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The Dust of Kings

Exhuming historical characters makes for dramatic headlines and can seem a great way to get easy answers, but we should think twice before disturbing the remains of dead monarchs, says Justin Pollard.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester. Getty/Matt CardyThe discovery of the mortal remains of Richard III under a car park in Leicester is being hailed as one of the archaeological discoveries of the decade. A car park is an undignified place for a king to spend eternity and the unmarked nature of the grave could have led to the grave being disturbed in future by building work. Few would argue, then, against the recovery and reburial of such a body. But the discovery has stirred up a rather gothic desire, at least among newspaper editors, to go in search of other ‘missing’ historical figures or even simply to take a second look at those whose resting places we know.

It is not the first time there has been a craze for tomb opening. In 1774 the lid was lifted on the austere tomb of Edward I in Westminster Abbey, revealing the king ‘richly habited, adorned with ensigns of royalty, and almost entire’.

This discovery itself started a tradition for more local tomb-openings, with groups of dignitaries petitioning their vicars for the right to open up the grander medieval monuments in their parishes. At Danbury in Essex in 1779 just such a group not only opened the sealed lead coffin of a medieval knight to discover his flesh was still ‘exceedingly white and firm’, but the strange preserving liquor it was lying in provoked such historical curiosity that one of the party later noted:

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