Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Myth busting series: Did Edward V have a diseased jaw?

In 1674, workers at the Tower of London exposed bones of two children in a pit ten feet deep under a stairwell that was part of the White Tower. About four days after the bones were found, Charles II, then king of England, declared these bones were those of the princes and placed in an urn in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey after giving them a funeral. In 1933 Professor Wright examined the bones and concluded the lower jaw of the older child was diseased. If Edward V had a diseased or infected jaw, then this finding would strengthen the theory that the bones belonged to the princes. But did he?

I could find no specific mention of Edward V having had a diseased jaw or having serious health problems in searching through contemporary documentation. The one mention I did find is from Mancini’s Usurpation: “...the young king, Edward V, felt himself to be awaiting death in the Tower.” Mancini mentions Argentine (Edward V’s physician) by name but doesn’t claim to have received this information directly from Argentine.

Edward may well have feared for his life since the important members of his entourage (Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan) had been arrested, held for treason and later executed.

The next account is found in More’s History of King Richard the Third (not contemporary, but he did have access to people who were Richard III’s contemporaries). The dowager Queen, Elizabeth protested that the younger prince “...nedeth good loking to, hath a while ben so sore diseased vexed with sicknes, and is so newly rather a lyttle amended then well recouered...” While this is hearsay, she may well have protested in this manner in an attempt to keep Richard of York with her in sanctuary rather than give him up to their uncle. In any case, even More’s account doesn’t say that Edward was ill.

Another factor may be from the excavation and examination of bones from a cousin, Anne Mowbray. The bones showed she had a rare congenital absence of both left second molars. According the to the 1965 article on Anne Mowbray’s teeth, the older of the tower bones shows the distal maxillary premolars had failed to develop and the younger of the bones had a suppressed second milk molar.

In the absence of DNA evidence that would match the bones’ DNA to Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, and facial reconstruction using the skulls and then seeing if either skull matches up with portraits of Edward V, this, for me, is the most convincing argument that the bones could be those of the princes.


C. A. J. Armstrong, ed., The Usurpation of Richard III, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1936.

Bertram Fields, Royal Blood, New York, ReganBooks, 2000.

Thomas More, The History of King Richard the Third, online at University of Oregon, read here.

Article on Anne Mowbray’s teeth from Br Med J, v.2(5477); Dec 25, 1965, link to PDF excerpt.


  1. Mancini also notes that Edward devoted himself to horses and dogs at Ludlow, which doesn't sound like the activities of a sickly boy. Nor do the accounts that he and his brother were seen practicing archery before their disappearance.

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that what the examiners took to be signs of a diseased jaw could have been caused by some other phenomenon not associated with disease, but I can't remember the details. Wish the queen would give her leave for the bones to be subjected to modern testing!

  2. Susan, I suppose Edward could have had an abscessed tooth, but surely the doctors/dentists of the day knew enough to pull it. Though, if that had been the case, one would have expected it to have been noted somewhere--expenses or whatnot.

    I'm thinking the only way to get the queen to agree to DNA testing (especially since Edward and Elizabeth's DNA would also have to be tested to get valid results) would be to come up with a theory that sufficiently challenges the bones are those of the princes. That's one reason why I'd like to "bust" this idea that Edward V's jaw was diseased. Would it be enough for the queen to allow the testing--who knows?

    Another thing that piques my interest would be to use the latest technology to scan the skulls and reconstruct the faces. Then the images could be compared to portraits of Edward V to see if there are enough points that match. I don't know for a fact, but I think the technology might be at the point where the bones don't have to be physically touched. I also think this approach has two additional advantages over DNA testing: the parent's bones don't have to be touched and the odds of getting Y-DNA is much smaller than mtDNA. An mtDNA match wouldn't be sufficient to prove the bones are those of the princes, only that they could not be. The mtDNA is passed down from the maternal line intact so a child's mtDNA is identical to the mother's, grandmother's, to eventually "Eve". There are a small number of mtDNA clans world wide that follow geographical lines, and there are only seven in Europe. As it happens, if both your and my maternal lines are from the same geography, there's a fairly high probability that we would have the same mtDNA even though we're not related.

    But yeah, I also wish the queen would give her leave for some testing.

  3. Since Michelle Obama and the queen seem to get on so well, maybe someone could lobby Mrs. Obama to bring up the subject! Maybe someone should send her a subscription to the Ricardian.

    By the way, last night I dreamed that I got a box of copies of Good King Richard. I'm pathetic.

  4. So now to let Michelle Obama know that we exist. *haha*

  5. While I'd like to say this myth is busted because of the lack of contemporary documentation that Edward V was sickly in anyway and because it's not logical for the boys to have been buried ten feet beneath the White Tower stairwell because that would have taken a Herculean effort that could hardly have been done in secret; I can't dismiss the congenital tooth theory without eliminating the bones through DNA and facial reconstruction.

    So, the jury's still out on this one.

  6. Hi Joan - Thanks for the advice. I don't have a Google account so I've opted for Anonymous. Let's hope it works! I thought you'd be pleased to know the congenital tooth theory has long been busted - see chapter 10 of "Richard III: The Maligned King" where numerous scientific articles and theories trying to prove something about the identity of the bones (every single one I could find) are examined and shown to be nothing better than inconclusive. A very good article on the bones appears in "Richard III: Loyalty, Lordship and Law" (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1986, ed. P.W. Hammond), but of course research has moved on in the past 20 years. Regarding the diseased jaw found in the urn, Tanner's photo of the actual jawbone is reproduced on page 187 of "The Maligned King", from which it is apparent that the owner certainly suffered from a chronic disease of the lower jaw on both the left and the right side, and I've cited various expert opinions on this. Plus around pages 189-91 you'll find an examination and rejection of the theory that Edward V was in any way sick. It amazed me that Michael Hicks never addressed this matter in his rather scanty biography of Edward V, but I suspect it would have taken too much actual crunchy research - I find he prefers to declaim loftily from a great height, while I prefer to poke around in old records .... Regards, Annette

  7. Welcome Annette! I'm so glad I was able to give you a way to comment.

    I have wanted to get a copy of Richard III: The Maligned King--you've just moved it to the top of my must buy list.

    I feel safe now in declaring the myth BUSTED. Woohoo!!!

  8. Hi again - I believe there is still merit in keeping eyes open for any records that might indicate Edward V's state of health, for the interesting reason that he was virtually written out of the equation as early as the 15th century. Despite recent suggestions that 'Lambert Simnel' might have been Edward in some kind of disguise, there was no pretender who actually claimed to be the elder brother, a point that Sir George Buck picked up and ran with, surmising that he was sickly and probably died of natural causes. So the idea of Edward's health being questionable was proposed long before the diseased jawbone was examined.

    One problem with Buck's theory is that it was based on the idea that Edward IV's children were congenitally delicate, on the grounds that none of them lived long lives. Unfortunately there is no reliable contemporaneous evidence to support this theory, and I suggest that the substantial age to which Arthur Wayte/Plantagenet lived actually disproves it (despite the inevitable controversy surrounding his date of birth). Still, one has to keep an open mind, so we need to carry on digging.

    What I think is well and truly busted is that the diseased jawbone in the urn, for which the prevalent diagnosis is either osteosis or osteomyelitis, belonged to Edward V.

    I know absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, but when you are looking at the Prince of Wales having a chronic and painful disease of the jaw lasting some years, it beggars belief that no one mentioned it - least of all Mancini who is believed to have got his description of Edward V directly from Edward's physician, Dr Argentine. The state of health of the deposed king would have been crucial intelligence to include in his report to his patron, especially since osteomyelitis (infection of the bone marrow) could well prove fatal, and my sources tell me it's unlikely any physician of the time would have known whether the sufferer had it already or was going to develop it.

    Reconstruction of the face belonging to the skull would be a great achievement, but will have to wait until HM gives her permission for the urn to be opened again (personally I would wish science to have developed more reliable techniques of dating, sexing, etc, before this happens). However, I don't see any reason why someone skilled in reconstruction techniques shouldn't have a try at reconstructing the lower jaw from the existing photographic record. I'm sure Lawrence Tanner took plenty of photographic views of the jaw and dentition which are still filed away somewhere, and all it would take would be an application to make copies so that the possibility of reconstruction could be examined. This is something I've suggested and I hope may be followed up, perhaps even by myself as I have to be in London later this year. It's a long shot, but worth trying I think.
    Regards, Annette

  9. Annette,

    I agree that this blog entry is only a cursory look at the "mystery" and it needs further examination. I like to tweak the preconceptions to see what sticks and what doesn't. Perhaps this and the other "myths" could form the basis for some real research.

    I think it would definitely be worth doing a computer facial reconstruction using the photos, especially if the photos have a scale included, barring access to the bones themselves for more accurate testing, including comparing their DNA to the putative parents--so both Elizabeth and Edward IV's bones would have to be released too. Someone suggested (I think Anne Gilbert) that who ever does the reconstruction not know who the person is supposed to be.

    I'm going to be in England the end of August and will be spending the last few days near or in London. Maybe we can meet up if that coincides with your plans?

  10. Great idea - Let's check diaries and availability nearer the time! I'll be in London from 27 August to 12 September, but have a lot to squeeze in, including a visit to Strasbourg and hooking up with friends and relatives as well as a bit of research. I'll let you know what progress I make with the Tanner archives (I've got a friend looking into it). If that jaw could be shown to have been really disfigured, I think the idea that it might be Edward V would be blown out of the water.
    Regards, Annette

  11. It would be interesting for the author of this article to comment now that the bones of Richard III have been found. As the paternal uncle of the Princes of the Tower, Richard, himself, could supply the necessary DNA to prove the identity of any suspected remains. Personally, I think that if Edward had been injured in any way shortly before he went into the tower, perhaps through a struggle, then he could have died rapidly due to any infection of the wound. And especially if he had any tendency to Diabetes, something surmised in Edward IV's rapid death and in his grandson Henry VIII's later ill health. There is a distinct resemblance between these two men.