Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  Edward Courtenay remained a prisoner until he was released by Mary I in 1553, but it is certain that Henry Pole never left the Tower. He was alive in 1542, as a record of payment for his meals attests. But after that, he disappears from the records, and it can only be assumed that he died in the Tower, an event that would without doubt have been welcomed by Henry VIII.

  Henry Pole may have died from natural causes or as a consequence of the rigours of his imprisonment – it has been suggested by several modern writers that he was starved to death. Certainly there was no-one close to him left alive to ask awkward questions, and it may well be that Henry VIII, once the furore about the execution of Lady Salisbury had died down, decided to be rid of her grandson. However he died, there were now at least three children buried in the Tower; for all we know, Henry Pole’s bones may lie there still.

  More than sixty years passed. Henry Pole was forgotten, but the tale of the Princes became an established part of Tudor folklore. The Tudor dynasty ended with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, to be replaced by the Scottish Stuarts in the person of James VI and I, great-grandson of Henry VII’s daughter Margaret.

  Between 1603 and 1614, during the time that Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Grey de Wilton were prisoners in the Tower, a man called John or Jonathan Webb found, in an underground pipe or tunnel within the Tower, what were thought to be the bones of the Princes. However, it was quickly established that the bones were those of an ape from the Tower menagerie, who had somehow climbed into the tunnel, become trapped there, and perished.

  The French chronicler Molinet had stated in the late fifteenth century that the Princes had been walled up in a secret chamber within the Tower and left there to starve to death. A statement made by a Mr Johnson and preserved in Volume LXXXIV of Archaeologia, records not only the finding of the bones of the ape but also the discovery in 1647 of the skeletons of two children, aged about six and eight and thought to be male, in a small room 7 or 8 feet square, which was found behind a wall in the passageway of the King’s Lodging in the royal apartments of the Tower. The room had been sealed and the children apparently left there to perish. Those present when the discovery was made assumed that the bones were those of the Princes, although the estimated ages of the children appears to make this unlikely. Unfortunately there is no way of proving or disproving the theory because there is no further mention of these bones in the records.

  During the 1650s Oliver Cromwell ordered that the old mediaeval royal apartments to the south of the White Tower be demolished. The job, however, was only half completed at his death, and the ruins stood undisturbed until 1674, when Charles II decided to have the site cleared ‘of all contiguous buildings’.

  In an upper storey of the White Tower may be found the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, one of the most perfectly preserved examples of Norman architecture in existence. It was a favourite place of worship of the mediaeval kings of England, who had their own private means of access to it by way of an external castellated turret on the left hand corner of the White Tower, facing the river. This turret, estimated to have been about 20 feet square and to have stood at two-thirds of the height of the keep, housed a stairway, lit by two lancet windows, which led up to a door 14 feet above ground level; this is the door through which visitors to the White Tower enter today. The door used to open on to a landing from which arose a spiral staircase leading to the chapel; today, this staircase is walled up. In 1674 this turret or ‘forebuilding’ was crumbling, and the workmen engaged by Charles II demolished it. Then they began to dismantle the staircase, the foundations of which went very deep.

  On 17th July, 1674, just as this task was nearing completion, the workmen made an astonishing find. The contemporary accounts of what they discovered are not as precise as we could wish, but they make it clear that whilst digging at the base of the staircase, or in or near its foundations, the workmen came upon a wooden chest at a depth of 10 feet below the ground. Inside the chest were the skeletons of two children: the taller child lay on its back, the smaller face down on top of it.

  It was immediately assumed that these were the bodies of the Princes in the Tower. An anonymous eyewitness wrote: ‘This day I, standing by the opening, saw working men dig out of a stairway in the White Tower the bones of those two Princes who were foully murdered by Richard III. They were small bones of lads in their teens, and there were pieces of rag and velvet about them.’ They were, he adds, ‘fully recognised to be the bones of those two Princes’. Twenty years later, the 1695 edition of Camden’s Britannia carried the note that the bodies of the Princes, ‘though some have written they were put into a leaden coffin and cast into the Black Deeps by the Thames Mouth by Sir Robert Brackenbury’s priest, were found on July 17, 1674, by some workmen who were employed to take up the steps leading to the Chapel of the White Tower, which in all probability was the first and only place they were deposited in’.

  The discovery provided the most compelling corroboration of Sir Thomas More’s account of the Princes’ first burial: the bones had been found exactly where he had described, ‘at the stair foot, meetly deep under the ground, under a great heap of stones’. Of course, there would have been a degree of subsidence of the ground over a period of 200 years, and it is not likely that the chest was originally buried as deep as 10 feet below the surface. Nevertheless, the common practice of mediaeval stonemasons was to fill in the hollow beneath a staircase with stones and rubble. This place of burial was probably chosen because of the privacy of the turret enclosing the stairs, which was a private way for the monarch’s use. Tyrell’s assistants had apparently dug a hole in the ground and then made a recess inward into the foundations of the staircase.

  If these skeletons were not those of the Princes, then their discovery in this particular place was an astonishing coincidence. In the light of later forensic evidence it has been claimed by several revisionists that these bones could have belonged to any historical period: in the 1970s it was suggested that they could even have been Roman, given the Tower’s long history. This cannot be so. The bones were discovered with ‘pieces of rag and velvet about them’. According to information given to the author by a textile expert contacted through the Archaeological Resource Centre in York, velvet was invented in the 1400s in Renaissance Italy, and was not made in England before the sixteenth century. In the 1480s the wearing of imported velvets was restricted to persons of the highest rank, not only because it was so expensive but also because of the social conventions then prevailing. Even in the seventeenth century, velvet was a costly material available only to the well-to-do. The children whose bones were found in 1674 must therefore have been well-born and must have died in the fifteenth century at the earliest. They could not have been Roman because no material resembling velvet existed at that time. As no other pair of well-born children had disappeared in the Tower during the previous 200 years, it is a fair assumption – forensic evidence aside – that these were indeed the bones of the Princes.

  The eyewitness who saw the bones unearthed says that on that day ‘they were carefully put aside in a stone coffin or coffer’. It is thought that they had been damaged to some extent by the tools used by the workmen during their exhumation. Then it seems they were left alongside a pile of builders’ rubbish on the site for a time, whilst news of their discovery was sent to King Charles II. It also appears that several people removed some of the bones as souvenirs at this time, and replaced them with animal bones from the rubbish heap.

  Eventually, the King ordered that the skeletons be examined by the royal surgeon and a panel of experienced antiquaries, all of whom declared they were satisfied that the remains were indeed those of the Princes. According to Camden’s Britannia (1695 edition), the bones remained in the Tower for four years, except for some few that were secured as curiosities by Elias Ashmole and sent to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In 1678 Charles II asked Sir Christopher Wren ‘to provide a white marble coffin for the supposed bodies of the two Princes’. The bones w
ere translated from the Tower to Westminster Abbey and decently interred, according to Camden, ‘under a curious altar of black and white marble’ which may still be seen today, bearing the inscription:

  Here lie interred the remains of Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York, whose long desired and much sought after bones, after above an hundred and ninety years, were found by most certain tokens, deep interred under the rubbish of the stairs that led up to the Chapel of the White Tower, on the 17th of July in the year of our Lord 1674. Charles the Second, a most merciful prince, having compassion upon their hard fortune, performed the funeral rites of these unhappy Princes among the tombs of their ancestors, anno Domini 1678.

  It is not known what the ‘most certain tokens’ that facilitated the identification of their bodies were, only that they were accepted as sufficiently convincing by those most qualified to judge at the time.

  Those bones that had been sent to the Ashmolean Museum were recorded in a seventeenth-century catalogue of the museum’s treasures. But in 1728, when the celebrated antiquarian Thomas Hearne went there and asked to see the bones, the keeper, Mr Whiteside, could not find them. All he could say was that he had seen them and remembered them as being ‘very small, particularly the finger bones’. In 1933 a search was made in the museum for the bones, but they were not found.

  During the first part of the twentieth century, strong pressure was brought to bear upon the authorities of Westminster Abbey to have the urn containing the supposed bones of the Princes opened and its contents re-examined in the light of new advances in medical science. The Abbey was – and still is – a Royal Peculiar, which means that both the Sovereign and the Home Secretary have to give permission for any of the tombs to be opened. In 1933, George V, bowing to public opinion, finally authorised the opening of the urn, and an examination of the bones therein was carried out in the Abbey precincts by Dr Lawrence E. Tanner, an eminent physician, archivist and Keeper of the Monuments at Westminster Abbey, and Professor W. Wright, a dental surgeon who was President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain. Tanner’s report on their findings was published in Archaeologia in 1934.

  Tanner and Wright found, to begin with, that the urn contained all kinds of bones including animal bones which probably came from the rubbish heap on the excavation site at the Tower. Once the human bones were separated from these, Tanner and Wright discovered they had the incomplete skeletons of two children, the elder 4 foot 10 inches tall, and the younger 4 foot 6½ inches tall; both were of slender build with very small finger bones. Using dental evidence, they estimated that the elder child was twelve to thirteen years old (Edward V had been twelve years and ten months in September 1483) and the younger nine to eleven years old (York was ten in September 1483). Because the bones were pre-pubertal their sex could not be established. Nor could the age of the bones.

  Wright stated that the elder child had certainly suffered from extensive, chronic bone disease – probably osteomyelitis – affecting both sides of the lower jaw; this ‘could not fail to have affected his general health’, causing painful swelling and inflammation of the lower gums, making the patient miserable and irritable. In the light of this evidence it is significant that Dr Argentine was attending Edward V shortly before his disappearance; both Argentine and More confirmed that the boy was then sunk in apathy and depression, which may have been partly due to the discomfort in his jaw.

  Wright stated also that the structure of the jaws and bones in each skeleton indicated a familial link, and further claimed that a red stain on the facial bones of the elder child was a blood stain caused by suffocation.

  Tanner and Wright felt that there were too many coincidences between the evidence of the bones and the evidence of history: who else could these bones belong to but the Princes? Wright thought the evidence ‘more conclusive than could, considering everything, reasonably have been expected’. This was a blow to those revisionists who had questioned the seventeenth-century identification of the skeletons. For, as the report concluded, if they were those of the Princes, ‘by no possibility could either or both have been still alive on August 22nd 1485’, the day of Bosworth. In other words, on the basis of the children’s ages at the time of their death, it was likely that they had died in 1483 and that More’s account of their deaths came very near to the truth since ‘the evidence that the bones in the urn are those of the Princes is as conclusive as could be desired’.

  Since 1934 there have been several attempts to discredit the findings of Tanner and Wright. In the 1970s and 1980s the Richard III Society made several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey to apply for royal permission to re-exhume the bones for further tests, on the grounds that significant scientific advances since 1933 could now establish the ages of the children with greater accuracy, new chemical tests could perhaps determine their sex, radio-carbon dating could estimate the age of the bones to within twenty-five years, and biochemical analysis could resolve the vexed question of whether the facial stain on the elder child’s skull is in fact blood. The Dean and Chapter, however, are reluctant to disturb the royal bones within their precincts and do not consider a new examination either desirable or worthwhile.

  Medical experts called upon in recent years to examine the forensic evidence for the identification of the skeletons have therefore had to rely on the report and photographs of Wright and Tanner. Within these constraints, there now exists a substantial body of medical opinion on the subject. In 1955 Richard III’s revisionist biographer Paul Murray Kendall enlisted the assistance of four experts: Dr W. M. Krogman, Professor of Physical Anthropology in the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr Arthur Lewis, an orthodontist of Dayton, Ohio; Professor Bertram S. Kraus of the Department of Anthropology of the University of Arizona; and Dr Richard Lyne-Pirkis of Godalming, Surrey. Professor A. R. Myers, the eminent mediaeval historian, canvassed the opinion of Professor R. G. Harrison, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Liverpool. In 1978 Elizabeth Jenkins, author of The Princes in the Tower, obtained an opinion from Mr F. M. Lind, BDS Lond., LDS, RCS Eng., while in 1981 the late Professor Charles Ross, author of the most outstanding biography of Richard III, sought the opinions of Dr Juliet Rogers, a specialist in the study of ancient bones, Dr J. H. Musgrove, an anatomist, and Professor E. W. Bradford, a professor of dental surgery. Dr Jean Ross, senior lecturer in anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, gave ‘evidence’ at the television trial of Richard III in 1984, and in 1987 there was a lively debate between The Times’ archaeology correspondent Norman Hammond, Dr Theya Molleson and a Mr William White in the correspondence columns of The Times on the subject of the bones in the urn.

  The findings of the experts were in all cases consistent with the bones being those of the Princes in the Tower. Although some questioned the findings of Tanner and Wright they did not discredit them; indeed, their conclusions substantiated them.

  With regard to the age of the children, most of the experts preferred to rely on the dental evidence, which mostly showed that the age of the elder child was at least eleven years and at most thirteen years. The age of the younger child was more difficult to determine, but was within the range of seven to eleven and a half years. These findings were consistent with the deaths of the children occurring in September 1483.

  Dr Ross found indications of a blood relationship between the skeletons in the bones of the skull, and the number and type of permanent teeth missing, a condition known as hypodontia. Dr Molleson agreed that these factors were strongly suggestive of kinship because of the rarity of such bone formations; William Wright disputed this on the grounds that research showed this was true of modern skeletons but not of seventeenth-century Londoners, but Dr Molleson had compared her findings with tests carried out on mediaeval skeletons found in Winchester, in which the incidence of hypodontia was the same as it is today. Dr Molleson also concluded that there was every likelihood of a blood relationship with Anne Mowbr
ay, York’s wife and a third cousin of the Princes, whose bones had been subjected to forensic tests in 1965, and whose permanent teeth were also incomplete.

  Dr Molleson was the only expert to pronounce on the sex of the children, it being agreed by the rest that it was extremely hard to ascertain the gender of pre-pubertal skeletons. She compared the dental and skeletal maturity of Anne Mowbray’s bones with the bones in the urn and concluded that the latter were probably both pre-pubescent boys.

  All the experts agreed that the age of the bones could not be determined from the evidence available to them. Dr Juliet Rogers stated that the most that could be said was that the children died before 1674, and added that they could even be Roman. As we have seen, if one accepts the textile evidence, this could not have been so.

  None of the experts were able to determine the cause of death. Dr Ross and Dr Lyne-Pirkis could find no evidence of any facial bloodstain on the elder child, but Dr Krogman did concede that the mark there could have been blood resulting from the rupturing of vessels during suffocation, even though it was usually only facial tissues that were damaged in such circumstances. Dr Musgrove agreed that there might be a blood stain, but stated that proof could only be obtained by biochemical analysis.

  The weight of medical evidence may not be conclusive, but it in no way excludes the likelihood that these bones were those of the ill-fated Princes in the Tower; indeed, it corroborates Sir Thomas More’s evidence and the findings of Wright and Tanner, and in its own right strongly suggests that the original identification of the bones in the seventeenth century was correct. No other pair of boys of rank disappeared in the Tower between 1483 and 1674: to suggest otherwise is really to stretch coincidence too far. It is true that the medical evidence presently available does not identify the cause of death of the children, nor their murderer. Nevertheless, it confirms that, if these were the Princes – and there is no reason to suppose otherwise – then they were dead by the end of 1483. And if that is the case, given all the other evidence already discussed in previous chapters, then only one man could have been responsible for their deaths: Richard III.

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