An amazing rare find at the Tower of London was made by archaeologists earlier this month when they unearthed the complete skeletons of a medieval woman and child buried under the chapel, a discovery that could re-write the history of the ancient royal site.
Construction began in 1070 by William the Conqueror, who had led the Norman conquest of England just four years prior in 1066, with the White Tower, also known as the keep.
Expansions of the fortress would continue for hundreds of years, with an inner ward constructed in the 1190s and a wharf expansion in the late 1300s.
As the most complete 11th century fortress in existence today, the site is a World Heritage site that attracts millions of visitors every year.
The fortress is not only the site where the Crown Jewels are kept on display, but it’s also the final resting place of many famous and infamous prisoners. Henry VIII had three of his wives, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey, executed and buried behind the walls. Other prisoners included William Wallace, Thomas More, Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, William Penn, and even Queen Elizabeth I.
But under the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, where Boleyn is interred, a team had the opportunity to explore under the floor during an effort to make the chapel more accessible and found two complete skeletons.
“It was very exciting,” Historic Royal Palaces assistant curator Alfred Hawkins told the CBC. “We found a Medieval floor surface and within that were two burial cuts, containing complete human skeletons.”
According to a press release by Historic Royal Palaces:
Under an existing entrance to the chapel, beneath the remains of what appears to be an earlier chapel located on the site, were two burials. The skeletons of an adult female and a young child, were found cut into the remnants of a medieval floor. These remains were found lying on their backs facing up or ‘supine’ and were aligned with their feet facing east, typical of a Christian burial.
Due to the presence of coffin nails, and the positioning of the skeletons, it is thought that the adult female was buried within a coffin whilst it is likely the child was simply wrapped in a blanket or ‘shrouded’ prior to being buried. These are typical of later medieval and early Tudor burials and due to further materials and artefacts uncovered it seems likely that these remains were laid to rest between 1450 and 1550 – between the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Edward VI, the much longed-for son of King Henry VIII.
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During that 100 year period of time, it’s possible that the woman, believed to have died around the age of 35, had lived through a lot of English history, including the War of the Roses, a civil war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York for the throne, which began in 1455 and ended in 1487. Both houses would decimate each other, but the Lancaster cause would be taken up by Henry VII, who would found the House of Tudor and become king, as would his son, Henry VIII.
Ascending to the throne in 1509, Henry VIII would be king until his death in 1547. During his reign, he had six wives and executed three of them all in an effort to have a son and heir. He would get that son, a boy who became Edward VI, whose short rule led to the ascension of his half-sister Mary, who imprisoned Elizabeth I for a short time in the Tower of London. Mary would die in 1558, and Elizabeth would take the throne and rule for the next 45 years.
The woman, of course, may have known of Elizabeth but did not live to see her become queen. The skeletal remains of the unidentified woman revealed that she suffered from chronic back pain and likely died from an illness, as did the child buried beside her.
“I got to see it all unfold,” Hawkins said of the excavation. “The fact that we were also able to perform scientific analysis on the bones was something really amazing. From the bones, you can see that they weren’t particularly malnourished, but they weren’t well-feed either. So we get a vague idea of their social status from that. These little bits of evidence lead us to think that they are fairly normal people living between 1450 and 1550.”
The pair likely lived on the grounds, and the woman may have worked there. Clearly, they were important enough to be buried in the chapel, which was built in 1520.
And that’s why finding these two skeletons is even more important, because until now it was believed that the burial ground had been located elsewhere.
“The documentary evidence that we had found beforehand doesn’t show that that specific area was part of the burial ground,” Hawkins said. “This could completely change our understanding of the evolution of the buildings on the site. It’s kind of completely unravelled where we think the previous building on the site was, which is really, really exciting,” Hawkins said. “It was a fairly find-heavy dig.”
It’s absolutely stunning that an ancient location that is so well known still has secrets to tell us. In fact, the excavation may have even revealed the remains of the floor that belonged to the lost chapel of Edward I, which had burned down in 1512, leading to the construction of the current chapel just eight years later.
“As the first complete remains to be examined from within this royal fortress, they have offered us a chance to glimpse that human element of the tower, which is so easy to miss,” Hawkins said.
“This fortress has been occupied for almost 1,000 years, but we must remember it was not only a palace, fortress and prison, but that it has also been a home to those who worked within its walls. [There’s] various little national institutions which were born here and all of the people who worked at those institutions lived within the walls of the tower. So when they died as well, they were buried in this chapel, alongside those people who were so remarkable and who we remember today.”
Alas, while the bones were analyzed, they had to be reburied, which they were once again in the resting place where they were found in a proper ceremony.
“It was a really special kind of ceremony,” Hawkins said. “The key with this is always trying to maintain the respect and dignity of a Christian burial for these individuals. So it was really nice to be part of that.”
Despite the short amount of time researchers had with the remains, they still learned a lot.
“This excavation has brought to light new information and artefacts that have the potential to completely change how we think about the evolution of the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula,” Hawkins said. “Whilst archaeologists exhume skeletons across hundreds of sites around the UK every day – these two individuals do stand out. This is the best part of performing archaeological assessments and the joy of curating a royal fortress; by examining the physical remains of the past we are able to record, understand and share how our ancestors lived and died.”
All in all, it was an extraordinary find that connects us to the distant past at a time when medieval wars were fought on English soil and the English renaissance was set to begin. It’s terrible that this woman and child died at such young ages, but because we found them, they will never again be forgotten.
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