BONES OF 1674

June 29, 2009 0 Comments


The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway picture collection

The term "bones of 1674" refers to two skeletons found in the TOWER OF LONDON in 1674 and believed to be the remains of EDWARD V and his younger brother, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, who both disappeared in the Tower in 1483 during the last phase of the WARS OF THE ROSES. Examined by forensic experts in the twentieth century, the bones have become another element in the ongoing controversy over how and by whose hand the sons of EDWARD IV met their end.

In 1674, while engaged in clearing away some ruinous structures adjacent to the White Tower, workmen discovered a wooden chest at a depth of about ten feet under the bottom step of an old staircase. The chest contained the skeletons of two children, with the taller one lying on its back and the smaller one lying face down on top of it. Because the well-known account of the princes' murders in Sir Thomas More's HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III stated that the bodies were, at least initially, buried "at the stair foot, meetly deep in the ground" (More, p. 88), the skeletons were immediately assumed to be the sons of Edward IV. In 1678, Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design a marble urn to serve as a more fitting repository for royal remains. Thus encased, the bones were reinterred in Westminster Abbey in the Chapel of HENRYVII.

In 1933, the urn was opened, and the bones were examined by several medical experts. Their report, published in 1934, stated that the elder child stood about four feet ten inches tall and the younger about four feet six and a half inches. Although unable to determine the sex of the children, the examiners concluded from the development of the vertebrae and jawbones that the elder child was about twelve at the time of death and the younger about ten. Because these ages corresponded well with the ages of the princes in July 1483-Edward V and his brother would have been twelve years and eight months and nine years and eleven months, respectively-the examiners believed that death occurred in 1483 and that Henry VII, who had no access to the boys until August 1485, could therefore be absolved of any responsibility for their fate. The examiners also determined that the older child suffered from a painful and chronic infection of the lower jaw and that a discoloration of the facial bones of the elder child might indicate death by strangulation. In general, the 1934 report seemed to strengthen the argument that RICHARD III had murdered his nephews in 1483.

In the 1950s, when Richard III biographer Paul Murray Kendall submitted the findings of the original examination to a new team of experts, they concluded that the elder child might not be as old as originally thought and that the mark on the facial bones was not a bloodstain resulting from strangulation. Because of these new findings, and because the sex and overall age of the remains-the burial could have occurred well before or well after 1483-are uncertain, the Tower skeletons cannot be definitely identified as those of the princes, and their value in determining what happened to the princes remains problematic.

Further Reading: Fields, Bertram, Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes (New York: Regan Books, 1998); Jenkins, Elizabeth, The Princes in the Tower (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1978); More, Sir Thomas, The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, edited by Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven,CT:Yale University Press, 1976); Pollard, A. J., Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991);Weir, Alison, The Princes in the Tower (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992);Williamson, Audrey, The Mystery of the Princes (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1986); see also the many materials on the fate of the princes available on the Richard III Society Web site at <http://www.r3.org/bookcase>.

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