National Geographic News
Workers surround a coffin found inside a coffin.

University of Leicester archaeologists lift the lid off of a stone coffin found near the famous parking lot burial site of Richard III.

Photograph from University of Leicester via Reuters

Roff Smith

National Geographic News

Published July 31, 2013

So much for the royal treatment.

Archaeologists digging up the same parking lot in Leicester, England, that last year yielded the remains of King Richard III have discovered a second, far more elaborate grave.

This one appears to have been buried more than a century before Richard, who lost his crown—and his life—at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. (See "King Richard III Bones Found, Scientists Say.")

Who the occupant of this grave might be is a mystery. But whoever he was, he mattered. While a crude hole in the ground was deemed good enough for the mortal remains of King Richard III, the person whose grave was uncovered this week was buried in splendor. His body was sealed in a leaden coffin, which was decorated with a cross, placed inside a limestone sarcophagus, and interred in a prominent part of the medieval abbey that once stood on the site.

"[He] had to have been someone of fairly high status to have merited a burial like this," said Richard Buckley, director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, which has overseen the excavation.

The style of burial—a carefully soldered coffin enclosed within a sarcophagus—was fairly rare in medieval England, and would have been costly at the time. Buckley says a coffin made of lead sheeting might have been used to transport a prominent person with Leicester connections who had died hundreds of miles away.

History Under the Pavement

The parking lot where the dig is unfolding covers the site of what was once Grey Friars Abbey, a medieval monastery founded by the Franciscans in the 13th century and torn down by Henry VIII in 1538. The Franciscan monks at Grey Friars, in their distinctive gray habits, had the moral courage to take in the body of the fallen Plantagenet king and give it a Christian burial when others were content to leave it where it lay.

Henry VII, who defeated Richard to take the English crown, is said to have had a monument built at the abbey for his former foe. But that monument was demolished along with the monastery itself. And over the centuries the area—including the gravesite and the precise location of the monastery—was forgotten.

A combination of local legends and painstaking research led archaeologists to the council parking lot opposite Leicester Cathedral. Last summer an excavation there revealed not only King Richard's remains but also the ruins of the monastery.

"With this summer's excavation we had hoped to learn more about the layout and design of Grey Friars," said Buckley. The discovery of the mysterious sarcophagus and sealed lead coffin was an unexpected bonus.

Looking for Clues

A trawl through the old abbey's burial records suggests three potential candidates for the mystery grave's occupant: Peter Swynsfield, one of the friary's founders, who died in 1272; William of Nottingham, another head of Grey Friars, who died in 1330; or William de Mouton, a medieval knight and sometime mayor of Leicester, who died in the late 1350s.

"But these are just names of significant people whom we know from the records were buried at the abbey," said Buckley, who rates the new discovery as exciting as finding the remains of Richard III. "The grave could just as easily contain someone for whom the burial records have been lost. At the moment we just can't say."

But there are hopes of finding out much more.

A similar lead coffin, found in 1981 in the Cumbrian town of St. Bees, contained the astonishingly well-preserved remains of a knight subsequently identified as Antony de Lucy, who died in 1368. As with that coffin, the sealing on the lead coffin in Leicester is largely intact, save for a hole near the foot where centuries of slowly dripping water eroded the lead sheeting.

"We can see feet bones inside," said Buckley. "If there are more organic remains or clothing preserved inside, we could get some very interesting clues. If, say, we find the remains of a gray monastic cloak inside, we could be pretty sure it was one of the friars."

Scientists and forensic archaeologists will probe the coffin this winter, when they insert an endoscope through the hole to examine the remains-and perhaps add a new name, and another story, to the rapidly unfolding tale of Leicester and its long-lost abbey.

"The excavation is really changing the way we are seeing Leicester now," says the Very Reverend David Monteith, the dean of Leicester Cathedral, who is organizing next year's memorial service and re-interment of King Richard III.

"You tend to think of Leicester [as] either an ancient Roman town or a city in the Industrial Revolution. This is reminding us all of the rich fabric of medieval history that lies just below the surface."

2 comments
Russ Nash
Russ Nash

Well, at least this one might rightfully belong to Leicester. Richard certainly doesn't. He's House of York and York Minster is where he should lay. He's not Leicester's "finders keepers" treasure trove - and I'm sure that Leicester wouldn't have been Richards choice.

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