The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case

Image of The Princes in the Tower: Solving History's Greatest Cold Case
Release Date: 
November 18, 2023
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

“Whatever the reader concludes, this book makes an exciting reading adventure, built on an enlightening study on analyzing legend and challenging popular history with scholarship and science.”

The fate of the nephews of King Richard III is in a particular place with Atlantis, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Holy Grail, as a story that, no matter what, remains unresolved. Having taken the throne from the year-old Prince Edward during the English civil war known as the War of the Roses, did Richard III have him and the younger brother Richard murdered?

This story became one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and it still inspires the present as with movies and television, such as Game of Thrones. Had the Prince of Wales and/or his brother become king, the history of the world might have been affected. The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case is Philippa Langley’s exploration of the fate of King Edward IV's sons.

Starting in 1998, Langley set out to prove the location of the remains of Richard III, and after what has become a legend of its own, the effort succeeded in finding thekKing. That discovery raised questions about Richard III and what he did and did not do, especially concerning his nephews.

Descendants of Edward III conspired over the throne of England for years before this story begins with the death of Edward IV on April 3, 1483, a complicated and bloody tale of genealogy, influence games, popularism, and power grabs without regard for anything else. Participants were ruthless perpetrators or victims.

So much is known of the lost princes to make their disappearance all the more mysterious. Edward, Prince of Wales, seems to have had health issues, even frail. The younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, was seemingly born to be king. Even as a child, he had a council, titles, and an official wife. At first, Edward was announced as king and was given the Tower of London, with his brother, as a palace. His coronation was scheduled.

The brothers’ uncle Richard of Gloucester intervened, however. They were declared illegitimate; their uncle was proclaimed King Richard III; and they were imprisoned in the Tower. By October 8, 1483, probably earlier, the princes disappeared. In mid-January 1484, the French government declared the brothers murdered by their uncle Richard.

New King Richard III faced conspiracy and uprising immediately. He died at the Battle of Bosomworth on August 22, 1485, and was succeeded by his opponent Henry Tutor/Henry VII, supported by France, Scotland, and Wales. The victor could not allow the princes, if they still lived, to survive to challenge his weak claim to the throne. This cold case investigation of the disappearances of the princes is divided between the reigns of Richard III and his successor, Henry VII.

The author frames the search as if it were a criminal investigation. Everything is consequential, even the images of the lost princes. The Princes in the Tower begins with the details of the event and the statements by the witnesses. Suspects for the actual killing are then each examined.

Documents follow that give Richard III’s motive and political means. As with the case of Thomas More’s account of the murders, the evidence is questioned for the absence of corresponding documents, lack of collaboration, and technicalities.

Any murder investigation looks at the corpse or the lack thereof. Bones of what has been identified, perhaps mistakenly, of two boys were found in the Tower of London, but “discoveries of remains of children (and animals) at the Tower have been varied and many over the centuries.” Permission for DNA tests of the remains most commonly believed to be the boys has not been obtained.

The findings generate controversies, questions, and theories as the author carefully treads through the problems of bureaucracy, communication, and mistakes to find when the princes likely died if they were executed. Even people of the time were divided. Each source's personal and political prejudices must be weighed with how the source would have received the news.

Langley has published The Princes in the Tower as the first five-year report of The Missing Princes Project (2016–2021). It follows the successful but often controversial, The Looking for Richard Project. The author has also started The Hidden in the Abbey Project to find the remains of Henry I.

The author believes that in this matter, one should “Accept Nothing-Believe Nobody-Challenge Everything.” “Initial analysis revealed a Gordian knot of information that would have to be unraveled and scrutinized so that nothing was missed.” In any such research, the danger exists of getting so close to an idea as to dismiss facts, imagine evidence that is not there, and invent excuses and explanations.

The author concludes that there was no crime and describes the incredible search for “proof of life” of the real princes amid the claims of pretenders. Whatever the reader concludes, this book makes an exciting reading adventure, built on an enlightening study on analyzing legend and challenging popular history with scholarship and science.

At a time when interest in archives, documents, historical scholarship, libraries, and manuscripts is waning and under constant threat of budget cuts, this book speaks out for learning and preserving the past. That Langley is a dedicated “amateur” makes her work all the more inspiring. The real benefit of this book to popular history may be to bring back a measure of respect for the documents and study of the past.

The reader may be left with the impression that no matter what a DNA test would show of the alleged bones of the princes or other evidence turns up, the question of the death of their heirs to the throne of England will continue. The author has a website for discussion and questions about The Princes in the Tower.

The Princes in the Tower has plenty of evidence and supporting documents, including simplified family trees, ten appendices, timelines, abbreviations, notes, bibliography, contributors, maps, color illustrations, and more.