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“Laboratory examination of possible royal bones moving ahead!”

If only that were the headline coming out of Westminster Abbey with regard to the infamous urn believed to contain the remains of Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York (aka “the Princes in the Tower”).  But, it’s not.  It’s from Winchester Cathedral, where – since 2015 – they have embarked on a project where skeletal remains are being analyzed with modern laboratory techniques.  The bones, some belonging to past English kings and a queen-consort, had been stored in Renaissance-era mortuary chests and placed near the high altar.  There could be as many as 12 individuals contained in them.


Westminster urn which tradition says contains the bones of the “Princes in the Tower”


We’ve all heard the arguments against testing the bones in Westminster:  It sets a precedent for widespread tomb-raiding.  The urn has multiple skeletons, making them indistinguishable. The amount of information gleaned would be minimal.  Royal bones deserve to be left alone.  None of these arguments dissuaded the Dean and Chapter of Winchester from pursuing historical truth and conservation.  The project, which will culminate in an exhibit (called “Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation”) about the Cathedral’s Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman origins, involves opening the chests, taking an inventory of what’s inside, and having the contents analyzed.  So far, radiocarbon testing performed at the University of Oxford has confirmed that the bones come from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.  More research on the bones will be carried out by the University of Bristol to determine their gender, age at death, and physical characteristics such as stature.


Mortuary chests at Winchester Cathedral thought to contain commingled royal bones.  Here, they have been moved to the Lady Chapel, in anticipation of analysis. (c) Winchester Cathedral

The chests are thought to contain the mortal remains of some of the early royal families of Wessex and of England, and three bishops, amongst other artefacts and mortal remains.  They include kings Cynegils (d.643), Cynewulf (d.786), Ecbert (d.839), Æthelwulf (d.858), Eadred (d.955), Edmund Ironside (d.1016), Cnut (d.1035) and William Rufus (d.1100). Also thought to be buried in the chests are Cnut’s wife Queen Emma (d.1052), Bishop Wini (d.670), Bishop Alfwyn (d.1047) and Archbishop Stigand (d.1072).  These individuals died and were buried in the Old Minster, but were re-interred when the present Winchester Cathedral was built over the Anglo-Saxon one.  Historical records indicate that their bones were placed in the mortuary chests around the high altar in the twelfth-century.  However, in 1642, at the beginning of the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops entered the cathedral and toppled the chests in an act of sacrilege. The church officials, who had no way of knowing which bones belonged to who, simply placed them back in six Renaissance-era chests.  They have been opened several times since then, but with the advent of modern forensic laboratory tests, the Cathedral staff believed the interests of historical inquiry made a strong case for the project to proceed.

Let’s hope this may bode well for a change in the Abbey’s and monarch’s current position against disturbing the bones in the Urn, although it’s not likely.

For more information, see the Winchester Cathedral website


Chest believed to contain the mortal remains of King Cnut, located in a high status place atop the Presbytery screen. The chest is from the Renaissance era (note the Tudor double-roses). (c) Winchester Cathedral

Another view

Note, in particular, the beginning of the last paragraph:

The main accusation against Richard III has always been the assumption that he murdered his nephews, and the discovery of the skeletons of two children under a Tower staircase in the 17th century has often been quoted as virtual proof of this dastardly act.

I should like to try and put a few of these assumptions into perspective. In 1674 at the Tower of London a group of workmen were employed to demolish the stone staircase attached to the White Tower, and over several days had dug a full ten feet down to the level of the Tower foundations, when they came upon two human skeletons. Seeing little of interest in this discovery, they threw the bones, along with the surrounding rubble, onto the rubbish dump.

When the workmen related these facts afterwards, others realised that this find could be of some importance. Since the skeletons appeared to be of two young people, being neither of fully grown adults nor of small children, someone began to wonder if these could be the remains of the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ – i.e. the two sons of the late King Edward IV who had seemingly disappeared during the subsequent reign of King Richard III. The bones were therefore recovered from the dump. The reigning monarch at the time (Charles II) subsequently ordered the bones entombment in an urn, to be kept in Westminster Abbey. The assumption, given that forensic examination was unknown at that time, was to accept the bones as those of the allegedly murdered ‘princes’.

This was certainly not the first time that human bones had been discovered in and around the Tower. However, not only did these particular skeletons seemingly, judging by size alone, match the ages of the king’s lost boys, but they were discovered under a staircase, and this rang bells with the unfinished story written long before by Sir Thomas More and entitled “The History of King Richard III.” So those are the simple facts. But a considerable number of myths, misinterpretations and assumptions have gathered around these facts ever since, and the principal one concerns that same unfinished story left by Sir Thomas More.

Neither at the time, nor during the Tudor age following, did anyone else conjecture as to such precise details concerning the boys’ fates – though assumption continued and increased as the blackening of Richard III’s reputation became a political tool of the Tudors. The only reliable account of when they were last sighted (at least by anyone who cared to write of it) appears in the Crowland Chronicle which indicates they were still resident in the Tower in late August or early September 1483. Yet surprisingly the actual contemporary evidence appears to indicate that little interest was aroused in the vicinity at the time of this disappearance, and Londoners went about their business as usual. Many today speak as though contemporary rumour of the murder was rife, but this is absolutely untrue as far as surviving documentation tells us. Whether the sons of Edward IV then died, were murdered, or were simply smuggled safely away, was guessed at but never proved.

It was not until around 1515 (30 years after the death of Richard III) that Sir Thomas More started to write his ‘history’. Over the years he wrote several versions of this but neither finished nor published any of them. They have survived however, and many researchers have chosen to take them seriously in spite of the anomalies, excessive number of mistakes, and insistence on recording discussions word for word even when the possibility of knowing what had been said was completely non-existent.
Within his pages, More initially records that the fate of the boys remained in doubt. Then later and quite suddenly he offers a detailed scenario of their heinous slaughter. He gives no explanation of how he could possibly know the exact details which he relates, however the story appears to be partially inspired by Polydore Vergil, the man recently employed by Henry VII to write a history of England. More, however, elaborates hugely on Vergil’s account, adding no end of specific extra colour. How (more than 30 years after the fact) he suddenly came by this wealth of gossip is difficult to imagine. Did More chat afterwards with the murderers? Did he talk with the priest, yet decide to confide in no one else even though he then wrote it down for anyone to read? Did he receive information from some other nameless soul, who also chose to disclose these essential facts to no one else? More, however, now confidently tells us that after their violent deaths the two sons of Edward IV were secretly buried at the foot of a staircase in the Tower of London. He then goes on to explain that Richard III (who had ordered the murders) objected to such an improper burial and ordered a priest to dig up the corpses and rebury them in another more suitable (but unnamed) place, and that this was promptly done.
So the burial under a stairwell is certainly mentioned. Yet according to More, (the only one ever to mention burial under a staircase at all) that is NOT where the two bodies were finally left. He specifically says they were moved to a secret place more appropriate to their station. And here the secret supposedly remained – no longer under a staircase at all.

Yet the actual ‘bones in the urn’ were found under a stone stair attached to the exterior of the White Tower (known as the Keep). Apart from the contradiction within More’s absurd story, such a rigorous endeavour is difficult to accept as this area was the access point to the only entrance, and would certainly have been one of the busiest parts of the Tower. Anyone digging there would have been clearly visible. So we are asked to accept that a couple of amazingly determined murderers managed between them to dig 10 foot under solid stone, avoiding all passing gentry including the guards, and to deposit there two suspicious bundles – all while the princes’ staff raised no alarm nor even blinked in curiosity. And the subsequent solitary priest somehow dug them up again? And so, in accordance with More’s little book – why were they still found under the staircase?

At that time hundreds of busy people, many with their entire families, lived and worked in the Tower. This was no dreadful place of isolated dungeons and cold haunted corners. It was a royal palace with grand apartments and a number of council chambers, beautiful gardens complete with gardeners, clerks and administrators, a menagerie and its keepers, the Royal Mint and all its wealth of workers, a whole garrison of guards, kitchens, cooks, scullions and cleaners. How a pair of strange and suspicious ruffians could have dug such a deep secret grave in one night completely unnoticed by anyone is frankly an impossible situation. Even at night the Tower really was a hive of industry and activity, and the ‘princes’ themselves had servants day and night. They were not under arrest and nor were they locked in the dungeons – they lived together in a comfortable apartment and more than 14 personal staff were paid to look after them. Yet we are asked to believe that their murder was magically accomplished without anyone at all knowing how, who, or even exactly when.

But let us return to the urn. It rested undisturbed in the Abbey for many years, but in 1933 it was decided to open it and discover just what was inside. The complete description of the contents is on record of course, and the remains were immediately examined by experts of the time. Apart from the fragmented human remains, there were a number of animal bones – clearly all collected together from the rubbish pit nearly 300 years previously. There were, however, no textiles of any kind. So please – let’s forget that other silly myth of the scraps of expensive velvet. Yes – hundreds of years ago an anonymous scribble in a margin evidently mentioned velvet – but no such thing is mentioned elsewhere, no such thing has survived in any form, and the anonymous scribble has also disappeared – if it ever existed in the first place. So no velvet. Another red herring.

I have also read that a dark stain which ‘could’ be blood, was found on one skull. After 200 years underground we are asked to accept an anonymous stain as an indication of violent murder??? And when this same skull had been left for some time rolling around with fresh animal remains from the butchers? Indeed, those who mentioned the possibility of the stain being blood, later entirely retracted their statement, although this important development is often overlooked. Another ludicrous myth.

Now the more important evidence – the scientific examination. But this was 1933 and science has moved a long, long way since then. No DNA examination was possible back then. Carbon dating was not employed, impossible anyway with bones that had been so contaminated for so long. Their antiquity could not therefore be established, so simple assumptions were made – which have been seriously questioned since. The age of the children when they died is also extremely open to opinion. There is absolutely no possibility of sexing these bones. They could have been girls and this remains perfectly likely. At the time a conclusion was made that the two children had been related (this from an examination of the teeth and not from DNA) which has now been shown as probably erroneous. Historians and orthopaedic experts are divided. Some still maintain that these remains ‘could’ be the sons of Edward IV, while others point out the inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

And there are other anomalies. For instance, it has been shown that the lower jaw bone of the elder child indicates the presence of a serious bone disease. This would have been both painful and visible. Yet the young Edward V is documented as having been fit, active, prepared for coronation, and described as ‘good looking’. No record is shown of any such existing disease which would have seriously undermined his future life and reign.

There’s another red herring here. Doctor Argentine, the elder prince’s long-standing physician, related that, “the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed death was facing him.” But Dr. Argentine did not visit his charge because of ailing health. All junior royalty were under the permanent care of doctors who were responsible for their day to day health ever since birth. And the prince’s recorded statement, apart from being second-hand hearsay, is extremely ambiguous. I doubt he was cheerful at the time, poor boy – with his status in doubt, and his expected coronation suddenly delayed. He may well have expected (and been warned by his dour and pessimistic Lancastrian and Woodville guardians) a bitter end. This does not mean it actually occurred.

So these are the basic facts, and as anyone can see, they do not point specifically in any direction. They prove nothing, not even circumstantially, and any assumption that the bones in the urn are almost certainly those of the two lost boys of Edward IV is absolutely unjustified. Until permission is finally given (many have asked and always been denied) for the urn to be opened once more and the contents subjected to up-to-date forensic examination, we cannot know anything at all. So far the very sketchy facts (based on depth of burial and the type of soil, etc) point towards the bones dating from Norman, or even from Roman times, and at least some experts strongly suggest that the elder is female.

Those interested authors of articles claiming these bones are definitely those of the lost boys, are either fooling themselves or attempting to fool their readers. Should the bones eventually be examined and proved by DNA matching to be the ‘princes’ after all – we may with our present level of technology discover roughly when they died (to the nearest 50 years). We may perhaps also ascertain the causes of their deaths, but unless there are signs of injury it is unlikely we will learn whether they were killed – still less who killed them. If, on the other hand, as seems most likely, they are proved NOT to be the ‘princes’ it will settle a long-standing controversy, and provide some very interesting material for archaeological study. In particular it will silence some of the more exaggerated and erroneous myths.

In the Midst of a Usurpation — A Knightly Summons & a Dog That Did Not Bark

While searching for something else related to Richard III, I happened to notice a few interesting details I hadn’t noticed before, pertaining to the chronology of events leading up to his taking the throne. (Please note that the items below are a partial chronology of events.)

1. Late May/early June 1483. Years later, Phillippe de Commynes (a writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) claimed that Robert Stillington (Bishop of Bath and Wells, who was also a member of Edward V’s council), went to the Council and provided evidence that Edward IV had been pre-contracted to another woman before marrying Elizabeth Woodville. However, Simon Stallworthe, reporting the events of the Council meeting in question immediately after the meeting took place, reported that nothing unusual had happened.

de Commynes is also the writer who states that Bishop Stillington privately told Richard of Gloucester about his deceased brother’s pre-contracted marriage to Eleanor Butler.

If this pre-contracted marriage was true, per medieval canon law it would have made Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville bigamous, and any children of that marriage illegitimate.

2. ~16 May 1483. In her book Richard III: The Maligned King, Annette Carson writes: “In the British Library Harleian record of items that passed under Richard’s personal seal of signet, there is a writ dating to about 16 May 1483. In it King Edward V, via the protector, calls upon Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, to summon at St Paul’s a convocation of the southern clergy to consider ‘certain difficult and urgent matters closely concerning us and the state of our realm of England and the honour and benefit of the English Church’. Further matters were to be raised at the time of the meeting.”

There is no record of this meeting actually taking place. Annette suggests that Richard and the boy-king’s Council may have decided “such explosive matters were best discussed by a more discreet private gathering of clerical experts on canon law.”[i] It should be noted that the Council itself had ecclesiastical members on it who were well-versed in canon law.

3. 16 May 1483 – 8 June 1483. Information was gathered and organized regarding all aspects of the alleged pre-contract.

4. 19 May 1483. Edward V moves into the Tower in anticipation of his coronation scheduled for 22 June 1483. Traditionally, kings and queens processed from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the morning of their coronation. Additionally, at that time the Tower was a royal residence without the violent, bloody reputation it gained in Tudor times.

5. 5 June 1483. Through his Protector, Richard of Gloucester, Edward V summoned 50 persons by writ, commanding them, “to prepare and furnish yourselves to receive the noble order of knighthood at our coronation.”

Below is a complete list of the esquires summoned to become Knights of the Bath on the eve of Edward’s coronation, as it appears in The Knights of England.[ii] There was no summons for candidates to become Knights of the Garter under Edward V.

  1. OTES GILBERT, esquire.
  5. [1483, June.] WILLIAM GARRAUNT.
  18. GRAVILE.
  20. THOMAS BUTTELER, of Beawsey.
  24. Lord DORMOND [?Sir John Drummond, afterwards 1st lord Drummond]
  25. EDWARD (SUTTON alias Dudley), 6th lord Dudley, or lord Sutton de Dudley.
  26. [EDMUND] CORNEWALL, lord of Burford.
  27. [GEORGE] NEVILL, son of, and afterwards 5th lord Abergavenny.
  28. JOHN BROWN, of Stamford.
  29. [1483, June.] [GEORGE] (GREY), lord Grey, of Ruthin, afterwards 13th [sic] earl of Kent. (NOTE: Lord Grey was actually the 2nd earl of Kent)
  31. WILLIAM CHENAY, of Shepay.
  32. ROBERT WHITE, of Southwarne Borrowe.
  33. GERVASE CLYFTON, of Oddisake.
  35. WILLIAM BERKELEY, of Beverston.
  38. GRENE
  41. [? THOMAS BROOKE], son and heir of lord Cobhain.
  42. TH. HAMDEN, of Hamden.
  46. HENRY COLET, alderman of London.
  50. JOHN EOGER, of Frefolke.

6. 9 June 1483. Four-hour Meeting of the Great Council, with lords temporal and spiritual. Note that this was not merely a meeting of the boy-king’s Council; note also how long the meeting lasted.

Simon Stallworth (a member of the household of John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln and currently Lord Chancellor) wrote a letter to William Stoner reporting on the meeting. He mentioned that the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and her brother, Bishop Lionel Woodville, and others were still in sanctuary. He then went on to say, “My lorde Protector, my lorde of Buckyngham, with all other lordys as wele temporal as spituale wer at Westminstre in the councelchamber from 10 to 2 butt there wass none that spake with the Qwene. There is gret busyness ageyns the Coronacione wyche schalbe this day fortnyght as we say.”[iii]

Please note that the word ‘ageyn'” more often meant ‘again’ rather than ‘against’ as some writers have assumed.

Richard Grafton (the King’s Printer under Henry VIII and Edward VI) in his Chronicle at Large stated that Richard brought before the Council “authentic doctors, proctors and notaries of the law, with depositions from divers witnesses”.[iv] Of course, since Grafton was writing under Tudor monarchs, he also repeats the Tudor lie that Edward IV had pre-contracted himself to Elizabeth Lucy, rather than to Eleanor Butler.

All privy writs in the name of Edward V ceased on this day. The last was sent by Edward V’s secretary Oliver King this same day.

7. 16 June 1483. Richard of York joins his brother, Edward V, in the Tower.

Surely, by 16 June, Elizabeth Woodville would have known that the Council had decided her marriage to Edward IV was invalid and her son would not be crowned King of England on 22 June 1483? Yet she released young Richard of York into his uncle’s care on 16 June.

There is a Sherlock Holmes story called “Silver Blaze,” wherein the following exchange takes place:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

In the story, a race horse was removed from a stable in the dead of night, yet the dog that lived in the stable did not bark. The dog’s silence was an important clue in solving the mystery of who removed the horse.

Regarding Elizabeth Woodville, her silence is an important clue in solving the mystery of whether Edward IV’s pre-contracted marriage with Eleanor Butler was invented or actual. The widowed queen had easy access to religious canon expects while in sanctuary for weeks at Westminster Abbey, yet she failed to mount a defense. The fact that she did not strongly suggests that she knew very well that her marriage to Edward IV was indefensible — that it was indeed bigamous.

Elizabeth remained silent as her marriage to Edward IV was declared invalid and their children were declared bastards. Even after Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII, Elizabeth had every opportunity to denounce Richard III and proclaim to all and sundry that a ruthless usurper had invented the pre-contract, that his ill-conceived fantasy had accommodated his stealing her oldest son’s throne. Beyond that, Elizabeth also had the opportunity to reveal that Richard III had murdered Edward V, his brother Richard, and Elizabeth’s own brother, Anthony Woodville. Instead, she said nothing.

What explanation is possible for the former queen’s failure to mount a defense of her marriage and an accusation of child-murder against Richard III – before or after his death — other than that she already knew that Edward IV had pre-contracted marriage with Eleanor Butler?

Richard acceded to the throne on 26 June 1483 when he sat on the Marble throne. He was crowned on 6 July 1483, a mere four weeks after issuing the summons for Edward V’s prospective Knights of the Bath. Below is a list of those he summoned to become Knights of the Bath on the eve of his own coronation. It should be noted that the last two names were on Edward V’s list as well.[v]

  1. EDMUND DE LA POLE, afterwards 3rd duke of Suffolk.
  2. JOHN [sic for George] GREY, son of and afterwards 13th earl of Kent.
  3. WILLIAM ZOUCHE, brother of John, lord Zouche.
  4. WILLIAM or HENRY [sic for George] NEVILL, son of and afterwards 5th lord Abergavenny.
  6. WILLIAM BERKELEY of Beverston.
  7. HENRY [ ? William] BANINGTON [Babington].
  9. THOMAS BOLAYNE or Boleyn.
  10. EDMUND BEDINGFIELD [Beningefeld].
  11. GERVASE or BREWAS of Clifton.
  14. THOMAS [James] LEWKENOR.
  17. WILLIAM BARKELEY of Wyldy.
  18. EDMUND CORNWALL, baron of Burford.
  20. GEORGE, LORD GREY OF BUTHEN, afterwards 2nd earl of Kent.

The last person on the list — George, Lord Grey of Buthen — was married to Elizabeth Woodville’s sister, Anne. He later became the 2nd earl of Kent and prospered under Henry VII. I could find no trace of William Garraunt — perhaps he lurks in the historical record under another surname.

After considering the chronology of events above, we may conclude that on 9 June 1483, after considering witness testimonies and the evidence presented, the Great Council concluded that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was indeed bigamous, which meant that under canon law the children of their marriage were illegitimate, which in turn meant that Edward V was not eligible to take the throne.

We may also conclude that at least through 5 June 1483, when Richard of Gloucester, acting as Protector, summoned 50 esquires in his nephew’s name to be made Knights of the Bath — esquires who were undoubtedly loyal to Edward rather than to his uncle — Richard was not acting to usurp his nephew’s throne. From all indications, Richard was still planning to see Edward of York crowned Kind Edward V a mere 17 days later.



[i] Richard III: The Maligned King, Annette Carson, The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2009, pgs 76-77.

[ii] The Knights of England: A complete record from the earliest time to the present day of the knights of all the orders of chivalry in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of knights bachelors, incorporating a complete list of knights bachelors dubbed in Ireland (1906). The document is in the public domain and can be downloaded in many formats here: . The complete list of the esquires to be made knights at Edward V’s coronation is on page 138 in the text version.

[iii] Stonor Letters and Papers, 1290-1483, ed. C.L. Kingsford (1919), ii, pp 1590-60.

[iv] Grafton’s Chronicle, Or History of England: To which is Added His Table of the Bailiffs, Sheriffs and Mayors of the City of London from the Year 1189, to 1558, Inclusive: in Two Volumes; Volume 2, London, (1809) (Google eBook available at Quoted in Richard III: The Maligned King, pg 78.

[v] The Knights of England. The complete list of the esquires to be made knights at Richard III’s coronation is on page 141.


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