By DAVID HORSPOOL
Among the many mysteries about the disappearance of the "Princes in the Tower" in or around 1484 is that they turned up again. Well, their remains did, in 1674, dug up by workers at the Tower of London and reinterred four years later, with the permission of Charles II, in Westminster Abbey, where their urn can be seen to this day. The mystery in this case is not that quite a few people doubt that these bones were those of the princes (Edward V and his younger brother, Richard Duke of York), but that so few people seem aware of the discovery at all. Perhaps that is because, unlike the man who is still widely believed to have ordered their murder, Richard III, their remains were reinterred with very little fuss.
Now, the man who began the process of genetic and historical detective work that eventually led to the rediscovery of Richard's penultimate resting place, Dr John Ashdown-Hill, has claimed that the bones in the urn "show no relationship to Richard III". Dental analysis of the bones carried out in the 1980s (from photographs taken when they were inspected in the 1930s) showed that both had congenitally missing teeth, whereas new analysis of Richard's teeth shows no such defect. Because this "hypodontia" is relatively rare, it has previously been calculated that (to quote the article by Theya Molleson from 1987), "a relative is eight times as likely also to have hypodontia as the general population; that is, at least one in three relatives also has hypodontia". If you've followed me this far, you may have noticed that the "proof" is therefore of the absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence type. That is, Richard had a full set of gnashers, the children's remains didn't, so chances are they weren't related. Of course, they could have been, as two out of three relatives statistically don't share hypodontia.
In fairness to Dr Ashdown-Hill, the press release about the new edition of his book (on Edward IV's putative secret wife, Eleanor Talbot) probably overstates his own position, in the ordinary way of publicity machines. The real frustration for any researcher is that Westminster Abbey (and the Queen) have not been inclined to give permission for the urn's contents to be re-examined under modern conditions. But even if they were, what could really be established? If there was DNA available, perhaps their identity, but almost certainly not how they died, and very certainly not at whose hand. This, then, is the ultimate frustration for "Ricardian" defenders of Richard III's reputation, despite the extraordinary discovery of his bones in Leicester: they really can't answer the questions everyone asks about the king. Did he do it? Historians have tended to agree that he did, but the truth is, nobody knows, or is likely to – and that doesn't make for very good headlines.