During construction work at the Tower of London in 1674, workmen unearthed a wooden chest at the base of a stairwell near the White Tower. Inside, they discovered human skulls, whole and fragmented bones, some animal bones and a few nails. When King Charles II was notified of the finding, he asked his physician to examine the skeletal remains to make an identification. The king’s physician believed the bones belonged to the ill-fated “Princes in the Tower.” This finding was reconfirmed with a forensic examination in 1933.

The Princes in the Tower is one of England’s most notorious cold cases that involves King Edward IV’s two sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. They disappeared shortly after their uncle, King Richard III, moved them into the Tower of London. It has been rumored since the 15th century that Richard III had his nephews killed to eliminate competition for the throne. The discovery of the bones in 1674 seemed to provide physical evidence that this tale was true. But the identification of these skeletal remains is questionable at best and should be re-evaluated. 


Dolly Stolze

Disappearance and discovery

After Edward IV died on April 9, 1483, Richard, the king’s brother, escorted his 12-year-old nephew, Ed­ward, Prince of Wales, to London for the prince’s coro­nation.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Edward arrived the day the prince was supposed to be crowned on May 4, 1483. The coronation was rescheduled for June 22, but it would never happen. Although Edward, Prince of Wales, was considered Edward V as soon has his father died, he was never formally crowned.

Over the next few weeks, Richard arrested and/or executed those he felt threatened his family and their power. He accused William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings, of conspiring against him with the Woodvilles, the family of Edward IV’s wife. He arrested Hastings and had him executed for treason without a trial. Then he had Anthony Woodville, the queen consort’s brother, executed a few weeks later. 

Gloucester also had the marriage of Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, declared invalid. This action made their children illegitimate and ineligible to rule. It also cleared the way for him to be crowned King Richard III on July 6, 1483. 

Edward V (November 2, 1470 – c. 1483) was sent to live in the royal apartments in the Garden Tower, also known as the Bloody Tower, at the Tower of London. His little brother, Richard (August 17, 1473 - c. 1483), Duke of York, joined him on July 16, 1483. They seemed to disappear from the fortress some time after July 1483. Rumors inevitably spread throughout Europe that Richard III had his nephews murdered to eliminate future rivals for his crown. 

The slaying of the Princes in the Tower seemed to be corroborated by a confession made by James Tyrell (also spelled Tyrrell), a knight who served under Richard III, that was recounted in Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III.”

According to Tyrell’s confession, he obtained the keys to the apartments of the two princes and hired two men to murder them at the behest of Richard III. The assassins entered their living quarters in the middle of the night and smothered the boys with some pillows. The murderers laid the bodies on the bed and fetched Tyrell so we could confirm their brutal mission was complete. Tyrell then ordered the men to bury the corpses at the foot of an unknown stairway under some stones. When notified of the death of the Princes in the Tower and their ignominious burial, Richard III ordered their bodies be exhumed and reburied “in a better place.” This second burial spot was never named.

There was no physical evidence of this double murder until workmen dug up the bones in 1674. After the skeletal remains were identified as Edward V and Richard, they were interred in a marble urn in the Henry VII Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey in 1678.

The Osteological analysis

On July 6, 1933 the contents of the urn were examined by Professor William Wright, Dean of the London Hospital Medical College; Lawrence Tanner, the Westminster archivist; and Dr. George Northcroft, former president of the British Society of Orthodontics. Tanner and Wright recorded the results in the journal article Recent Investigations Regarding the Fate of the Princes in the Tower.  

They estimated the eldest child, presumed to be Edward V, was between 12 and 13 years old, and the youngest, presumed to be Richard, was between nine and 11 years old. Tanner and Wright based their age estimation on the presence of unfused bones, bones that have not finished growing; the presence of some primary teeth, also known as baby teeth; and the partial or complete eruption of adult dentition. The age estimation fits the profile of the princes since Edward V was 12 years old and Richard was about 10 years old when they disappeared.

The authors further hypothesized that the juveniles were related due to the presence of wormian bones, extra pieces of bone growth between sutures (or joints) of the cranium. 

Tanner and Wright also asserted that the cause of death was asphyxiation through suffocation based on the presence of brown stains on Edward’s skull. The stains started right below the orbits and reached the mandible (jaw bone). The authors argued that the force behind the suffocation was so great that blood pooled and settled in the face, and this blood left brown stains on the facial bones. 

Due to the ages of the remains, the belief that children in the ossuary were related, and the cause of death, Tanner and Wright concluded that these bones belonged to little Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. The bones were resealed in the urn and returned to their home in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.

Another look at the bones

The Tanner and Wright identification was based on some questionable assumptions and pre-dates forensic and archaeological advances that could positively identify the bones. In the journal article "The Bones in the Abbey," Nigel Bramwell and Roger Byard point out some of the problems with the 1933 analysis.

According to Bramwell and Byard, the authors of the 1933 article made some questionable assertions. For example, they argued the two bodies in the urn are related based on the presence of wormian bones. However, wormian bones were not unusual in medieval populations so the likelihood is pretty good that two unrelated people would have this same trait.

Also, the finding of the cause of death, asphyxiation by suffocation, based on the presence of brown stains on the skull is problematic. Bramwell and Byard point out there is no forensic research to support that brown stains on facial bones are indicators of suffocation. After a corpse decomposes, any number of things, like soil or grave goods, can also stain bones. 

Tanner and Wright’s article pre-dates advances like DNA, discovered in 1953, and radiocarbon dating, developed in the 1940s. A DNA test could determine if the bones are male or female and establish a genetic relationship with Edward IV and Richard III. It is extremely difficult for forensic anthropologists to discern sex just by looking at the bones of a child because the bones are growing and the necessary morphological traits for sex determination might not yet be present.

Radiocarbon dating, or carbon-14 dating, could be used to find out when these children died. It is a tool commonly used by today’s anthropologists to date human remains found in an archaeological context.

To illustrate the science available to today’s archaeologists and forensic scientists, look at the identification of the body belonging to the man who allegedly killed the Princes in the Tower, King Richard III. Richard was killed on August 22, 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil. His body was buried near the battlefield but the gravesite was eventually lost. Archaeologists found what they thought was Richard III’s remains on September 12, 2012. His bones were exhumed and identified using osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating and genetics. His face was even reconstructed using forensic techniques. 

The discovery of Richard III’s body renewed interest in the mysterious fate of his nephews. The Church of England has refused all requests for new forensic analysis of the urn contents. 

Dolly Stolze is a researcher and editor at Strange Remains, a blog site that specialized in forensic science, bioarchaeology and bizarre history. She has a master’s degree in forensic anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles.