The Princes in the Tower Mystery Will Probably Never Be Solved and Here's Why

I posted a photo of Edward V and his brother Richard - The Princes in the Tower - on my Facebook and Instagram accounts the other day. Being mischievous, I captioned it simply 'who did it, then?' and waited (ducked?) for the onslaught of comments. 

There were those that thought Richard III killed the Princes, while others blamed Henry VII, as he had legitimised their line to marry their sister, Elizabeth of York and therefore created the threat. Some thought it was the Duke of Buckingham, Richard's right hand man, acting on the king's orders. Others made me frown a bit in confusion. Anne Neville? Elizabeth Woodville? Margaret Beaufort? At least one wrote, mildly aggressively, 'No one did! Keep up!'. 

I'd actually written in my book that the Pretenders who claimed Henry's throne in the late 1480s and into the 1490s didn't turn out to be who they claimed, but then I would add that the manuscript was submitted in February 2023, before Philippa Langley's claims of their legitimacy surfaced towards the end of that year. But anyway, I can't say that after reading her book, my mind has been changed. 

Disposal of the Princes in the Tower - Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom - CC BY.

Murder or not murder, pretenders or legitimate, lived or died - it's still all a mystery. And, depending on who you read, almost anyone circulating around the courts of Richard III or the early years of Henry VII has been accused of having something to do with it.

Which got me thinking. Is it likely that we will ever discover the real, undeniable fate of the Princes in the Tower? 

One of the main problems is the lack of evidence. The Princes' is the coldest cold case in existence. Everyone alive at the time of the boys' disappearance has been dead for over four hundred years and we have only scraps of evidence compiled from sources with a bias towards either Richard or the Tudors. It is also worth thinking about the evidence that hasn't survived. It is logical that at some point in 1484 there was more physical evidence of the fate and whereabouts of the princes. This has now been destroyed or lost to time. Also, we have no bodies. 

But wait, you're going to say: we have the skeletons interred by Charles II in Westminster Abbey, the remains of the Princes found under a staircase. Sadly, not necessarily. The bones found in 1674 were declared to have been the boys' by seventeenth-century spectators, who may have decided who they were before examining them and drawing conclusions that they were the princes. Anyone involved in their finding is dead now, too, in an age before complex archaeological examination and recording. They were also said to have been later rescued from a rubbish heap in the Tower. DNA evidence, if permission is ever granted, would solve their identities to a point, and they may well prove to be of Yorkist descent. But there would be so many unanswered questions, and the mystery of their fates and who was responsible would still exist.

Blame falls into two main camps: Richard III and Henry VII. Characters like Anne Neville, Margaret Beaufort - even Elizabeth Woodville - are thought to have been involved in support of one of these two men. I like Richard III. I even wrote a defence of him. Do I think he was capable of having his nephews murdered to secure his claim to the throne? He wouldn't be the first (hello King John) but there's just something in my gut tells me he didn't do it. However gut feelings are not exactly a process of thoughtful and critical historical analysis. 

Perhaps we rely too much on our gut, and our emotions, in debating this case. Philippa Langley has been criticised for tailoring evidence to fit a pre-conceived mission: to find Richard III innocent of killing his nephews at any cost. Her support of Richard is well-known; she even led a research group that discovered the king's remains in Leicester in 2013 and contributed to such in-depth knowledge of the king that we know what he had for breakfast. But, as Gareth Streeter at Royal History Geeks has written, this is part of the problem. Streeter has questioned whether Langley was the right person to embark on such a significant piece of detective work. 'She is hardly well placed to be the public face of an independent investigation', Streeter wrote, wondering 'what law enforcement agency in the democratic world would consent to hand over control of such an investigation to one who has expressed such a partisan interest in the outcome?'. This is entirely valid. We cannot construct a historical argument tailored only to our views and mission; discarding evidence that doesn't fit with our end goal and only allowing that which does. If we really want to know what happened to the Princes, and we believe evidence is out there that confirms it, we need research that is unbiased and objective.

For me, there's something about the theory of the survival of the boys after 1484 that just doesn't sit right. Lambert Simnel, after the Battle of Stoke, was taken by Henry and installed as spit turner in the royal kitchens and then falconer. Why would Henry place a young boy with a legitimate claim to his throne deep in the royal court, where he could conspire with other Yorkists and act as a figurehead for rebellion? Also, had the boys been sprung from the Tower, where were those that did it when the Pretenders started to make their claims? Surely they would have come forward and supported them, seeking a piece of the glory? 

Perkin Warbeck's claims that he was the lost Prince Richard were similarly vague. Margaret of Burgundy supported him as her nephew, but then, to the man that had murdered her brother and usurped his throne, she would have. Margaret was a staunch supporter of the House of York and we can never be sure that she honestly believed either of the Pretenders were who they claimed to be. The Scottish king dropped his support for Warbeck soon after he gave it, and this should raise eyebrows in itself. 

Henry didn't immediately execute either Simnel or Warbeck. Trumped up charges of treason and threatening to disturb the peace of the realm could easily have resulted in a hasty trip to the scaffold for either of them, but Henry kept them alive. Warbeck was only executed after a supposed escape attempt from the Tower. I know it's speculation but I also can't completely ignore the influence of Elizabeth of York, Henry's queen. Despite popular opinion, Elizabeth was a canny negotiator, diplomat and active during Henry's reign. I am convinced that she and the Pretenders had a secret meeting. If you were Henry, wouldn't you? And speaking of Elizabeth of York, the very act of Henry legitimising her claim suggests he knew that her brothers were dead or that they could not pose any future risk. Henry was well-known for being calculating, intelligent and mindful of threats to his realm. The whole 'Pretenders' stories sound very much like political 'puppet' meddling, which is what they confessed they were and I remain convinced, until further evidence emerges, that that is what they were. 

So what do I think happened to the Princes? 

I like Richard III, as I've said. But the boys disappeared from view in 1484. What do we do in modern times when someone drops the ball in matters of state? We blame the ruling government. Whether the boys died of illness, accident, were murdered or escaped - the blame lies with Richard, as it happened under his watch. Ultimately, he was responsible. 

As I've said, I don't buy the theory that the boys lived on after 1484. It's possible that Richard had them killed, but I know propaganda when I see it, too. I think it's possible they died from a viral or bacterial illness, or, as one writer has stated, from medical neglect. This would explain their awkward and sudden disappearance from history, and there is precedent for it. The two sons of Katherine Willoughby and Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk died of the sweating sickness, in their beds and within hours of one another, in 1551. What if, to avoid being viewed as a murderer, Richard had his nephews (who had died by accident) quietly buried? I remain unconvinced that Margaret Beaufort, Anne Neville or (shock, but some have said it) Elizabeth Woodville their own mother had anything to do with their deaths or disappearance. Henry VII's initial treatment of the Pretenders also suggests he genuinely did not consider them a threat. 

If this was indeed a modern murder case, Richard would have been one of the suspects. But with no evidence, no bodies and no reliable eyewitnesses (the testimony of Miles Forrest recorded by Sir Thomas More is interesting but not definitive) he would be considered innocent until proven guilty. And for now, that is all we have.

What do you think? Will we ever know what happened to the Princes in the Tower? 

If you're interested in this time period, you might like my book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword Books. It discusses a number of women of the period who were impacted by, or had an impact on, the fifteenth-century conflict. 

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: