Published November 20, 2023

15 min read

In the summer of 1483, Edward V and his younger brother Richard entered the Tower of London and were never seen again. Their disappearance has long been laid at the feet of their uncle, Richard III, who has been accused for centuries of murdering them without any evidence. Author and history detective Philippa Langley, discoverer of Richard’s burial site, has taken on the case to find out what really happened to the Princes in the Tower and how to investigate a centuries-old murder. In this exclusive book excerpt, Langley takes readers through the investigation and turns up a new solution to an old mystery.

On August 25, 2012, the mortal remains of Richard III of England (1452-85) were discovered beneath a car park in Leicester. News of the discovery and the king’s eventual reburial went viral, reaching an estimated global audience of over 366 million. The return of the king captured the world’s imagination, but how had this come about? The search for Richard III had been instigated and led not by an academic or archaeologist, but by a writer.

The Looking for Richard Project was a research initiative which questioned received wisdom and dogma. It proved the “bones in the river” story to be false. For centuries, it had been believed that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in the late 1530s), Richard III’s remains were exhumed from their resting place, carried through the streets of Leicester by a jeering mob and reburied near the River Soar. Later, it was claimed they were exhumed again and thrown into the river. Without any supporting evidence, the story had been repeated as truth and fact by leading historians.

The Looking for Richard Project heralded a new era of evidence-based Richard III research and analysis. It was a major opportunity for the academic community and leading historians to employ this new knowledge as the basis for further discoveries.

On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, during reburial week, a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed, “It’s mad to make this child killer a national hero: Richard III was one of the most evil, detestable tyrants ever to walk this earth.” The writer, Michael Thornton, presented no verification or proof. His piece drew online comments from around the world, best summed up by Catherine from Chicago, United States, “This article shows a complete disregard for what counts as historical evidence.”

On Monday, March 22, 2015, as Richard’s coffin was received by Leicester Cathedral in preparation for reburial, Channel 4 TV presenter Jon Snow asked a Tudor historian for the evidence of Richard’s murder of the Princes in the Tower. “The evidence,” the historian replied, “is that he would have been a fool not to do it.”

In another of Snow’s television interviews on March 26, the evening of King Richard’s reburial, I was asked, “What next?”

“There’s a big question to answer now,” I replied. “What happened to the sons of Edward IV?”

The right questions

I had seen how asking questions changes what we know and is a key to greater understanding and important new discoveries. This was how the king had been found.

Historical enquiry is littered with the unpicking of received wisdom. Antonia Fraser helped to debunk the myth that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake.” Virginia Rounding refuted the claim that Catherine the Great had been killed by having sexual relations with a horse. William Driver Howarth disproved that the right of “prima nocta” (Droit de seigneur) existed in medieval Scotland (as depicted in the film Braveheart), and Guilhem Pépin established that the brutal massacre of 3,000 men, women, and children at Limoges in 1370, believed for centuries to have been carried out by England’s Black Prince, was in fact perpetrated by French forces on their own people. All had asked searching questions, thrown out old mythology, and started with a clean sheet.

It was exactly as my Looking for Richard Project had proceeded, irrevocably changing what we know. Could this approach apply to the mystery surrounding the Princes in the Tower?

While I considered my next steps, I watched with interest The Imitation Game (2014), starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who had read the evocative poem “Richard” at the reburial in 2015. Loosely based on Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing, this highly acclaimed award-winning feature film retells the breaking of the Enigma code during the Second World War.

When you ask the right questions, the smallest detail can form the key to a major discovery. Could a small and perhaps seemingly insignificant discovery be the key to solving this most enduring of mysteries?

Richard and ‘The Princes’

I have studied the life and times of Richard III for nearly thirty years. It is a fascinating period of history, inspiring George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasy series, and, of course, William Shakespeare’s famous play. And therein, it seems, lies the dichotomy of the two representations of Richard III: the loyal lord of the north (one interpretation) and the murdering psychopath. Two extremes certainly, but as we may all attest, life is many shades of grey.

I was clear from the outset that I had to be prepared for whatever might be uncovered. The Looking for Richard Project had sought to lay the king to rest. It was now time to investigate the final question surrounding Richard III—in the hope of making peace with the past, on both sides of the debate.

In the summer of 1483, two children disappeared: Edward V (age twelve) and his brother Richard, Duke of York (age nine). The enquiry into their disappearance would, therefore, fall into the category of a cold case missing person investigation, employing the same principles and practices as a modern police enquiry. Intelligence gathering would be key.

It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy task. Apparent red herrings seemed to litter the stories surrounding the disappearance and each would have to be analyzed and investigated. The project could not afford to miss anything, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Everything was on the radar.

The Missing Princes Project

So, how could a cold case investigation help move our knowledge forward? Hadn’t the events that led to the disappearance taken place too long ago for any meaningful modern analysis?

I discovered that successful cold case enquiries are based on what I termed the HRH system of investigative analysis. That is, the removal of Hindsight, Recreating the past as accurately and realistically as possible by drilling down into that moment, and the introduction of the Human element in order to more properly understand the intelligence gathered. In short, this is the analysis of who was doing what, where, when, why, with whom and with what consequences.

The advice of police investigators suggested the use of well-regarded methods such as TIE and ABC. TIE is the police acronym for ‘Trace, Investigate, Eliminate’. As witnesses to the disappearance are clearly unavailable for interview, timelines and an extensive database would reference and cross-check movements and begin to trace and eliminate individuals from the investigation. The second police acronym, ABC (Accept nothing. Believe nobody. Challenge everything), would ensure that evidence was properly corroborated. The project would also employ Occam’s Razor: a problem-solving device in which the simplest explanation is generally correct.

With these parameters in mind, The Missing Princes Project set out in the summer of 2015 with three lines of investigation. This quickly developed into 111 lines of enquiry.

In July 2016, at the Middleham Festival, The Missing Princes Project was formally launched. Previously, on December 15, 2015, the website went live. Within a few short hours the project secured its first eight members. In the weeks and months that followed over 300 volunteers from around the world would join. Ordinary people were prepared to investigate archives, many with specialist knowledge of paleography (ancient writing) and Latin, others with European language skills. Members of police forces and Ministry of Defense specialists also joined, as did medieval historians and specialists across a number of fields, including input from a number of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists. It was exciting and daunting in equal measure.

The search for the truth had begun.

The lost boys

The investigation began by examining the time of the disappearance, analyzing it moment by moment and using all available contemporary material to place this period under the spotlight. By employing forensic techniques, we went back to their last known location to recreate the past and build an extensive person of interest file of those around them and connected to them.

We also analyzed exactly what was known about the two missing individuals at the center of our endeavors to further inform lines of investigation and enquiry. Profiling revealed that both children (male) had large households and were well known. The elder, Edward, (age 12) was a pre-teen who may not have been as physically robust as his younger sibling. He had an aptitude for poetry and literature and, facially, resembled his father. He seems to have been prone to melancholia which may have related to the onset of puberty and, very likely, the distressing change in his circumstances. Prior to disappearance, he had been seen by Londoners ceremonially entering the city as the new king and later as he travelled to the Royal Apartments at the Tower Palace. On both occasions he would have been accompanied by leading members of Church, state, and commons.

Richard, the younger boy (age 9), presented as a happy and energetic child who was strikingly pretty and considered to be in general good health. He had an aptitude for music, dancing, singing and, it seems, sport, possibly including archery and later tennis. Unlike his elder brother, Richard lived in the capital. Immediately prior to his disappearance, he was seen by Londoners travelling by barge from Westminster to join his brother at the Tower Palace. The flotilla consisted of at least eight barges and included leading members of Church and state.

Both boys may be described as celebrities and were last seen playing in the gardens of the busy Tower Palace on several occasions. They were blond and seem to have displayed a noticeable degree of charm.

Timing and evidence

Investigation of the timeline for the disappearance revealed a potential window of two months (July 18-21 to 20 September 20), which could be extended to three months (October 28). Intelligence gathering revealed a disparity between local accounts at the time of the disappearance and those from abroad.

Wider analysis revealed that a pretender from France (Henry Tudor) introduced the charge of murder against Richard III into England immediately prior to the Battle of Bosworth. The accusation of murder then took hold until the demise of the Tudor dynasty, when contemporary documents were investigated, and the descendants of several families interviewed. These challenged the Tudor story of murder and presented instead the possibility of the boys’ survival.

Further forensic analysis of the immediate post-Bosworth period revealed no evidence of murder or witnesses. A rapid search in the north by Henry Tudor failed to locate the missing individuals, as did his later investigations at the Tower.

Murder victims . . . or survivors?

Further investigation uncovered a contemporary blueprint for physical removal of the princes which did not involve or require harm.

As evidence for their survival mounted, the investigation was widened to consider two claimants to the throne. Both claimants were of the right age and description for the missing individuals. The project then uncovered documented proof of life for both missing individuals: the elder in 1487; his younger sibling in 1493.

When I first launched The Missing Princes Project, I was asked what I would like to find. I replied that I would like to find a witness statement, written by one of the boys and detailing exactly what had happened to them with names and places and verifiable facts. I smiled, and the audience burst into appreciative laughter, clearly hoping for the same seemingly impossible discovery.

Four years later, that would turn out to be exactly what was uncovered by Nathalie Nijman-Bliekendaal in the Gelderland Archive in the Netherlands, and I will never forget sitting at my desk on a bright November afternoon in 2020 reading her email. And yes, I had goosebumps.    

A timeline for the younger missing person, Richard, Duke of York, is now in place. We can track his removal from the Tower of London on or by August 11, 1483, his travels to the island of Texel in 1495, subsequent invasions of England, and his eight-year campaign for the throne.

A timeline for our elder missing person, Edward V, is a significant focus. Current evidence suggests Edward was placed in the Channel Islands on or before late 1485, traveled to Francis Lovell in Yorkshire by April 1486, and was established in Ireland by August of that year. He then seems to have crossed to Burgundy, returning to Ireland with his English and continental forces in May 1487 for coronation, an invasion of England, and subsequent battle at Stoke Field. As the boys were separated at the Tower on or by mid–late July 1483, Edward’s steps from this point to early 1486 are currently unknown.

It has been an exciting Phase One of our investigation, Phase Two promises to be equally exciting. Phase Two of The Missing Princes Project aims to attempt to answer these questions and, if possible, locate the final resting places of both princes.

Philippa Langley MBE is an historian and award-winning producer, best known for her discovery of Richard III in 2012. She is co-author of the bestselling The Lost King with Michael Jones (first published as The King’s Grave, John Murray 2013), and Finding Richard III, the official account of her Looking For Richard Project. In November 2023, Philippa’s new work, The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case, is set to once again, rewrite the history books. Based on her remarkable new research initiative The Missing Princes Project it has been made into a feature-length Factual Special TV documentary by Channel 4, PBS in America, and SBS in Australia.

From The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case by Philippa Langley

Published by Pegasus Books. Copyright (c) 2023 Philippa Langley. Reprinted with agreement. 

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