When King Edward IV died in 1483, his eldest son – 12-year-old Edward – was named the new monarch. However, Edward IV’s younger brother Richard stopped the coronation, arguing that Edward and his nine-year-old brother (another Richard) weren’t legitimate heirs because Edward IV had married another woman before marrying the boys’ mother. As a result, he claimed the throne for himself, as Richard III, while his nephews remained confined in the Tower of London.
Soon after, when the two princes went missing, rumours spread that the king had killed them in order to eliminate potential rivals. Centuries later, the 1674 discovery of two skeletons buried under a staircase in the Tower of London set the story in stone.
There’s good reason to doubt the story, however. First, the murder would have been out of character for Richard, who was close to his brother Edward IV and likely protective of his nephews. The Tower of London wasn’t a prison at the time after all, but a secure palace.
Second, the tale comes to us through the Tudors – bitter rivals who later killed Richard III on the battlefield and claimed the throne. They had motive both to smear Richard and to get rid of the princes. The skeletons are no smoking gun, as people had been burying corpses on the Tower of London grounds for centuries.
We could potentially confirm or disprove the identity of the mystery skeletons by comparing the DNA from those remains – now interred in Westminster Abbey – with the skeletons of Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth in Windsor – or even Richard III, recently found under a Leicester car park. Queen Elizabeth hasn’t granted permission for the examination to take place though.
Answered by Tom Harris