The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case | History Hit

The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case

Amy Irvine

04 Dec 2023

In 1483, Edward V (aged 12) and his brother Richard, Duke of York (aged 9), disappeared from the Tower of London. For over 500 years, history has judged that the ‘Princes in the Tower‘ were murdered on the orders of their uncle Richard III. Until now there has been very little proof, but following intensive research in UK, American and European archives, astonishing new archival discoveries have been uncovered that challenge this historical narrative.

Historian Philippa Langley, renowned for her role in uncovering Richard III’s remains in 2012, established ‘The Missing Princes Project’ in 2016, employing the methods of a cold-case policy enquiry to try and solve the case. In her book, The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case – our Book of the Month for December 2023, she records the painstaking investigative research work of the project. By questioning received wisdom, she and her team shed light upon one of history’s greatest miscarriages of justice, revealing a phenomenal, untold story.

Here we learn more about Langley’s discoveries, both from her book and her interview with Matt Lewis on History Hit’s Gone Medieval podcast in which Langley explained her painstaking research and her astonishing new archival discoveries.

Who were the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and why were they imprisoned?

In 1483, King Edward IV died aged 40. His two sons, the soon-to-be crowned King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, were sent to the Tower of London to await Edward’s coronation. However, his coronation never came, and the two brothers disappeared from the tower, and were never seen again, presumed dead. Richard III took the crown in Edward’s absence. Since then, most people have presumed that Richard III had the boys murdered, to avoid rival claimants to his throne.

The Princes in the Tower, by John Everett Millais (1878)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Everett Millais / Royal Holloway collection / Public Domain

The Missing Princes Project

Philippa Langley’s ‘Missing Princes Project’ stemmed from the ‘Looking for Richard‘ project, the first-ever search for the grave of an anointed King of England. Its evidence-based research approach challenged the beliefs of many historians. After the discovery of Richard III’s body, a headline in The Daily Mail published during the reburial week labelled him a ‘child-killer’, prompting Langley to realise the need for a fresh evidence-based project to determine the truth – the Missing Princes Project.

It’s approach was formulated by Langley who had consulted police and barristers in order to treat the project as a police cold-case investigation – starting with a clean sheet without any biases or use of hindsight. This international effort involved over 300 members who, without being told what to look for, collected information from local archives spanning 1483-1486. This resulted in over 300,000 files, necessitating a supercomputer to manage, cross-check and reference all the material coming in.

Despite her long-held interest in the case and doubts about the princes’ murder due to insufficient evidence, Langley was determined to approach the evidence objectively – as she explained to Matt Lewis, on the Gone Medieval podcast:

For more than 500 years, history has judged that the Princes in the Tower were murdered on the orders of their uncle Richard III. Until now there has been very little proof - it is quite simply history’s greatest cold case. But this episode of Gone Medieval reveals new and compelling evidence about what happened to King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York in 1483. Philippa Langley - best known for her role in finding and exhuming the remains of Richard III in 2012 - talks to Gone Medieval's Matt Lewis about her painstaking investigative research and the astonishing new archival discoveries that may forever change what we know about the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
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Searching for evidence of the boys’ deaths

Langley meticulously built a chronology of events, starting from the last known sighting of the princes at the Tower of London in June 1483. Intriguingly, she found no evidence supporting the boys’ deaths during Richard III’s reign.

The police advised her that to uncover the truth she should investigate routine administrative records, financial accounts and legal documents – combined with examining chronicles from the time, Langley saw a shift in historical accounts.

Edward V: The elder prince was mentioned in routine administrative records throughout Richard III’s reign. If an account referred to something that took place from April-June 1483 – when Edward V had been the named king – it was referred to in terms of, ‘at the time of the bastard Edward V’, or ‘the bastard king’. Notably, this was without any indications of his death or customary prayers for his soul (as would have been added at the time if relevant), suggesting normalcy, and contrary to the expected disruptions if he had indeed died.

Richard, Duke of York: Richard had fewer mentions in records due to his lesser status. Nonetheless, an entry in the Treasurer’s Accounts for Cambridge from September 1484 referred to a payment to Richard, Duke of York. Although likely an error by the cleric who had meant Edward, Earl of Warwick (who was in King Richard’s household at this time and with him during his visit to Cambridge), this entry implied that at the time, there was a belief in Richard, Duke of York’s existence.

What if the princes had survived?

After 4 years of fruitless searching for evidence of the princes’ deaths, Langley shifted her focus towards exploring the possibility that the princes might have survived. Following advice from police specialists, she conducted a meticulous forensic analysis, scrutinising events moment by moment, particularly honing in on the Battle of Bosworth where the paths of Richard III and Henry Tudor converged.

Langley’s investigation revealed that the narrative of the princes’ murder surfaced with Henry Tudor and his foreign invasion force. The earliest mention of their alleged murder in England came from a Welsh poet around 14 August 1485, after the Battle of Bosworth, blaming Richard III for the act. This narrative gained momentum in England from that point onward.

Notably, Henry Tudor’s actions after his victory at Bosworth – delaying his journey to London (a move contrary to expectations given London’s strategic importance) and dispatching searches – suggested a quest for the sons of Edward IV. Actions he wouldn’t have taken if they were already dead.

Wars of the Roses historian Matt Lewis visits the Tower of London to talk through one of the building’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. He talks through the possibility that the two young boys were not murdered on the infamous King Richard III's orders, but in fact survived their uncle's reign.
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Edward V and the Lille receipt

The UK investigation was hampered due to the amount of documents lost under Henry VII’s rule. However, a breakthrough came when a Dutch research group discovered a crucial accounting receipt in the Lille archive in France, dating back to 16 December 1487. This receipt provided evidence of Edward V’s existence, and his leadership of an invasion force into England in 1487, culminating in the Battle of Stoke.

The receipt, detailing a payment for 400 pikes, was made by King Maximilian I on behalf of the Dowager Duchess, Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Richard III and aunt to Edward V. It explicitly mentioned the pikes were ‘to lead across the sea with a specialist a German mercenary, who the Madam the Dowager sent at that time, together with several captains of war from England, to serve her nephew, son of King Edward, late her brother, who was expelled from his dominion’ – identifying him as Edward V.

Significantly, the receipt was signed by three prominent members of Maximilian‘s court (his secretary, and, controllers of the artillery and weaponry), reinforcing its authenticity and accuracy. There would have been multiple opportunities for correction if the information wasn’t true.

Crucially, the absence of customary phrases indicating the person’s death in the receipt, a common practice in those religious times, suggested that Edward V was believed to be alive after the Battle of Stoke in 1487. This discovery challenges the established narratives surrounding Richard III, the princes’ fate, and the early years of Henry VII’s reign, prompting a reevaluation of the Yorkist dynasty and Henry VII’s rule.

Despite deliberate destruction of paperwork by Henry VII’s government, European archives, beyond Henry’s reach, provided crucial insights. Langley’s investigation, tracing accounts, revealed Edward V’s presence in the Channel Islands (Guernsey) during both Richard III and early Henry Tudor’s reign, confirming his expulsion from his dominion.

Richard, Duke of York

If Edward had survived beyond 1485, it was hopeful that his younger brother Richard had too, but Langley needed evidence.

In November 2020, a stunning discovery emerged from criminal lawyer, Natalie Neyman at the Gelderman archive in Holland—a four-page note purportedly written by Richard, Duke of York. The note chronicled his story from sanctuary at Westminster Abbey to the Tower of London and subsequent escape to safety in France and the Low Countries, orchestrated by John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, as well as Richard’s journey abroad with two companion retainers, Thomas and Henry Percy.

When this revelation was cross-referenced with existing administrative records, Langley found everything fell into place. Previously puzzling actions by key figures, including Elizabeth Woodville, the Princes’ mother, began to make sense in light of this evidence, suggesting her awareness of her sons’ survival. Langley also asserted that Henry VII’s actions, like imprisoning Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, could be linked to the boys’ existence.

Addressing sceptics

The extraordinary nature of this evidence raised doubts about its authenticity. To validate it, Langley sought triple-checks from the archives that had made these discoveries. After receiving confirmation of authenticity, the documents were then scrutinised by leading medieval scholar Dr Janina Ramirez at Oxford University, who also confirmed the authenticity of three of the documents.

As the Gelderman document felt too good to be true, Ramirez recommended further verification. Langley’s documentary film team engaged two leading experts, one from Belgium specialising in Middle Dutch (the language the note was written in), and Dr Andrew Dunning (a leading expert at the Bodleian Library in Oxford). Both experts corroborated the legitimacy of the documents’ language and content, providing additional assurance of their authenticity.

Subsequently, more evidence surfaced, including a document signed by Richard as ‘Richard of England’, and a letter from King Maximilian in the Austrian archives. Maximilian’s letter described meting Richard, Duke of York, identifying his 3 unique birthmarks (by his eye, mouth, and thigh), and offering full support. (Maximilian was close to Margaret of Burgundy and favoured Yorkist claims, yet sought peace with Henry VII but felt mistreated. His support for Edward and Richard promised favourable trade and diplomatic relations if either reclaimed the throne.)

Philippa Langley’s book offers further evidence and explanations surrounding the princes and events that may have happened to them after their exit from the Tower of London, yet she acknowledges may people may inevitably not be convinced. However, she maintains that evidence-based research enables people to have an informed opinion. After all, before Richard III’s body was discovered people thought he had been thrown into a river.

The project remains ongoing, seeking further evidence for the final resting places of both princes. As for Richard III, in Langley’s view, he is exonerated of killing his nephews – the totality of evidence is in her book.

Philippa Langley MBE is a British writer/producer with a passion to tell distinctive and original narratives that challenge our perception of established truths. In 2012 she led the successful search to locate the grave of King Richard III through her Looking For Richard Project, conceiving, facilitating and commissioning this unique historical investigation.

Her book, The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case published by The History Press, reveals the findings of The Missing Princes Project – Philippa’s quest to find out what happened to the Princes in the Tower, and was published in November 2023.

Amy Irvine