DNA Could Finally Solve A Murder Mystery Of The English Monarchy

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London by Paul Delaroche. Public Doman/Wikimedia Commons

The English Monarchy has a centuries-old murder mystery that gives Game of Thrones a run for its money. Now, with the discovery of new genetic material, the truth behind this long-standing cold case could finally be put to bed.

Using the findings of University of Essex historian Dr John Ashdown-Hill, who died in May, researchers have discovered a crucial sample of DNA that could help to figure out whether medieval King Richard III murdered the two children of his predecessor in order to secure his place on the throne, as first reported by The Independent.

This legend-infused story is traditionally called “The Princes in the Tower". When Edward IV died unexpectedly in 1483, his eldest son, 12-year-old Edward V, was due to become king. However, his brief two-month reign was swiftly toppled and Richard III was crowned. Edward V, along with his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, was sent to heavily guarded royal lodgings in the Tower of London.

The two boys were never seen again, so the story goes. Many people, from modern historians to Shakespeare, believed that their uncle had them murdered, in case they returned to dispute his rights to the throne. Much of this could be cleared up if researchers find out where the skeletons are buried.

The traditional story dictates that the boys were buried outside of the Tower, then moved to an urn in Westminster Abbey nearly two centuries later. However, there are multiple possible sites of burial, which would indicate that the boys were not actually murdered at the Tower.

The infamous Tower of London. Alexander Chaikin/Shutterstock

Doubts of the burial site revolve around a man named Perkin Warbeck who emerged after Richard III died. He was a pretender to the English throne who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower. Confusion remains around whether this claim was complete nonsense made up by a distractor or actually legitimate. He was later hanged (supposedly) and buried in an unmarked grave in London.

As detailed in a newly published book – The Mythology of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ by Dr John Ashdown-Hill – the latest breakthrough comes in the form of DNA taken from a direct descendant of the maternal grandmother of the two princes, an English opera singer called Elizabeth Roberts.

The book argues that if the maternal DNA of Roberts matches the skeletons buried at Westminster Abbey, then the likelihood of Richard III being guilty would be considerably higher as it shows that they died near the Tower of London during his reign. If it doesn’t match Roberts, then all the more likely that the boys did not die during Richard III’s lifetime near the Tower.

However, here’s the bad news: Westminster Abbey is reluctant to agree to any testing of the two skeletons in the urn. Modern tests of the bodies at the Abbey are practically always turned down.

So, while it is not quite “case closed” just yet, this vital link of Roberts' DNA could still get Richard III off the hook – or perhaps condemn him to his villainous reputation.

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