Revealing the secrets of the Lady in the Lead Coffin

Posted by er134 at Mar 02, 2015 12:00 AM |
University of Leicester team that led discovery of Richard III reveals new findings from dig at King’s burial site

The Inner Lead Casket of the Grey Friars Medieval Stone Coffin Revealed For The First Time in 600 YearsA century before Richard III's body was thrown into a hastily dug grave at the Grey Friars there was a far more elegant burial which took place at the friary.

Just a few yards from the spot where University of Leicester archaeologists discovered the remains of the medieval king, in August 2012, there was an undiscovered stone sarcophagus containing a lead coffin.

Within that lay the bones of a wealthy, medieval woman.

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Above: The Inner Lead Casket of the Grey Friars Medieval Stone Coffin

It was uncovered during the hunt for Richard.

But it wasn't until August 2013, that a team from the University, led by Mathew Morris, excavated, removed and analysed its contents.

The heavy, lead coffin had a simple crucifix soldered into the metal but no other visible marks to identify its occupant.

It was placed within an even larger limestone sarcophagus measuring more than two-metres in length - and is the first medieval stone coffin to be discovered in Leicester.

And its location in the presbytery of the friary's church, possibly close to the high alter, meant this woman was important – perhaps a patron of the Grey Friars.

Site director Mathew Morris said: “The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche.

"Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact.

"However, inside the inner lead coffin was undamaged except for a hole at the foot end of the casket where the lead had decayed and collapsed inward exposing the skeleton’s feet.

"This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices.

"This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of the people of medieval Leicester.”

The coffin was taken to the University of Leicester to be opened.

Inside was a woman who died aged about 60-years-old.

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The Grey Friars site

Radiocarbon dating found that she was buried sometime between 1250 and 1400 – a 95 per cent probability - meaning she could very well have witnessed to Simon de Montfort's rebellion and victory over Henry III in 1264.

The mysterious woman was possibly around when William Wallace – better known as Braveheart to film fans – was captured and executed for treason in 1305.

She might even have been in Leicester for the Great Plague, in 1348, and watched as a third of the country's population was wiped out as a result of deadly bacteria.

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Archaeologists Open the Stone Coffin

But whatever this high status woman had lived through, she had lived through it in style and was buried in a fashion reserved for the wealthy.

Mathew said: “The lady in the lead coffin is clearly someone of importance. Her age and good health show that she had access to a well-balanced diet, could afford to eat expensive forms of meat, and she appears to have done little physical labour during her life.

"This evidence on the skeleton, couple with the elaborate nature of her burial and the location of her grave within the church all suggest that she came from a wealthy family, although this doesn’t necessarily mean she came from the nobility.”

Osteological examinations also showed that she was about 5'4”.

But when it came to identifying the skeleton, and finding out who exactly she was, the team had a slightly tougher task.

Unlike Richard III, whose relatives could be traced and their DNA linked back to the King, the lady in the lead coffin was slightly more enigmatic.

Records could be traced back to the time of her death, but it was almost impossible to match her to any single person with any precision.

In fact, the medieval woman was one of four female skeletons uncovered during the summer excavation of the friary's choir.

Also discovered was a lady in her mid-20s and another in her 40s or 50s, both of them 5'1”.

A 45-year-old woman was also unearthed, and was shown to have died in the same period - between 1270 and 1400, just like the person in the lead coffin.

Dr Richard Buckley OBE and Site Director Mathew Morris at the Greyfriars Archaeological Site in July 2013 - University of Leicester.jpg
Dr Richard Buckley OBE and Site Director Mathew Morris at the Grey Friars Archaeological Site in July 2013 - University of Leicester

Mathew said: “Excavation of other friary churches suggests that women were routinely buried in friaries, probably reflecting the close interaction friars had with their local community, in contrast to other more sequestered monastic orders.

“These women would have had a specific relationship with the friars, either through patronage, a spiritual link or family ties.”

Mathew and the team managed to pick out one name which they believe represents someone buried somewhere at the site – although it is unlikely that it is one of the four females found during the dig.

Documentary evidence shows that a lady, named Emma, who was married to John of Holt, died on September 1290 – which fits with the radiocarbon dating results of all four candidates.

But no evidence exists to link her to any of the remains.

“We know little about Emma,” said Mathew. “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.”

For more information on the 2013 Grey Friars excavation please go to the ULAS news blog

Watch a video of the opening of the coffin below

Watch an overview video of the second Grey Friars dig below

  • The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.

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