The discovery of King Richard III’s remains has had a strange effect on the world of historical research. Because mtDNA results identified the remains found in Leicester as King Richard III, suddenly it is widely believed that DNA is a magical potion that will conveniently solve historical mysteries. However, the DNA test results did not find Richard III. They helped to confirm the remains belonged to him. It was historical research that located his grave. None of the scientific research can prove 100% conclusive. Had Richard III been found 50 years ago, based only on historical research, there would be only as much doubt that the remains belong to him as there is today.

Identifying the type of scoliosis Richard suffered from and how it may have affected him was a truly interesting discovery. When scientists at the University of Leicester failed to deliver on their repeated promises of many more marvellous historical discoveries, they instead attempted to focus on an allegedly controversial break in paternity, allowing the media to capitalize on it and create as many lurid headlines as they could manage. They had no new significant findings about Richard III himself. Kevin Shurer is now attempting to trace the lineage of celebrities back to Richard III. A triumph in genealogical research indeed.

Popular historian Dan Jones then chimed in, claiming that those who object to disturbing the dead are “squeamish and prissy” and asking if it was time to “look inside that urn in Westminster Abbey containing the supposed remains of the princes in the Tower? Or to stick a camera inside Elizabeth I’s tomb?”1 Perhaps the Bisley Boy theory has him enchanted.

It’s inevitable that the subject of the remains alleged to be King Edward V’s and Richard Duke of York’s in the urn in Westminster Abbey would be broached. Queen Elizabeth II and the Church of England have repeatedly refused requests to examine the remains. And it is no wonder.  There may be some fragments of animal bones left in the urn, who knows what the media will come up with?

An endlessly long line of historians have stated it is possible that the remains found in the Tower of London in 1674 belong to King Edward V and Richard Duke of York. It’s about time we let go of an idea that has no basis in fact.

The facts are that King Edward V’s and Richard Duke of York’s graves have never been discovered, and their remains do not lie in an urn in Westminster Abbey.


“At the stayre foote, metely depe in the grounde”

Thomas More’s brilliant discourse against tyranny, The History of Richard III, is at the root of this myth. More himself would probably be mystified that his dramatic interpretation of the alleged murder of Edward V and Richard Duke of York would be used as historical evidence a few centuries later. More’s historians will point out that he did have access to reliable oral sources, various men and women who had lived through Richard III’s reign. His historians also examine literary influences on his work such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Sallust, Seneca, Plautus and Euripides, and even the medieval mystery plays that More himself loved to write and act in as a young boy. More’s History of King Richard III is usually viewed as a moral anecdote, a rhetorical exercise. Peter Ackroyd has even suggested it “may have been the basis of exercises given to his own school or even to the boys of St Paul’s: there is a sudden reference to a ‘scole master of Poules” for no good reason.”2 Tyranny was a recurring theme in More’s work, and as Richard Sylvester points out “a subject for philosophical meditation as well as an ever-present danger in the kingdom.”3 On the other hand, some examining the mystery of ‘The Princes in the Tower’ will use selective phrases from More to validate the discovery of a pair of children’s skeletons found in the Tower of London in 1674.

There have actually been two sets of children’s skeletons discovered in the Tower of London that were thought to have belonged to Edward V and Richard Duke of York. There is an old story of a pair of skeletons found in a ‘walled-up room’ in the Tower of London in the early 1600s. A note, dated 17 August 1647, is written on the flyleaf of a 1641 manuscript of Thomas More’s History. Helen Maurer’s examination notes that this particular story was dismissed because the bones were in “the wrong places at the wrong times.”4 The first discovery may have been ignored because it did not fit with the more compelling account in More’s History, that the boys were buried “at the stair foot, metely deep in the ground under a great heap of stones.

This sentence has captured the imagination of many, when one fails to note the next part of the account. More follows on to tell us that King Richard III,”allowed not, as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying that he would have them buried in a better place, because they were a king’s sons…Wherupon they say that a priest of Sir Robert Brakenbury took up the bodies again, and secretely entered them in such place, as by the occasion of his death, which he only knew it, could never since come to light.

The 1674 discovery of a pair of children’s skeletons, found when workmen were demolishing the staircase leading to the White Tower in the Tower of London, has somehow given more weight to More’s account. Or perhaps the first part of More’s account gave more weight to it. A report of the discovery first appeared in Francis Sandford’s Genealogical History of the Kings of England published in 1677.

“Upon Friday the … day of July, An. 1674 …in order to the rebuilding of the several Offices in the Tower, and to clear the White Tower of all contiguous buildings, digging down the stairs which led from the King’s Lodgings, to the chapel in the said Tower, about ten foot in the ground were found the bones of two striplings in (as it seemed) a wooden chest, which upon the survey were found proportionable to ages of those two brothers viz. about thirteen and eleven years. The skull of one being entire, the other broken, as were indeed many of the other bones, also the chest, by the violence of the labourers, who….cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish and by that means preserved all the bones. The circumstances of the story being considered and the same often discoursed with Sir Thomas Chichley, Master of the Ordinance, by whose industry the new buildings were then in carrying on, and by whom the matter was reported to the King: upon the presumptions that these were the Bones of the said Princes…”

The first problem with this discovery is the soil level. A level of ten feet indicates that the remains must have been much older than 200 years. There have been ancient remains found in the Tower before, and as late as 1977 the skeleton of a child found in the Tower was dated to the Iron Age. A hasty grave could not have been dug deeper than a foot or two. In 1674 it took a team of workmen to dismantle the staircase. The remains were found at foundation level, a depth that would have required scaffolding, and the digging itself would have taken days. The soil level could have risen no more than a couple of feet between 1483 and 1674. Annette Carson concludes that the latest possible burial date for the remains found in the White Tower would be 1066.5

Charles II did not have the remains reinterred immediately. In fact they languished until a warrant was issued in 1677 ordering an urn to made for ‘the supposed bodyes of ye two Princes’. The wording itself indicates that the remains were not thought to be that of Edward V and Richard Duke of York with absolute certainty. The sudden speed with which this belated interment was arranged saw chicken and fish bones and three rusty nails cobbled into the urn along with the remains of the two children, clearly debris from their sojourn on the rubbish heap. Maurer notes that, taking the uncertainty of Charles’s succession into account, the remains “made touching symbols of the evils of deposition and thwarted succession” and the sudden decision to inter the remains was a “political act, fraught with a political message for Charles’s own time.”6


Westminster Abbey’s translation of the Latin inscription reads:

Here lie the relics of Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York. These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper; whose bones, long enquired after and wished for, after 191 years in the rubbish of the stairs (those lately leading to the Chapel of the White Tower) were on the 17th day of July 1674, by undoubted proofs discovered, being buried deep in that place. Charles II, a most compassionate prince, pitying their severe fate, ordered these unhappy Princes to be laid amongst the monuments of their predecessors, 1678, in the 30th year of his reign.

An examination was conducted on the bones in 1933 by Lawrence Tanner, Keeper of the Muniments at Westminster Abbey, Professor William Wright, President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Dr George Northcroft, president of the Dental Association. Among other things they concluded that they were the bones of two children, the eldest aged twelve to thirteen and the younger nine to eleven. Yet they failed to determine the sex of the skeletons, a fundamental piece of information.

The presence of two children’s skeletons in a vast area where various remains have been discovered before proves very little. We cannot use Thomas More’s account as historical evidence that Edward V and Richard Duke of York were murdered in the Tower of London and buried at the foot of the stairs in the White Tower, because the account is fictional. And even in this fictional account More himself did not come to this conclusion. More said they were taken from their hastily-dug grave at the foot of the stairs and reburied in a secret location, with the only man who knew their whereabouts then rather conveniently dying.

We can see that, even in 1677, these remains were not thought to be the remains of Edward V and Richard Duke of York beyond all reasonable doubt. We can see that the depth of the burial does not indicate the remains were almost 200 years old, but much older. It is evident that Charles II was probably sending a political message against deposition with his own succession in doubt. We know that the sex of the two skeletons was not determined in the examination in 1933. We have no definitive way of conducting any tests, the mtDNA John Ashdown-Hill discovered cannot be used to test these remains.

We have no archaeological evidence. We have no scientific proof. We have no historical record. So it cannot be said with any certainty whatsoever that the remains in Westminster Abbey belong to Edward V and Richard Duke of York. In fact it can be said with far more certainty that they do not.


Theyr bodies cast God wote where

Thomas More was a careful scholar. After his gripping account of the “most piteous and wicked…lamentable murder of his innocent nephews the young King and his tender brother” he also noted that “some remain yet in doubt, whether they were in [Richard’s] days destroyed or no“. More regularly indicates he was using second-hand information, as wise men think, men constantly say, as the story runs and even either men of hatred reported the above for truth or...Thomas More knew that no one could prove who murdered the sons of Edward IV, or if indeed they were murdered at all. If Thomas More knew men and women who had lived in Richard III’s reign and he could not find out the truth, what hope do we have 500 years later? Whomsoever knew the fate of Edward V and Richard Duke of York took the secret to the grave.

When the issue was raised again in 2012 the dean of Westminster replied “If the result is positive, the remains of the two princes are placed back in Sir Christopher Wren’s urn. But what if they are negative: what do we do with the remains?

“Keep them in the urn in the royal chapels, knowing they are bogus, or re-bury them elsewhere? And what would we have gained, other than to satisfy our curiosity in one area. It would not bring us any nearer the truth of the affair.”7

Many seem to be under the impression that if DNA testing proved the remains in Westminster Abbey did not belong to Edward V and Richard Duke of York that it would exonerate Richard III of the crime. It would do nothing of the sort. It would be far more likely that the blame was placed firmly back at the hands of Richard III. Every time the demands to test the remains are raised it gives more credence to the ridiculous myth that a set of random, unidentified pair of skeletons found in the Tower of London could possibly belong to Edward V and Richard Duke of York. And if it was proven the skeletons did not belong to them, it would simply prove what we should have known all along.

It would be the greatest irony that some would claim a negative result simply proved that Thomas More was correct, and that their bodies were ‘cast God wote where‘.

Read More:

Did the Princes Survive? Richard III and The Princes in the Tower

History Salon: The Survival of the Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower with Josephine Wilkinson

  1. After Richard III, is it time to dig up other famous skeletons? History Extra 3rd December 2014
  2. Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage 1999, p. 155
  3. Sylvester, Richard S., More, St. Thomas, The History of Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, Yale University Press 1976, p. 15
  4. Maurer, Helen, “Bones in the Tower: A Discussion of Time Place and Circumstance”, The Ricardian Vol IX, No 112, 1991, p. 18
  5. Carson, Annette Richard III: The Maligned King History Press 2013 p. 214
  6. Maurer, Helen, “Bones in the Tower: A Discussion of Time Place and Circumstance”, The Ricardian Vol IX, No 112, 1991, p. 17
  7. Why the princes in the tower are staying six feet under, The Guardian, 6 February 2013

29 Responses

  1. Linda

    Is that plaque fixed to a single stair or a staircase? The staircase under which the bones were found was demolished wasn’t it? And Charles II planted a tree on the spot where it stood to commemorate the princes.

    • Olga Hughes

      That’s in the ‘Bloody Tower’ as far as I know Linda, and it looks like it’s affixed to a wall.

  2. Esther Sorkin

    Great article. I think one reason why people are so convinced that DNA might be helpful is that, if the bones in the urn are not those of the princes, Clement Markham’s idea that the boys survived Bosworth and were killed by Henry VII is not conclusively disproved. While a lot of other evidence developed after Markham’s death continues to disprove his theory, the fact that this is the theory repeated in “Daughter of Time” means it has a wider audience than it would otherwise have.

    • Olga Hughes

      I think the same applies for anyone accused of their murder Esther, you can’t prove or disprove anything in that regard. And despite various optimistic predictions about new evidence coming to light at some point, I very much doubt whoever knew what happened to the boys left a convenient bit of paper lying around for us.

    • Claire Jordan

      Had Henry killed the boys himself, there was nothing to stop him blaming it on Richard. In fact, the fact that it took Henry 17 years to get around to accusing Richard of their murder, and then only by a roundabout route which maintained his plausible deniability; the fact that he never siad to any of the pretenders claiming to be one of the boys “You can’t be who you say you are because I know that he’s dead”; and the fact that he never had mass said for his supposedly dead brothers in law, strongly suggests that Henry either didn’t know whether they were alive or dead, or knew them to be alive (it’s a big fat Catholic no-no to say a requiem mass for somebody you know is alive).

  3. Morgan

    I would still prefer to see these bones exhumed and DNA tested. Whether the result is negative OR positive, they SHOULD be re-interred in the urn afterward and a new plaque added to explain the results.

    • Olga Hughes

      You could probably add a plaque right now Morgan, saying that the remains don’t belong to them. Enough historical research has disproved the theory.

  4. Evanescence

    I think it would be interesting too see whats in Elizabeth I tomb. I really would. I think its her there. Just intrigued at that idea.

  5. myrna smith

    My bump of curiosity says, yes, examine the bones. Why should exceptions be made for the Queen’s relatives? Which begs the question: without testing, it’s not proven that these are her relatives. In any case, many pre-Hanoverian monarchs have had their graves opened at some time. That’s how we know that James I was buried in Henry VII’s tomb, and Charles I is bunking in with Henry VIII.
    If the bones are examined and proved to be royal, that puts Richard in the picture (not ‘back in’, since he has never been out). If they turn out to be ‘commoners’ they could be re-buried as The Unknown Children, as it would be pretty sure they died by violence or of a virulent disease. And if the results are inconclusive, well, that would leave us where we started, but we would have tried.

  6. Susan MacDonald

    Thank you for the article. It was thoughtfully and intelligently written. I, too, am of the belief that the skeletons are not the two princes. Does anyone honestly think that a chest could be buried that deep under a stone staircase in a very exposed area of the Tower, and no one would have noticed at the time? I don’t think so. And land that the Tower stands on was occupied well before it was built, so it stands to reason that there were prior burials there.

    • Olga Hughes

      There doesn’t seem to be any way that such a burial could have remained a secret Susan. And I agree, considering much, much older remains have been discovered in the Tower and considering these were found at foundation level they can’t possibly have been buried at that depth in the 15th century.

  7. Claire Jordan

    The location and depth at which the two mystery skeletons were found coincides with the edge of a Roman cemetary which predated the Tower, so almost certainly they are Roman children. Carbon dating would be more to the point than DNA analysis.

    They were believed to be the missing boys because they share two minor abnormalities with the skeleton of Anne Mowbray, who was a cousin of the York boys. Both are probably red herrings. One is an abnormality of the teeth which was rare in Mediaeval London but very common in Roman London, and the other is a thing called the Mowbray Thumb which the missing boys could not in fact have inherited through their relationship to the Mowbrays, because it descended through the wrong bloodlines.

    • myrna smith

      Didn’t some of the sailors on the Mary Rose have tooth abnormalities also? That is, teeth that were, not missing, but never there?
      But I agree. Radiocarbon dating first, to see if it is even worth while to do further testing.

    • pat

      excuse me but where does the evidence for a roman burial site come from as I have not heard it before and it is very significant…

    • Joelene

      You are also forgetting that the remains were found with pieces of rag and velvet around them. I don’t think velvet was invented back in the Roman era.

    • Richard Unwin

      The idea they are of Roman antiquity is impossible when you have regard to the examination of 1933. Though problematical in many respects, a surgeon such as professor Wright would have immediately identified ancient bones. In fact, he identified the remains of organic residue in the hands which he “conjectured” was due to the two bodies being laid one on top of the other. This is his admitted invention but it desposes of the idea these are of Roman origin. My “conjecture” is that the bones are of early 17th century origin, which along with the evidence of a coffin (thoughtfully provided by their supposed murders) makes rather more sense. Oh, and the bones were not found ten feet down but on a heap of soil beside the excavation.

  8. timetravellingbunny

    I don’t see how a positive or negative identification of the bodies as the ‘Princes in the Tower’ could prove or disprove anything at all about the responsibility of Richard III, or anyone else, for their presumed murder.

    All that a positive identification would prove would be:
    – that they were actually murdered in or around the Tower sometime in the late 15h century, and
    – that Perkin Warbeck was indeed an imposter.

    While a negative identification would prove nothing at all.

  9. Gapper

    I think there is something to More’s account. In there he states that the princes ” More said they were taken from their hastily-dug grave at the foot of the stairs and reburied in a secret location, with the only man who knew their whereabouts then rather conveniently dying.” We know that here: it states the history of the two coffins buried with Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville that are unknown. I believe I read somewhere they were children’s coffins as well. I believe that the Princes were killed in the tower, probably hastily buried, and Richard, to show honor and respect had them reburied and they were reburied in the same vault as their father. Fits also with Richard III’s re-burial of Henry VI in 1484, actually pretty close to his brother Edward IV. I believe Richard new this is where the princes ended up (perhaps they died of natural causes and to produce their bodies would just throw certainty that he had killed them, easier to just ignore anyway) and Elizabeth Woodville knew also. Did Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York know also? Part of me says yes, it is why Henry treated the pretenders they way he did. Why not share that knowledge? Perhaps as with kings before, it was best to leave the princes dead and buried and not make people think he or his mother had interfered or had the princes killed. He had a propaganda machine to reinforce Richard III’s guilt. Just an opinion and I do hope they open the coffins one day in my lifetime and we find out for sure.

  10. Annette Carson

    To put the record straight about abnormal dentition, this refers to congenital absence of teeth, otherwise hypodontia. The examination in 1933 found evidence of hypodontia in both jaws, which was taken to indicate that they were related to each other. Later experts pointed out that these supposed missing teeth – if they hadn’t accidentally fallen out anyway – represented the most common types of hypodontia known to orthodontics, therefore they were not abnormal and proved nothing. In the 1960s the jaw of Lady Anne Mowbray was found to exhibit hypodontia. It was not the same as that exhibited by the jaws in the urn, therefore no association with them could be made. All of this is covered at length (with sources quoted) in chapter 10 of my book, ‘Richard III: The Maligned King’, which is the most comprehensive examination of the evidence about the bones yet published. Olga’s summary is spot-on.

  11. lassie gaffney

    Would it not make more sense to have the body of perkin warbeck opened and tested to see if he really was Richard, the younger Prince? He would have been nephew to Richard III so mtDNA would be the same, would it not? If he was found to be the younger prince, then the urn in the Abbey would have to be opened and examined as it would not be possible to be the boys. If Perkin was found not to be related to Richard then we would at least know he was truly a pretender. He was executed as a traitor, and not a noble traitor, so permission to exhume his remains would not have to come from the Crown, I don’t think?

  12. y hitchin

    That would be an interesting line to follow if it were possible!

  13. Richard Unwin

    I cannot comprehend why there are people who still think that the remains in the Urn are of antique Roman origin. Even Wright, back in 1933 would have noticed if the bones were of that era. The idea comes as a rather banal attempt to explain the depth of the excavation. Apart from anything else, the fact that the bones coincidentally match the supposed ages of the two princes at their supposed deaths should, in any reasonable mind, set alarm bells ringing. How far can intelligent credulity be stretched? If the bones were to be discovered today, the FIRST question we would consider is this is probably a hoax, and that question would be the first to be investigated. As things stand we are faced with an almost manic reluctance to abandon long held suppositions even when critical analysis disposes of them. In my book Westminster Bones I set out the idea that the whole business was a hoax perpetrated as propaganda by Charles II. It is an entirely reasonable hypothesis which might be reluctantly considered merely because it differs from tired and outworn, but comfortable hypotheses. Rather than try to make the bones fit into the Roman era, or even the fifteenth century, why not fit them early in the seventeenth century? The condition of the bones as they were described in the Tanner/Wright report does not discount this. I suppose that for those who have for years postulated that the bones are either the princes or of earlier Roman origin cannot abandon their argument, but that should not exclude new radical thought.

    • Olga Hughes

      How far can intelligent credulity be stretched? People giving credence to one half of Thomas More’s story as historiographical evidence that Edward IV’s sons were buried in the tower. Helen Maurer already discussed Charles II in her excellent article many years ago, so that discourse is hardly new.

  14. Richard

    The bodies that were found are unlikely the bodies of the two princes. It’s highly unlikely that they’re even male. Hypodontia is rare and more common in females. This is also the reason why the Westminster Abbey and the royal family has prohibited further examination of the bones to determine the sex and why photos don’t exist showing the pelvic region or even the rest of the body beyond the skull despite the body of the older looking skeleton being reported as fully intact. Even the inscription on the urn on display in Westminster Abbey should leave doubt as it is written in propaganda:

    “Here lie the relics of Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York. These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper; whose bones, long enquired after and wished for, after 191 years in the rubbish of the stairs (those lately leading to the Chapel of the White Tower) were on the 17th day of July 1674, by undoubted proofs discovered, being buried deep in that place. Charles II, a most compassionate prince, pitying their severe fate, ordered these unhappy Princes to be laid amongst the monuments of their predecessors, 1678, in the 30th year of his reign.”

    There is no proof that these are in fact Edward V and Richard nor any proof that Richard III had them killed in their sleep. What this does prove is that the discovery was heavily influenced by Thomas More, who was only 6 or 7 when Richard died and had no first hand knowledge, and that Charles II wanted credit for the discovery.


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