Interior view of the Henry VII Chapel by Giovanni Canaletto. Henry’s tomb can be seen in the distance with the chapel housing the urn to the left.
Lawrence E Tanner Keeper of the Muniments (1926-66) Librarian, Westminster Abbey
Who could blame anyone, after reading Tanner and Wright’s report of their investigation into the infamous bones in the urn in the Henry Vll Chapel in Westminster Abbey, for concluding that both the gentleman may have believed the bones in the urn were, indeed, those of Edward’s IVs sons, Edward Prince of Wales and Richard of Shrewsbury. Tanner was Keeper of the Muniments and Librarian of Westminster Abbey while Wright was a distinguished anatomist and president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Wright was assisted thoughout the investigation by Dr George Northcroft, a dental surgeon of wide experience especially in the dentition of children.
Tanner explains in his book – Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary – that in July, 1933, in an attempt to solve the questions and allegations that the urn was either empty or contained animal bones and not human bones, the then Dean of Westminster, Dr Foxley Norris, although not without considerable hesitation, determined to have the urn opened. This was done on the evening of 5 July by the Clerk of the Works and the urn then covered with a white tablecloth until the next day. At 9 a.m. on July 6 1933 , with various dignitaries present, the cloth was removed, and voila!, the urn was to be seen full of bones. On the examination commencing ‘it soon became apparent that these bones were those of two children of about the right age for the Princes. Parts of two skulls, two jawbones, two thigh bones were seen to be there and the thigh bones when placed side by side, demonstrated that one was longer than the other'(1). It was then decided that the matter ought to be pursued further and the chapel was closed so that Prof Wright, aided by Dr Northcroft, could work there undisturbed. Lawrence Tanner was entrusted with the ‘historical’ side of the investigation, that of determining the ages of the ‘princes’.
The infamous Urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren to contain the bones of the two children
It would seem that Prof Wright was on something of a roll, as they, say, concluding that from the evidence he saw, the bones were those of children of the same age as the princes and, besides that, he had ‘no doubt’ that the red/brown stain on the face of elder child ‘was a blood stain such as would have been caused by suffocation, which is well known to be associated with intense congestion of the face…which of course corresponds to the traditional account of the murders (2). Before long Prof Wright is addressing the bones as Edward and Richard! He opined ‘As to what happened after their death no-one can say, but I imagine that when placed in the elm chest in which they were found, Edward lay at the bottom on his back with a slight tilt to the left, that Richard lay above him face to face, and that when the chest was discovered in the 17th century the workmen broke into it from above and near its middle. I am led to these conclusions from the fact that there was far more of Edward’s skeleton present than that of Richard’s, since presumably lying deeper it was less disturbed…ribs..no less than six have been found, and that of these, three were of the left side and belonged to Edward and three of the right side belonged to Richard…and that similarly only the left clavicle of Edward and the right clavicle of Richard were present, strongly suggesting that the left shoulder of Edward had been in close contact with the right shoulder of Richard…’ …need I go on?
Skulls of the two children in the Urn..
Lower jaw of the younger child Lower jaw of the older child
Later, in his book, Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary, Tanner wrote:
“It will be noted that Prof Wright for convenience assumed that the bones were those of ‘Edward’ and ‘Richard’. This was perhaps unfortunate for it has led some people to suppose that we definitely identified the bone as those of the princes. No such claim was made, and I was, in fact particularly careful in the paper which we read before the Society of Antiquaries to make no such indentification , and to adopt a cautious and ‘not proven’ attitude throughout’.
Furthermore Tanner, who lived to the ripe old age of 80, and whose ashes are buried in the lower Islip chapel, Westminster Abbey, lived long enough to read Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard and the conclusions drawn by that author, that he had ascertained the opinions of various professionals and that a) it was not possible to determine the sex of either child and b) that the stain on the skull was not a bloodstain. Tanner, who was not without a sense of humour, seems to have kept an open mind on the whole, although it does seem to have been mostly a toss up between Richard or Henry Tudor being the murderer..if there was one. He quotes his friend, Geoffrey H White, who summed it all up rather nicely when he remarked “that a strong case can be made out for either view if the arguments on the other side are ignored”.
I would love to know what Tanner would have thought if he had survived long enough, he died in 1979, to read Helen Maurer’s excellent article “Whodunit: The Suspects in the Case” written in 1983, in which she made the comment in her notes:
“As for why the bones should have been discovered more or less where More said they would be, it might be profitable, in the interests of leaving no stone unturned, to forget about Richard, Henry and the last 15th century for the time being and concentrate upon Charles II and the political pressure and perceived necessities of the 1670s. Any takers?”.
Anyone interested in going on to find out what Maurer’s thoughts on this matter were, can find them in her follow up article “Bones in the Tower Part 2” I’m sure this marvellous and remarkable gentleman would have been very, very intrigued.
(1) Lawrence Tanner Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary p153.
(2) Lawrence Tanner Recollections of a Westminster Antiquary p156