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.
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.
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 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 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.