Research reveals DNA of the ‘Princes in the Tower’

  • Date

    Wed 11 Jul 18

Sir John Everett Millais's portrait of the Princes in the Tower

An Essex historian, whose research was crucial in helping to identify the remains of Richard III, has discovered the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower.’

The discovery, by Dr John Ashdown-Hill MBE, makes it possible for the first time to prove whether bones held in Westminster Abbey are those of Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the only sons of Edward IV.

The findings of Dr Ashdown-Hill, who died in May, are revealed in The Mythology of the Princes in the Tower, published by Amberley Publishing today. He was Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Essex, and a Graduate of the Department.

The boys, nephews of Richard III, were housed in the royal apartments of the Tower of London after their father’s death in 1483. They disappeared shortly after and speculation about their fate remains rife.

Working with academic Glen Moran, of Newman University, Birmingham, and using similar techniques to those he used to discover the mtDNA of Richard III, Dr Ashdown-Hill has been able to prove that opera singer Elizabeth Roberts is an all-female line descendant of the boys, revealing their mtDNA group.

Elizabeth was traced by Glen Moran. She is a direct descendant of the boys’ aunt Margaret Woodville and is their first cousin16 times removed.

Dr John Ashdown-Hill
"It is generally believed that the boys' bones were found in the Tower of London in 1674 and were taken to Westminster Abbey where they remain. Those bones should be re-examined now."
The late Dr John Ashdown-Hill  department of history

In 2012 it was Dr Ashdown-Hill’s mtDNA discovery that proved remains found in Leicester were those of Richard III

Speaking earlier in the year Dr Ashdown-Hill explained: “It is generally believed that the boys’ bones were found at the Tower of London in 1674 and were taken to Westminster Abbey where they remain. Those bones should be re-examined now to determine whether they are those of Edward and Richard.”

Elizabeth Roberts said: “It’s extraordinary to be a part of this process of historical research. The leap from growing up in Bethnal Green to finding you’re generations away from one of the most fascinating stories in our history is not something I could ever have envisaged.”

Glen Moran said: “The discovery of the mtDNA sequence of the princes was only possible due to several years of hard work on the part of myself and John Ashdown-Hill, as well as Ronny Decortre and the team at KU Leuven. I am thrilled that it is finally being published and hope that it might now be used to identify remains suspected of being those of the princes. It could provide vital evidence in solving one of the greatest mysteries in English history!”

As part of her Missing Princes Project research initiative, Philippa Langley MBE, who led the search for Richard III in the car park in Leicester, is calling for the ‘bones in the urn’ to be investigated. 

She said: “Thanks to this remarkable new discovery we now have both sets of DNA in order to make an identification of the remains in the urn, and the science to establish their sex and antiquity.

“Modern analysis of the flawed 1933 investigation suggests that it’s highly unlikely the remains are those of the sons of King Edward IV but if we are to be the seekers of truth, it’s time to question the stories surrounding them, so that we can move our knowledge forward.

“Myth-busting is what Dr John Ashdown-Hill specialised in and thanks to him and Glen we now have the final piece in the jigsaw to come to a definitive conclusion about whether the ‘bones in the urn’ are the so-called Princes in the Tower. It’s time for the truth.”

Dr Ashdown-Hill’s book also casts doubt over the popular belief that the boys were held prisoner in the Tower and murdered by their uncle Richard III. 

He explained: “Much of their story is pure mythology. The Tower was the medieval equivalent of Buckingham Palace, and the murder story was only conceived 20 years after the boys disappeared. It is in fact an early illustration of something all governments are good at, the political rewriting of the past.”