and died on April 9, 1483. On his deathbed, he had named his oldest son as his successor. This meant Edward V was king, which was good, but he was only 12, which was bad. Edward IV knew his kid wasn’t old enough to run a country, so he stipulated in his will that his brother, Richard, act as protector for young Edward V.45

It turns out that was a bad choice. Richard didn’t wait long to make his first move: as Edward V and his retinue traveled to his coronation, Richard intervened. He had several of Edward V’s most influential advisers arrested (and later executed), dismissed the rest of the folks in the traveling party, and took Edward V to the Tower of London.

In 1483, this didn’t seem so bad. The Tower of London was still being used as a royal residence for the most part, and didn’t yet have a terrible reputation. Richard III had Edward V’s little brother, Richard, sent to the Tower soon after.

Honestly, I don’t think it seems so bad; lots of windows, right on the water, probably has decent natural light. If I ever go to jail, I hope it’s here.

Folks in Richard III’s camp were already working on delegitimizing the boys, claiming that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegal because he had an earlier marriage contract with another woman (she had a name, but I think we’re juggling plenty of names already). The important thing is this meant Team Richard III could declare the late Edward IV a bigamist, his marriage a sham, and the two young princes little bastards who couldn’t inherit their father’s backgammon set, let alone the throne of England.

And so the boys remained in the Tower of London until at least late summer of that year, 1483, when they were last sighted. The rest is a mystery.6

But They Definitely Got Murdered, Right?

Sure, probably. I can’t say for sure, since I’ve never run a prison tower before, but losing your two most important child inmates doesn’t seem like something that just happens.

Whether or not their disappearance raised any red flags at the time is hard to say. It’s clear from later medieval accounts, including writings from Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More, that Richard III has been the assumed killer for a long time. But Richard III had already dispatched Edward V’s high-profile supporters, so it seems there was nobody left at the time to make any waves over the assumed nepoticide (yup, there’s a word for nephew killing). But that didn’t stop the rumor mill from churning, especially after unidentified children’s remains were discovered on royal property hundreds of years later.

In 1674, workmen at the White Tower (in the Tower of London) were doing some restoration work and discovered two little skeletons under a stone staircase.7 Without proof, the bones were assumed to belong to the two princes who disappeared nearly 200 years earlier and were reburied in Westminster Abbey. The bones were dug up in 1933 for some forensic work, but I guess forensics in 1933 weren’t great, because they found nothing conclusive.

Another couple of small skeletons were found by workers in 1789 in Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s burial vault in Windsor in coffins, but those weren’t even erroneously identified before the tomb was resealed. No DNA tests have been conducted in either case.8

Hey, Edward IV, why the long face? Ah, right.
The sudden death by illness and missing sons.

So, why don’t we just dig ‘em up again and get those bones swabbed for samples?

Well, the Church of England isn’t into it, and the Queen agrees, and both of those things apparently still maintain power over matters of tradition. I emailed her to ask about just one more disinterment of the boys’ bodies in Westminster Abbey, but have not heard back.

So, unless the Queen gets back to me—and I learn how to do science—before this article hits its publication date, let’s get on with some educated speculation.

The Usual Suspects

Historians have had plenty of time since 1483 to really give this one a think, and they’ve got some main suspects. Let’s start with the most obvious:

Richard III—“Uncle Richard”

This fella is the number one suspect. His behavior immediately following Edward IV’s death is pretty damned incriminating. As noted, his people actively undercut his nephews’ legitimacy right off the bat, and he snatched up Edward V before he could make it to his coronation. Why the rush, if you’re planning on actually being the young king’s protector? Why have some of his advisers executed?

Richard III made it very clear he wanted to be king by, you know, stealing the throne from his nephews. He was also willing to have some folks executed if it improved his odds for success. He had already killed Edward V’s advisers in his opening power play—why not kill the boys to secure his claim to the throne?1

So, yeah. There’s a good reason Richard III has topped the list for hundreds of years. But the evidence remains circumstantial.

Richard III: Killer? Well, yeah. But of the princes in the tower?

Henry VII (Henry Tudor)

If you don’t like Richard III, then you’ll probably like this guy. He’s the reason why Richard III was found buried in a shallow grave under a parking lot in Leicester in 2013.2

Henry VII was Richard III’s rival. He wanted the English throne and, after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, he took it from Richard, who was brutally killed during said battle. Richard III was only 32 years old and had ruled England for just over two years when Henry VII served him his bloody comeuppance. It was a piece of cosmic justice for a guy that, at the very least, put his own nephews in prison so he could steal their crown.

However, Henry VII was a real son of a bitch, too. After his coronation, he executed rival claimants to the throne. Could these claimants have included Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, still locked up in the Tower of London a couple of years later? The princes had been imprisoned in 1483, and Henry VII took power in 1485. It’s possible that one or both of the princes survived their uncle’s short reign, only to die at the hands of his usurper.1

I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is that Henry VII is generally considered the only other likely suspect, in lieu of Richard III doing the deed. History is also written by the winners, and Henry VII’s victory over Richard III could well be the reason Richard III is one of English history’s biggest villains, while Henry VII left behind a decent legacy.


Henry Tudor, AKA, Henry VII. Also definitely killed people. Also not clear if he killed those boys.

Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones, if you prefer), then Stafford is like the Petyr Baelish character. He was a king maker and breaker who started out as an ardent supporter of Richard III, but later worked against him, supporting Henry VII.

While working for Richard III, he’s the guy who arranged the seizure of the two young princes and helped deny their legitimacy as heirs. He won honors and titles once Richard III was crowned, but within two months he’d already jumped sides to support Henry VII.

But, lest you think Stafford was a team player who just couldn’t pick a team, it’s likely that he planned on taking the throne for himself. If he did murder the two princes in the tower, it was probably to knock out two claimants to the throne, while pinning the blame on Richard III.

His plans didn’t ultimately pan out, and Richard III had him beheaded for treason in November of 1483. Bummer.2

Sir James Tyrell

Tyrell’s angle in all this, relative to the convoluted machinations of everyone else involved, is simple: if he did it, it was because he was ordered by King Richard III to kill the boy princes. According to Sir Thomas More’s writings, Tyrell even confessed under torture to murdering the boys before being executed by Henry VII for an unrelated act of treason (supporting yet another rival).

Well, we have a confession! Case closed then, right?

Wrong!

Remember the 2000s? Remember all the debates over torture? If you missed it, here’s the gist: torture will get you information, but that information isn’t reliable (plus, doing torture makes you feel bad). Tyrell was getting his head nicked off either way and I’ll bet he knew it, so confessing to whatever accusations he faced in order to stop the torture probably seemed like a no-brainer.1

Richard III in 2013. Whether he committed the crime or not, he got his.

Even if he did do it, I think the buck still stops with Richard III. Knights who don’t follow their kings’ orders get their heads cut off, as Tyrell would tell you. Hell, he’d tell you anything just to make the hurting stop. And I don’t think anyone actually imagined Richard III murdered those kids by himself, anyway. The dude had awful, untreated scoliosis—I’m not sure he could’ve taken on two boys. And what kind of king does his own wetwork (that’s another euphemism for “murder” for ya), anyway?

A Cold Case Stays Cold

I mentioned O.J. Simpson earlier, and I think there’s a common thread here. Both cases involve unsolved murders. While we have clear suspects—Richard III and O.J.—we’ll “never know” who really did it.

And by “never know,” what I mean is we don’t technically have a conviction. The princes in the tower case is even less clear, since we don’t technically have any bodies, which means we don’t have any homicides, which means I need to get back to my desk and start catching new cases or the lieutenant will have my ass.

But, between you and me, I think we can guess. I think Richard III had those kids killed. They were last seen at the Tower of London in 1483, well before Henry VII took the throne in 1485, and Richard does seem like he was a real sh*t. Maybe history has me biased against the “villain,” but I’m of a mind that goodly kings don’t typically get stabbed in the ass posthumously and wind up buried under a parking lot with their hands tied and no gravestone.

Anyway, the important thing is that all these suspects definitely killed somebody. We just can’t be sure about the princes in the tower.

 

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Gallagher, Paul. (2015, August 21). The Princes in the Tower: Will the ultimate cold case finally be solved after more than 500 years? Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-princes-in-the-tower-will-the-ultimate-cold-case-finally-be-solved-after-more-than-500-years-10466190.html
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed March 28, 2018). Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Stafford-2nd-Duke-of-Buckingham
  3. Myers, Alexander Reginald. (Accessed March 28, 2018). Edward IV, King of England. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-IV-king-of-England
  4. Allthemed Docs. (2017, October 7). Medieval Murders: The Princes in the Tower. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLPlcHVmQDI
  5. Price, G. H. (2014, November 19). What Really Happened to the Princes in the Tower? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Princes-In-The-Tower
  6. Price, G. H. (2014, November 19). What Really Happened to the Princes in the Tower? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Princes-In-The-Tower
  7. Johnson, Ben. (Accessed March 28, 2018). The Princes in the Tower. Retrieved from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Princes-in-the-Tower/
  8. Price, G. H. (2014, November 19). What Really Happened to the Princes in the Tower? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Princes-In-The-Tower

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Allthemed Docs. (2017, October 7). Medieval Murders: The Princes in the Tower. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLPlcHVmQDI
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed March 28, 2018). Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Stafford-2nd-Duke-of-Buckingham
  • Gallagher, Paul. (2015, August 21). The Princes in the Tower: Will the ultimate cold case finally be solved after more than 500 years? Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-princes-in-the-tower-will-the-ultimate-cold-case-finally-be-solved-after-more-than-500-years-10466190.html
  • Johnson, Ben. (Accessed March 28, 2018). The Princes in the Tower. Retrieved from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Princes-in-the-Tower/
  • Myers, Alexander Reginald. (Accessed March 28, 2018). Edward IV, King of England. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-IV-king-of-England
  • Neuman, Scott. (2017, December 21). English Car Park Where Remains of Richard III Were Found Declared a Monument. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/12/21/572502499/english-car-park-where-remains-of-richard-iii-were-found-declared-a-monument
  • Price, G. H. (2014, November 19). What Really Happened to the Princes in the Tower? Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Princes-In-The-Tower
  • Shakespeare, William. (Accessed March 28, 2018). The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, Act IV, Scene III. Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/70/3343.html