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THE SEVEN PRINCES IN THE TOWER

king-richard

The title sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, I’m once again going to address the matter of those pesky princes in the Tower as I found myself recently debating with several folks who still want to hang on to a certain rather improbable fairy story about them—the one created by our ‘favourite’ saint, Thomas More.
We all know about the two sets of bones, undated and not properly sexed, that are currently sitting in an urn in Westminster. Enough has been said about them on this blog and elsewhere, at least for the time-being.
But what about other remains found over the centuries that have been thought to be the princes? They are more bones than there are boys.
Two children’s skeletons were said to have been found walled up in a hidden chamber in the Tower during the time of Sir Walter Raleigh (the early to mid-1600’s). Supposedly found laid out on a table, the bones were immediately believed to be the missing princes…despite their ages being estimated at between six and eight, too young to be ‘our’ princes.
That said, of course there was no archaeology or osteology in the 1600’s and any guesses as to age at death or cause would be very untrustworthy indeed. However, the idea that they were the princes had some backing….Jean Molinet, the French chronicler and poet, who died in 1507 (so someone who lived at the time the princes vanished, although he was not in England at the time, and was of course, French, which meant his writing would show the English in as bad a light as possible) wrote that the two boys had in fact been bricked up and died of starvation.
However, this tale rapidly seems to have been forgotten (presumably because Molinet was not a saint like Thomas More, and he was French to boot) and the two children’s skeletons vanished who knows where.
Later, of course two coffins were also discovered in a sub-vault adjacent to the main crypt when Edward IV’s tomb was opened in 1789. These were supposed at the time to be the coffins of his children Mary and George, who had died young; however Mary and George were found in different parts of St George’s chapel at a later date.
Sounding likely for the princes? Only until you realise we don’t know if these ‘children’s coffins’ were in fact for children at all (they were only supposed to hold children) or again, what date they were from or if that sub-vault was from another era altogether. Substantial re-ordering in the chapel had taken place throughout the Tudor era and there were later works too.
Records are sketchy and contradictory…at one point 14 year old Mary, whose body was apparently very well preserved, with open blue eyes and long golden hair that had infiltrated through chinks in her coffin, was mistaken for the middle-aged Elizabeth Woodville, her mother!
Back to the Tower of London itself, another child’s skeleton was found at a much later date….in modern times, 1977. Once again, this individual appeared to be that of an adolescent. Examination by a modern bone specialist showed it had male characteristics. A missing prince? No, carbon dating showed it was an Iron Age boy from before the Roman occupation of Britain.
So there have been seven possible princes. We could add an eighth if you want to include another set of bones found in a high up turret in the great Norman fortress—first touted as a lost and heinously murdered prince, it turned out the bones were the remains of an escaped ape!
Many would still argue that More identified the ‘right place’ (ignoring the fact of course that his history says the princes were later moved from the tower staircase by a solitary priest) and that it would be too much coincidence.…but maybe the reason he chose that spot for the ‘scene of the crime’ is simple. Perhaps occasional human bones turned up around that area (as they still do today, it would seem.) Centuries before archaeology existed, people like More would only assume one thing.

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Examining an alternative theory

For several centuries, some historians and other writers have connected Sir Thomas More’s narrative of the murder of Edward IV’s sons to the bones found in 1674 and declared them to prove his case, even to the point of deluding Tanner and Wright in 1933 into calling the bones “Edward” and “Richard” before they even started. This theory has required its adherents to believe that More, who was five in 1483, was telling the absolute truth at first but suddenly switches to falsehood when he tells of the bones being disinterred and reburied somewhere else. Now, of course, modern medical interpretations of Tanner and Wright’s results (Carson, pp.214-32) express doubts as to the age, gender and number of individuals buried there whilst Carson herself (http://www.annettecarson.co.uk/357052362 and in the same chapter) notes the extreme depth of the burial, implying that it considerably pre-dated 1480-90, together with the evidence that “Edward” was likely to be mortally ill. The entire theory is becoming a colander and the probability of a real scientific investigation increases.

The Cairo residents, however, seem not to have given up. “Those may not be the actual bones and More’s second half may be accurate”, they claim, pointing us towards two small coffins found in Edward IV’s Windsor tomb in 1789 (http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/archives/blog/?p=837). At first these were thought to belong to Mary and George, Duke of Bedford, Edward IV’s other children by Lady Grey, his “widow”, but these have subsequently (1810) resurfaced and are no longer candidates for these identities. This theory too, has several holes, relating to the times that the tomb was sealed. Edward IV died on 9 April 1483 and Lady Grey on 8 June 1492. Both were buried relatively quickly and the tomb resealed until 1789.

Suppose we test the theory that Richard III killed them and they are buried there, by assuming it. If so, one of these scenarios must have happened:
1) Edward Prince of Wales and Richard Duke of York both predeceased their father and were buried with him. Any source that gives either or both as alive after April 1483 is mistaken or worse.
2) Richard hid the bodies and someone else he trusted moved them into this tomb in 1492 – someone like Brackenbury, Catesby, Lincoln, Lovell, Norfolk or Ratcliffe, except that they were all dead and Brampton and Tyrrell were abroad. Lady Grey had to die some time and there would be such an opportunity.
3) Richard climbed out of his Greyfriars tomb one morning and bought a day return to Windsor after Lady Grey died, placed the coffins in the tomb himself (as (2)) during the days that it was opened for her funeral before catching the trains back to Leicester before his bedtime.
4) Richard didn’t die in 1485 but someone else was buried in his place. After smuggling the corpses into Edward’s tomb, as (2/3) above, he eventually really died and was substituted for the decoy corpse in Greyfriars – because he knew how important his mitochondrial DNA was to be five hundred years later. Nobody in the days after Bosworth had noticed that the wrong body was being exposed.

None of these are remotely plausible. The two small coffins probably relate to two of Edward’s unknown other children, by Lady Grey or a different mistress, or perhaps two of their young servants who died just before 1483 or 1492.

Back to square one for the denialists as their second theory is also a Swiss cheese.

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