The Dead Bones

“The dead bones that lay scattered by” (IV.4)

The bones in the Tower. With commentary by W. J. White.

 

Illustrations

  1. Diagram of bones called ‘Edward V’
  2. Diagram of bones called ‘Richard, Duke of York’
  3. Westminster Abbey urn
  4. Plan of White Tower and forebuildings
  5. Anne Mowbray skeleton press report

The bones in the Tower

In July 1674, workmen in the Tower of London, digging down the stairs leading from the King’s Lodgings to the Chapel in the White Tower, found the skeletons of two children. Since the place of discovery coincided with Thomas More’s circumstantial account of the disposal of the bodies of the princes, and according to a contemporary eye-witness, scraps of velvet were found with the bones, they were assumed to be those of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, and on Charles II’s orders, were deposited in a marble urn in Henry VII’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey.

In July 1933, the urn was opened in an attempt to determine whether the bones could indeed be those of the princes. The findings were reported by L. E. Tanner and W. Wright in ‘Recent Investigations Regarding the Fate of the Princes in the Tower’, Archaeologia, vol LXXXIV (1935). The remains were examined by Professor Wright of the Royal College of Surgeons and Dr. George Northcroft, a dental surgeon, but not by an anthropologist, a mediaeval archaeologist or a forensic scientist. They agreed that the bones were those of a child aged between twelve and thirteen and a younger child aged between nine and eleven. Certain peculiar features about the bones suggested close family relationship, while the elder child seemed to have suffered from a disease in the jaw which would have affected its general health and there was a stain on the skull which, Wright claimed though could not prove, was a bloodstain. Their conclusion was that the bones were those of King Edward V and his brother and were compatible with their deaths in the summer of 1483 when Edward was twelve years and nine months of age and Richard was about to celebrate his tenth birthday.

Subsequent scholars, however, have cast doubts on these conclusions, believing the anatomical evidence for the ages of the children and for death by smothering as indicated by the stain on the skull to be unsound, although the dental evidence is generally stronger.

Scientific methods of dating bones have advanced much since 1933 and the differences in development between mediaeval and modern children may, in principle, be addressed because of the discovery in 1964 of the coffin and remains of Anne Mowbray, child wife of Richard of York, whose age and date of death are known. This gives a direct contemporary parallel by which to judge the age and development of the controversial skeletons.

Further reading:

  • C. Ross, Richard III, (1981), Appendix I, pp. 233-4.
  • R. Drewett and M. Redhead, The Trial of Richard III, (1984), pp. 61-9.
  • Ann Stirland, Human Bones in Archaeology, (1986), pp. 55-8.
  • Theya Molleson, ‘Anne Mowbray and the Princes in the Tower: a study in identity‘, London Archaeologist, Vol 6 (1987), pp. 258-62.
  • N. H. Bramwell and R. W. Byard, ‘The Bones in the Abbey: are they the murdered princes?‘ American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Vol. 10 (1989), pp. 83-7.
  • Elizabeth Longford, Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, (1989), pp. 180-5.

Additional illustration descriptions, “Bones” display case

Part of plan of the Tower showing the demolished forebuildings from ‘Archaeologia Vol. XXXIV [Society of Antiquaries, 1936]

The urn in the Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey, designed by Christopher Wren, erected 1678.

Anne Mowbray: Report from the ‘Observer’ January 2, 1966. Front view of the skull of Lady Anne Mowbray, after cleaning; the skull as exhumed, showing the hair in a remarkable state of preservation; the lead coffin of Lady Anne Mowbray, after cleaning, labeled in Latin with her name and title held by her father, the Duke of Norfolk.