The Princes in the Tower – What Happened?

The Princes in the Tower 1878 painting
The Princes in the Tower 1878 painting

In the Beginning

Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were the only two surviving sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, who married in secret in 1464. Edward was born in 1470 and Richard in 1473.[i] Edward V was deposed by his uncle, Richard III, on 25 June 1483, and declared illegitimate the following year, along with his brother and sisters.[ii] It was said that Edward IV (their father) had been married before he married their mother, Elizabeth Woodville. There were also rumours that Edward IV was not himself legitimate.

In the Tower

Towards the end of June 1483 Edward V’s attendants were forbidden from seeing him, and both of the Princes were more rarely seen within the Tower.[iii] Before, they had been seen in the grounds shooting and walking in the gardens. There was an early attempt to rescue the Princes in the Tower in July 1483, but something went wrong in the planning.[iv] It was after this attempt that went wrong that Richard III decided that the Princes were too much of a threat to his rule and had to die; they vanished that very summer, and were never seen again.[v] Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future Henry VII, only wanted her son’s title of Earl of Richmond returned to him, when she knew the Princes were still alive.[vi] It was when rumours circulated of their death that she began to want more.

The Deed

Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Allegedly Edward V took confession daily, worried that he was going to be killed.[vii] There were various theories at the time and even now, about how the Princes in the Tower were killed. Some say thrown in the moat and drowned, others say starved to death, bled to death or suffocated.[viii] Vergil claimed that when Richard III was in Gloucester on progress at the beginning of August 1483, he sent word for the Princes to be killed.[ix] Alison Weir claims that the Princes were ‘probably murdered’ on 3 September 1483.[x] When Elizabeth Woodville’s sons were dead, it was important for Richard III that Elizabeth knew that they were dead, so that she would keep fighting and resisting on their behalf.[xi] It could be that Richard wanted to break Elizabeth’s spirit, or for her to come out of Sanctuary with her daughters. It could also have been because Richard had heard of her alliance with Tudor and wanted to keep her close. Rumours of the murder of the Princes were spreading through the South of the country as early as October 1483.[xii] Richard III never tried to disprove the rumours by showing that the Princes were still alive. According to the urn in Westminster Abbey, where the remains are kept, the Princes were suffocated in their sleep on the orders of their uncle, Richard III.


Margaret Beaufort changed her aims once she realised that the Princes in the Tower were almost definitely dead – she wanted the throne for her son and with no legitimate male heir, the future Henry VII would have a chance to take it.[xiii] This chance was compounded by the alliance between Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower, which agreed that Henry Tudor would marry Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter.[xiv] The biggest consequence was the idea that a Protector could overthrow the King he protected, an idea that had been toyed with when the Duke of York was Protector over Henry VI half a century earlier. When Elizabeth Woodville made her peace with Richard III it could indicate that she knew one of her sons had survived, or that she didn’t blame Richard himself for their death.[xv] Nevertheless, it was this incident of the missing Princes that weakened the power of Richard III and possibly led to Henry VII having such a large following prior to Bosworth in 1485.


Henry Tudor, Richard III, Margaret Beaufort, and the Dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk have all been accused at one time or another of the deaths of the Princes in the Tower.[xvi] One manuscript from the time suggested that the Duke of Buckingham, at that time a close friend and advisor of Richard III, was the perpetrator, but he soon changed his loyalties.[xvii] This change of loyalties from Buckingham has been suggested that he wanted revenge on the House of York (his family had originally been Lancastrians).[xviii] Possibly he was ashamed and embarrassed by the death of the Princes in the Tower, and he didn’t want to be guilty by association. It is incredibly unlikely that Richard III wielded the knife himself, but it has been suggested in records in Canterbury that one of his servants, James Tyrrell, who confessed to the murders in the reign of Henry VII, was in fact guilty of them.[xix] He had the opportunity, as he was supposedly at the Tower collecting clothes to take to Richard III. Tyrrell could have committed murder on the orders of Richard III, either directly or indirectly, or even of his own volition.[xx] The main reason why people suspect Henry VII of the murder of the Princes was that he married their sister, Elizabeth of York, which he wouldn’t have done if he had even the slightest suspicion that the Princes were still alive.[xxi] However, this is merely suspicion rather than evidence. Sir Thomas More suggests, in his account of Richard III’s life, that it was in fact Richard III who committed the deed. He ordered the aforementioned Tyrrell to incite the murders, after the Constable of the Tower, Richard Brackenbury, refused.[xxii] We may never know the truth.

Where are the Bones?

White Tower at the Tower of London
White Tower at the Tower of London

In 1674 bones were discovered in the Tower, and were thought to be those of the Princes in the TowerThe bones were reburied in Westminster Abbey in 1678, although it was never proven that these were in fact the bones of the murdered Princes.[xxiii] . The bones were discovered under a staircase in the White Tower, at the centre of the Tower of London.[xxiv] There was a further examination in 1933, which also suggested that these were the remains of the Princes.[xxv] With the discovery and identification of the bones of Richard III, it is possible now that these bones could be exhumed and examined further, though it still couldn’t tell us who killed them or how.[xxvi] However, there have also been arguments over the bones being exhumed. The main reason appears to be that it could set a precedent for other exhumations and royal burials.[xxvii] It has been suggested that, even if the bones were exhumed, they wouldn’t be able to get within a fifty year death date, which encompasses the reigns of both Richard III and Henry VII, so it might not tell us much at all.[xxviii] Supposedly historians and scientists have been rejected for twenty years in their attempts to exhume the bones and test them.[xxix] There would also be worries about what to do if it turned out that the remains were not those of the Princes in the Tower. So would it really be worth it now to reopen the matter?

[i] Baldwin, David, The White Queen – What Happened to the Princes in the Tower? (Sept 2013)[]

[ii] Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families: the Complete Genealogy (London: Vintage, 2008) p. 143

[iii] Sarah Gristwood, Blood Sisters: the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (London: HarperPress, 2013) p. 201

[iv] Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: the Family Story (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013) p. 51

[v] Ibid

[vi] Lisle, Tudor, p. 53

[vii] Gristwood, Blood Sisters, p. 201

[viii] Lisle, Tudor, p. 56

[ix] Gristwood, Blood Sisters, p. 201

[x] Weir, Royal Families, p. 143

[xi] Lisle, Tudor, p. 55

[xii] Lisle, Tudor, p. 57

[xiii] Lisle, Tudor, p. 54

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Baldwin, White Queen [BBC]

[xvi] Baldwin, White Queen [BBC}

[xvii] Lisle, Tudor, p. 52

[xviii] Ibid, p. 53

[xix] Licence, Amy, New Evidence: Was Richard III Guilty of Murdering the Princes in the Tower? (March 2013) []

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Historic Royal Palaces []

[xxii] Cole, John Mark, The Princes in the Tower: a Gruesome 1483 Mystery – Solved (Dec 2011) []

[xxiii] Weir, Royal Families, p. 144

[xxiv] Licence, New Evidence [New Statesman]

[xxv] Cole, Princes in the Tower: a Gruesome 1483 Mystery – Solved

[xxvi] Baldwin, White Queen [BBC]

[xxvii] Travis, Alan, Why the Princes in the Tower are Staying Six Feet Under (Feb 2013) []

[xxviii] Ibid

[xxix] Robinson, Martin, One Royal Secret that won’t be Revealed … Richard III has been Unearthed but the Princes in the Tower will stay Buried (Feb 2013)[]

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