What happened to the princes in the tower?


It is virtually impossible for the average disinterested reader to easily separate, identify, and memorize all of the persons involved in the rule of England in the 15th century: the sheer number of such persons is staggering, and their names all seem to run together into a sheet of white noise: Henry Edward IV VII, Lord of Norfolk Buckingham (and so on and so forth). Thus, we shall try to simplify this particular story down to six easy to digest main characters:

  • Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York, who initiated the famous War of the Roses with the Lancaster family in 1446. Richard himself was killed in battle in 1460, and thus Edward IV became the heir to the York dynasty, and its potential king. Following quickly in his father's footsteps, Edward took over London in 1461, annihilated the Lancastrian army, and had himself declared king. Despite his apparent victory, he had many enemies within the state, including
  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who, in addition to being the Duke of Gloucester, was also Edward IV's brother. In 15th century England, however, being one's brother offered little familiarity and friendliness - with the crown at stake, backstabbing was commonplace and treachery was always afoot. To prove the point, Edward IV had his other brother George, Duke of Clarence executed for plotting against him. Thicker than water indeed! Richard, of course, wouldn't be seen around town without his trusty sidekick
  • Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The story goes that Buckingham was related to the royal family so many times he was his own first, second, and third cousin! At the age of 12, he was forced into marriage with Catherine Woodville, the younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to - you guessed it - Edward IV. He seemed to really hold a grudge about this, and was always more loyal to Richard than to the crown. All of those relations included a second cousinship with
  • Henry Tudor, a Lancaster and therefore an enemy of the crown. He was exiled to Ireland after a huge 1460 battle ended in defeat for the family. However, he still had many connections in the British government (remember those enemies of the state?) and was certainly plotting for his own takeover of the throne. Part of those murderous plans would most definitely involve
  • Edward V, son of Edward IV. The War of the Roses was waning, but troubles with the Lancasters had not. Edward V was born on November 4, 1470, in Westminster Abbey where his mother lay in sanctuary as the Lancasters temporarily held the throne. With the imprisonment of Henry VI that year, Edward IV was again reinstated to the crown, and at the tender age of 8 months, Edward V was crowned Prince of Wales. He was also the next in line for the kingdom on Edward IV's death. He is the first prince of the tower, along with
  • Richard, Duke of York, born in 1473. The grandson of the first Richard, Duke of York (the one that started the War of the Roses, remember?) he was the younger brother of Edward V, and after him, the heir to the throne of the King of England.

So, we have a king, embattled by civil war and treason in his own family; his scheming and power-hungry brother and his equally power-hungry underling; an exiled contender for the throne; and two young boys, barriers to power through no fault of their own beyond their birth. All of this intrigue and dash led to one of the greatest mysteries of the modern world:

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The Story

Happy-go-lucky young Edward, Prince of Wales, was sent to Ludlow Castle in Wales to serve as the king's correspondent at the new Council of Wales, formed to help consolidate and organize his loyal servant's power. It was here that Edward received the unhappy news that his father had passed away unexpectedly April 8, 1483. This led to Edward's coronation as Edward V on April 9. He was 12 years old. Due to his youth, his uncle Richard was named to be his protector and main advisor.

Amazingly, it took only three months for Richard to find a technical way to the throne: he had the Bishop of Bath declare Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate, making the princes bastards unworthy of the throne. Parliament agreed, and on June 25, 1483, they issued a famous document Titulus Regius, declaring Richard III the new king of England. The boys, of course, were not subject to any criminal actions for the sheer misfortune of being illegitimate. Instead, Edward and young Richard were whisked away to the Tower of London which, in 1483, was serving double duties as both a prison and a palace. The boys were seen on occasion playing on the Tower Green (where Anne Boleyn and Thomas More would later lose their heads), but with less and less frequency, until sometime when they simply were not seen at all.

In October 1483, Henry Stafford, angry with his overlord for stiffing him on a promised deal to return lands to his family taken by Edward IV for the kingdom, began conspiring with Henry Tudor to reclaim England for the Lancasters. He formed a great army in Wales to march on Richard's army, but a massive storm disenchanted his troops, who abandoned him. While attempting to escape the country in disguise, Stafford was caught and beheaded on November 2.

Nobody except Richard saw the boys on a regular basis - and thus their absence was merely a footnote in the history of time. By early 1484, however, suspicions began to arise that the boys were no longer alive, and that they had been murdered by none other than their uncle Richard. There was no proof of this, of course - no one could even go inside the Tower or demand to see the boys alive to prove the theories otherwise. Their deaths were simply an unfounded rumor, and as they themselves were unimportant to the future of the crown of England, nobody seemed to really care. Idle mention of their deaths in chronicles of the years seem uncertain as to even if they were killed at all.

In 1485, Henry Tudor led another major attack on Richard, and this one proved successful (wonderfully dramatized in William Shakespeare's Richard III, with the hapless Richard running across Bosworth field shouting, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"). Tudor became Henry VII, the first in the Tudor line of kings, and the War of the Roses was officially over. Of course, none of this answers the question:

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The Aftermath

In 1674, workers tearing down a staircase at the Tower found a small box containing the skeletons of two young people. The bones were interred in Westminster Abbey until 1933, when a group of forensic scientists checked the bones to attempt to identify them once and for all as the princes in the tower.

They could not do so.

Though they identified the bodies as two young males (roughly the same ages as the princes), there were no distingiushing characteristics, such as the young Richard's alleged dented forehead. Much of the skeletons were in decay, and little information could be gleaned from them. Although it is widely supposed the two bodies are those of Edward and Richard, there is no convincing proof either way.

In 1495 Perkin Warbeck, a Flemish earl, claimed to be the young Richard and heir to the throne of England. So willing to believe him were some members of Parliament and the royal family that they refused to fight against him. Still, Henry VII struck down the small military unit Warbeck brought, denounced him as a usurper, and had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was later executed.

In 1502, while under the effects of the rack, James Tyrell "confessed" to murdering the princes, though he did not provide any information as to their date of death, the location of the bodies, or how they were killed. The confession is highly dubious to have even occurred - Tyrell was a plotter against the throne of Henry VII, and most people suggest this is just a rumor started to throw suspicion off of Richard III.

The Theories

The most commonly held theory is that Richard murdered the boys or had Buckingham murder them. It is very interesting to me that men who were bound to be emperors and kings would go to such direct means to their ends - in today's time, most rulers are at least savvy enough to have the CIA do all their dirty work for them. Still the boys' illegitimacy was only a minor barrier to their own claim to the throne - the declaration was only words, and in 15th century, the sword was still very much mightier than the pen. With a few help from sympathetic family members the boys could very well have overthrown their uncle upon reaching maturity.

Another theory states that Tudor ordered Buckingham to murder the boys in order to make Richard look bad to his people and to also remove the potential thorns from his side before his own bid for the crown. Buckingham was a member of the Lancaster family, and his loyalty to Richard might have been soured after the king renounced an agreement he had with the duke to return family lands to him taken by Edward IV.

A third theory is making its way through secret circles today. It is by far the most implausible theory - and yet its implausibility also makes it the most intriguing one as well. A young Henry Stafford served as third in line to the Lancaster throne, behind Henry Tudor and Henry's mother. He also had loyalties to the current king, being his brother-in-law through arranged marriage. He in fact had the perfect opportunity to play both sides against each other. And so, in a matter of course, he did. He gave away battle positions (discreetly, through "spies") to both sides, allowing them to war each other down. When the Yorks began making large headways, he stepped in - though on the side of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, rather than Edward IV. He remained beneath the scenes, though he corresponded with his cousin Henry Tudor on occasion; innocuous letters, no doubt. When Edward IV passed away unexpectedly, Stafford saw his chance. He murdered the boys, and when Richard took the blame, he defected to the Lancasters, who used the deaths as a pretense to declare Richard unfit for the crown. Were it not for a freak storm in which Henry's armada was soundly destroyed and Stafford's army demoralized into naught, perhaps he, and not Tudor, would have become the next king of England. Such long and winding acts of treason were as common as not in medieval Europe.


One even less thrown about theory is perhaps the most preposterous of all: that the boys were not killed in the tower, and survived not only Richard III and the Duke of Buckingham, but also Henry VIII and others. Some reasons to support this theory:

  • After Henry Tudor became King of England, he ordered Elizabeth Woodville to testify before Parliament as to the facts of his legitimacy to the crown. She acquiesced on all points, except for the one: that her sons Edward and Richard were dead.
  • At no other time during the rest of her life (Woodville died in 1492) did she ever claim her sons had been murdered, or that they were missing.
  • There is no physical evidence that the boys were ever killed in the tower or otherwise. Today, the Queen of England refuses to allow DNA testing of the bones, citing that since the princes are surely dead now - albeit mysteriously - there is no reason in stirring up rumors and hearsay anymore than already exists.

What happened to the princes in the tower?

The short answer is: who knows? Were they killed by their uncle? By a warring Lancaster? By a conniving henchman? Or did they live out their days far away from the responsibilities (and dangers!) of royal life? Without further proof, there's simply no way of knowing. There are many books on the subject, but none of them offer the definitive answer. We might just have to wait until the end of days before a light is shined on the mysterious vanishings in the Tower of London on some dark winter's day, 500 years ago.


  • http://www.holbeinartworks.org/
  • Prisoners of the Tower of London. Perchin Books: London. 1985.