As the driver manoeuvred the bucket of his mechanical digger into the rubble he immediately realised that something was wrong. The boom of the digger lurched forward, as the resistance offered by brick, mortar and solid London clay suddenly gave way to air. Not fresh air though – the workmen had uncovered a vault which had lain undisturbed since the time of Henry VIII.
It was the sort of diversion the demolition company dreaded, as they rushed to clear derelict buildings in Stepney. The site was prime building land, just outside the old walls of the City of London, and work would now have to come to a halt as the architects inspected the site. But as they made their way down into the cellar, on that December day in 1964, things were about to get a lot grislier, and a lot more interesting. The workmen had found the long-lost body of Anne Mowbray – child bride of Prince Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower of London nearly 500 years before.
Anne, both daughter and heir to the Duke of Norfolk, was married to Richard Shrewsbury on 15 January, 1478. The wedding, at St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, was a lavish riot of gold and azure, with guests including Edward IV and most of his court. Nothing unusual there, as Richard was the King’s second son and Anne was in line to inherit one of the great estates of England. But she was just five years old, while her new husband was only four.
The union was just one of the madnesses of one of the bloodiest periods in English history – as rival houses fought for the throne, and kings changed thrones with dizzying frequency. The wedding was a canny financial transaction for Edward IV – effectively selling a stake in the monarchy one of his friendlier nobles, and the Duke of Norfolk was far richer than he. It gave Norfolk, without a male heir, security, while Edward hoped the marriage would quash any quibbles about the succession after his own death.
But in medieval London life could be short. Anne died in 1481, aged just eight. The King, unwilling to give up what he had gained, swiftly passed a law allowing his son to inherit all her wealth and lands on the death of Norfolk. Norfolk acquiesced, fleecing his own relatives of their rightful inheritance. Anne’s cousins, Viscount Berkeley and Lord Howard, were furious. The swiftly concocted law even had a clause so that should the boy Richard die, the estate would revert to the King. Berkeley was bought off, with the King paying his debts; Howard was left with nothing.
On 9 April 1483 Edward IV died suddenly, but he might have died happy in the belief that he had secured the peace for which he fought so hard. He had two sons: 12-year-old Edward now became Edward V; his little brother Richard (already a widower at nine) would become Richard III should anything happen to his sibling; and to safeguard the pair, Edward IV had named his own brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector.
But the boy king only enjoyed two months on the throne. Richard threw his nephews into the Tower of London and declared the marriage of Edward IV and wife Elizabeth, invalid. Thus the princes became illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. So Gloucester became Richard III, swiftly restoring at least part of the plundered legacy to Lord Howard, and after August 1483, the boys were never seen again, but were supposedly smothered in the Tower. Richard’s reign, meanwhile, was brief and unhappy, and plagued by rebellions. He became the last English King to die in battle, falling at Bosworth Field in 1485. The Plantagenet rule was over, and Henry Tudor took the throne.
For more than 500 years historians and dramatists have debated and imagined who killed the princes, though it’s hard to see past wicked uncle Richard as the culprit. As to the bodies? In 1674, workmen rebuilding a staircase at the Tower discovered hidden bones and these were placed in Westminster Abbey, in an urn confidently emblazoned with the boys’ names. In 1789, workmen carry accidentally broke into the vault of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and found an adjoining vault, with the coffins of two unidentified children.
The whereabouts of Anne seemed as much a mystery as that of her husband. But experts from the London Museum (today a part of the Museum of London) quickly put two and two together as they inspected the Stepney cellar. They knew that Anne had been buried in a lead coffin in the Chapel of St Erasmus in Westminster Abbey, but that her casket had been moved when the chapel was demolished in 1502.
Anne’s remains had then been carefully removed to a vault under the Abbey of the Minoresses (close to the modern Minories at the western edge of Tower Hamlets and hard by the old City wall). It was an order with connections to the princess’s father in law. In 1481, Edward IV had granted valuable licences to the abbey, which then lay in the Middlesex countryside but would soon be swallowed by the growing sprawl of London – the modern East End.
Her famously red hair was still on her skull, while her funeral shroud was still intact. For nearly 500 years, the child princess had lain undisturbed beneath the busy East End streets.