University of Leicester
Featuring an inlaid crucifix, carefully soldered on all sides but with feet sticking out of the bottom, the lead coffin was discovered inside a larger limestone sarcophagus in August 2013 . The discovery came one year after the battle-scarred remains of the last Plantagenet king of England — the family ruled vast areas of Europe — were unearthed.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the lady in the lead casket might have died as late as 1400, although it's much more likely she was buried in the last half of the 13th century — long before Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth.
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Although her sarcophagus was the first intact medieval stone coffin unearthed in the area, it wasn’t the only grave found at the site. Nine other burials were identified beneath the car park, which was basically the site of Grey Friars Church, the medieval friary of the Franciscans known to have been Richard III’s final resting place.
Established in around 1250, the friary was demolished in 1538, as part of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
“There is the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery,” said Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig.
The mysterious coffin-within-a-coffin prompted various speculations about the individual it contained. All suggested it was a male.
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The guessing game included two leaders of the English Grey Friars order -- Peter Swynsfeld, who died in 1272, and William of Nottingham, who died in 1330.
“We speculated that this grave might be for one of them. 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,” Morris told Discovery News.
Three graves exhumed out of the 10 found so far at the Grey Friars turned to contain female skeletons.
“The discovery is going to add important insights into the interaction of women and the religious orders in the medieval period,” Morris said.
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He noted that statistically, the sample is too small to draw any conclusions to the significance of women’s presence at Grey Friars. Richard III, who will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, would certainly not have been the only male buried there during the friary’s 300 year history.
“After all, if we carried out more excavations it is possible that we could find that these are the only four women buried in the church,” Morris said.
Two graves inside the choir -- where Richard III was found -- contained wooden coffins and two females aged between 40 and 50 years-old. Radiocarbon dating indicate they died between 1270 and 1400.
One of the women likely had a congenital hip dislocation which forced her to walk with a crutch, while the other lived a life of hard physical labor, regularly using her arms and legs to lift heavy weights.
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Another female skeleton, believed to have died in her early to mid-20s, also led a life of hard physical work.
Analysis of the female remains, including the lady in the lead coffin, who was over 60 when she died, revealed that all four women had a highly varied, protein-rich diet including large amounts of sea fish. This indicates that they would have been wealthy, the archaeologists concluded.
“The friary’s main source of donations came from the town’s middle classes, merchants and tradespeople who were probably of more modest means, and worked for a living,” Morris said.
Buried in a prominent position in the church, the lady in the lead coffin was certainly enjoying a high social status.
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“Use of lead in coffins in the medieval period, because of its expense, is often taken to indicate the individual’s wealth and power. We believe she was an important early benefactor of the Grey Friars,” Morris said.
There is also the possibility the lead coffin may have been used to transport the person from elsewhere in the country. According to Morris, this would again fit with the idea that she was a benefactor who wanted to be buried in a specific church.
“There was some damage to the underside of the coffin which might support the theory of her being transported some distance before burial,” Morris said.
He and his team are searching archive records trying to identify the skeleton. Documents dating back to the time of the burials name a lady called Emma, who was married to John of Holt and whose body was buried “in the Franciscan church in Leicester.”
But nothing more is known about Emma, what she looked like, her age at death or where in the friary church she was buried.
According to Morris, such a lack of fundamental information, 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,” he said.