DNA and The Princes in the Tower

The publication of Philippa Langley’s The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case has been accompanied by renewed calls, from some quarters, for the bones held in an urn in Westminster Abbey to be DNA tested to prove whether or not they are the remains of The Princes in the Tower. All previous requests have been declined, for a variety of reasons.

The Urn and its contents

Urn at Westminster Abbey containing the presumed remains of Edward V and his brother, Prince Richard Duke of York.
Urn at Westminster Abbey containing the presumed remains of Edward V and his brother, Prince Richard Duke of York. Source: Wikipedia

In 1674 a number of bones were discovered in The Tower of London. Upon inspection it was presumed that the bones were the remains of two young boys and furthermore that the remains were those of Edward V and Richard Duke of York. As a result, King Charles II ordered the remains to be interred alongside other royals within Westminster Abbey. The bones were placed into an urn, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, with the following explanatory text:

Here lie the relics of Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York. These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper; whose bones, long enquired after and wished for, after 191 years in the rubbish of the stairs (those lately leading to the Chapel of the White Tower) were on the 17th day of July 1674, by undoubted proofs discovered, being buried deep in that place. Charles II, a most compassionate prince, pitying their severe fate, ordered these unhappy Princes to be laid amongst the monuments of their predecessors, 1678, in the 30th year of his reign.

Further Information on the Urn can be found on Westminster Abbey‘s website.

1933 Examination of the remains in the Urn

In 1933 the Dean of Westminster Abbey agreed to allow the Urn to be opened and inspected. This was intended to resolve questions relating to the identity of the people whose remains had been interred within the urn.

The examinations were conducted by Lawrence E. Tanner, Keeper of the Muniments and Librarian of Westminster Abbey, and William Wright, president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. They were assisted by Dr.George Northcroft, a dental surgeon who specialised in children’s dentistry.

The Urn was opened in front of an audience of invited dignitaries. Initial findings demonstrated that further examination was warranted. This examination was then carried out by Tanner, Wright and Northcroft in a closed off parr of Westminster Abbey. [Not in laboratory conditions, which is of importance when looking at the current desire for DNA testing].

The examination concluded that the remains were those of two boys, aged around 12 and 10. This would be consistent with the ages of Edward V and Richard Duke of York at the time of their assumed murder.

Cranial vault, thought to be the remains of Edward V, one of the Princes in the Tower
Cranial vault, thought to be the remains of Edward V, one of the Princes in the Tower. Via Historic Royal Palaces.

The investigation did NOT conclude that the bones were those of the Missing Princes. That was assumed by many at the time but no such claim was made in the findings or subsequent book by Lawrence E Tanner on the case.

From Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary by L E Tanner:

“It will be noted that Prof Wright for convenience assumed that the bones were those of  ‘Edward’ and ‘Richard’.  This was perhaps unfortunate for it has led some people to suppose that we definitely identified the bone as those of the princes.  No such claim was made, and I was, in fact particularly careful in the paper which we read before the Society of Antiquaries to make no such indentification , and to adopt a cautious and ‘not proven’ attitude throughout’.

The main conclusions were:

    • Remains of two children
    • Aged approximately 12 and 10
    • Staining on skull consistent with blood stains caused by forced suffocation

Whilst these findings can be used to support a theory that the Princes in the Tower were killed in or around 1483 through suffocation, it is far from conclusive. The findings could not date the remains, so could be any period prior to their discovery. Examination of the remains was not conclusive as to the gender of the children whose remains are in the urn. That there were bloodstains has been challenged, by a historian.

In short, the 1933 investigation was inconclusive but suggestive enough for the theory that the bones are those of the Missing Princes to have been reinforced for those believing the traditional account of the boys fate.

A more detailed description of the 1933 examination of the remains in the urn can be found on the sparkypus website.


The discovery of DNA and advances in understanding of its structure and possible uses have transformed several types of study. Specific to the case of the bones held in the urn at Westminster Abbey, it provides the potential to compare the DNA of the remains with those with shared female ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA [mDNA] is transmitted from mother to child. Therefore it is potentially possible to compare that of the bones in the urn with those of living persons of the same line of female descent, or from the remains of known mDNA matches with the Missing Princes.

DNA itself was known of in 1933 but at that time there waa insufficient understanding, or technological and scientific advancement, for it to be used as a means of firmly establishing whether the Westminster Urn remains are those of Edward V and Richard Duke of York.

For a history of the discovery and development of DNA and its uses, see The University of CambridgeScience History –  PBS History.

Can the identity of the Princes in the Tower be proven through DNA? Finding DNA matches

In 2018 it was reported (and here) that John Ashdown Hill (Essex University) and Glen Moran (Newman University) had traced a mDNA living relative of the Princes in the Tower. The research into the boys living mDNA relatives was similar to that undertaken by John Ashdown Hill which enabled the remains of Richard III to be mDNA tested as part of the Finding Richard project. The genealogical research, proving that Opera Singer Elizabeth Roberts was a mDNA match, provides for the possibility of testing being conducted that could show whether or not the remains are those of the Missing Princes.

As a consequence of this research, there were calls for the urn to be opened and the relevant tests to be conducted. These have been repeated by leading Ricardians as a result of Philippa Langley’s Missing Princes project, the recently broadcast documentary and Philippa’s newly published book on the two boys fate.

To date, those requests have been declined.

In 2013, following the successful testing of the remains of King Richard III, the Dean of Westminster, after consulting the Royal Family, Government, and some academic historians, stated that:

It could not therefore differentiate between Richard III or Henry VII – or another – being the guilty party. Nor would the C/14 technique give any clue as to the age at death of the children. [Quoted in The Guardian]

As such, there were deemed to be insufficient grounds to test the remains.

The 2018 research into the boys mDNA living relative had the potential to change this view. However, the research by John Ashdown Hill and Glen Moran did not change the view of Westminster Abbey, or Crown, as a spokesperson in 2018 stated that there would be no change in policy on the remains:

for the foreseeable future [Independent, link as earlier reference]

There is some current optimism amongst those who want testing to be conducted. Not only has there been additional research into the fate of the boys but, crucially, King Charles III is believed to be supportive of mDNA testing and radiocarbon dating being undertaken: as reported in The Times and Daily Mirror newspapers. The support of King Charles III would be vital should formal requests be made for opening the urn for testing. Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar and as such any decision would require the consent of the reigning monarch.

Moral and Ethical Considerations

Disturbing any human remains, for any reason, is a morally and ethically sensitive matter. Often historic human remains are discovered as part of a broader archaeological study. Sometimes, as was the case with the remains of King Richard III, or the Romanov family in Russia, they are permitted excavations based on appraisal of the ethics and significance. In these examples of royal exhumation, one consideration was enabling a fit and proper burial. For the remains in the urn within Westminster Abbey, that is clearly not a consideration. Indeed, the opposite is a consideration. These remains have been interred in the Abbey since 1674. They have already been disturbed and returned to their resting place. Is it ethically right to disturb them again? Is it ethically or morally appropriate to conduct what would be a third examination? What would happen to these remains should mDNA show that they are not royal remains? Do you return them to the urn, in the resting place of Kings and Queens, or rebury them elsewhere? If is is proven that the remains are those of Edward V and his brother, what has been the significance of that test result? It would merely confirm something that has been the official line for hundreds of years. Which means that the significance of other aspects of examination would also need to be assessed in terms of ethics. Would testing prove the age of the boys? Could it prove the cause of death? Could it state definitively when the children perished? In simple ethical terms, the answer to those questions needs to be yes in order for the significance of discovery to be such that disturbing remains is agreeable to the relevant authorities. Would tests be so important to the nation that disturbing remains, potentially of a King, are acceptable? Or is the notion of Rest in Peace one that carries more weight? It ought also be noted that other royal remains are somewhat disputed. Does opening one lead to a clamour to open others? Is that ethically, morally, or legally justifiable?

Clearly there are diverse views on the answers to those questions. For the authorities, they will need to be convinced on all grounds before permission is granted. And answering one or two questions in a case where there are multiple unanswered questions has not, to date, been enough to make it acceptable.

As you may have gathered, human remsins are subject to law and guidancd within the United Kingdom. The British Museum has a guide on treatment of human remains in British Museums (pdf file here). The National Library of Medicine (USA) covers ethical concerns, including reference to United Kingdom legislation. Laws on exhuming bodies are complex. An explanation can be found here.

Contamination Risks: Can anything be scientifically proven?

One unknown at the moment is the degree to which the remains in the urn have been contaminated. Standard procedures revolve around minimising any form of contamination. Indeed, ensuring this is a requirement of the UK Forensic Research Authority. The practical risks are explained by Forensic Access, in relation more to non historic tests but the same applies.

This already is an impossibility as the discovery in 1674 waa hardly to modern laborarory standards, the bones were handled and moved by more than one person, and they were left on public display prior to being placed in the urn. They were then exposed to non laboratory exposure in 1933. Again with multiple people present and handled by at least three people. Whilst such handling does not neccessarily result in irrevokable contamination, it significantly raises the risk of it having happened. To apply the Crime Scene approach utilised by Phillipa Langley and Robert Rinder in their C4/PBS broadcast would face some problems as a result. It is known that a task as simple as brushing for fingerprints whilst wearing gloves can result in false results: see this paper. Alternatively, this paper studies reasons why criminal style proof cannot always be established when DNA has been contaminated.

In addition to the repeat human contact, there are environmental possibilities of contamination. The condition of the earth in which the remains were found in 1674 is unknown. But in a location such as the one in which they were found there would typically be a mix of other degrading organisms. Essentially this could have created a scenario in which DNA degrades at a far more rapid rate than it would in a more traditional Christian burial. The conditions are wholly different from those in which Richard III was discovered: his remains being found in good condition, without significant bio-chemical influences on the remains. Any such bio-chemical contamination is therefore a major concern, as it can result in testing being ineffective. Such bio-chemical contamination does not always result in identification being impossible though. The remains of Tsar Nicholas II and those executed alongside him could be identified through mDNA, despite attempts to dispose of the bodies permanently through use of chemical substances.

Research into overcoming such issues relating to ancient and medieval remains is reasonably well established. This paper illustrates the parts of the body least likely to be damaged too much. However, other research illustrates that there remain issues regarding reliability. The matter of contamination control is detailed hete: From the field to the laboratory: Controlling DNA contamination in human ancient DNA research in the high-throughput sequence. Within this paper is a discussion surrounding the problems contamination causes. Here we see a study that successfully overcame contamination issues. Further studies include a model of ancient DNA damage to estimate the proportion of present-day DNA contamination, in this paper. Examination of the advances made and remaining challenges facing scientists extracting historic DNA samples can be read here.

Ultimately the problem here is that the only actual way to know if the bones are irretrievably damaged through ageing and/ or contamination is to examine them. Which returns to the ethical and moral issues surrounding remains as it is hard to justify disturbing remains in a non criminal setting where there are doubts surrounding the likelihood of success.

Links relating to DNA and the Princes in the Tower Case

Ethics and Human Remains

Oxford Academic: The Exhumation of Civilian Victims of Conflict and Human Rights Abuses: Political, Ethical, and Theoretical Considerations.

Historic England: Science and the Dead
Destructive sampling of archaeological human remains
for scientific analysis.

DNA Analysis of the Princes in the Tower

Turi King, University of Leicester. Podcast.

The Princes in the Tower

Cambridge Core – 1934 investigation into the remains

Nathen Amin – Princes in the Tower: in defence of Henry Vii

National Portrait Gallery – images of the Princes

Matt Lewis – posts tagged as Princes in the Tower

Oxford Open Learning – Mystery of the Princes in the Tower

PBS – Overview of the contents of the November 2023 broadcast in the USA.

Revealing Richard – summary of the aims of the Missing Princes Project

Richard III Society – page on the Princes in the Tower

Wiley Online Libray – More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII.



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