The unidentified remains of a woman and child discovered within the fortress boundaries of the Tower of London are lending new insight into the function and history of the British fortress, which once served as a notorious prison.
While conducting an exploratory excavation in advance of renovations to the Tower’s historic Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, archaeologists found the remains of what is believed to have been an earlier chapel on the same site. Cut into the remnants of the floor were the remains of a woman believed to be between the ages of 35 and 45 years old at the time of her death and, next to her, a 7-year-old child believed to have been buried “shrouded” in a blanket.
Both individuals were found lying on their backs facing up with their feet aligned to the east, which is typical of a Christian burial during the late medieval and early Tudor eras. This suggests the burial occurred sometime between 1450 and 1550 CE, an interim between the Wars of the Roses and the reign of King Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI.
“This excavation has brought to light new information and artifacts that have the potential to completely change how we think about the evolution of the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula,” said Alfred Hawkins, curator of Historic Royal Places, in a statement emailed to IFLScience.
The Tower of London has a dark and twisted history riddled with tales of torture and imprisonment. The fortress is most known for being the burial site of two of King Henry VIII’s six wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as other people he deemed traitors that had been beheaded nearby on Tower Hill. However, the fortress would also have been a thriving mini-village home to commons and royals alike, complete with its own chapels and pubs befit for the hundreds of people who lived and worked within its walls.
“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,” said Hawkins. “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.”
The remains are the first to have been discovered on the grounds in 50 years. An assessment by an osteoarchaeologist found marks related to growth, wear, and disease that suggests both the woman and child suffered illnesses while the woman also experienced chronic back pain. Growth marks suggest that the two led an uncomfortable life, which was pretty standard for the time period. Neither show signs of violent death, indicating that the chapel burial ground was also used for the commoners who lived and worked around the Tower of London.
“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,” said Hawkins.
The remains were reinterred in the chapel under a special ceremony conducted by the chaplain.