The Mysterious Women Buried Alongside King Richard III

“Come! let the burial rite be read— / The funeral song be sung!— / An anthem for the queenliest dead / That ever died so young— / A dirge for her, the doubly dead / In that she died so young.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “Lenore”

In A Nutshell

Buried alongside Richard III were some unlikely remains. All were women, and they were of varied social standing. One lived to the ripe old age of 60, and her strange double coffin suggests to historians that she might have been brought a considerable distance before being laid to rest. Other women buried alongside the king of the working class, suggesting that the medieval Grey Friars Church (and others of the day) might have relied more on their working-class patrons than we thought.

The Whole Bushel

There’s no doubt that most have heard of the incredible discovery of the remains of King Richard III, found buried beneath a parking lot in Leicester. The discovery was met with such fanfare that it overshadowed another made at the same time and in the same place: the discovery of the women who were buried alongside him.

First, a little background. The parking lot was once the site of the medieval Grey Friars Church. Built in 1250 and demolished by Henry VIII in 1538, historians always knew that it was the burial site of the last Plantagenet king.

It was finding it that was the problem.

When they finally found it, it was world news. Less talked about were the women buried with him. It was expected there’d be other people buried there; it was a graveyard, after all. But when archaeologists started opening coffins, they weren’t expecting to find what they did.

Once of the strangest burials was of a woman who had been laid to rest inside a lead coffin that was placed inside another coffin made of limestone. Tests indicate she was buried some time between 1250 and 1400, which makes it likely she might have had something to do with the founding of the church. Her method of burial—along with the inlaid crucifix on her coffin and her estimated age of 60 years, a considerable number for the time—suggest that she was of relatively high standing. Telling any more than that has been next to impossible, though, as the coffin leaked and partially collapsed.

Some think her name was Emma, thanks to a single reference found in a 700-year-old document referring to an indulgence bought for the wife of a John Holt before she was buried at the church. According to a declaration from the bishop, anyone who prayed for her soul would receive a heavenly coupon for 20 days off their stay in Purgatory.

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But that’s pretty vague, and we can’t say for sure which body is Emma’s.

There are other speculations about her presence that might hint at some more misconceptions we have about the period. While we usually think of people living rather stationary lives and dying near where they were born, the double coffin suggests that after she died, she needed to be transported some distance to her final resting place.

But the elderly woman isn’t the only mysterious female to have been buried alongside the king, and it gets weirder. Having a wealthy benefactor of the church buried in a place of honor is one thing, but another skeleton unearthed from beside the king shows signs of a very different life.

There were several others, including one woman who died in her mid-twenties, who had toiled through so much heavy, physical labor that their lifestyles permanently damaged their bones.

Strangely, all the women (regardless of their apparent social standing) seem to have had the advantage of something we think of only in connection of the elite: a well-balanced diet.

The findings might change what we think of when we think of the social structure and the hierarchy of the period. The burial of laborers alongside wealthy benefactors suggests that a lot of the church’s income wasn’t just from those wealthy patrons, but that they relied heavily on the donations of the working class and the everyday laborers to support the organization.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Discovery: Coffin-Within-a-Coffin Opened at Richard III Grave
Smithsonian: Who’s Inside the Lead Coffin Found Near Richard III?
University of Leicester: Archaeologists open the mysterious lead coffin found buried just feet from the former grave of King Richard III

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