King Henry I, like Richard III, could be buried in a car park, say archaeologists

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After the 2015 reburial of King Richard III, experts are suggesting the remains of William the Conqueror’s son, who died in 1135, lie in Reading

Histories of Henry I are ambiguous about his date of birth, suggesting 1068 or 1069. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty

The remains of another English king could be lurking underneath a 21st-century car park, archaeologists and historians have said. After the well-publicised exhumation in 2012 of Richard III from beneath a council lot in Leicester, attention has shifted to the possibility that Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, could be lying in similar circumstances in Reading.

Henry I ruled England for 35 years between 1100 and 1135 and is remembered by historians as an “energetic, decisive and occasionally cruel ruler” who allegedly died after eating too many lampreys – a kind of jawless fish. He was interred in a sarcophagus in Reading abbey, which was largely destroyed during the 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries.

Now a team that includes Philippa Langley, who led the search for Richard III’s remains, and Reading-based husband and wife historians John and Lindsay Mullaney, are spearheading a project to uncover the full extent of the abbey using radar to find out where Henry I’s remains might be – possibly under a playground or a car park. The project has won the support of Historic England, the public body, which has agreed to lend conservation expertise and help with cutting-edge geophysical research. Work starts in 2016.

Langley has said the project is mainly focusing on the buildings, but could reveal the location of the king’s tomb, and thus settle old tales that it may have been pillaged more than 400 years ago for its rumoured silver coffin by workmen, who supposedly scattered his remains.

“I am really excited for Reading and we are going to tell the town’s story, which begins with the abbey,” Langley said. “It was a religious powerhouse, which made Reading one of the most important medieval towns. At the time of the dissolution, the abbey was the sixth wealthiest in the country.” She added that the thinking in Reading, using current estimates of the size of the abbey, is that Henry I is buried beneath a school.

John Mullaney said the first phase of investigations would use ground-penetrating radar. If any anomalies emerged surrounding the expected whereabouts of the King’s tomb, a dig be considered, but then only if it had “archaeological merit”. “If Henry is still there, then he is buried where he wants to be buried,” he said.

But already there are signs of the possible pressure to exhume the king if his tomb is found. “A lot of people would think it is appropriate to exhume Henry’s remains and give him a more prominent marker,” said Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine.

The exhumation and reburial of Richard III has created a hugely popular visitor attraction, with tens of thousands of visitors pouring through Leicester cathedral and the new Richard III visitor centre since his reburial in March. Historic England has told Reading council it is keen to champion the value of its abbey ruins “for social and economic reasons”.

A Historic England spokesperson said: “The discovery of Richard III really captured the public’s imagination, and it’s great to see this growing interest in archaeological discoveries. We fully support the work at Reading abbey and we’re looking forward to seeing what the results tell us.”

Professor Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Richard III project, said there was no doubt that the association of an English monarch with the Reading abbey project would boost public interest. “If his tomb is in any way intact, it would be a remarkable discovery,” he said. “I can’t think of any medieval monarchs who have been exhumed intact. To have someone like Henry, who would have been buried with full honours, would be special. I wish them every success. If it comes off, it will be absolutely amazing, but the odds are very long.”

If remains were dug up, identification could be tough, said Dr Turi King, lecturer in genetics and archaeology at the University of Leicester, who carried out the DNA testing on Richard III. She said the Henry I team would face a tougher challenge verifying his remains, mainly because they will have to trace his ancestry back a further 350 years before Richard III, to 1135 rather than 1485. “We were quite lucky with Richard because of the genealogical evidence, but the further back you go the less reliable it becomes,” she said.

They knew accurately how old Richard III was when he died, so they were able to check the age of his skeleton matched the age they knew about, whereas histories of Henry I are ambiguous about his date of birth, suggesting 1068 or 1069.

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