As It Happens

500-year-old skeletons unearthed at Tower of London chapel could rewrite building's history

An archaeological dig at the Tower of London's chapel unearths the skeletal remains of two "fairly normal" people, which is puzzling given the burial ground is most known as the final resting place for beheaded traitors and infamous prisoners.

Remains of a woman and child appear to belong to 'fairly normal people,' says Historic Royal Palaces curator

Alfred Hawkins is the assistant curator of historic buildings at the Historic Royal Palaces. He was on site during an excavation at the Tower of London's chapel that unearthed the skeletal remains of two bodies. (Historic Royal Palaces)
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Transcript

The Tower of London chapel was built hundreds of years ago. So when crews started digging up the floor to make the building more accessible, archaeologists were curious to know what they might find.

But they didn't expect to unearth skeletal remains.

"It was very exciting," Alfred Hawkins, assistant curator of historic buildings at the Historic Royal Palaces, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"We found a Medieval floor surface and within that were two burial cuts, containing complete human skeletons."

Hawkins was on site during the excavation, which took place last spring at the tower's Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula.

"I got to see it all unfold," Hawkins said. "The fact that we were also able to perform scientific analysis on the bones was something really amazing."

Hawkins says the bones could 'completely change our understanding of the evolution of the buildings on the site.' (Historic Royal Palaces)

That analysis suggests the two sets of bones likely belonged to a woman between the ages of 35 and 45 and a child around the age of seven.

Whether the pair were related is still unknown, but Hawkins says looking at the pathology of the bones has provided other clues to who these two people may have been.

"From the bones, you can see that they weren't particularly malnourished, but they weren't well-feed either. So we get a vague idea of their social status from that," Hawkins said. 

"These little bits of evidence lead us to think that they are fairly normal people living between 1450 and 1550."

Hawkins says the Tower of London operated like a small town within London and that the skeletons could belong to people who worked within its walls. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Historically, the chapel has had a burial ground, but it was thought to be located at a different site.

"The documentary evidence that we had found beforehand doesn't show that that specific area was part of the burial ground," Hawkins said.

What's more, the chapel's burial ground is typically known as the final resting place for the tower's most infamous prisoners and beheaded traitors — including three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey.

So finding the remains of two seemingly unremarkable civilians, Hawkins says, is remarkable.

"This could completely change our understanding of the evolution of the buildings on the site," Hawkins said.

Visitors are seen on the ramparts of the Tower of London in 2018. (Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images)

One theory Hawkins puts forward is that the two bodies are people who worked in the Tower of London complex.

"You have to remember that this place has always been a mini-town within London," Hawkins said.

"[There's] various little national institutions which were born here and all of the people who worked at those institutions lived within the walls of the tower. So when they died as well, they were buried in this chapel, alongside those people who were so remarkable and who we remember today."

In addition to the bones, Hawkins says the discovery of the Medieval floor, tiles and pottery is also significant. It suggests the former building on that site may have been Edward I's chapel — which, until now, was believed to be built at a different location.

"It's kind of completely unravelled where we think the previous building on the site was, which is really, really exciting," Hawkins said. "It was a fairly find-heavy dig."

The research will continue, he said, but the two skeletons have already been reinterred at the chapel. 

"It was a really special kind of ceremony," Hawkins said.

"The key with this is always trying to maintain the respect and dignity of a Christian burial for these individuals. So it was really nice to be part of that."


Written by John McGill. Produced by Morgan Passi.

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