The mystery of the princes in the Tower
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
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This entry is a bit of a special one. Most of the entries here and on my corresponding YouTube channel fall under one of three categories: True crime, the paranormal or "dark history." This story is technically true crime, but has elements of dark history and even a bit of the paranormal at the end. So no matter what you're here for, I think you'll enjoy this historical mystery that’s gone unsolved for over 500 years. Let’s talk about the princes in the tower.
To understand the cultural and political environment these princes were born into, we need to go all the way back to 1455, with the start of the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses were a series of English civil wars, fought between the House of York and Lancaster, both branches of the Plantagenet family.
The seeds of war were sown with an uprising against king Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster — or a Lancastrian, as they’ve been called. Henry didn’t seem to be a well-liked king and didn’t care much about ruling. In 1461, at the Battle of Towton, the Lancastrians were defeated and Henry and his family fled to Scotland. The throne was taken over by Edward, Earl of March, who was then crowned King Edward IV. The throne was usurped again in 1470, but Edward got it back pretty quickly.
Edward IV was born on April 28, 1442, making him just 19 when he was crowned king. He was said to be charming, intelligent, witty — and promiscuous. During his reign, he fathered at least one illegitimate child — and, as we’ll see later, it was probably more.
In 1464, Edward married Elizabeth Woodville (sometimes spelled ‘Wydville’), a widow with two sons. The marriage was kept a secret at first, but word eventually got out. Their relationship was thought to be based mostly on lust and the marriage was not well received by the public. Not only was Elizabeth a commoner, but her late husband was a Lancastrian, and Edward was obviously of the rival House of York. There was also speculation that Elizabeth only married Edward for “clout,” as the kids would say these days.
Edward and Elizabeth had ten children together, seven of whom survived. But there are three who are important to this story: Elizabeth, born in 1466, Edward, born in 1470; and Richard, born in 1473.
On April 9, 1483, Edward IV died of an illness. It’s not clear just what illness caused his death, but there has been speculation that it was either typhoid or pneumonia. After his death, the younger Edward — his oldest son — was set to take the throne as Edward V. Edward IV’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was also named Lord Protector, both of the realm and of his nephews, 12-year-old Edward and 9-year-old Richard. By the way, I’ll call the child Richard “younger Richard” or “prince Richard” from here on out just to keep things from getting confusing.
At the time of his father’s death, Edward V was living in Ludlow and had to make his way to London. Once he arrived — or maybe even before that — Richard, Duke of Gloucester, took his nephew to the Tower of London. On May 1, 1483, Richard arrested people from Edward’s retinue, which is basically a group of advisors or assistants. I believe he later had them executed, but I couldn’t confirm this.
In 1500’s England, upcoming kings being taken to the Tower of London to await their coronation wasn’t uncommon. But Elizabeth, the boys’ mother, might have suspected something sinister because she took her remaining children to Westminster Abbey. Older Richard eventually convinced her to let prince Richard join his brother in the Tower. One source said it was because young Edward was lonely in the Tower, another said it was to ensure younger Richard would be at his brother’s coronation. Whatever the reason, younger Richard arrived at the Tower on June 16, 1483.
So before we go on, let’s back up a bit and talk about the older Richard. Richard, Duke of
York, was born on October 2, 1452 in Northamptonshire. He was the youngest of four surviving children — his brother, Edward, being the oldest. Around 1460, when Richard was 8, his father and brother were killed in battle. The following year, older brother Edward was crowned king and Richard was knighted and named Duke of Gloucester.
In 1472, Richard married Anne Neville. She was his second cousin, and the marriage was said to be one of convenience. In 1476, their only child was born — a son named Edward, named after his uncle, the king. And, of course, in 1483, after the death of the king, he went to London and put — or imprisoned — his nephews in the famous Tower of London.
In June 1483, just days after younger Richard was taken to the Tower, older Richard claimed his nephews were illegitimate. According to him, their father was betrothed to another woman before he married their mother — an act that, in those days, was just as good as an actual marriage. Therefore, the boy princes had no claim to the throne — and he was the rightful heir. On July 6, 1483, he was crowned King Richard III and his wife was crowned Queen Anne.
The boy princes were kept in the Tower at least throughout the summer. They were last seen by Tower guards in late summer of 1483, playing outside on the grounds. After that, they weren’t publically seen or heard from again.
Rumors of the princes being murdered started as early as October 1483. But the newly crowned King Richard never made any sort of statement about the princes’ whereabouts — at least not one we still know about.
According to Britannica: “Richard III presented himself as a reformer committed to justice and morality who would remedy the supposed misrule of Edward IV’s last years and the sexual license of his brother’s court.” But Richard’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. It was marred by not only financial problems but vicious rumors that he was responsible for the disappearance of his nephews. Propaganda at the time labeled him as a murderer and compared him to Judas and King Herod. He was also accused of incest. In 1484, his only child, Edward, died, followed by his wife in March 1485.
On August 22, 1485, King Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field at the age of 32. It was the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses, and afterward the English throne was taken over by the battle’s Lancastrian victor, Henry Tudor. On October 20, 1485, he was crowned King Henry VII, effectively bringing the Wars of the Roses to an end and jump starting the Tudor dynasty.
In January 1486, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, one of the daughters of Henry IV and Elizabeth Woodville and the sister of the boy princes. You know, I’m starting to see why people find English history so fascinating. This is starting to sound like a really dark episode of The O.C.
Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage was meant to reconcile their feuding Houses and strengthen his claim to the throne. And, of course, they would go on to become the parents of the now infamous Henry VIII.
But in the midst of all this, what happened to the boy princes? Like his predecessor, Henry VII never made any sort of public announcement concerning their whereabouts. It seems all the people had to go on was rumors and speculation.
In 1486, an Oxford priest named Richard Symonds ran into a boy named Lambert Simnel, who would have been about 10 at the time. Richard Symonds noticed Simnel bore a strong resemblance to Edward IV, and convinced Simnel to pose as one of the missing boy princes. He took Simnel to Ireland in 1487 and somehow even managed to have him crowned King Edward VI of Ireland. Rumors began to spread that an heir to the English throne had been found.
Simnel invaded England in 1487, but was captured and imprisoned. Henry VII was probably annoyed at having to squash the rumors surrounding Simnel, but didn’t see him as a threat, never believing he was one of the boy princes. Simnel ended up getting a job in the royal kitchens, where he stayed until his death in 1534.
In 1491, a young man named Perkin Warbeck was looking for work and travelled to Ireland from his native Flanders (in modern day Belgium). The townspeople in Cork, Ireland saw him dressed in his master’s fancy clothes and thought he might be royal. Some of them suggested he might be young prince Richard — or, at least, that he should pretend to be.
After two failed attempts, Warbeck invaded England in 1497 — but, like Simnel, was promptly captured by King Henry VII. And, like Simnel, Henry didn’t believe for a second this man was the real prince Richard. Warbeck was kept under house arrest for awhile in the Tower of London, but after escaping he was deemed “too dangerous” to be kept alive. Upon his recapture, he was hanged.
early literary influences
Around 1513, writer Thomas More, who had reportedly known Richard III when they were younger, began work on The History of King Richard III. According to More, Richard III sent a letter to Sir Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower, saying the boy princes should be put to death. His request was contested at first, but the boys were eventually “murdered in their beds” by suffocation and their bodies were buried under a staircase and a pile of stones. Remember, this is all according to Thomas More.
Around 1592, William Shakespeare began writing his famous play Richard III. Partially influenced by Thomas More’s writings, the story portrays King Richard in a pretty bad light. He’s given a physical deformity on his spine as well as a withered hand, and is deemed responsible not only for the deaths of his nephews but also his wife’s first husband. I’ve never read Richard III or seen it performed, but from what I have read about it, I’m only scratching the surface of all the horrible things the narrative blames on Richard. The play was first performed in 1633.
In 1674, construction workers renovating the Tower of London found two skeletons under a staircase that led to St. John’s Chapel. This was similar to the location Thomas More described the boy princes’ bodies being buried in. There was a lot of interest in these bodies, and they were on display until King Charles II ordered their burial four years later. The bodies were buried in Westminster Abbey, where they remain today.
The bodies were briefly exhumed for a forensic analysis in 1933. The analysis concluded the bodies belonged to children between 10 and 12 years old. Discoloration on one of the skulls was thought to be a sign of suffocation. There were pieces of velvet stuck to the bones, a material only worn by royals or other wealthy people. These bodies have always been presumed to be those of the boy princes, but we don’t know for sure.
In 1789, construction workers in Windsor Castle found the burial vault of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville in the castle’s St. George’s Chapel. There was another vault adjacent to it with two more bodies inside. At first, they thought the bodies were of two of Edward’s children, son George and daughter Mary. But then in 1810, two more coffins were found in Albert Memorial Chapel (also in Windsor Castle) that people thought might actually be George and Mary. So we don’t really know who’s buried in the vault at St. George’s Chapel, but there has been speculation these bodies are actually those of the boy princes.
the story today
In 2012, the skeletons of a man and woman were found under a parking lot in Leicester. DNA testing would later confirm that the male body was that of Richard III. After the discovery of his body, the earlier 1933 forensics on the Tower skeletons were called into question. Those skeletons had shown signs of a genetic condition that wasn’t present in their uncle Richard, and it’s also been noted that there were no tests conducted to even determine the gender of those skeletons. I’m not sure if gender even can be determined using the bones of pre pubescent children, though I could be wrong.
Over the years, the Church of England has denied numerous requests for DNA testing on the Tower skeletons. They say it’s because it could set the precedent that the bodies of other royals could be exhumed as well, and I guess they didn’t want to deal with all that red tape. They’re also worried about what would happen if the bones turned out not to be the boy princes and they’d have to “manage bogus bones.”
A 2014 petition requested the Tower skeletons be declared as those of the boy princes and given DNA analyses. This seemingly didn’t work either. The latest update I could find on this was from 2018, where a spokesperson from Westminster Abbey said they too would continue to refuse requests for exhumation of the Tower skeletons. It doesn’t look like the mystery of the princes in the tower will be solved any time soon, if at all.
But what really happened to the boy princes in the tower? We may never know but, of course, there are plenty of theories. I’m going to go over a few of them here.
theory # 1: death by illness
The first is one I’ve only seen in one place, but I thought it was worth sharing. A Reddit user suggested the princes may have died of illness, saying it was much more common at the time for children to die before they reached adulthood.
Even here, there’s a reason I’ve said the phrase “surviving children” at least once. Almost every adult I’ve mentioned here had siblings or children who didn’t make it that far. It probably wouldn’t have been uncommon for two siblings to both die of illness, even within a few weeks or months of each other.
However, I have my doubts about this one. If Edward V and/or prince Richard had died of an illness, surely King Richard would have made it publically known that the deaths of his nephews were accidental — especially with rumors swirling that he murdered them. Then again, maybe he did make public statements like this and the records are just lost to time.
theory # 2: escaped
The next theory is that the princes escaped and went somewhere else to get away from their uncle. After their disappearance, there were rumors that prince Richard went to Ireland, which probably sparked or at least fueled the rumors that Simnel and/or Warbeck’s claims to the throne were legitimate. It’s pretty unlikely that one of those men was actually Edward or Richard. And if the princes did escape, no trace of them has ever been found elsewhere. Either they were hidden extremely well, or this theory isn’t true.
theory # 3: Henry VII
The next theory is that the boys were killed on the orders of Henry VII. Henry’s claim to the throne was weak from the start; his paternal grandmother, Catherine of France, was the widow of King Henry V. Henry VII’s father was earl of Richmond, but that’s about as close to a noble connection I could find for him. But would his claim be strengthened if the soon-to-be king and his brother were out of the way?
Henry was out of the country when the boys disappeared, and he’d never actually met them. Sure, he could have ordered someone to kill them even if they’d never met, but why would he? Even if they were out of the way, his claim to the throne was still pretty weak, and he probably knew that. So I don’t think Henry VII being the culprit is very likely.
theory # 4: Richard III
The most prominent theory, both then and now, is that the boys were killed on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. Richard had both the means and motive to do this. The presumed motive, of course, is the same as Henry’s — he wanted the boys out of the way so he could claim the throne for himself. But of course, his claim was much stronger than his successor’s.
The most common belief seems to be that Richard ordered his loyal servant, Sir James Tyrell, to do his dirty work. Tyrell reportedly confessed to the murders under torture in 1502. This was just before he was executed for treason, so it’s sort of an even darker version of a deathbed confession. Tyrell was also portrayed as the actual murderer in Shakespeare’s play.
But there are some holes even in this theory. For starters, the boys’ disappearance would have been uncharacteristic for this sort of act. According to historian Philippa Langley (among others), if Richard killed the boys, he probably would have displayed their bodies in public to ward off anyone who tried to usurp his throne, rather than just hiding them away and letting them fade into memory.
And there’s another big hole: Richard’s real character. Richard has been portrayed throughout history as a bloodthirsty killer who ordered the slaughter of his own nephews in a quest for power. But in recent years, historians and scholars have started to question this portrayal.
Richard still did some questionable things. His motivation to marry Anne Neville was largely based on her inheritance, and nobody’s debating that he had some of Edward V’s advisors killed. But does that mean he murdered the princes in the tower — or even that he was as terrible as history has made him out to be?
Let’s talk about Thomas More’s work. More lived in Richard’s household when he (More) was young, though I’m not sure in what capacity. His History of King Richard III was never actually completed, and its legitimacy has been called into question, with Newsweek calling it “inaccurate and biased.”
And what about Shakespeare’s play, which was partially influenced by More’s work? The play was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York — and also a Tudor. So Richard III was probably still hated by the family that took the throne from him. Social and cultural norms at the time likely dictated that Shakespeare portray Richard in a negative light — even if he may have wanted otherwise.
What about the physical deformities Shakespeare portrayed Richard as having? When Richard’s body was found in 2012, there was a curvature of his spine, indicating that he might have had scoliosis -- but there was also no evidence he had a withered arm. According to history.com: “At a time when physical deformities served as literary devices that conveyed a character’s malevolence, the Bard and Richard’s other critics described him as a hunchback with a withered arm.”
In 1999, a mock trial was held for Richard at the Indiana University School of Law. A panel was led by William H. Rehnquist, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, and ultimately found Richard not guilty of the murder of his nephews.
modern literary influences
So that was quite a story, wasn’t it? It shouldn’t come as a shock to know that these historical events have influenced several works of fiction and nonfiction.
The first person I want to talk about that used all this as inspiration is George R. R. Martin. His famous A Song of Ice and Fire series, which was later turned into the TV show Game of Thrones, was heavily influenced by the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV has been compared to Robert Baratheon because he usurped the throne from a “mad king” — Henry VI. On the show, of course, Robert usurped the throne from Aerys Targaryen.
The disappearance of the princes in the tower has been compared to Bran and Rickon escaping Winterfell. If you’ve watched the show or read the books, you probably remember Theon taking over Winterfell and presenting two burned corpses everyone thought were Bran and Rickon — including their own mother! But, of course, they escaped and…well, what happened afterward is a different story.
At some point in history, a rumor cropped up that a knight named Edward Brampton helped Perkin Warbeck in his escape from the Tower of London. This parallels Jaime helping Tyrion escape in season four when he was about to be executed for Joffrey’s murder — although Tyrion was actually innocent.
I love Game of Thrones, so I could go on about this all day. But if you want to read about more parallels between the series and the actual Wars of the Roses, I suggest checking out history-behind-game-of-thrones.com. You can go here to view some of their articles relating to the princes in the Tower.
There are tons of other writers who drew inspiration from these bizarre historical events. The boy princes were featured as characters in The White Queen by Philippa Gregory,* which follows the life of the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville. It was also turned into a Starz miniseries at one point. I haven’t read any of Ms. Gregory’s book and I’m not sure how historically accurate they are, but if it sounds interesting to you, that probably won’t matter. I will leave a link to this book below as well. I’ll also leave a link to The Princes in the Tower by Allison Weir,* which came up a lot during my research — though that may be for SEO reasons.
There are plenty of others of course, but way too many to name here. If you find this story interesting and want to delve more into it, you can always look into it for yourself.
Even if you’ve never heard of the princes in the tower before today, you’ve almost certainly heard about the hauntings at the Tower of London — the last place they were seen. The boy princes have been spotted in what’s known as the “Bloody Tower” (where they were reportedly kept), dressed in white night shirts. People have also spotted them playing outside — the last thing guards saw them doing before they disappeared for good.
In 2017, Liverpool resident Mary Ryan visited the Tower with her family and claims to have gotten the image of a ghost child in a picture. She didn’t realize the ghostly-looking boy was even in the photo until she got home. She thinks it might be the ghost of Edward V; I will let you decide for yourself.
I also want to mention a children’s book called Real Life Scary Kids by Tracey E. Dils*. It’s basically an anthology of ghost stories inspired by real events. The first story is a heavily embellished but still interesting retelling of the discovery of the Tower skeletons in the 1600’s. I first read this book when I was a kid and it’s actually how I learned about the princes in the tower, so I thought I’d give it a shout out.
So that’s all I have for you today on the princes in the tower. This video’s going to turn out a lot longer than I originally anticipated, and there’s obviously a lot of rich history here. As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on anything we’ve discussed here in the comments.
Battle of Barnet, Edward IV, & Henry VI photos in public domain in areas where copyright expires 70 years after author’s death. (PD-Art)
All other photos in public domain in countries and areas where copyright lasts 100 years or fewer after creator’s death (PD-old-100) or protected under Fair Use (https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/).