Mystery coffin at King Richard’s grave site reveals shocking contents: a woman’s body

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(CNN) — First came the shocking discovery of a medieval English king’s burial site in a parking lot.

Then came the unearthing of a mysterious coffin, near where the king was buried. Archaeologists theorized it contained the remains of an prominent man, possibly a knight or a Catholic Church official.

After the coffin was opened, another shocker: The person inside was a woman, researchers said this week.

Who was she? A wealthy aristocrat, church benefactor, beloved servant?

Whoever she was, the woman found in a double coffin — a lead coffin encased in a larger stone coffin — near the final resting place of King Richard III was probably a very noteworthy person.

At least that’s the theory of Mathew Morris, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester.

“A grave like this — very elaborate stone sarcophagus, lead inner casket buried in a very prominent position in the church, close to the high altar — you’ve got to think this person was important,” said Morris, who led the excavation.

Final resting place

The parking lot where the coffins where found, in Leicester, England, is where a church, known as Grey Friars Friary, once stood.

Over the centuries, the whereabouts of the friary’s remnants were forgotten, but it remained in the records as the burial place of Richard III.

In 2012, experts began digging away at the area and established that it was part of the friary and that a skeleton, hastily buried in an uneven grave, was that of Richard, who was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In 2013, Morris and his fellow archaeologists discovered the mysterious coffin within a coffin. On Sunday they announced their findings: the skeleton inside was from an elderly woman, who may have been a church benefactor and who probably died sometime in the 14th century.

Not what they expected

The fact that she was a woman may be the most surprising discovery. Scholars were certain that the coffin’s inhabitant had to be one of three men: a medieval knight named Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, or two leaders of the English Grey Friars order, Peter Swynsfeld or William of Nottingham.

But they are most certain that this woman was important. The known details surrounding her burial — inner lead coffin inlaid with a crucifix, placement of the coffin in a prominent location — all point to someone who was esteemed and held in high regard.

Scientists can see this even in the foods she ate. An analysis of the woman’s remains revealed she had a diverse, protein-rich diet with large amounts of sea fish. Such a diet suggests that she was a wealthy person and would have been able to consume expensive foods like game, meat and fish, according to a press release from the University of Leicester.

‘Forever remain anonymous’

Unfortunately that’s about all Morris and his team have been able to find out about her. Documents and records in Leicester from around the time of her burial suggest she could be someone named Emma, who was married to John of Holt. But there’s not enough information available to make even a cursory connection.

“We know little about (Emma) 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 (if the skeleton) is that of Emma,” Morris said.

He lamented that the skeleton will probably “forever remain anonymous.”

Fit for a king

The skeleton wasn’t the only female found at the site. According to the university, it was one of 10 graves discovered in the grounds of the former church, including that of Richard III, six of which were left undisturbed. The others that were examined were all found to have female remains.

And the obvious care put into the burials of the others found at the site says something about Richard III’s burial.

“What stands out more 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,” Morris said. “The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III’s burial really was.”

When Richard’s grave was discovered, he was found in a grave that was simply too small for his body. His torso was left in an “odd position” that left his head partially propped up against the grave side. In an academic paper published a few months after the discovery, British archaeologists described the slain king as having been buried “with minimal reverence.”

A burial more fitting for a king is in the offing, however. Richard III will be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral later this month, after his remains are released by the University of Leicester.