One of Britain’s greatest unsolved mysteries is that of the deaths of King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (and future King Richard III) housed his young wards in the Tower of London for their protection prior to Edward’s coronation. However, before that could happen, Edward was declared illegitimate and Richard was crowned in his stead. Sometime after that, the two boys simply seemed to disappear. Theories have abounded about who was responsible and what happened, but the reality is that this mystery was never solved. While we won’t tackle to the question of guilt, instead we’ll look at what might have happened to Edward and Richard.
Following Richard III’s ascension to the throne, Italian friar Dominic Mancini had written down that the King had the two boys moved to the inner apartments of the Tower of London and that they were seen less and less. He also recorded that Edward was attended to by a doctor who told Mancini that Edward was “like a victim prepared for sacrifice, [seeking] remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.” The two then disappeared in the summer of 1483, but despite the gossip that they had been murdered, no evidence existed that they had been murdered. Mancini’s account remains the only contemporary record of what happened and most of the accounts written during the Tudor period are considered to be heavily influenced by Tudor bias.
The first evidence of Edward and Richard’s fate came in 1674 when workmen doing a remodeling of the Tower found two child skeletons in a box buried under a staircase near the chapel of the White Tower. While these weren’t the first skeletons of children found in the Tower, they did match up with an account written by Thomas More. Four years after the discovery, King Charles II opted to have their bodies interred in an urn in Westminster Abbey in the wall of the Henry VII Lady Chapel. The bones have remained there ever since and the Church of England has refused any requests to exhume the bodies and run forensic tests to verify their identities.
About a hundred years later, workmen in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, broke through a vault while doing repairs and discovered a smaller vault with the bodies of two unidentified children. While the vault was labeled with the names of King Edward IV’s children who had predeceased him, two other lead coffins were discovered elsewhere in the chapel with George and Mary Plantagenets’ names on them, leaving the two bodies found in the vault a mystery. Attempts were made in the 1990s and as recently as 2012 to have the two unidentified bodies examined, but such an act would require royal assent, something Queen Elizabeth II has yet to grant.
Yet another theory tends to be a bit more extreme and claims that the princes never died in the Tower and that one or more of them survived. For years during the reign of King Henry VII, a man named Perkin Warbeck claimed to be the real Richard, Duke of York, and even had the backing of Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I and King James IV of Scotland, though Warbeck’s claims were never substantiated or investigated. Amateur art historian Jack Leslau also believed that there was evidence in a painting of Sir Thomas More’s family that led to the assumed identities of the two brothers, though that likewise remains unproven. Matthew Lewis’s book The Survival of the Princes in the Tower is one of many works that examines several theories about how they could have survived, though this line of thinking begs the question as to why no one came forward sooner.
In the end, without the ability to examine any of the bodies found and believed to be the Princes, there is no way to be certain whether they have been found or how they died. The easiest way would be for Queen Elizabeth or a future monarch to give their royal assent to exhume and run tests on the bodies. However, until the Crown assents to an examination, this will likely remain one of the country’s greatest unsolved mysteries.