Does the "Royal Window" at Canterbury Cathedral show us what Edward IV's two sons really looked like?

Obviously most of the images one sees of the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ are definitely not real portraits of them. They are merely comparatively modern inventions. However, it does tend to be assumed that genuine fifteenth-century images of Edward IV’s two sons exist on the left hand side of the ‘Royal’ stained glass window, on the north wall of the northwest transept at Canterbury Cathedral. Indeed, one of those images is thought to be the only surviving fifteenth-century image of Richard of Shrewsbury (though there are other fifteenth-century images of Edward V).

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In its original form the ‘Royal Window’ probably dated from about 1480. But unfortunately the window was smashed in the seventeenth century. It ‘was mostly destroyed on December 13th, 1643 by a minister wielding a pike “on the top of the citie ladder, near sixty steps high” ’.{1} The surviving strip of stained glass which depicts Edward IV and his family ‘was originally at the bottom of the window but was moved to its present central position in the late 18th century when much of the glass in the cathedral was re-ordered’. {2} This is the image of Edward IV’s younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York as it exists today.

It was a puritan who destroyed the ‘Royal Window’ during the Civil War. His name was Richard Culmer. {3} ‘In 1644, in Cathedrall newes from Canterbury, the iconoclast Richard Culmer described with relish the cleansing of the cathedral that took place in December 1643. … The history of the restoration of the cathedral’s glazing is a complicated and badly documented one. Glass was being restored, moved and replaced from the 1660s, and in the early nineteenth century a systematic restoration campaign began which continued until 1952 and which was at times aggressive. Old glass was cut, repainted and reused for different parts of the cathedral and original panels were removed and replaced with modern replicas’.{4}

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It is clear from the glass we see today in the ‘Royal Window’ that the depictions of Edward IV and Elizabeth Widville comprise restored versions of their original images, which have been moved to a higher position in the window frame. As we can see in the case of Edward IV, although his face had obviously been broken in 1643, the pieces survived. Thus the glass which depicts him today is still his original (repaired) image. However, the depictions of some of Edward IV’s children are definitely not original. For example the Canterbury image of Cecily of York, kneeling on the right hand side between her sisters Elizabeth and Anne, is known to be a modern replica, because the original stained glass image of Cecily is no longer at the cathedral. It now forms part of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

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It is also obvious that the depictions of Edward and Elizabeth’s two sons are modern ‘restorations’. First, their faces are formed of modern glass. That can clearly be seen in the ‘portrait’ of Richard of Shrewsbury (above). Second, the ‘princes’ are both depicted wearing bizarre crowns. They are closed crowns - which would normally be worn by reigning monarchs, not by princes. Also the crowns appear to be eighteenth-century in style, not medieval. For example, the crown which is now shown on the head of young Richard is very similar to this German crown which was made in 1807.

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However, a surviving depiction of Edward V’s crown (on a genuine fifteenth-century image of him which survives in Devon) is quite different from the crowns worn by Edward and Richard in the restored Canterbury stained glass window. Significantly, the fifteenth-century Devon window depicts Edward V wearing an open crown – the style of crown which would normally have been considered suitable for a prince.

In other words the Canterbury ‘Royal window’ depictions of the two sons of Edward IV as we see them today are simply later inventions in terms of their faces, their hair and their crowns. Thus they offer us no authentic information as to what the two boys may have looked like.


{1} (consulted November 2017).

{2} (consulted November 2017).

{3} (consulted November 2017).

{4} (consulted November 2017)

The Private Life of Edward IV

I seem to have become celebrated as ‘a historian with a special talent for getting behind the mythology of history’. My work in this direction began as a result of my interest in the case of King Richard III. Later, I also explored the wider mythology which surrounds the Wars of the Roses.

But the key feature of my initial research into all the legends surrounding King Richard III focused on his claim to the throne. This claim was clearly based upon the allegation that his elder brother, King Edward IV, had committed bigamy, making his sons, the so-called “princes in the Tower”, royal bastards. In a sense, my research into the private life of Edward IV was therefore always inevitable.

Read more ...

New evidence: The bones of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ show no relationship to Richard III

Press Release for The Secret Queen by The History Press

Dr Ashdown-Hill, a leading expert on Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, and a key member of Philippa Langley’s Looking For Richard Project that discovered Richard III in a car park in Leicester, has today revealed that the ‘bones in the urn’ in Westminster Abbey, believed for centuries by traditional historians to be those of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, apparently have no blood relationship to King Richard III.

This discovery, which throws into question the identity of the ‘bones in the urn’, is revealed for the first-time in Dr Ashdown-Hill’s highly acclaimed work, The Secret Queen: Eleanor Talbot, the Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne, in a new and updated paperback edition published in July by The History Press.

The ‘Princes in the Tower’ were the nephews of King Richard III
(1483-85) who vanished during his reign.

With no evidence of any murder, their disappearance ignited one of our greatest unsolved historical mysteries.

The remarkable finding is part of Dr Ashdown-Hill’s continuing investigation into the mythology surrounding Richard III and came about through his analysis of the medieval monarch’s dental record. 

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     X-ray evidence of skull from Norwich (possibly Talbot) with congenital missing tooth

X-ray evidence of skull from Norwich (possibly Talbot) with congenital missing tooth

The dental record reveals that Richard III had no congenitally missing teeth, in sharp contrast to the ‘bones in the urn’, where both skulls are said to present this genetic anomaly.

Previously it has been argued that this feature provided strong evidence of the royal identity of the ‘bones in the urn’.

It was claimed that the ‘Princes’ inherited their missing teeth from their grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York.

But Dr Ashdown-Hill’s latest discovery strongly suggests that the ‘bones in the urn’ are not related to Cecily’s son, Richard III, who was a first degree relative of the ‘Princes’. 

Scientific studies of hypodontia (congenitally missing teeth) have further suggested that the anomaly is relatively rare, being present in less than 5% of the population, and is slightly more prevalent in the female population.

This discovery adds further weight to the many questions now surrounding the identity of the ‘bones in the urn’, and raises the possibility that the remains may even be those of as yet unidentified females.

In 1674, the bones were discovered at the Tower of London by workmen digging ten feet below the stairs that led from the Royal Apartments to the White Tower.

Four years later, they were reburied in the urn in Westminster Abbey by Charles II who had been persuaded to accept that the remains were the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

The story of a stair burial for the ‘Princes’ had been proposed in the 16th century by Thomas More. However, in his account, now generally discredited by academia as a dramatic narrative, More went on to say that the bodies were removed from the stair burial and taken elsewhere.

What caused the four-year delay in the reburial of the bones in Westminster during the reign of Charles II, where the bones were kept during this time, and if they are indeed the same bones that were discovered in 1674 by the workmen, is also not known.

Dr Ashdown-Hill states,

This newly-revealed dental evidence is another remarkable discovery from the results of the Looking For Richard Project. Modern scientific analysis applied to the flawed 1933 investigation of the ‘bones in the urn’ has revealed that the sex and historical period of death of the remains is unknown. My latest discovery now casts doubts on the dental claims put forward in 1934, 1965 and 1987. Nor can we be sure that there are just two sets of bones within the urn. It used to be thought that there were two sets of bones in the Clarence vault at Tewkesbury Abbey, where Richard III’s brother was buried. But when I had those remains re-examined in 2013 it emerged that there were three or possibly four individuals present – information published by The History Press in my book The Third Plantagenet. The only way we will ever truly be able to answer all the questions about the ‘bones in the urn’ is, of course, either by further archival discoveries, or scientific analysis.

He also states,

I’m very excited about this new, updated edition of my work on Eleanor Talbot, published by The History Press. The book includes a remarkable new facial reconstruction of Eleanor’s putative remains, produced by experts at the University of Dundee. It also contains important new dental evidence in respect of Eleanor’s putative remains, provides evidence of when and where she could have married Edward IV, and offers two new theories for what may have caused her early demise.  

Philippa Langley of the Looking For Richard Project states,

By discovering Richard III, the Looking For Richard Project succeeded in demolishing so many of the myths surrounding this much maligned monarch. We dared to question where others merely repeated. Indeed, by questioning the age-old story of the ‘bones in the river’ we succeeded in finding the king. Now it’s been revealed that the remains we found in Leicester question the received wisdom and dogma surrounding the disappearance of the sons of Edward IV. This exciting new discovery by Dr Ashdown-Hill is another step forward in our quest for knowledge, so that one day we may be able to uncover the truth about one of our most enduring historical mysteries. The search continues.

John Ashdown-Hill is a freelance historian and a bestselling author with a PhD in history. He regularly presents his research, and has achieved an excellent reputation in late medieval history. A Channel Four TV documentary was partially based upon Ashdown-Hill’s DNA research in The Last Days of Richard III. In 2015, Philippa Langley and Dr Ashdown-Hill were awarded MBEs by HM The Queen for their work in the discovery and identification of Richard III.

Published Works

  • The Secret Queen: Eleanor, the Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne (The History Press, 2009, 2010, updated new edition in2016)
  • The Dublin King: The True Story of Edward, Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel, and the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (The History Press, 2015)
  • The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley, 2015)
  • The Wars of the Roses (Amberley, 2015)
  • The Third Plantagenet: George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III’s Brother  (The History Press, 2014)
  • The Last Days of Richard III (The History Press, 2010, 2011, second updated edition 2013)
  • Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts & Concubines, Bigamists & Bastards (The History Press, 2013)
  • Richard III’s ‘Beloved Cousyn’: John Howard and the House of York (The History Press, 2009)
  • Mediaeval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks (Breedon Books, 2009)