Much angst and verbiage has been vented and spilt lately on the subject of exhumation of bodies, particularly those of royal lineage. I don’t claim to be an archeologist, or an expert in the ethics of exhumation, but I stand in puzzled wonderment at the continued resistance to any proposed opening of the infamous urns at Westminster Abbey. Those urns purport to hold the skeletons of the “Princes in the Tower” – Edward V and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Well, they do more than just purport – they are actually designated as such in the Minster. I wonder how many tourists actually believe they are laying eyes on those tender golden-haired boys they had seen smothered with a pillow in Laurence Olivier’s movie masterpiece “Richard III”.

By odd coincidence, as I was making my Internet meanderings lately, I came across a blog that brought light to an earlier exhumation of a Yorkist prince: Edmund of Langley, first Duke of York. It turns out that he was exhumed not once, but twice! First, in 1574 and then again, in 1877, at Kings Langley in Hertfordshire.

Kings Langley, of course, was the original resting place of Richard II following his (ahem) “premature death by nutritional deficits” at Pontefract Castle in 1400. Perhaps in a fit of remorse or true piety, Henry V had the remains exhumed and translated to Westminster Abbey. Henry V did not think to accord the same honor to his great-uncle, Edmund of Langley, whose body was laid to rest at Kings Langley in 1402, next to that of his first wife. Of course, one would not expect the scion of the House of Lancaster to elevate the remains of a prince of a rival house, notwithstanding that Edmund was of the blood royal and his ancestor. Westminster Abbey was for anointed kings and queens, and Edmund didn’t make the cut.

What happened next is, however, of some interest. Originally interred in the Church of the Dominican Friary at Kings Langley, the remains of the Duke and his wife were moved around the year 1574. It appears that Elizabeth I had revoked several financial grants that had been given to the friary by Queen Mary I and King Edward VI, and it fell on hard times and ruin as a result; perhaps it was dissolved. So, the Duke’s tomb was opened up and its contents re-interred at All Saint’s.

Langley’s remains, however, were destined for a second exhumation necessitated by some building improvements being done to All Saint’s in the 1870s. Victorian scientists of the day found this to be an opportune time to bring modern medical science to bear. On November 22, 1877, Professor George Rolleston, M.D., opened up the tomb and made the following observations, including the discovery of a third skeleton:

“I examined three skeletons at King’s Langley. Of these one was the skeleton of a powerful man, considerably past the middle period of life; a second was the skeleton of a woman, as far as I could judge, between thirty-five and forty years of age; the third had belonged to a younger woman, whose age, however, could not have been very far from thirty. The bones of the first two had got somewhat intermingled; those of the third had been kept safely apart from intermixture in a leaden coffin.

“The skull belonging to the male skeleton had a sloping forehead. The chin and lower jaw were powerfully developed. The front teeth were small in size and crammed together, and many of the back teeth lost. Still the retention of the front teeth and the good development of the lower jaw and chin, coupled with the length and breadth of the facial region, must have given a commanding expression to the old man who owned this skull.

“The age was somewhere between fifty-eight and sixty-five. The crippled condition of his later years must have formed a touching contrast to the strength and vigor which he certainly possessed. In the lower jaw, three molars had been lost during life, two on one side and one on the other, and one pre-molar was carious. In the upper jaw the molars had been lost during life, and two pre-molars were carious. A piece of coarse textile fabric, with some hair of a greyish-red color adhering to it, was found with the skull. He was from 5′ 5″ to 5′ 7” in height.

“The second skeleton, which was more or less mixed up with the first, belonged to a woman from 4 feet 6 inches to 4 feet 8 inches in stature, and between thirty-five and forty-five years of age. The wisdom teeth were all present; of those in the upper jaw, the one on the right side was apparently only just through the socket; whilst that on the other (left) side had a large cavity. The two lower jaw wisdom teeth were little worn. The right lower jaw canine presented the rare anomaly of a bifid root.

“In a leaden coffin was the skeleton of a woman about thirty years of age, a little over, probably, rather than under that age, with some auburn hair still remaining, though detached from the skull. The wisdom tooth was absent in the lower jaw on the left, and one pre-molar was absent on the right side. She was between 5 foot 3 and 5 foot 5 in height.”

Concerning the identity of these bones, archeologist Sir John Evans said that the powerful male is most certainly the Duke Edmund; the female intermixed with his bones is probably that of his first wife, Isabel of Castile-Leon. And who is the young woman who was buried in the Duke and Duchess’ tomb, alone in the leaden coffin? “In the tomb at Langley it is still uncertain who was the lady whose body was thus protected.”

“It has struck me as possible that these remains may be those of Anne Mortimer, daughter of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, first wife of Richard of Coningsburgh. This is, however, mere conjecture.” — John Evans (1881). XIV, Edmund of Langley and his Tomb, Archaeologia, 46, pp. 297-328. Contemporary historians and genealogists agree with Evans’ view that the skeleton in the leaden coffin is Anne Mortimer’s. She was the heir general in her issue of the Crown of England, and transmitted the right to the Crown to her grandson, Edward IV.

I keep thinking: what if Dr. Rolleston had not been given permission to examine the bodies in Edmund’s tomb in 1877? Would the body of Anne Mortimer have been found? Indeed, would the third skeleton have ever been noted? How do we resolve the conflicting search for historical truth versus the need to accord respect to human remains? I do not have the answers, but somewhere in my gut, I feel the search for truth must win out.



  1. I found this extremely interesting, white lily, and beautifully written. You led me from fact to fact with seamless ease, and everything you had to say had my full attention. Isn’t it amazing how ‘lost’ souls come to light again. Only recently we’ve had Blanche Mortimer rediscovered at Much Marcle, and Richard’s illegitimate daughter almost certainly identified in London. Now we have Anne Mortimer. Well, it seems certain we do, but we can never taken anything for granted. However, while these instances of serendipity continue to fan our ever-mounting interest, there remains hope of finding others. Do you belong to the Mortimer History Society? If not, I am certain they would be interested in your essay. And they might have more information for you. Anyway, congratulations on this shining little nugget. And thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my delight, I overlooked the small matter of exhumation. It seems to me that provided all due respect is shown, there should not be any really valid reason for refusing an order. Exhumations go on all the time in police cases where murder is suspected, and I see very little difference between that and the opening of the urn at Westminster to establish whether or not the remains could belong to the sons of Edward IV. And if they are, were they murdered? The principal is identical to me. And can it ever be better to leave things as they are, with a terribly damning cloud hanging over Richard III?

    If he were alive now, would that be allowed to happen? No, it wouldn’t, because an exhumation order would be obtained and the facts established. So, yes, it should be possible to examine remains, no matter how new or how old. Or how royal. And yes again, even if there is no ancient murder mystery attached, it should still be possible to exhume those whose lives have formed a huge part of what we are today.

    Just how many skeletons will be just skeletons? And how many will be the sort that creep out of the cupboard to play fast and loose with what we’ve always accepted about the past? Right, this time I really have finished.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your very kind replies. I tend to side with the belief that the search for truth trumps protocol (whether that be liturgical or royal). History belongs to *all* of us, citizens of the world. What happened to the Princes in the Tower, or to Anne Mortimer, while seemingly of limited impact on today’s problems, can have huge repercussions on how we tell our history, how we view past narratives like Shakespeare or More, and how we view ourselves. Do we throw our hands up, and just accept there is nothing more to be done, out of some sacrosanct mythology? What a shame. As William Faulkner would say, “history is not was, it is”. It is a living, breathing organism and it needs constant inquiry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting article. The Victorians, it seems, were not loath to exhume and examine all manner of folk.

    With regard to the current situation, I can see why there is great resistance to exhuming various people simply to find answers to historical questions. Vicountessw drew a parallel between police investigations into murder and the need for historical questions to be answered. But these are not the same things at all. With murder investigations, there is a need to provide proof of wrongdoing which will lead to criminal prosecutions and hopefully convictions. There is an immediate impact for the relatives of the victims and justice is seen to have been done.

    Finding the answer to a historical question, however important to a relatively limited number of interested people, will only lead to revised entries in history books. This is of academic interest and will not change lives in the same way as the solution to a current murder will do. I think the various religious authorities are concerned that giving permission to examine the bones in the urn, for example, will lead to countless other requests to exhume this person or that person and once the floodgates are open, it is difficult to close them again.

    I have seen a number of posts on various sites across the Internet on this issue, which usually starts with the bones in the urn. Many people accuse the Queen (who would have to give permission because the Abbey is a Royal Perculiar) of being a ‘secret’ supporter of More and the other Tudor historians who say that Richard had the boys murdered, or of being someone who ‘hates’ history, or someone who ‘hates’ Richard. All of this is pure speculation. The Queen does not give interviews and she does not post her opinions on the Internet.

    Perhaps the Queen is a traditional Christian who does not agree with the idea of disturbing the eternal rest of the deceased.


    1. Thank you Jasmine for your very insightful reply. I agree with much of what you say. Exhuming bodies just for the sake of historical or intellectual curiosity can be inappropriate. However, history *has* accused Richard III of murder and the urns at Westminster serve to perpetuate this accusation in some minds, namely the uninformed. With Shakespeare’s play “Richard III” being performed every year around the globe, with countless thousands enjoying the tale of a villainous man who slaughtered his way to the throne, that murder accusation is kept alive. And, I know it’s just “drama” but Shakespeare did not use fictitious names for his characters. He used *real people* who are no longer able to defend their honor. Imagine if you had an uncle who you believed had been similarly and unfairly accused and convicted of murder. You, as his niece, would have a legal right to ask the authorities to examine new evidence in order to clear his name. There is no statute of limitations on murder cases, or their reversal, so the law recognizes your right to seek justice (and a modicum of human rights) for your uncle even if he is deceased. Of course, I recognize that Henry VII never accused Richard III of outright murder, but it was certainly implied in his first Parliament, and his official historians and those that came after have made the accusation.

      As for the “flood-gates” argument, i.e., if the urns are opened then there will be all sorts of poking around in the Abbey, well I always find that type of argument to overlook the ability that scientists and religious authorities have to craft mechanisms to make sure that won’t happen. The precedent that would be created in this situation would not, for instance, justify opening up Chaucer’s tomb or the tomb of the unknown soldier, as there would be no rational purpose for seeking to do so. Archeologists, I am given to understand, must make a *strong case* for digging in areas that could potentially disturb human remains. They must demonstrate that the information to be gleaned is significant enough, and will be done with utmost respect, to outweigh our tradition of letting the dead rest. I don’t see why that protocol could not be followed here.

      But there’s another important human issue that’s involved here. And that’s to do with the *real identities* of whose remains are in those urns (if they are human). There is a fundamental right to be buried with a marker that correctly identifies the person. I’m sure you would not be too pleased if your body was buried under a marker that did not name you, but some other unrelated person. The skeletons in the urn also call out for justice: to be appropriately named (if possible). This is why tombs of unknown soldiers are actually very atypical – their bodies were found so obliterated and devoid of personal identification that they symbolize something that transcends personality. This cannot be said for the remains in the urns.

      Finally, I completely agree with you about the Queen and all the speculation throw at her and her intentions. I do not know what her intentions are, they are probably quite noble, but I will not go down the road of accusing her of harboring some ill-will against Richard III. If others wish to do that, that’s fine, but I don’t want to go there, myself.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A thoughtful response, White Lily. I, too, would like to see the remains in the urn given a much more scientific examination than that which occurred in the 1930s. However that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. I do think the church authorities fear a flood gate of applications to examine royal tombs. Think of all the questions that could be answered – Did Henry VIII have Kells? Was Elizabeth a female or a male? Is it really Edward II in the tomb at Gloucester, or is it someone else? The questions are endless and I am sure there are many historians who would clamour for ‘their’ particular question to be answered.


  4. Agree with everything that White Lily says and it’s strange that the Georgians and Victorians seem to have had far fewer qualms about disturbing the deceased. But what made me nearly drop my teacup was viscountessw’s aside that “Richard’s illegitimate daughter almost certainly identified in London”. What have I missed ? Is this Katherine, or Ann Hopper ?


    1. Well done Christian Steer – can’t wait to see the details on this as the records for St James Garlickhythe, though the oldest for any church in London, only start at 1538 : although we know that unfortunately George Stanley (yes that one) was buried there after being poisoned at a banquet in 1503 (perhaps someone trying to give his father his just desserts. Literally.)
      This page is also of interest – did Katherine have a daughter who survived and was taken to Scotland ?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is just to say that Duke Edmund was not moved to Westminster and indeed it would have been a great violation if he had been, for he chose to be buried at King’s Langley, perhaps because having been born there he had a deep attachment to the place. His wife, of course, was already there. His will survives and in the middle ages the will was sacrosanct. Whilst it is not said in Edmund’s will , it was common for testators to warn their executors to carry out the terms of the will ‘as they shall answer at the dreadful day of doom’. It was a serious business to carry out the testator’s wishes, not least because the medieval will was first and foremost about the afterlife and securing redemption. Henry V moved Richard II for a number of reasons but one of those -the chief reason – was that Richard had not only requested burial there in his will but he had commissioned the double tomb for himself and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, in 1395. The contract survives and, of course, she was already buried there.

    There is a long history in the 18th and 19th centuries of tombs being opened and very interesting material it is too. But that’s another story.


    1. Thanks for the information, Dr Archer, I didn’t know about the wills of Edmund or Richard II when I wrote this piece years ago. To be honest, I just wanted to make a poke at Henry V, since his saintly halo sometimes beams annoyingly bright. Cheers!


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