Portrait of Richard III
For five centuries historians have speculated on England’s greatest crime mystery with the prime suspect being Richard III, Plantagenet King of England. Now, M’lud, DNA evidence has been secured which could prove whether Richard was indeed guilty of killing the children of his predecessor and brother Edward IV, in the summer of 1483. Until recently it was believed that the boy princes’ family had no living descendants but expert sleuthing by genealogist Glen Moran located a 16 times great-granddaughter of their maternal grandmother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg.
She is opera singer Elizabeth Roberts, soprano soloist during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Scientists have isolated her female line mitochondrial DNA. All that is required now is for the supposed remains of the two boys, held in a marble urn in Westminster Abbey, to be tested for a DNA match. Ah, there’s the rub. The Abbey traditionally refuses such requests and is backed in doing so by the Royal Household. So tourist attraction York Dungeon has launched a petition to get the 100,000 signatures needed for the issue to be debated in Parliament in the hope the Abbey will be obliged to give up the remains for testing.
The desire of York Dungeon is “to clear Richard III’s name”, free him from the stigma of homicidal villainy. To secure his pardon, if you like. How would the DNA testing do this? Well, if the “bones in the urn” are not those of the boy princes then the case that Richard III was their killer looks spun. Sexed up. Plain false. He is no longer a murdering tyrant but history’s most wrongly accused.
Dear reader, today you are the jury. Let us begin by looking at the background to the case… What befell the princes, Edward born in 1470, and Richard of Shrewsbury born in 1473, was genuinely Horrible History. Their father was Edward IV who had seized the throne during the Wars of the Roses, whereby competing blue-blood families battled to lead the nation. Hell hath no fury like nobs scorned in their pursuit of the throne of England. The 50 years of the Wars of the Roses, far from being fragrant, are the country’s bloodiest, most paranoid years. Edward IV ruled well and wisely but inconveniently died on April 9, 1483, of natural causes.
His 12-year-old son, rebranded Edward V, set off for London happily expecting his coronation. But the accession never occurred. Instead he was met by his Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who incarcerated the child king in the Tower of London. Young Edward was soon joined in imprisonment by his younger brother Richard. I know, so many Richards in the story. Medieval royalty were as generous in doling out a variety of Christian names as misers dispensing rare jewels but do try to keep up on the back bench.
Next, Uncle Richard declared the boy princes illegitimate. Then he got himself crowned Richard III. Locked in the Tower, the 12-yearold Edward was certain “that death was facing him”. Hardly surprising, two overthrown kings had died in suspicious circumstances already that century. His brother, only nine, remained full of “frolics”, even when their last servant was dismissed. As the summer wore on the boys were spotted behind the Tower windows less and less often. By September they had vanished. The disappearance has produced conspiracy theories galore, though they reduce to two basic versions.
Firstly, the boys escaped or were spirited away. In general, sightings of them alive are the medieval equivalent of Elvis Lives! – without the cardiac-arresting deep-fried bananas. A pretender called Perkin Warbeck got people excited that he might be the younger prince for a while. Another pretender, Lambert Simnel, claimed to be Edward V and even launched a couple of hapless uprisings.
Historian Philippa Langley and York Dungeon’s ‘King Richard’ James Swanton
Most experts consider that Simnel was the son of an Oxford joiner and a dupe. The other theory regarding the princes’ vanishing is that they were murdered and murdered most foully. If so, whodunnit? In the nearest surviving contemporary accounts, Richard III gets the blame. And how. This is how Shakespeare introduces the king in his play Richard III: “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”
The image of the king with a withered arm and crooked back – and the morals to match – has stuck in the public mind ever since. It is Shakespeare’s Richard who has imprinted himself on our imagination. Shakespeare, please note, was closely tied to the Tudors who seized the throne from Richard III and who ne’er had a good word for their old enemy. In this scenario Richard did not commit the deadly deed himself. The prosecutors of Richard III claim that the man with blood on his hands was Sir James Tyrell, knight, servant to Richard III.
He confessed under torture to the murder before his execution for treason in 1502. Cui bono? Who benefits? This is the guiding principle for homicide investigations. Richard III had an insecure hold on the monarchy and benefi ted by eliminating rivals.
By the end of July 1483 it was already clear that some at court judged Richard to be a usurper. The princes were a focus of opposition. Richard possessed a clear and definite motive for having them killed. He had form too. To help get his brother on the throne he personally stabbed to death the number one rival: the mentally ill Henry VI.
However, you good men and women of the jury must ask: are there any other candidates for the historical hangman’s noose as the killer of the princes in the Tower? There is indeed one other plausible murderer. This is the Tudor king Henry VII, who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. (Richard III died with sword in hand, the last English king to do so. A moral plus point, you may feel.)
On nabbing the throne the Tudor upstart made short shrift of any and every rival claimant. If the princes had somehow survived in a forgotten corner of the Tower until that date Henry VII would have had zero compunction about doing them in. But Richard III always ends up in the frame. Always. You, the members of the jury, must remember he has ardent and earnest supporters who wish you to understand that Richard was the target of pro-Tudor propaganda, Shakespearean theatrical licence, Victorian sentimentalism, with its pretty Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the young princes, hair flowing and dressed in gentle velvet suits.
Richard III even has his own fan club: the Richard III Society. The latter would draw your attention to his good record as governor of the north, his religiosity and his studying of instructive texts on how to be a “right” monarch. Now, to lay the forensic evidence before the court… The case of the mysterious disappearance of the princes took an interesting turn in 1674 when workmen digging under stairs in the White Tower discovered two children’s skeletons in a chest.
They were identified as Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury and interred in a white marble urn in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. This finding was reconfirmed with a forensic examination in 1933.
The real king is finally buried at Leicester Cathedral in 2015
Forensic science has moved on hugely in the ensuing years. To gauge the science available to today’s archaeologists and forensic scientists look at the identification of the body found under a Leicester council car park in 2012. It was identified, using osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating and genetics, as that of Richard III. If DNA testing today on the skeletons in the Abbey shows a match with the modern sample from singer Ms Roberts then the chances of Richard being guilty would be substantially increased.
According to Tyrell’s confession, he ordered the corpses of the princes to be buried at the foot of a Tower stairway, which is where the bones were originally found. If the bones are those of the princes, Richard’s guilt looks assured. However, should the bones in the urn be those of others, then the prosecution case against Richard III begins to collapse. Philippa Langley, MBE, the historian who supported the drive to open the urn and spearheaded the Looking For Richard project that resulted in the discovery of Richard III’s grave, is supporting the York Dungeon petition.
According to Langley: “A negative outcome, with the remains confirmed as female, or from an earlier period and/or unrelated through the DNA lines, will allow this story to be put to bed.” Dr Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, suggests that proving that the bones are not those of the princes “opens up a whole new ball game”.
And according to Glen Moran, of Newman University: “I can think of no other case where unidentified human remains were assumed to be royal and buried as such. As things stand there is little evidence to support the assumption that the remains are the sons of Edward IV. “Now that we have the DNA information of the boys’ uncle Richard III, alongside [Ms Robert’s DNA] we can for the first time conclusively demonstrate whether the remains in the Westminster urn belong to the princes.”
Dear jury, if you consider Richard III has never had a fair trial in history, you may feel you wish to back the petition. You would offer a man perhaps more sinned against than sinning the chance of pardon. Dear jury, if you want to see Richard III confi rmed as a thronegrabbing child murderer you may also desire to sign the petition. Actually, dear jury, if you just like a good old detective story back the petition and help solve the long, strange and troubling case of the princes in the Tower. In summary, I ask the court: open the urn.
Princes Edward and Richard were depicted in the Tower of London
Petition that can solve the mystery
The York Dungeon wants to subject the alleged remains of the princes in the Tower – currently in Westminster Abbey – to forensic and genealogical examinations in order to determine if they are the remains of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury.
They then hope it will determine if there is any evidence that their death was intentional – and finally be able to confirm or deny the hotly contested debate of whether Richard III did indeed murder his nephews to claim the throne. With a genetic descendant of the princes having been found it means DNA matching could be achieved. Modern archaeological methods are also much more advanced since the remains’ last examination.
The Dungeon says Richard III has been accused of villainy by Shakespeare for more than 400 years and its petition has the potential to disprove these claims. It says that since controversially being buried in Leicester, it is only right that the country clears Richard’s name for his future legacy.
To sign the petition see change. org/p/richard-iiiexcavate-theremains-of-theprinces-in-thetower-forarchaeologicalexamination.