Archaeologists Reveal Who's in the Coffin Next To Richard III

Photo of Emily Brown
12 December 2015

Richard III (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) was King of England from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and his defeat at Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, marked the end of the Middle Ages in England. Richard III’s original tomb is believed to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the remains were missing for more than five centuries. In 2012, an archaeological excavation was conducted on a city council car park once occupied by Greyfriars, Leicester. The University of Leicester confirmed on 4 February 2013 that a skeleton found in the excavation was in fact Richard III. We find out all about the other fascinating coffin discovered at the excavation site.

Richard III’s remains | Courtesy University of Leicester

During the excavation of Richard III, archaeologists found a lead coffin within a stone sarcophagus near to the site of Richard’s hastily dug grave. The coffin-within-a-coffin was found in the same car park as the king, and was initially thought to be a knight or head of the Grey Friars. However, inside the lead coffin, they found the skeleton of an elderly woman who is likely to have been a benefactor of the friary and who was probably buried around 1250 AD. Archaeologists at the University of Leicester have speculated that it could be the body of Emma Holt.

The lead coffin was found inside a stone sarcophagus before being examined in a laboratory | Courtesy University of Leicester

Emma Holt, whose grave was discovered near the skeleton of Richard III, is believed to be a mysterious woman who was cherished by the church. Documents dated to around the time of the burials, show that the Bishop of Lincoln issued ’20 days off purgatory’ for anyone who prayed for Emma Holt and 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’.

Archaeologists were surprised to uncover a lead coffin within the stone casket | Courtesy University of Leicester

Emma Holt’s sarcophagus was the first intact medieval stone coffin unearthed in the area, however, it wasn’t the only grave found at the site. Nine other burials were identified beneath the car park, which was the site of Grey Friars Church, the medieval friary of the Franciscans, and 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. Mathew Morris, Grey Friars site director and lead archaeologist from the University of Leicester, explains how, ‘there is the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.’

Site Director Mathew Morris Returns to the Grey Friars Site to Uncover the Church | Courtesy University of Leicester

Mathew Morris also spoke about the discovery of Emma Holt’s coffin saying, ‘we know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living and what she looked like, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, makes 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.’

Archaeologists Open the Stone Coffin at the Greyfriars Archaeological Dig July 2013 | Courtesy University of Leicester

The lead coffin’s inlaid crucifix, and the location of her burial in presbytery of the friary’s church meant that she had a special significance to the holy Catholic order. The coffin, carefully soldered on all sides but with feet sticking out of the bottom, was discovered inside a much larger limestone sarcophagus during a second excavation of the site, in August 2013 – one year after the remains of Richard III were unearthed. Radiocarbon dating suggests the lady in the lead casket might have died as late as 1400, although it’s likely she was buried late in the 13th century, long before Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Mathew Morris goes on to describe the significance of the graves found in Leicester saying, ‘what stands out is the contrast between the care and attention taken with these burials – large, neatly dug graves with coffins – and the crudeness of Richard III’s grave. The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III’s burial really was.’

Facial Reconstruction King Richard III at the Visitor Centre Leicester | Courtesy University of Leicester

The reburial of Richard III will take place on Thursday 26th March. Read the timetable of events here.

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