Richard III excavation: Body found at site 'was a woman'

The lead coffin Image copyright University of Leicester
Image caption The lead coffin was found inside a stone sarcophagus before being examined in a laboratory

A coffin-within-a-coffin discovered next to Richard III's remains contained a woman who could have been an early Church benefactor, experts have said.

The lead coffin in a stone sarcophagus was found in the same car park as the king and was initially thought to be a knight or head of the Grey Friars.

But she was female, may have died in 1250 and possibly founded the friary, the University of Leicester said.

Two other graves were also excavated in the former friary, both of women.

The team behind the discovery of King Richard III continued an excavation at the site of the former Grey Friars' church in August 2013, finding 10 graves within the medieval complex.

Image copyright University of Leicester
Image caption Archaeologists were surprised to uncover a lead coffin within the stone casket

Four of the grave sites were excavated with one turning out to be the last Plantagenet king, while the other three all contained women. The remaining six were left in place, although the site was extensively disturbed in the 19th Century.

The stone casket - the first to be found in Leicester during modern excavations - was unearthed in a prominent position in the church, possibly close to the high altar and normally reserved for wealthy donors.

Tests revealed she was an elderly woman and experts believe she could have been an early benefactor of the church as she may have died in 1250, not long after the building was complete. However, radio-carbon dating indicates she could have died as late as 1400 - 85 years before the death of King Richard.

Matthew Morris, who directed the dig, said: "It's an important part of the church. It's fairly central, it's probably quite close to the high altar.

"[The woman] is probably going to be an important benefactor of the friary, it could even be the founder, so we were really excited about examining this one in greater detail."

The other two coffins, both wooden, were found in same area as Richard III - the choir - and again the remains were of women.

Image copyright University of Leicester
Image caption It took eight archaeologists to lift the lid off the stone sarcophagus, only to reveal another coffin

Mr Morris said it might appear unusual for the king to be the only male found at the site, but pointed out there were still hundreds of other burials that have not been touched.

"Richard III would certainly not have been the only male buried here during the friary's 300-year history and historic records list at least three other men buried in the church," he said.

"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. The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III's burial really was."

Scientists also revealed the women enjoyed varied and expensive diets, including sea fish, meat and game, indicating they were relatively wealthy.

Image copyright University of Leicester
Image caption The site in Leicester where Richard III was found was a council car park

But they also showed signs of hard physical labour, showing they were probably middle-class Leicester residents.

Mr Morris said: "[This] might suggest that the friary's main source of donations came from the town's middle classes, merchants and tradespeople, who were probably of more modest means and worked for a living."

King Richard III will be reinterred at a service in Leicester Cathedral on 26 March and the BBC is launching a WhatsApp service to follow his story.

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