Scientists and bone experts intend to open coffin under carefully controlled conditions over the coming winter
Another body has been recovered from the Leicester car park where the remains of Richard III were discovered last year – but while a king of England was bundled into a hastily dug hole slightly too short for his corpse, the mystery man was buried in splendour, his body sealed in a lead coffin placed in a handsome limestone sarcophagus.
The stone lid was lifted carefully by hand last week. Archaeologists from Leicester University expected to find a fragmentary skeleton, since the weight of the lid and centuries of soil on top of it had long since crushed the sides of the box. Instead, to their surprise, they discovered an inner lead coffin, carefully soldered on all sides, its lid decorated with a cross.
"It's in remarkably good nick except for one end where we think water trickling down has degraded the lead, so we could just see the feet. They look to be in very good condition, so we hope to learn a lot more from the bones," said the site director, Matthew Morris.
Last year in the first hour of the first day of excavation, Morris found what proved to be Richard's body. The new remains, probably buried more than a century before Richard's death on the Bosworth battlefield in 1485, are now in the same university laboratory where the king rested before a battery of tests revealed to the world that the last Plantagenet had indeed been found. The scientists and bone experts intend to open the coffin under carefully controlled conditions over the coming winter.
Morris has records of three named individuals also buried near Richard at the choir end of Grey Friars church, including the Monty Pythonish "knight called Mutton, sometime mayor of Leicester" – probably Sir William de Moton who died in the late 1350s. Two leaders of the English Franciscans, Peter Swynsfeld who died in 1272 and William of Nottingham who died in 1330, are also known to have been buried there. However, since Morris has already found seven burials it may never be possible to identify the bodies.
In the last month the team has ripped up the council car park again to find out more about the Grey Friars abbey, whose monks bravely claimed and buried the body of the dead king after it was humiliated on the battlefield and exposed naked in the town. "This is the site that keeps on giving," Morris said.
They have also exposed more of Richard Herrick's garden path. The wealthy local merchant bought the abbey ruins and built a house with a garden where, according to Christopher Wren, father of the famous architect, Herrick marked the site of the grave with an inscribed pillar. The newly found stretch, which incorporates rubble from the medieval buildings and even some Roman brick, points straight towards the grave.
Historians suggest that although Henry VII later paid for a monument over Richard's grave – destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries when the ruins were stripped of anything saleable, including what was probably a splendid monument for the mystery man – he may have hoped that in a minor church in a provincial town the last Plantaganet would soon be forgotten. In fact the cult of Richard lived on.
A small exhibition in the Guildhall, which will be expanded in the new visitor centre planned to open next year, contains many fake relics of the dead king, including a scrap of carved wood and textile claimed to be part of the bed where he spent his last night in the Blue Boar Inn – though actually the item dates to the 17th century. Likewise a sword allegedly left behind in the inn, which is really a theatrical prop joined to a genuinely ancient blade.
Despite passionate rival claims from York, Leicester intends to rebury the king magnificently next year. The cathedral, less than 100 yards from the grave where he lay hidden for so long, first announced plans for a simple memorial slab in the floor covering his new burial space, similar to the present memorial that was installed 30 years ago. Many, including members of the Richard III Society, felt the historic importance of the remains – and the worldwide interest in them – demanded something more elaborate, and the cathedral has now launched a £1m appeal for a handsome raised tomb.