October 18, 2020

The Mystery of The Woman Buried Beside King Richard III in A Lead Coffin

At the medieval burial site of England’s King Richard III, archeologists made a startling discovery. Near to where the king was buried, there was another coffin, which initially puzzled excavators. 

What they found is essentially a coffin within a coffin. The outer sarcophagus was made of stone, while the remains on the inside were encased in lead. 

At first, excavators thought the remains inside the lead coffin were probably of a knight, or a benefactor of the Church. Upon further testing, it was later revealed that the remains inside the lead coffin were of an older female. 

King Richard III’s Burial 

After suffering defeat at the infamous battle of Bosworth in 1485, King Richard III was cut down and subsequently became the last king of the House of York. The end of his reign, also marked the end of the middle ages in England.

King Richard III had met a brutal death. Scientists studied the skeleton after exhumation, and found 11 injuries which had been sustained around the time of death – 9 of these were inflicted on the skull. 

King Richard III Leaving for Battle of Bosworth 1485

After death his body was initially subject to humiliation – having been stripped of his armour, and thrown across the back of a horse naked, before being taken to Leicester and paraded on public display. Wounds to the back and buttock were probably added later as a final act of humiliation.

King Richard III’s original tomb at the church of the Greyfriars, a 13th-Century monastic friary, is thought to have been destroyed amid the English Reformation, and the remains of the king were lost for more than five centuries. 

While the structure of the monastery may have been destroyed during the reformation however, the underground foundations remained remarkably intact. 

Due to a more recent discovery, King Richard III also became known as the “car park king”.

Discovering the Lead Coffin 

In 2012, an archaeological excavation was underway in a city council car park in Leicester. Researchers believed that they had pinpointed the location at which the church of the Greyfriars once stood. 

Amid the excavations, archaeologists made startling discoveries. They unearthed the burials of four women, alongside male remains which were later confirmed to be the long lost king. There were a total of 10 graves on site, but the other five were left undisturbed.

The discovery of the four female burials was odd, as archaeologists were expecting to find the remains of male friars. 

Despite the surprise of the gender of the remains, the excavation team noted a peculiar grave that held a lead coffin. 

The 5mm-thick lead coffin was inlaid with a crucifix, and it seemed to be an elaborate burial fit for someone of noble status. 

At first, the archeology team thought they had uncovered the burial of one of the Greyfriars founders, such as Peter Swynsfeld (who died in 1272), or William of Nottingham (who died in 1330,), or a knight named Sir William de Moton of Peckleton (died between 1356 and 1362).

The grave did belong to a woman of importance however, as from analyzing the bones, researchers were able to identify a good high-protein diet that included lots of meat and fish, as well as the expense which had been spent on the lead and stone. The coffin had also been carefully sealed on all sides with solder. 

Despite the importance of the burial, the team from Leicester University were no closer to uncovering who the mystery woman was. 

University of Leicester Lead Coffin Richard III Excavation

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris told Discovery News, “We speculated that this grave might be for one of [the men]. To find that it contained a woman was intriguing and to some extent frustrating for we know much less about the women associated with the friary than the men.”

Historical documents however, claim that a few women were benefactors and donors to the church.

One woman who did seem a good fit, is Emma Holt.

Who Is The Lady in The Coffin?

Radiocarbon dating showed that the body of the elderly woman found in the lead coffin was probably buried around the time when the church was first built in 1250, roughly 200 years prior to the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. 

A press release from the University of Leicester suggested that “Emma, wife of John of Holt” was buried at the church in Leicester in 1290, but the details surrounding her life remained a mystery – her age, features and grave location are all unknown. 

In September , 1290, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence granting 20-days off Purgatory for anyone who would say ‘a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester’. This shows that Emma Holt was held in high regard and significance to the Church. 

Lead archaeologist Morris said, “We know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma, or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous.”

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