The Princes In The Tower Were Supposedly Murdered 500 Years Ago, But Science Might Prove Differently

For over half a millennium, the mysterious disappearance of the Princes in the Tower - 12-year-old King Edward V and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, the Duke of York - has been considered a treacherous murder committed by their uncle, Richard III. When the death of their father, Edward IV, his young son became king. Within a few short months, however, both children had disappeared without a trace, and Richard III claimed the crown in 1483. It was a short reign: Richard III died in 1485 fighting against Henry Tudor's forces in the culmination of the War of the Roses.

Almost 200 years later, in 1674, workmen dug up two juvenile skeletons at the foot of a staircase in the Tower of London. These skeletons were presumably the two young princes, and the remains were interred in Westminster Abbey - but this was not the end of the enduring mystery. New evidence has emerged indicating the remains discovered in the Tower of London may not be the princes, and Richard III's murderous reputation may be undeserved.

Over 500 years after their disappearance, no one knows exactly what happened to the Princes in the Tower.

  • A Genetic Anomaly Might Clear Richard III Of The Murder
    Photo: Andreas Praefcke / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Genetic Anomaly Might Clear Richard III Of The Murder

    Almost no information on the princes' remains exists, except a dental record from a 1933 inspection of the bones. Both skeletons show evidence of a rare genetic anomaly - hypodontia, or congenitally missing teeth. Experts previously believed the genetic anomaly proved their identity, as they supposedly inherited the condition from their grandmother Cecily, Duchess of York.

    Historian Dr. John Ashdown-Hill analyzed the princes' remains alongside the recently discovered remains of Richard III. He found Richard III did not possess this genetic anomaly. Given that Richard III was the son of Cecily, Duchess of York, and the uncle of the princes, it seems curious he does not share this trait.

    Based on this genetic evidence, it is unlikely Richard III is related to the "princes in the Tower," or to whomever those bones truly belong.

  • A Historian Says The Sons Of One Of The Killers Might Have Been A Source For Sir Thomas More's Account Of Richard III's Involvement
    Photo: Marzolino /

    A Historian Says The Sons Of One Of The Killers Might Have Been A Source For Sir Thomas More's Account Of Richard III's Involvement

    Sir Thomas More wrote a detailed account of the murders of Edward and Richard in his book History of King Richard III, published in 1535. In More's account, Richard III put Sir James Tyrell, one of his close advisers, in charge of killing his nephews. Tyrell in turn ordered his horsekeeper, John Dighton, and Tower guard Miles Forest, to carry out the act.   

    In a study published in December 2020 in The Journal of the Historical Association, Tim Thornton, a professor of history at the University of Huddersfield in England, said the previously unknown sources of information for More about these details might have been Forest's sons, Edward and Miles Jr., who would have had access to More.

    Thornton said evidence suggests that the information was "passed either direct to them from their father Miles Forest, or at just one remove via their mother Joan, or that they represented a very immediate connection to others who had been associated with their father at the time of his activity in the Tower." 

  • Richard III's Remains Could Solve The Mystery
    Photo: National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Richard III's Remains Could Solve The Mystery

    The remains of Richard III may eventually unravel this 500-year-old mystery. After his body was discovered under a parking lot in 2012, new DNA evidence suddenly became available. King Richard III's DNA could conclusively prove the family connection, lending credence to the theory he murdered his nephews. His DNA could also disprove the remains belong to the princes, creating more questions about what really happened to the missing boys.

    If Richard III's skeleton disproves the identity of the bodies, he would be instrumental in clearing his own name centuries after his death.

  • The Skeletons Could Be Correctly Identified Through DNA Analysis
    Photo: Józef Simmler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Skeletons Could Be Correctly Identified Through DNA Analysis

    The remains were last examined in 1933, at which point it was confirmed they indeed belonged to the princes - but forensic science has made huge advancements since then. The initial conjecture was based off the presence of un-fused bones, baby teeth, and the estimated ages of the remains, but not much else.

    Modern scientists now say little could conclusively be proven by simply looking at the bones. With juvenile skeletons, no way exists to prove the sex of the remains, meaning the remains are not necessarily male. DNA analysis, however, could discover a family connection and the sex of the remains, while radiocarbon dating would determine approximately when the children died.

  • The Church Of England Refuses To Let The Bones Be Examined

    The mystery of the princes' remains could be solved quite easily with modern forensic technology, but the Church of England repeatedly refuses to let this happen.

    The dean of Westminster denied requests to analyze the remains on the grounds it would lead to other royal exhumations. He also reasoned a scientific inquiry could not truly solve the mystery, as it would not identify the guilty party. If the remains proved not to be those of the princes, it would also leave the church the problem of what to do with the unidentified bodies. According to the dean:

    There are others buried in the abbey whose identity is somewhat uncertain, including Richard II, and allowing these bones to be examined could well set a precedent for other requests. I do not believe we are in the business of satisfying curiosity, or of certifying that remains in the abbey tombs are what they are said to be.

  • The Old Analysis Says The Princes Were Smothered, But Modern Scientists Disagree
    Photo: James Northcote / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Old Analysis Says The Princes Were Smothered, But Modern Scientists Disagree

    Lawrence Tanner and William Wright, the experts who examined the remains in 1933, concluded the cause of death was asphyxiation through suffocation. This would match the popular version of events that the princes were smothered with a pillow.

    The clearest evidence for asphyxiation was brown stains on one of the skulls, said to be the result of blood pooling in the face during smothering. Modern scientists disagree with this assessment for a number of reasons, though. No forensic research supports brown stains on facial bones as indicators of suffocation. Brown stains can come from a number of sources during decomposition, such as soil or grave goods.