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The Princesses in the Tower? Mistaken Sex in Ancient Remains

The mystery of the Princes in the Tower has been the topic of hot debate for centuries, and that debate shows no signs of vanishing anytime soon.

Neither does the misinformation that appears on the Internet with depressing frequency:  ‘Tanner and Wright proved it was the princes’, ‘The discovery of two skeletons indicated they were murdered by smothering,’ and even an astounding article that claimed the Princes were murdered specifically on July 26!

Some who argue for the ‘bones in the urn’ being those of Edward and Richard like to say ‘What are the chances that two random children’s skeletons would be found in that spot?”

Answer: pretty good, actually. England is an old country, with layer on layer of occupation. There was Roman and Iron Age settlement under the Tower, dating from 1000 years before the present structure. It is the same across the country. A field near my house  turned up 70 or so Romans…their graves built over the burial ground of a man known as the ‘king of Stonehenge’ who died in 2400 BC. There could well be bones below my house; there certainly was at a local carpark (carparks always seem to have lots of archaeology!) where Bronze Age cremations mixed with much later Saxon bones. Bones lie everywhere; and without modern techniques, ID is simply guesswork, and in the case of the Princes, people believing what they want to believe.

There is also a good chance (50%!)  these two skeletons may not  even be male. Some who have examined the photos of the remains think the elder has some female characteristics. They did not have the expertise in Tanner and Wright’s day to make an absolute determination of the sex of juveniles.

It is a tricky business determining sex of young people even today, without DNA confirmation. Windeby Girl, a preserved Danish bog body with long blond hair, was long thought to be female, a teenager punished by death in a peat bog, perhaps for adultery. In recent years, further testing was done on the remains. She is a he!

The Red Lady of Paviland, an ancient skeleton discovered in Wales in Victorian times, was also believed to be  female because of the adornments found with the bones. The excavator thought she was Roman and possibly a harlot!  It turns out ‘she’ is a young man who lived some 33,000 years ago.

A recent case of mistaken sex took place with the bodies discovered near to the famous ‘Ice Maiden’ burial in Siberia. One burial was of a pigtail-wearing young person of around 16, who was interred with a much older man, and described as a strongly built female dressed in male clothes. ‘She’  has turned out to be a male wearing a different hairstyle to his elders, perhaps because of his youth and different status.

Even more recently, the sex of the remains of the ‘princely’ Celtic burial at Lavau in France confounded archaeologists, splitting  them 50/50. The tests have now come back as male. So sex can be questionable even with a fully developed adult. (As you will remember they tested for Richard III’s  y-chromosome just to affirm that the Greyfriar’s  skeleton was male, because of his gracile frame and wider than average pelvic notch.)

So no one should be 100% sure about the Tower bones until further analysis is permitted. If you are convinced 100% that the remains are those of the Princes, it is purely because of generations of story telling and assumption passed off as fact.  The  ‘Princes’ might just well turn out to  be ‘Princesses’.

Site of the Tower in the  Roman era, showing settlement.:


Lapper, Ivan; Artist’s Impression of the Tower of London Site, c.AD40; Royal Armouries at the Tower of London;


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14 thoughts on “The Princesses in the Tower? Mistaken Sex in Ancient Remains

  1. Reblogged this on Jo's Historic Collection and commented:

    Excellent article!


  2. Try my book Westminster Bones. It gives a lucid explanation of the reason for the “discovery” of the bones in 1674.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Tower site has had scores of graveyards on or near that site over the centuries. The Romano-British graveyard found in the Minories in recent years is a stone’s throw away (and is so large it may actually cover that part of the Tower grounds). Furthermore, the depth at which the bones were found bespeaks a burial done no later than the eleventh century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • skiinglady on said:

      thank you phoenix woman……you have answered a question I posed on nerdalicious about a possible roman cemetery


  4. David on said:

    An academic study that provides a different assessment of the odds of the gender of the bones.

    Click to access archiveDownload


  5. mairemartello on said:

    Excellent article. Also, the Tanner and Wright study was commissioned on the IDEA that it was the two princes, Edward and Richard, so it wasn’t an objective study although probably well meant. One of the remains showed signs of jaw disease which was never mentioned in their own lifetime. An interesting side note, Nicolas Von Poppelau, one of the few men to record his meetings with Richard the Third – and in a most engaging way – reported that people were saying the two princes were alive in April of 1485. That is two years after Richard became king. I’ve always found that a telling and oft-ignored part of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, a very old assessment from someone who never viewed the bones herself but assumed Tanner and Wright’s conclusions from the beginning, much as they did themselves. Pages 225-7 of The Maligned King quote Dr. Juliet Rogers that their gender could not be determined, whilst Dr. Jean Ross admitted the same. Other modern experts are shown therein to contradict both the Tanner-Wright conclusion and each other.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David on said:

        No, Molleson assumed that Tanner and Wright’s observations were accurate and then applied her extensive experience to come to her own conclusions and compares the bones to those of Mowbray. The genetic anomaly in all three cases were quite rare – less than 5%.

        A small point relating to the main article, even if you assume 50/50 split of the population and that the two bodies are randomly selected, then the odds of “Princesses” are 25%.


  6. hoodedman1 on said:

    I think you’re missing the point. No one is saying 100% that the bones are female; just that adolescents and juveniles (and occasionally even adults) are notoriously hard to sex without DNA (even in cases where tissue remains as in Windeby ) and that mistakes in data are common even today with modern techniques, let alone when using data from the 1930’s and a series of old photographs. Again, I would want a MODERN assessment of the supposed genetic anomaly to see if it really is such; for instance, Wormian bones are mentioned as being indicative of relatedness, when fact, they are not…and they are found far more frequently in all older populations than in modern ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    • First, “David” reported Katherine de Valois addressing Parliament after she died.
      Then came Bishop Leslie of Ross, meeting “Perkin” long before his birth.
      Then a Roll, apparently prepared for the Earl of Lincoln in 1485-7, refers to his brothers’ deaths many years later.
      Next he will tell us that Tanner and Wright used DNA analysis.

      Perhaps he missed his true metier as a science fiction writer?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. hoodedman1 on said:

    A simple radio carbon date could quickly rule them in or out of course, without any of the other bother! I honestly don’t know why any murderer would go to the bother of burying the victims in a noticeable place in a busy area anyway; that is one of the biggest doubts about the whole thing. It seems, well, plain stupid, when the river is nearby and even the adjacent church crypt.
    And if Thomas More was supposed to have known the burial site , then this gives lie to the statement that Henry searched everywhere for the bodies, for it seems the ‘burial spot’ was common knowledge and yet he didn’t bother to exhume them and prove his cause? Hmmmm, very odd indeed.
    I suspect this area is part of the Minories Roman cemetery, and that bones have always been found in the area from even before that era (as in the 12 year old child’s skeleton found in the 70’s and dated to the Iron Age.)
    There is another interesting, odd bit in the Tanner and Wright report, and that is that several bones from the front of the bodies are particularly smooth and differently coloured. That is indicative of mixed animal bone, which often has that appearance. Again, only a hands on assessment could tell us for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

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