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The Princes in the Tower: A Royal Mystery That Still Haunts Us

In the long and often bloody history of the English monarchy, few tales have captured the public imagination as much as the mysterious disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. The young sons of King Edward IV, 12-year-old Edward V and 10-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were lodged in the Tower of London in 1483 awaiting Edward‘s coronation. But instead of a crown, the brothers vanished without a trace, spawning a mystery that has baffled historians for over 500 years.

The Dark Shadow of the Wars of the Roses

To understand the princes‘ story, we must first look at the tumultuous political landscape they were born into. The second half of the 15th century in England was dominated by the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic civil wars between rival branches of the royal Plantagenet family: the Lancasters (associated with the red rose) and the Yorks (white rose).

The princes‘ father, the Yorkist King Edward IV, took the throne in 1461 but his grip on power was tenuous. Edward made an unpopular decision to marry Elizabeth Woodville in secret in 1464, turning some allies like his cousin the Earl of Warwick against him. The Woodvilles were seen by many as ambitious upstarts. Nevertheless, Edward defeated his opponents and reigned until his sudden death at age 40 in 1483.

Born to Rule: The Heir and the "Spare"

Edward and Elizabeth had a large family, with the two princes born as part of a set of seven brothers and sisters. As the eldest son, young Edward was immediately vested as Prince of Wales upon his father‘s restoration to the throne in 1471. He seems to have inherited his father‘s tall, handsome appearance and was noted for his intelligence and poise. An Italian visitor to the royal court, Dominic Mancini, described the 12-year-old Edward V as "a boy of such dignity and charm that he outshone all the rest."

Edward was carefully educated apart from his siblings under the guardianship of his maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, a noted scholar and patron of William Caxton, who set up England‘s first printing press. Young Edward reportedly excelled in his studies of history, literature and languages.

His brother Richard, Duke of York had a quite different upbringing as the classic "spare to the heir." He was raised in the heart of the royal court with his sisters and married off at age 4 to the wealthy young heiress Anne Mowbray in a typical dynastic arrangement. When Anne died in 1481, the 8-year-old Richard inherited her vast estates, making him an even more desirable political pawn.

A Mysterious Disappearance

When Edward IV died unexpectedly in April 1483, 12-year-old Edward was proclaimed King Edward V. He set off from his schoolroom at Ludlow Castle to journey to London for his coronation, accompanied by his household including Anthony Woodville. But en route, Edward‘s party was intercepted by his paternal uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Gloucester, a seasoned military commander who had long been one of Edward IV‘s closest advisors, was named Lord Protector due to the new king‘s youth. But instead of arranging his nephew‘s coronation, Gloucester had Anthony Woodville and other members of Edward‘s retinue arrested and executed. Gloucester then escorted the young king to the royal apartments in the Tower of London, the traditional site for monarchs to await their coronation.

What happened next has been debated by historians for centuries. Edward V was soon joined in the tower by his brother Richard, who was possibly brought there out of concern for his safety or to keep him from becoming a figurehead for any resistance to Gloucester‘s rule. By June, the princes‘ coronation date had passed with no sign of them, and rumors swirled that they had been murdered.

Gloucester‘s allies then began putting forth evidence that the princes were illegitimate due to an alleged prior secret marriage by Edward IV, conveniently clearing the way for Gloucester to take the crown as Richard III. After the summer of 1483, the princes were never seen in public again.

A Web of Suspects and Theories

So what exactly happened to the lost princes? The most commonly accepted theory is that they were murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. He had the most obvious motive, ruthlessly disposing of his inconvenient nephews in order to secure his own claim to the throne.

This version of events was immortalized in Shakespeare‘s play Richard III, which portrays the king as an evil, deformed villain who murdered his way to power. But some historians argue this is an unfair depiction promoted by Richard‘s Tudor successors and that the case against him is largely circumstantial. Richard‘s defenders point out that the princes were more useful to him alive as hostages and that he never showed signs of being a cruel, calculating murderer in other aspects of his life and reign.

Other theories propose alternative culprits such as Richard‘s ally the Duke of Buckingham or even the princes‘ own mother, Elizabeth Woodville. Some even argue that one or both boys may have somehow survived, pointing to pretenders like Perkin Warbeck who emerged years later claiming to be the lost Richard of Shrewsbury. However, there is no definitive proof to support these ideas.

Unearthing the Bones of the Past

One key piece of evidence in the mystery surfaced nearly 200 years later in 1674, when workmen demolishing a staircase in the Tower of London discovered a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. The bones were reburied in Westminster Abbey as the presumed remains of the princes, but they were not subjected to any antiquarian study at the time.

In 1933, the bones were exhumed and examined, and initial anatomical analysis suggested they were likely the princes based on age, gender and stature. However, some have questioned these findings, and without definitive DNA evidence, the identity of the bones is still disputed.

Recent developments in the princes‘ case have centered around one of its prime suspects: Richard III himself. In 2012, archaeologists discovered the long-lost grave of the controversial king under a parking lot in Leicester. Scientific testing including DNA analysis helped confirm the skeleton‘s identity and revealed new details about Richard‘s appearance and health.

Some hoped this discovery could also yield new clues in his nephews‘ cold case, but the renewed attention has arguably only intensified the debate. Richard‘s supporters see the research as a chance to rehabilitate his reputation, while others argue it does not prove his innocence. Barring the unlikely discovery of the princes‘ confirmed remains or contemporary written evidence, the question of Richard‘s guilt will likely never be settled definitively.

An Unsolved Mediaeval Mystery

The fate of the Princes in the Tower remains perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery in British royal history. Despite the efforts of historians, novelists, and playwrights for half a millennium, it‘s unlikely a "smoking gun" piece of evidence will ever emerge to lay the case to rest. Yet the powerful story of two innocents caught in the crosshairs of dynastic ambition and ruthless realpolitik continues to capture our imagination, inspiring everything from Shakespearean dramas to modern forensic studies.

In many ways, their disturbing disappearance reflects the brutally precarious nature of royal childhood in an era when children could become pawns sacrificed to the political necessities of adults around them. The image of the doomed brothers clinging to each other for comfort in their final days in the intimidating tower has taken root in collective imagination and become symbolic of the cruelty of their age. As the late historian Alison Weir put it, "The legend of the Princes in the Tower is one of history‘s most fascinating, enduring and tragic mysteries. It has everything: conspiracy, regicide, deep moral ambiguity and, most heartrendingly of all, the cruel and arbitrary sacrifice of two innocent children."

But the case also had an immediate political impact, casting a dark shadow over Richard III‘s short reign and the final years of the Plantagenet dynasty. The princes‘ unsettling fate likely contributed to Richard‘s later defeat by Henry Tudor, who united the warring Lancaster and York factions by marrying the princes‘ sister Elizabeth of York. While the Wars of the Roses raged on a bit longer, the Tudors would ultimately extinguish the Plantagenet line and give birth to a new chapter in English history.

Perhaps what makes the princes‘ plight so compelling is that it speaks to timeless themes – the corruption of power, the violation of innocence, the destructive lure of ambition – in a real unsolved mystery. The haunting personal tragedy of two young brothers caught in the unforgiving gears of a dynastic power struggle continues to move us and serve as a testament to the lost potential of their short lives. Their story endures both as a chilling true crime saga and a poignant parable on the human condition with the power to fascinate us for centuries to come.

Key Events in the Princes in the Tower Mystery

Date Event
1470 Future Edward V born in Westminster Abbey sanctuary during his father‘s brief deposition
1473 Richard of Shrewsbury born and titled Duke of York
1478 4-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury married to Anne Mowbray
1483 (April) King Edward IV dies; 12-year-old Edward V to succeed him
1483 (May) Richard, Duke of Gloucester intercepts Edward V‘s progress to London, assumes control
1483 (June) Richard takes the throne as Richard III; princes last seen in Tower of London
1483 (Sept) Princes presumed dead after disappearing from public view
1485 Richard III killed in battle; Henry Tudor crowned Henry VII
1674 Skeletons of two children discovered in the tower
1933 Westminster Abbey bones examined and presumed to be princes
2012 Richard III‘s skeleton identified after discovery under Leicester car park