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.