The mystery of the princes in the tower is one of the most enduring in British history. In 1483 Edward IV died unexpectedly after a brief illness leaving his young son, Edward to succeed him as Edward V. Twelve-year-old Edward and his nine-year-old brother, Richard, ended up in the royal apartments of the Tower of London in preparation for Edward’s coronation. Their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester acted as regent and within a couple of months, the two boys had been declared illegitimate and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became King Richard III of England.
The boys were seen less and less from that point until they disappeared altogether in the summer of 1483. Thanks to Shakespeare, the prevailing theory is that Richard had the boys murdered in order to clear his way to the throne. The fact that they disappeared and no concrete evidence has ever been found to suggest that they died at the tower, murder or otherwise, gave rise to numerous contemporary pretenders and even more numerous theories that the boys had survived.
Enter: The Missing Princes Project. As the name suggests, this initiative is undertaking research in Britain and abroad in the hopes that they might discover a definitive answer as to what happened to the two boys. They’re actively pursuing over thirty leads but thanks to Tiktok and an interview in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph one of their avenues of research has become widely publicised.
Their research, led by John Dike, is centred on the tomb of one John Evans present in a relatively obscure church in Coldridge, Devon. They suggest that certain images, iconography, and engravings on the tomb and in the church at large, support the idea that Edward V survived the tower and instead lived out his life in Devon under the name of John Evans. He lived a quiet and unassuming life but left clues around his tomb in order for future generations to discern his true identity. Incidentally, this theory isn’t particularly new. As early as 1920 local historian, Beatrix Cresswell, surveyed the churches of Devon and noted how unusual it was for the tomb of John Evans to be so steeped in Yorkist imagery.
Usually, such theories are dismissed as conspiracies, and already some corners of the internet are dismissing it with all the smug superiority allowed by avatars and usernames. However, The Missing Princes Project is headed up by Philippa Langley who was once ridiculed for suggesting that Richard III’s remains could be found under a car park in Leicester. According to History, his remains had been tossed into a nearby river, and even when excavation had been secured, archaeologists offered her odds of fifty/fifty that the church would be discovered and nine to one that they’d find the grave…
So who was John Evans and what about his tomb has fascinated historians?
John Evans appears in the historical record when he arrives in Coldridge and is granted the titles of Lord of the Manor and Parker of the deer park behind St Matthew’s church. Even then, he simply appears in history in this role. There’s no record of the grants being made and no mention of a John Evans before this point. The theory goes that John Evans was the fabricated alias for Edward V hence why there’s no record of him before his sudden appearance in Devon.
When Edward V became king, at least nominally, his uncle Richard moved to secure the boy and the regency. Part of this involved arresting relatives of Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, forcing her to claim sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters for their protection. In March 1484, Richard III having already executed Woodville’s brother and son, promised publicly that he wouldn’t harm her daughters and they wouldn’t face arrest or imprisonment. With this promise secured, Woodville and her daughters left the abbey and were apparently reconciled to Richard. (Their involvement in Henry Tudor’s coup notwithstanding). Proponents of the John Evans was Edward V theory suggest that Woodville negotiated with Richard, and later Henry VII, to allow Edward to leave the tower and live quietly in Devon on lands belonging to her other son, Thomas Grey.
In 1511, two years into the reign of Henry VIII, John Evans began work building a chantry within St Matthew’s church in preparation for his eventual internment there and it’s upon his tomb that we apparently find the first indications of his supposed identity.
The shield beside the effigy’s head is the supposed first clue.
Rather than John Evans, we see ‘Joh Evas’ and while the ‘n’ from John has clearly been removed by either vandals or time, there is no such space left in ‘Evans’. ‘Evas’ is therefore deliberate and potentially a reference to EV (Edward V) AS (in sanctuary). Just beneath it, we see that someone (presumably not John) has carved the word King (though it appears upside down compared to the name on the tomb), which speaks for itself as a clue.
The effigy’s face is also tilted somewhat so instead of looking straight up, it instead gazes at the stained glass window opposite. The subject of which is [drum roll] Edward V. Regardless of whether we accept that John Evans was Edward V or not, we can appreciate that it is kind of weird to find an image of Edward V in a rural Devonshire church. There are a grand total of three depictions of Edward in stained glass. One in Canterbury cathedral, one in Little Malvern Priory (a former Benedictine Abbey), and this one in a small, parish church in Coldridge.
The presence of the window is unusual enough but theorists take it further. The ermine adorning the crown is decorated with forty-one deer which links Edward V who would have been forty-one at the time the chantry and window were commissioned, with John Evans who oversaw the deer park nearby. The same window also contains a small depiction of Evans himself.
Evans is shown carrying a crown and wearing an ermine robe, both of which were reserved quite specifically for royalty. His chin also bears a scar visible on the depiction of Edward V, also present on…
…the tomb’s effigy which itself bears a striking resemblance to the missing king.
All of this is complemented by an absolute myriad of Yorkist imagery. Another window shows the ‘sunne in splendor’ an emblem of York associated with Edward IV. The same ‘sunne’ is carved into numerous tiles around the church, and floor tiles display the white rose of York.
If John Evans was Edward V, there are at least ways it can be proven or disproven through the same DNA testing that identified the remains of Richard III. Unfortunately, the tomb itself is empty, however there is good reason to assume that Evans lies elsewhere in the church, possibly under the floor tiles. Of course, there’s always the outside chance that the royal family will consent to testing on the remains kept in Westminster Abbey that bear the name of the missing princes and tell us whether there’s a mystery to solve at all.
This is only one of the avenues being explored by The Missing Princes Project, it’s just the one that has received the most attention recently. But, as I’ve said, even if you’re of the opinion that this is all some far-fetched Da Vinci code-esque wild goose chase, we can surely appreciate just how unusual it is for so many Yorkist symbols to appear in a church as far from York as it’s possible to be in England, in an area that was mostly supportive of the Lancastrian cause, during the reign of Henry VIII when the Wars of the Roses had been long settled, and not in York’s favour.