Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Princes in the Tower

An Inquest

King George V (CORBIS)
King George V (CORBIS)

Two and a half centuries after the burial ceremony in Westminster Abbey, King George V in 1933, annoyed by the mounting pressure from supporters of Richard III, gave his approval for the examination of the bones in the white marble coffin by reputable scientists.  This inquest, intended to resolve the question of whether or not the princes had been found in 1674, may very well have been similar to this hypothetical account:

September, 1933

Lawrence E, Tanner, MD, OBE, and Keeper of the Monuments of Westminster Abbey, had known William Wright, President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain, for over 20 years.  He had met Bill Wright under unfortunate circumstances, when Wright, the pre-eminent dental surgeon of Harley Street, had extracted his wisdom teeth.  Tanner had never forgiven him for that painful experience, even though the two met often at conferences and dinners, and had been unfailingly polite to one another.

Now, they were thrown together, directed by the king, George V, and the Home Secretary, to perform an examination of the bones of the supposed princes, Edward V and Richard of York.  Tanner did not look forward to working with Wright, a hearty fellow who got on his nerves.  But, duty called.

Tanner had set them up in a room in the chapter house.  A long oak refectory table had been covered with sheets, and the contents of the Christopher Wren marble coffin had been spread on the table.  The bones, brown with 450 years of oxidation, were arranged by length.

Quite a few that dont belong here, wouldnt you say, Tanner?  What dyou think?  Pig bones?  Sheep?

A bit of everything, Id say.  Scraps from the kitchen.  Pork, sheep, cattle.  Some scullery lad must have had a rubbish heap under those stairs, and when the chest was found, the workmen must have thrown every bone they found into it.  Quite a mess.  Tanner lit his pipe.

Well, lets get started, shall we?  Why dont you separate out the animal bones, and Ill start lining up the young lads.  It was just as Tanner thought; Wright would use him as an assistant.

However, it was Tanner who made the final measurements.  After a week of careful sorting and measuring, they were ready to record. Wright was poised with pen and paper as Tanner dictated.  So what do we have? Tanner said.  Two pre-pubertal skeletons of undetermined gender

Wright interrupted.  Most likely male, though, wouldnt you say?

Tanner frowned.  but most likely male.  One, four feet ten inches tall, the other just under four feet seven inches --- say, four feet six and one half inches tall.  Only a partial skull for the younger.  Both have some bones missing, phalanges, metacarpals.

Wright handed the notebook to Tanner.  Now, for the jaws and dentition.  The elder looks like he suffered from osteomyelitis --- quite extensive.  Must have been dreadfully painful.  They are no doubt related, as based on the presence of hypodontia --- both have permanent teeth missing.  Good thing the younger boys skull was the lower half.  What would you estimate their ages, Tanner?

Well, using your tooth measurements, Id say the elder was 12 to 13 years old, the younger --- its a little more difficult to tell --- say, nine to 11 years old.

That pretty well takes it, then, doesnt it?  Edward was 12 years, 10 months old in September, 1483, and Richard was what?

I believe just 10 years old.  Yes, I have no doubts.  You agree, Wright?

Indeed I do.  Too many coincidences not to be the princes.  Found in the right place --- according to Thomas More.  Related, clearly.  Right ages.  Yes, I have no doubts.  Besides, this stain on the skull of the elder.  Blood stain, consistent with suffocation.  No, no doubt about it, as far as Im concerned.

I agree.  Well, lets get these boys back in their coffin.  This time, well leave out the animal bones.

In fact, Tanner and Wright did not resolve the question to the satisfaction of some.  After all, it is argued, Tanner and Wright assumed from the beginning that the bones in the casket were those of the princes.  They merely confirmed their assumption.  No radio-carbon dating (not available at the time) was done.  Could these have been the bones of some children of an earlier era, perhaps Roman?  Despite the urging of Richards present-day supporters, the bones have not been reexamined.

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