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.: