Rooted in political intrigue and the often bloody power struggles of the late fifteenth century, the princes in the Tower story is one of the most enduring mysteries of English history. A tale that has been the source of endless speculation, debate, and intrigue for over five centuries.
Edward V, just twelve years old, and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, aged nine, disappeared in the Tower of London in 1483, never to be seen again. The two boys, forever known as the Princes in the Tower, were the legitimate heirs to the throne of England, but found themselves caught in a web of treachery spun during the Wars of the Roses, a tumultuous period marked by a deadly tussle for the English crown. Their fate has become synonymous with betrayal, power, and dark political manoeuvring at the very highest levels of the English monarchy.
What happened to the missing princes in that fateful summer of 1483? Were they murdered by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who subsequently took the throne as Richard III? Were they killed by the Duke of Buckingham or the later Tudor dynasty? Did they escape or were they secretly relocated?
Over the centuries, numerous theories have surfaced attempting to decipher the perplexing enigma of the Tower of London princes.
Who had the most to gain from the disappearance of the two princes? Diving into the complex political and royal intrigue of fifteenth century England reveals efforts to solve one of the world’s most baffling puzzles.
Who were the Lost Princes?
The princes in the Tower story is centred around two boys, the sons of Edward IV of England, who reigned until his sudden death in April 1483. At the same time, the deceased king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became Lord Protector of the realm.
According to tradition, the eldest son of Edward IV would now take the throne, becoming King Edward V. He was just twelve years old. His younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, was only nine when their father died.
The princes were taken to the Tower of London by their uncle, the Lord Protector, in the belief that they would stay there until it was time for the young king’s coronation. But the coronation never occurred and the princes disappeared without trace.
What happened to them? Where did they go? Will the truth about the princes in the Tower ever come to light?
The Prime Suspect
Traditionally portrayed as a scheming uncle rather than a benevolent guardian, Richard, Duke of Gloucester quickly became the leading protagonist in the tale of the two Tower of London princes.
The traditional narrative, as propagated in part by Tudor-era writers like Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare, portrays Richard as a usurper who coveted the throne so deeply he had the princes murdered to eliminate them as rivals.
Richard had much to gain from the princes’ removal. Their disappearance cleared his path to the throne without the threat of legitimate, direct heirs looming over him. The princes, while in the Tower of London, were declared illegitimate based on the claim that their father, Edward IV, had a pre-contracted marriage with another woman – believed to be Lady Eleanor Talbot – before marrying their mother, Elizabeth Woodville. This controversial decision was beneficial for Richard, as it weakened the princes’ claim to the throne and solidified his own.
It was reported at the time that the lost princes were witnessed in the gardens of the Tower, but they were seen less and less until they vanished completely.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was crowned Richard III on July 6, 1483, England’s last Plantagenet king. He met his death just two years later at the Battle of Bosworth Field against the forces of Henry VII, ushering in the age of the House of Tudor.
Whether the missing princes were killed by Richard’s hand, or – as some believe – on Richard’s orders by a young knight named Sir James Tyrrell, is a matter of conjecture and debate amongst scholars, academics, historians and geneticists to this day.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that the evidence against Richard III is circumstantial. There remains no concrete proof that Richard ordered the deaths of the princes, and some historians have argued in his defence, suggesting that others, such as the Duke of Buckingham – or even Henry VII – might have had motives to want the princes out of the way.
The Mystery of The Princes in the Tower
The disappearance of the Tower of London princes remains one of history’s enduring mysteries. Over the years, several theories have been proposed to explain what could have happened to the lost princes.
Murdered by The Duke of Buckingham
Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham was a powerful noble with aspirations. Some speculate that he had the princes killed either as a show of loyalty to Richard III or to advance his own interests, possibly hoping to ascend to the throne himself in the future.
Killed by The Tudors
Another theory suggests that Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth) had a motive to eliminate the princes. Their survival could threaten the legitimacy of his reign. If the princes were still alive when he came to power, he or his supporters might have had them killed.
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Escape or Exile
Some have suggested that the missing princes were not killed but secretly moved or escaped, possibly living out their lives in obscurity. There have been claims over the centuries of individuals purporting to be one of the lost princes or their descendants.
Other theories suggest the two boys died in the Tower due to neglect or ill health, while there were rumours that foreign powers or other English nobles with eyes on the throne might have had something to gain from the princes’ deaths. A recent theory dating from 2021 says that Edward V may have lived out his life in a rural village in Devon as John Evans. It was said he arrived in around 1484 and was given the title of Lord of the Manor.
The Bones in the Tower
In 1674, during renovations to the Tower of London, workers discovered a wooden box containing the skeletons of two children buried three metres beneath the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower. Given the location and the historical context, it was immediately speculated that these might be the remains of the missing Princes in the Tower.
Sir Thomas More, in his ‘History of King Richard III,’ written in the early sixteenth century, had recorded that the young princes were buried ‘at the stair-foot, meetly deep.’ This detail added to the speculation that the skeletons might belong to the princes.
King Charles II ordered the remains to be re-interred in a Sir Christopher Wren-designed urn in Westminster Abbey. The urn bears a Latin inscription which has been translated as: ‘Edward V, King of England. Richard, Duke of York. These brothers, being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.’ This translation mirrors a traditional account of the princes’ fate, but it’s crucial to say that this is an interpretation and not conclusive evidence.
It’s worth noting that the urn containing the supposed bones of the lost princes has not been subject to any modern forensic tests so their true identities remain uncertain. Early examinations in the 1930s seemed to indicate the bones belonged to two children of the right age to be the princes. However, there was some debate about the exact ages, with some estimates suggesting the bones were from younger children than the princes in the Tower would have been.
A Very English Mystery
The Princes in the Tower story stands as a haunting narrative interwoven into the very fabric of English history. While there are lots of theories, ranging from treacherous murders to benign exiles, the two Tower of London princes vanished without a trace, leaving behind a legacy of mystery and speculation.
In an era defined by political machinations, power grabs, and betrayals, the fate of the lost princes is one enigma among many, though undoubtedly one of the most poignant.
As the centuries roll on and new technologies and methodologies emerge, there remains hope that one day, the final chapter in the story of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury might be written.