Saturday, September 05, 2009

Question from Trezza - The Princes in the Tower

I have a question about the so-called princes in the tower. Is there a general consensus as to their fate? If they were murdered, who is the most likely suspect? And is it possible that they did not die, but were possibly taken elsewhere?

[This topic has been touched on in other threads, but hasn't had a thread of its own.]


Kathy said...

Oh, lord, there has been a LOT written about this over the years.

Personally, I wish the Queen would allow DNA testing of the bones that are currently enshrined in Westminster Abbey and identified as those of the princes. It is hard to believe they aren't the princes as they have been anthropologically determined to be the bones of two boys of the right ages of the princes and found in pretty much the location as Thomas More said they were buried. Honestly it's hard to believe they are the bones of anybody else. That would just be too much of a coincidence.

Who killed them? Up in the air as far as I can tell. But they were imprisoned by Richard III and held by men loyal to him. They hadn't been seen for months before Henry VII came to the throne. When he did, he didn't charge Richard with their murder. To me that says they weren't at the Tower when he got there and he didn't know where they were or what happened to them. That points pretty damningly to Richard or his minions.

There were any number of pretenders starting with Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel and going on from there. (I've seen several people put forth as one or the other of the princes based mainly on the fact that could speak Latin. I'm dubious.)

Really, we could settle the first part of this question if the Queen would allow DNA testing of the bones, but that doesn't seem to be possible any time soon. (Take this for what it's worth, but I was told in England that she is opposed to any kind of DNA testing because of the tabloid speculation that Prince Harry is not really the son of Prince Charles.)

PhD Historian said...

Kathy has the gist of the issue correct, except for one thing:

The Queen has been opposed to DNA testing of the remains of any members of the royal family, recent or distant past, buried in any church under direct control of the crown. Her opposition began long before questions arose as to Harry's paternity. The reason usually given is that her opposition is out of respect for her deceased ancestors. The unspoken corollary is that if she allows such exhumations, it sets an unsavory precedent that might later be used to justify exhuming her own body or those of her kin.

I have to say I support her decision. How many of us want to be dug up after a century and exposed to public examination?
I think digging up the dead to satisfy modern curiousity is a bit morbid and inappropriate, unless there is some deeply compelling issue involved. In the case of the "Princes in the Tower," no compelling issue exists. Nothing in our world today would change as a result of identifying the remains.

That said, the Queen's husband, Prince Phillip, provided samples of his own DNA that were used in identifying the remains of the Romanovs discovered down a well outside Ekaterinburg. The identification effort there had a somewhat different purpose, however, since the results of the study allowed for the deceased to be appropriately and respectfully re-interred in a royal mausoleum. The Princes in the Tower are already properly interred ... or if the bones at Westminster are not theirs, their actual bones are lost forever.

Kathy said...

PhD Historian, I don't pretend to have any insight into what the Queen believes or the reasons she has made the decisions she has. With regard to Prince Harry, I was merely repeating what I heard from several different people while I was in England. Rightly or wrongly, there seems to be a general perception that the DNA issue is being swept under the rug because of that.

I suspect that you are right regarding her dislike at the thought of being dug up in future. (Personally I wouldn't mind in the least -- but I have a consuming interest in archeology and very nearly went into that field. But that's just me.)

But I suspect there may be some other issues as well.

I am very curious as to whether she understand the full concept of DNA and what it can and can't accomplish given current techniques. For all her experience at being Queen, she does not seem to have been particularly well-educated, especially in science.

Also, according to David Starkey who gave her a personal tour of the Elizabeth exhibit at Greenwich in 2006, she showed very little knowledge of the period and even less interest in it. Her main concern, according to him, was how her own possessions lent for the exhibit were being displayed.

I think the situation with the "Princes in the Tower" and the Romanovs are exactly the same. A DNA analysis was required to positively identify the Romanovs and will be required to positively identify the princes. The only difference is that the COE just assumed they were the princes based on the evidence they did have and buried them, whereas the Russians (Russian Orthodox Church?) required more positive proof regarding the Romanovs. In any case, Prince Philip is his own person and made his own decision in that matter. And, I hardly need point out, nobody is asking E2 for a sample of her own blood, just permission to get a easily-obtainable sample from bones that have already been dug up and gone over forensically before now.

I have to say I am very surprised at your statement that "Nothing in our world today would change as a result of identifying the remains." Really, nothing in our world today would change in the slightest as a result of answering any question about the 16th century. I won't bother to list any of the questions -- just scroll through the Q and A archives and you will find them. They are all the questions we have been asking here because we are interested in the period and want to know the answers.

Knowing the bones in Westminster Abbey are or aren't the princes might not change anything material in the 21st century, but it could certainly change historical inquiry, either cutting off a line of development or opening a new one. I would expect you as an historian would appreciate and defend that point more than anybody else here.

PhD Historian said...

My apologies, Kathy. I did not mean to upset you so much with my response. I merely wished to point out some details that were reported in academic circles regarding why the queen has thus far declined to allow disinterment of the remains thought to be those of Edward V and Richard of York ... details that may not have been properly reported in the popular media. Or that may have been overshadowed by more recent tabloid speculation and rumor-mongering. I simply repeated the official palace position on the issue, a position that was taken long before questions of Harry's paternity arose.

My statement regarding the potential impact of definitively identifying the bones first identified in 1674 as those of Edward and Richard was perhaps poorly worded. My point was that the identity of the bones is not, in my opinion, sufficiently pressing to justify disturbing what was supposed to have been their eternal rest. I do understand that some people become deeply invested in such ideas, however. But my own belief system leaves me very uncomfortable with digging people up out of their graves unless there is some genuinely, concretely pressing issue of critical importance involved.

As for a definitive identification opening or closing lines of inquiry ... well, I'm afraid I must disagree there as well. There is little question among legitimate academic historians as to what happened to the princes. They were killed. Definitive identification of the bones will not answer "how" or "exactly when" or "by whom." It will merely confirm what the overwhelming body of other evidence already indicates. The "how, when and by whom" will never be known.

I do understand, of course, that there are those who believe that the princes were not killed, but I place those believers in the same category as those who believe Johnson killed Kennedy and Elvis is still alive. It all makes for fun "what-if"-ing, but there is just no credible evidence to support their position.

I suspect as well that academics have a rather different approach to history than you may have, or than do many of the readers of this site. Academic historians usually begin with the premise that we cannot know many things with absolute certainty. Historians do not set out to find absolute dogmatic answers to historical questions. Instead, we seek to evaluate questions and to look at a variety of possible interpretations based on different viewpoints, ideas, and methodologies. And quite often there is no one definitive and absolute answer to the questions asked on this site ... so instead we offer partial answers and discuss alternatives. It would be great to have narrow definitive answers to each and every question about the past, but that simply is not possible.

So, in the end, I will have to agree to disagree respectfully with you on many points.

entspinster said...

As to Elizabeth's distaste-- accusations (well, rumors) that the new monarch is not the child of his or her monther's husband have been popping up in the English/British royal line for as long as the idea that the new monarch needed to be descended from a previous monarch has been generally accepted.

Such rumors were usually wildly irresponsible, but one can see how the royal response to anything along those lines might well be DON'T GO THERE.

Marilyn R said...

Surely the Romanovs are a different case altogether. Their murders were recent, in historical terms at any rate, and there was a national need in Russia to face up to what happened and give them a decent burial. Unlike the Princes, whose remains are safe and buried where they are remembered by hundreds of people every day, the pitiful remains of the Russian Royal family were found in a sodden hole in the ground.

Unlike the death of the Princes, we know what happened as the murderers (Yurovsky et al) were proud of what they did and loose tongued about it. The Tsar and his family were shot (some also bayoneted), disfigured with rifle butts and doused with sulphuric acid; some were also burned. They were chopped/sawn up, thrown down a mineshaft, brought out again when their discovery was feared, and buried in a shallow grave.

The remains found bore signs consistent with this treatment and yet, despite all the modern forensic science, it is still disputed in some quarters as to whether these really are the remains of the Romanovs. The area where they were found is known to have been used for other ‘executions’; it has even been suggested that they are the remains of a family of vagrants known to have lived in the area. Even the Russian Orthodox Church itself is divided as to the authenticity of the remains. Current DNA techniques still leave a margin of error and there have also been the inevitable accusations of tampering with or accidentally contaminating samples. But at least the nation now has a place in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg at which it can pay its respects, just as we have in Westminster Abbey for the young Princes.

What I am trying to say is, if there is no firm conclusion on comparatively recent remains of people about whom so much is known, and for whom easy matches were found (Prince Philip for the Tsarina and the children; Tsar Nicholas was matched to samples from one of his late brothers), what chance of success would there be with the Princes?

I have asked on this site before how you would realistically, not just by wishful thinking, go about such DNA testing (I think it was a debate on the remains of Anne Boleyn last time), but nobody offered a reply.

Below, a few points from the Archive of the Richard III Society (2001) regarding the Princes:

Who will fund the examination of the bones?

Are we prepared to have a premature re-examination and risk the possibility of being unable to have another re-examination when improved DNA and other scientific techniques are available?

In the case of DNA tests, against whose DNA will the bones be tested?

Has the relevant genealogy been carried out to find a direct descendant through an unbroken female line?

Or are the remains of Edward IV and/or Queen Elizabeth Woodville again to be disturbed?

What will be the benefit of a re-examination?

I’m sure someone will say that as Richard fans it might in the interests of the Richard III Society to be opposed to exhumation, but I do think their points are valid. (I am not a member of the Richard III Society.)

Kristian said...

I must agree with you, Kathy, on at least two points.

I am also of the opinion that DNA testing should be allowed on the remains of the princes. And I must respectfully disagree with PhD Historian on the circumstances and motives surrounding the exhumation and DNA testing of the Romanovs (Tsar Nicholas II and his family).

The Prosecutors Office of the Russian Federation along with U.S. forensic investigators treated the exhumation and testing as an unsolved homicide. It was not just a matter of respectfully re-interring the family.
Ever since the discovery of the mass grave of the Tsar, Tsarina and three of their children in a clearing in the woods (I never saw or read anything of a well) and then the discovery of their other two children 70 meters away, not only was DNA testing done but also testing to determine sequence of events. Thanks to this testing, we learned the Bolsheviks tried to cremate the two bodies found in grave separate from their parents. I - for one -happen to find this to be an important part of history and understanding the chain of events in the murders of the last tsar and his family.

(As to the Russian Orthodox Church - The patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Russia still denies the authenticity of the bones or DNA results.)

In regard to the "Princes in the Tower," I must admit that I am baffled by PhD Historian's stand on the issue.

While I respect your particular belief system which keeps you from being in favor of exhumation, I don't understand the belief that we cannot find critical information beyond DNA identification.
If we did have access to the remains, forensic scientists could likely figure out the "how" of the murders. From the "how," perhaps the "who" will become clear. Is this not EXACTLY why we investigate and study history and events for which we do not yet have a clear understanding?

Although I am in favor of exhumation - I am not asserting here that it *should* be done. Only that I am confused as to why you would even study history if you are not ALWAYS looking to discover what we do not already know?

Think about all the other murders in history. What if past historians or "academics" just said, "They were killed. End of story." Where would we be today?

Just because you are not compelled to learn more doesn't mean we should not continue to ask the questions, do the investigations and seek the truth.

Kathy said...

PhD Historian, I just read back through my last post and I can't find anything in it that I think would make a reasonable person believe I was "upset so much." I wasn't in the least upset with your response. I certainly don't get upset when somebody disagrees with me. In fact I find the exchanges interesting and stimulating, not upsetting. But perhaps you do?

One point though, you don't know me nearly well enough to know what my philosophy of history or anything else is. Anybody with even the slightest degree of life experience, e.g. every adult on the planet, knows that not everything can be determined with absolute certainty in any part of life. That didn't need to be pointed out.

One thing I do believe in very strongly is that knowledge is precious. Whatever you come out with at the end of your evaluation process -- no matter what your subject matter -- depends very much on what knowledge goes in at the beginning. To coin a trite but true phrase in IT: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Therefore I found it surprising that an academic would knowingly want to not obtain all knowledge that could be easily be found out in his area.

I hope eventually that either Charles or William or some other future and enlightened ruler will allow the DNA analysis of the bones that may be the princes. Charles certainly was an avid supporter of raising the Mary Rose even though it disturbed the rest of many interred there.

PhD Historian said...

I reiterate: I am opposed to the disinterment of the bones identified as those of the Princes in the Tower for the purposes of a DNA examination that is altogether likely, as Marilyn R so correclty points out, to raise more questions than it answers. Absent several direct matrilineal descendants, other graves would need to be opened to obtain comparison samples. Further, there is a significant likelihood that no testable DNA could be obtained from the bones because of the ages of the decedant, the conditions in which they originally lay for almost 200 years, and the 500 years that have elapsed since the victims died.

Neither is it at all likely that the bones would reveal how the children died, unless it happened to be by some form of bone-breaking trauma. If they were smothered in their sleep, as most people believe, there would be zero evidence of that on the bones. Suffocation would not even break the hyoid. And the hyoid is not sufficiently ossified in pre-pubescent years to be readily "broken," anyway.

Nor would positive identification answer the "who did it" of their deaths.

I do not see this quest to identify the bones as an issue of "historical inquiry," since any positive answer obtained would only confirm what is already known: that the princes died in the 1480s. The answer is exceedingly unlikely to reveal "how," and will not reveal "by whom."

Knowledge may be precious, but I still have my limits on how far I will go to obtain it. Disrupting the final rest of two dead children and perhaps several of their relatives is too far, in my world. Most societies have respect for the dead. Yet many Americans seem to have transfomed the dead into "ye olde curiosity shoppe" where we can go rummaging freely for puzzles to solve.

Kathy said...

Kristin, that's a very good point about the murder of the Romanovs being homicides. I think there is very little doubt that the princes were murdered too. As there is no statute of limitations on homicide, it is still an open murder case.

PhD Historian, I don't think anybody ever said that a DNA analysis would resolve the issue of who killed them. I'm not sure why you keep bringing that up, just to knock it down.

As for disturbing other graves that may not be necessary at all. The proposal from a few years ago was to attempt to get mitochondrial DNA from the lock of Mary Tudor Brandon's hair on display at Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmund, Suffolk. The princes were her uncles, brothers to her mother, Elizabeth of York. A match would be conclusive proof that the bones are those of the princes.

And, of course, there is the possibility that DNA could not be obtained. That is always a possibility. But it has been recovered it from Egyptian mummies, as well as remains from Bronze and Iron age remains in England. So there would seem to me to be a good probability of obtaining what is needed.

Obviously there are no guarantees in forensic analysis (any more than there are in history), but the considered opinion that I have read on the subject seems to be that in this case the probability of obtaining useful DNA and making a conclusive identification is high enough that it warrants attempting.

I haven't seen anybody recommending digging up various relatives willy-nilly much as the Victorians seemed fond of doing.

And the "final resting place of two children" isn't even a grave. It's a box on the wall in the chantry Elizabeth I is buried in. Little disruption seems to be necessary, as there aren't full bodies for either boy but disjointed bones.

PhD Historian said...

Quoting Kristian : "If we did have access to the remains, forensic scientists could likely figure out the "how" of the murders. From the "how," perhaps the "who" will become clear."

PhD Historian said...

Re: Mitochondrial DNA from the lock of hair identified as coming from Mary Tudor Brandon. DNA can be obtained from hair samples only if that hair includes a follicle. Hair that has been cut from the ends, as most souvenir locks are, would not contain a follicle and therefore would not have any DNA in them (hair itself is a keratin protein extrusion and does not have cellular structure ... it therefore lacks DNA). The only way to obtain mitochondrial DNA from the sample of hair at Moyses Hall is if the hair was pulled from the scalp with a follicle attached.

Has anyone seen the hair in question? It appears to be a small lock that was trimmed from the ends, not pulled from the scalp. If so, no follicles and no DNA.

Kathy said...

Oh, excuse me, I didn't realize in your terminology that "perhaps the "who" will become clear." is the same as "would resolve the issue." Silly me.

Lara said...

Okay, I think we're just spinning our wheels now and I don't want to see this further dissolve into a back and forth that will change no one's mind and will just lead to acrimony. Can we get back more to the original question and away from DNA testing that we know won't happen any time soon (if at all)?

I think all the discussions of bones and graves and DNA testing have become a "third rail" around here... kind of reminds me when the Shakespeare authorship question used to come up on the old RENAIS-L list, expect there is a lot less cursing here. :)

PhD Historian said...

Getting back to the original question, as Lara suggests:
The general consensus among legitimate academic historians is that Edward V and Richard of York were murdered in the Tower sometime between 1483 and 1485. There is also general consensus that the murderer was probably a supporter or follower of Richard III, perhaps the Tyrell identified by Thomas More. Whether Richard III personally ordered the act is not known, and there is no consensus on that specific issue.

Yes, it is "possible" that they were "taken elsewhere," but all available evidence indicates not.

Elizabeth M. said...

Would not a DNA test be moot anyway? As PhD Historian says, the condition of the bones and the age might render no DNA that is usable, if any. But the generations involved are numerous, and the queen's matrilineal family is different from that of the princes. What I am trying to say is that there are fourteen or fifteen generations involved, and it would be hard to tell anything, whereas with Prince Philip and the Romanovs, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was Philip's great-aunt, and her children his first cousins once removed, I believe, so the genetic material was much less diluted by the centuries of generations.

Kathy said...

Elizabeth M, I already addressed these points in an earlier post which you seem to have missed. Regarding the age of the bones, they have gotten usable DNA from Egyptian mummies and burials in England from earlier times than the 15th century. It's just one of those things you don't know until you try.

Regarding a source to test it against, the plan is to attempt to get mitochondrial DNA from a lock of hair belonging to Mary Tudor Brandon that is currently on display at the Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmund. The museum has given permission for this and the last I heard, actively assisting the investigators. The princes in the tower were the brothers of Elizabeth of York, making them Mary's uncles. If DNA can be obtained from both sources, a match would be conclusive proof the bones were those of the princes.

PhD Historian said...

Since Elizabeth did ask the question ...

The suggestion was that mitochondrial DNA might be used for the testing. Unlike the DNA in a cell nucleus, mitochondrial DNA is not "diluted" by successive generations. It is inherited solely from the mother, and therefore usually remains unchanged across many generations. (And mitochondrial DNA plays very little part in the usual process in which the genes within DNA control physical processes and appearances. That is left to nuclear DNA.)

Mitochondrial DNA is actually more readily obtained from bones, especially teeth, than is nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, rather than nuclear DNA, was used in identifying the Romanov bones. Nuclear DNA is more often obatined from soft tissue, such as skin and hair follicles. There is often very little nuclear DNA left in any bones more than a couple of hundred years old.

tudor fanatic said...

A few things I'd like to add...
On the DNA issue, I'm afraid I stand with PhD Historian in that I think that it is a little disrespectful to remove bones from their grave. To be honest, I wouldn't mind if someone dug up my bones after my death but different people have different opinions and I don't think either of the Princes in the Tower would particularly have wanted their bones dug up. After all, in the Tudor era and thereabouts bodies usually stayed put after burial. Also, I don't think the Queen has any real power any way; she's just a figure head. It's Gordon Brown (the prime minister) who does all the work (or not, as it would seem at the moment, but that's another story). The Queen doesn't really have "experience at being Queen", at least not in the sense that her ancestors did, anyway. And of course she does not "understand the full concept of DNA and what it can and can't accomplish given current techniques". She was educated in the 30's when DNA was a completely unheard of concept. And we could have a much more uneducated monarch on the throne.
But I digress...
So, going back to the original question, it is my opinion that the Princes were murdered, probably by agents of Richard III. It is possible that they did not die and were taken elsewhere, but it is highly unlikely given the circumstances. Firstly, if Richard wanted to get rid of them so that he was the rightful heir, surely killing them seems a much better and more permanent solution than simply exiling them? Also, if they had lived, surely they would have come back years later to claim their birthright? I mean, there wasn't really any reason why they wouldn't have been able to. I am not saying it is impossible that they survived, but that it is just highly unlikely.

Merlin said...

Back to 'whodunnit'- I personally suspect Margaret Beaufort of being behind the murders. After all, the future Henry VII had as much a vested interest in getting rid of the boys as Richard did, and Margaret was both formidable and utterly committed to her son's cause. As a Tudor coup it was perfect- bribe someone to do away with the boys, Richard gets the blame and negative PR and Henry gets the (relatively uncontested) throne.

Anonymous said...

One small point to add to this very interesting discussion. I am not a historian but instead in law enforcement and would like to add that mitochondrial DNA is indead found in the hair shaft and could be used to determine a possible match to DNA obtained from the bones in question.

Most DNA is found in the nucleus of a cell and called nuclear DNA. The hair follicle would be required to obtain Nuclear DNA.

However, lesser amounts of DNA also exist in the Mitochondria of a cell. Mitochondria is found in the shaft of human hair so no follicle would be needed and forensics has gotten quite good at Mitochondrial DNA matching.

This is assuming there is no real question about the identity of the hair sample.