The Princes in the Tower: Has new research solved a 500-year-old Royal murder mystery?

It’s a Royal murder mystery which has divided academic opinion for more than 500 years. What happened to the Princes in the Tower? Were they murdered on the orders of their “wicked” uncle King Richard III, or did they survive the Wars of the Roses to live long and happy lives in obscurity?

Philippa Langley, the author who pulled off the remarkable feat of discovering the grave of King Richard III (1452-1485) in a Leicester car park, has published a new book, The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case, which promises to shed new light on the mystery.

According to Ms Langley’s research, the boys survived the reign of Richard III to become a thorn in the side of his successor, Henry VII. Her findings challenge the conventional view that both were swiftly murdered by King Richard, as part of his ruthless power grab in the summer of 1483.

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The book ties in with a Channel 4 documentary, The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence, in which Ms Langley joins forces with criminal barrister Rob Rinder on a road trip in which they seek clues to reveal the boys’ fate in archives.

The author Philippa Langley has joined forces with criminal barrister Rob Rinder to examine a Royal mystery in the Channel 4 documentary  The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence. (Photo supplied on behalf of Channel 4)The author Philippa Langley has joined forces with criminal barrister Rob Rinder to examine a Royal mystery in the Channel 4 documentary  The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence. (Photo supplied on behalf of Channel 4)
The author Philippa Langley has joined forces with criminal barrister Rob Rinder to examine a Royal mystery in the Channel 4 documentary The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence. (Photo supplied on behalf of Channel 4)

In 1483, Edward V, aged 12, and his brother Richard Duke of York, aged nine, vanished from the Tower of London. Rumours, recorded by chroniclers of the time, soon spread that they had been murdered. For more than 500 years, their uncle Richard III, has been the prime suspect, largely because he had much to gain from their deaths.

Richard’s detractors claim that, following the unexpected death of his brother Edward IV, Richard staged a brutal coup, which involved the executions without trial of a number of his enemies and the murder of his nephews so he could declare himself king. The flimsy pretext for deposing Edward V was a sermon preached by a theologian which claimed the princes were illegitimate. Other evidence, however, portrays Richard as a much more sympathetic character, with the Bishop of St David’s writing in 1483: “God hath sent him to us for the weal (wellbeing) of us all.”

Earlier this year, Ms Langley told The Yorkshire Post: “Shakespeare’s dramatic depiction of a deformed homicidal tyrant wading through blood to the throne has ensured that a caricature of the real Richard has remained in the public imagination ever since. However, this traditional image sparked a counter movement of revisionists which began as soon as the last Tudor monarch died. Today thousands of people across the world have come to recognise a more positive picture of Richard based on documentary evidence.

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“I began The Missing Princes Project in 2015 following the re-burial of King Richard. The project was then formally launched at the Richard III Festival at Middleham in North Yorkshire in July 2016. The research initiative has more than 300 members around the world.”

Some of Richard’s staunchest supporters came from the city of York, where he revealed himself to be a generous benefactor with a strong commitment to upholding justice.

According to Ms Langley, the first phase of the Missing Princes Project has uncovered evidence that the Princes did not die at the hands of their uncle.

A statement issued on behalf of her publishers, The History Press, states: “We now know that both sons of Edward IV survived to fight for the English throne against Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Henry attempted to cast the Yorkist Princes as imposters by giving them false names: Edward V became a 10-year-old boy called ‘Lambert Simnel’, the son of a joiner, tailor, baker or shoemaker, and Richard of York became ‘Perkin Warbeck’ ‘Petyr/Pierrechon/Pierce/Piris Osbek, Uberque, Styenbek or de Werbecque’, the son of a French boatman.”

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Much of what we think we know about the Princes and their fate has been shaped by the work of Sir Thomas More, who told a chilling story of how they were murdered in their beds on the orders of King Richard. However, the historian AJ Pollard has pointed out that, although the passage is deeply moving, it is almost certainly a literary creation, and More’s story is simply an elaboration of one of several circulating accounts.

Ms Langley’s investigation has conducted a forensic probe of all records dating to the reign of Richard III which has “revealed no evidence of the death of Edward V or Richard, Duke of York. Both individuals are referenced as alive in all existing day-to-day accounting and legal records”.

The project has also carried out investigation of all materials relating to the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which Ms Langley states reveal that the story of the murder of the Princes originated in England with the arrival of Henry Tudor and his French invasion force. Following the victory of Tudor’s forces and death of King Richard in battle, and the interrogation of Yorkist/Ricardian prisoners, Henry delayed his march to London in order to conduct searches for the Princes in the North of England.

The project has also uncovered evidence of Edward V’s survival, according to Ms Langley. In a statement, she said: “In May 2020, Albert Jan de Rooij of the Dutch Research Group discovered in the archive of Lille in France a receipt belonging to King Maximilian I dated December 16, 1487. The receipt is signed by three leading members of Maximilian’s court and records the king’s collection of, and payment for, 400 pikes. The receipt states that the weapons were ‘to serve her nephew – son of King Edward, late her brother (may God save his soul), [who was] expelled from his dominion’. Four of the receipts details confirm the weapons were for Edward V. He was the nephew of Margaret of Burgundy, the son of King Edward (IV), the right age to lead an army and fight in battle (16), and had been ‘expelled from his dominion’ (to the Channel Islands).

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“The Lille receipt also suggests that Edward V was alive, or thought to be alive, in December 1487 (age 17). This was after the Battle of Stoke on June 16, 1487.

“In November 2020, Nathalie Nijman-Bliekendaal of the Dutch Research Group rediscovered a four page, semi-legal manuscript in the Gelderland archive, in Arnhem in the Netherlands. It is a witness statement written in the first person and records Richard, Duke of York’s story from the point at which he left sanctuary in Westminster in London as a nine-year-old boy in 1483, to his arrival at the court of his aunt, Margaret of York, in Burgundy in 1493.”

Other evidence to support the Princes’ survival after Richard’s reign include a recently discovered letter from King Maximilian to Henry VII of England which states that Richard, Duke of York can be recognised by ‘several signs’ including three birthmarks or body marks that ‘cannot be counterfeited’.

Matt Lewis, Chair of the Richard III Society, said he was “incredibly excited” by these new archival discoveries.

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He added: “They support a narrative in which Richard III was never a danger to his nephews, but protected them. I’m often asked why the Princes didn’t resurface if they survived. This new evidence explains how and when they did just that. For some on both sides of this debate, no evidence will suffice to resolve it conclusively. For me, what these new discoveries achieve is to tip the scales heavily in favour of the survival of the Princes in the Tower.

“It is now for historians seeking to perpetuate the idea of their murders, and of Richard III’s guilt, to present their evidence as comprehensively as Philippa’s book does. Research with open eyes and open minds has uncovered brand new evidence in a 500 year old mystery. It has been an incredible democratisation of history, and everything found points clearly in one direction.”

Perhaps historians should have trusted the judgment of the people who knew him best. Seven weeks after Richard’s death, as Henry Tudor was preparing to be crowned, the city fathers of York described Richard as ‘the most famous Prince of blessed memory’.

The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case by Philippa Langley, is published by The History Press.