Too Many Bones in the Tower

By 1674, the story of the sons of Edward IV, better known as the princes in the Tower, had become legend. Thomas More's History of King Richard III and Shakespeare's Richard III ensured that the princes' supposed fate was common knowledge in the 17th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that when two bodies were discovered under a staircase within the Tower in 1674, they were assumed to be the missing princes. This all seems pretty straight forward - until we consider the fact that they were not the only children's bodies discovered in the tower and assumed to be the princes.

A set of children’s bones was discovered in the tower between 1603 and 1614 while Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Grey of Wilton were prisoners there. [An alternative date for this event has been given as 1647.] The story says that bones were found in a walled up room, laid out on a table, and the finders assumed that these were the remains of the Princes in the Tower. The bones were "esteemed" to be from children 6 and 8 years of age, certainly too young to be the missing boys, if that estimate was correct. These bones were never medically examined and have never been seen since. Molinet, a fifteenth-century French writer, had stated that the princes were left in a walled up room.

Sir George Buck, not the most reliable information source and writing in 1619, reported another finding of bones that were first thought to belong to the princes, though there was only one skeleton found high in a turret of one of the towers. It was later proven that this was an ape, which had escaped from the royal menagerie.

The Tower moat was drained between 1830 and 1840 and a great many bones were exposed some of which were attributed to the missing princes.

In 1977 another child's body was found in the Tower. It is not far reaching to assume that if this body were found at an earlier time it also would have been thought to be one of the princes. However this child's remains were Carbon Dated and it was scientifically proven that the bones belonged to a male between the ages of 13 and 16 who had lived in the time of the Iron Age.

This should open the door to a new way of looking at the bones found in the Tower and hopefully it will. For if we have one set of bones dating back to the Iron Age why can't there be more? The land on which the Tower is built has been inhabited for centuries.

The most famous set of bones believed to be those of the princes were discovered in 1674 by workmen demolishing a staircase leading to the Chapel of St John in the White Tower. There are three contemporary accounts of this discovery.

Johan Gybbon, Bluemantle Pursuivant, records in 1674:

 "Friday July 17 anno 1674 in digging down some foundacons in ye Tower, were discovered ye bodies of Edw V and his Brother murdered 1483. I my selfe handled ye Bones Especially ye Kings Skull. Ye other wch was lesser was broken in ye digging."

John Knight King Charles' Principal Surgeon records in 1674:

 "In order to the rebuilding of several Offices in the Tower, and to clear the White Tower from all contiguous building, digging down the stairs which led from the King's Lodgings, to the Chapel in the said Tower, about ten foot in the ground were found the Bones of two striplings in (as it seemed) a wooden chest, which upon the survey were found proportionable to the ages of those two Brothers viz. about thirteen and eleven years. The skull of the one being entire, the other broken, as were indeed many of the other Bones, also the chest, by the violence of the laborers, who cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish, and by that means preserved all the bones. The circumstances being often discoursed with Sir Thomas Chichley, Master of the Ordinance, by whose industry the new Buildings were then in carrying on, and by whom this matter was reported to the King."

As John Knight stated above in his account "the labourers, who cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish". When the bones were examined in 1933 animal bones were found in with the human bones. This would also give credence to John Knights account for it makes sense that when labourers sifted the rubbish to recover the bones they may well have recovered any bones they found. It is also possible that in the four years between the time the bones were discovered and when they were interred in the abbey some may have been sold off as relics and replaced with animal bones.

 An anonymous undated account states:

"This day I, standing by the opening, saw working men dig out of a stairway in the White Tower, the bones of those two Princes who were foully murdered by Richard III. They were small bones, of lads in their teens and there were pieces of rag and velvet about them. Being fully recognized to be the bones of those two Princes they were carefully put aside in a stone coffin or coffer."

If this last witness could be credited it would be meaningful since the mention of velvet would mean that the bones could not be older than the 14th century since there was no velvet in England until then. However Arlington writing in 1675 discredits him when writing to Wren, who was commissioned by King Charles to make a suitable receptacle for the bones, "These are to signifie his Majesties pleasure that you provide a white Marble Coffin for the supposed bodies of ye two Princes lately found in ye Tower of London and that you caused the same to be interred in Henry ye 7th Chappell in such convenient place as the Deane of Westminster shall appoynt. And this shalbe yor warrant. Given under my hand this 18th day of February 1675. " This would then be taken to mean that there was a need for a coffin and that the bones were not already in one.

All of this brings us to the question why these bones? There were plenty of other bones discovered in the Tower but this set is buried in Westminster among kings. The answer appears to come from the writings of Thomas More. Thomas More was only six years of age when Richard III was killed at Bosworth Field, but he wrote an unpublished and unfinished book known as the History of Richard III which states,

"Whiche after that the wretches parceiued, first by the strugling with the paines of death, and after long lying styll, to be throughly dead: they laide their bodies naked out vppon the bed, and fetched sir Iames to see them. Which vpon the sight of them, caused those murtherers to burye them at the stayre foote, metely depe in the grounde vnder a great heape of stones. Than rode sir Iames in geat haste to king Richarde, and shewed him al the maner of the murther, who gaue hym gret thanks, and as som say there made him knight. But he allowed not as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying that he woulde haue them buried in a better place, because thei wer a kinges sonnes. Wherupon thei say that a prieste of syr Robert Brakenbury toke vp the bodyes again, and secretely entered them in such place, as by the occasion of his deathe, whiche onely knew it could neuer synce come to light."

Thomas More may have come down to us in history as a saint and a martyr but he certainly would never have made a name for himself as an historian. It is very easy to discredit More because of the many known factual errors in his writings on Richard III. His physical description of Richard III shows how people in medieval and Tudor times would have related an evil mind with an ugly body.

" little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard fauoured of visage, and suche as is in states called warlye, in other menne otherwise, he was malicious, wrathfull, enuious, and from afore his birth, euer frowarde. It is for trouth reported, that the Duches his mother had so muche a doe in her travaile, that shee coulde not bee deliuered of hym uncutte: and that hee came into the worlde with the feete forwarde, as menne bee borne outwarde, and (as the fame runneth) also not vntothed, whither menne of hatred reporte aboue the trouthe, or elles that nature chaunged her course in hys beginninge, whiche in the course of his lyfe many thinges vnnaturallye committed."

It is overkill to say the least but from an historian, even a Tudor historian, it must discredit the work of any man who made so many other mistakes such as stating: Edward IV was over fifty three at the time of his death, the woman to whom the King was said to have been troth-plighted is given the name Elizabeth Lucy, instead of Eleanor Butler. Again, More says that Warwick was negotiating a marriage alliance with the King of Spain's daughter, instead of Bona of Savoy and he places the removal of the young Duke of York from sanctuary before the execution of Hastings, instead of after.

It may be thought a strange coincidence that More should state the princes were buried deep in the ground under a heap of stones and these bodies should, indeed, be found interred in this manner. However, it should be remembered that More did NOT tell us where the burial took place, he says only that the bodies were moved to another place. The only reasonable way to approach More's "Historie of Richard III" is with a large salt cellar in hand.

Written by Becky Adorjan

copyright 2001

Edited by Geoffrey Richardson


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