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.
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.
During the 1933 investigation, the scientists approximately determined the age of the remains, a huge factor in perpetuating the belief that they indeed belonged to the lost princes. Several of the bones even remained un-fused, allowing them to estimate age by looking at which ones weren't fully grown. A dental analysis also confirmed the existence of baby teeth.
These factors allowed Tanner and Wright to approximate one child was 12-13 years old when he died, and the other was just a few years younger. This aligns with the ages of the young princes, as Edward would have been 12 and Richard around 9 when they disappeared.
While Richard III often gets blamed for the disappearance and supposed murder of his nephews, many historians do not believe this theory makes sense, and think his reputation has been harmed by centuries of theatrics and rumor. Richard III never confirmed or denied the murder, which is a strange strategic decision regardless.
If Richard III did murder his nephews, displaying the bodies would have made more sense to prevent pretenders to the throne from coming forward, claiming to be one of the missing brothers. Former kings sometimes put the bodies of deposed kings on display, claiming they died of natural causes. Even when there weren't questions of dark deeds, royals still received extravagant funerals with their bodies on public display for days at a time.
Interestingly, a popular pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, did come out of the woodwork a number of years later, claiming he was the younger prince, Richard, Duke of York. Had the princes' bodies been publicly displayed, then the ensuing Warbeck uprising might not have occurred.
One of the few pieces of evidence linking Richard III to the alleged murder was the confession of Sir James Tyrell. According to Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III, Tyrell confessed to murdering the young princes. In 1502, Sir Tyrell reportedly confessed under torture, before being executed for treason. Torture was a commonly used method to gain information from people, but such confessions are almost always questionable, since admissions of guilt are often a way to make the torture stop.
Tyrell's confession stated the bodies were buried at the foot of a staircase in the Tower of London, before being moved to a more dignified location on Richard III's order. The bodies were, in fact, found near the foot of a staircase, making Tyrell's confession partially correct. Tyrell's confession is not mentioned in any other sources, however, casting doubt on whether it ever truly happened. And the original document was never discovered.