Was Britain’s oldest missing persons case actually solved seven years after it happened? According to some historians—yes.
If you’re a Tudor history aficionado, you’ve probably heard the name ‘Perkin Warbeck’. This was a man who turned up in 1490 saying he had a better claim to the English throne than the man currently sat on it—Henry VII, the first Tudor king. And why was his claim better? Because Warbeck said his real name was Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. And Richard of Shrewsbury was the younger of the Princes in the Tower—one of Britain’s most famous missing persons cases.
Seven years earlier, in 1483, twelve-year-old Edward V and nine-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury—sons of the recently deceased Edward IV—were sent to the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Edward V was to be the new king, while their uncle was supposed to be Lord Protector of the Realm until Edward V came of age.
Richard of Gloucester supposedly sent the princes to the Tower for their protection. Not long after, though, he had them both declared illegitimate and seized the throne for himself as Richard III.
Then the princes vanished. It’s widely believed that they were murdered because they were a threat to Richard III’s power. But what actually happened to them remains unclear to this day.
Or does it?
The young prince returns
In 1490, a young man called Perkin Warbeck showed up at the court of Burgundy claiming to be the escaped younger prince. His story of what really happened in the summer of 1483 went as follows. His brother, Edward V, was murdered by unknown assailants, but the assailants spared Richard because of his age and innocence and insisted he swear an oath not to reveal his true identity for several years.
Because of the uncertainty of what had happened to the Princes in the Tower, Perkin Warbeck became a significant threat to the newly established Tudor dynasty. He gained support in mainland Europe and was even recognised as King Richard IV of England when he attended the funeral of Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor. With the backing of small armies he made two landings in England but was ultimately captured at Beaulieu Abbey, where he surrendered.
After his surrender, Warbeck confessed to being an imposter and a Flemish man from Tournai. Most historians considered the confession to be only partially true because it was obtained under duress. But there are some historians who believe that none of it was true and that Perkin Warbeck really was Prince Richard and the rightful heir.
Pretender or the real deal?
Lending credence to the theory that Warbeck was the real deal is how well he was treated after he was captured. You’d think he’d be immediately executed. He wasn’t. He was allowed to live under partial house arrest at Henry’s court and was even allowed to be present at royal banquets.
Henry VII’s reluctance to execute Warbeck is only really understandable if Warbeck was Prince Richard. That’s because Henry was married to Elizabeth of York, the prince’s sister, who wouldn’t have wanted to see her brother killed unless it was absolutely necessary.
In the end, it was. After 18 months at court, Warbeck escaped and had to be recaptured. After being sent to the Tower, he escaped again. This time Henry decided he was too dangerous to be left alive and had him hanged in 1499. Warbeck was buried at Dutch Church in Austin Friars, London.
One of the most famous advocates of the theory that Perkin Warbeck genuinely was the younger prince is historical novelist Philippa Gregory. In her book, The White Queen, the princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, sends the real Prince Richard to Flanders to be raised in secret under an assumed name. Meanwhile a page boy posing as Richard is sent to the Tower to be with his brother, where they both vanish and are presumed murdered. Then, in a follow-up novel, The White Princess, a man shows up claiming to be Richard. Henry VII invents an elaborate false backstory for the man—including the name Perkin Warbeck—to justify denying all his claims. While it’s left ambiguous in the novel whether Warbeck really was Prince Richard, Gregory states in the epilogue that she believes Warbeck’s claim was genuine.
Could DNA have the answers?
In 2018, geneticists obtained a DNA sample from a recently identified direct descendent of the Princes in the Tower’s maternal grandmother. There are now calls to compare this DNA to the remains of Perkin Warbeck buried at Dutch Church. If experts were to find a match, it would prove that Warbeck really was Prince Richard, meaning that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower would finally be solved (okay, not completely—their disappearance would be solved, but who murdered the elder brother, Edward V, would remain unclear).
Until and perhaps even after such tests are carried out, big questions will continue hang over this age-old missing persons case, attracting the attention of historians and capturing the imagination of writers. As it did me. What happened to the Princes in the Tower is at the heart of my new novel, Million Eyes, which is part-historical fiction, part-science fiction, part-conspiracy thriller. Million Eyes asks the question—what if time travel was involved in the princes’ disappearance?
And while it may not be the first work of fiction to suggest that the boys may have travelled in time, it’s the first to link their disappearance to the shooting of King William II five centuries earlier and the car crash that killed Princess Diana five centuries after…
Million Eyes is published by Elsewhen Press and is available now in ebook formats. It comes out as a paperback on March 9th. Northern Reader called it “a skilful and carefully constructed novel with much to offer for historical fiction fans”. Grab a copy here: http://bit.ly/Million-Eyes.
Next month: Princess Diana and the ‘mahogany box’