Archaeological dig at Tower of London sheds new light on life at the infamous fortress over 500 years ago

An archaeological excavation undertaken within the walls of the iconic Tower of London, just outside the main entrance of the Tower’s historic Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, has uncovered finds that offer new insight into what life was really like for ordinary people at the infamous fortress during the late medieval and early Tudor era.

The current chapel was completed in 1520 and as a Chapel Royal is still a place of Christian worship, it is perhaps most famed for being the final resting place of two of King Henry VIII’s six wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as the burial site for many of the ‘traitors’ beheaded on nearby Tower Hill.  As part of early investigations to enable plans for better disabled access into the chapel, it was necessary to first understand the impact that any future works might have on the archaeology of the site.  A team of experts from Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that cares for the Tower of London, working with archaeologists from Pre-Construct Archaeology embarked on two trial digs in order to gather information on the chapel’s boundaries and that of associated burials within its grounds. It was during these excavations that a burial site was discovered.

Under an existing entrance to the chapel, beneath the remains of what appears to be an earlier chapel located on the site, were two burials. The skeletons of an adult female and a young child, were found cut into the remnants of a medieval floor.  These remains were found lying on their backs facing up or ‘supine’ and were aligned with their feet facing east, typical of a Christian burial. Due to the presence of coffin nails, and the positioning of the skeletons, it is thought that the adult female was buried within a coffin whilst it is likely the child was simply wrapped in a blanket or ‘shrouded’ prior to being buried. These are typical of later medieval and early Tudor burials and due to further materials and artefacts uncovered it seems likely that these remains were laid to rest between 1450 and 1550 – between the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Edward VI, the much longed-for son of King Henry VIII.

Whilst no artefacts were found with the skeletons, the remains have done much to inform curators and historians about life at the Tower. They are the first complete remains to be uncovered at the fortress since the 1970s and are the first full skeletons found within the grounds to be assessed by an osteoarchaeologist (bone specialist). By looking for marks related to growth, damage, wear and disease curators have been able to create an image of how these individuals lived and died. The female is considered to be between the ages of 35-45 while the child is thought to have been around 7 years of age. Both skeletons show signs of illness and the adult shows signs of chronic back pain. Their growth shows that they did not have a comfortable life, but this was relatively ordinary in the period in which they lived. Furthermore, there are no signs of a violent death concerning either individual leading curators to believe that the chapel burial ground was also used for those who lived and worked within the Tower of London; not just as a depository for the rich and the traitorous!

During the late medieval and early Tudor period the Tower would have been a thriving mini village, it would have served as not only a royal residence, but it operated daily functions as the Office of Ordnance and Royal Mint with its own chapels and pubs, with hundreds of people working and living amongst its walls.

Alfred Hawkins, Curator Historic Royal Palaces, said: “This excavation has brought to light new information and artefacts that have the potential to completely change how we think about the evolution of the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula. Whilst archaeologists exhume skeletons across hundreds of sites around the UK every day - these two individuals do stand out. 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. 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. 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.”

The remains have now been reinterred in the chapel during a special ceremony conducted by the Tower of London chaplain, The Reverend Canon Roger Hall.

The discovery will be explored as part of the final episode of Inside the Tower of London on Channel 5 on 22 October 2019 at 9pm.  The programme is the second series made by Lion Television that uncovers the history of the Tower and modern life within its walls.

An archaeological excavation undertaken within the walls of the iconic Tower of London, just outside the main entrance of the Tower’s historic Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, has uncovered finds that offer new insight into what life was really like for ordinary people at the infamous fortress during the late medieval and early Tudor era.

The current chapel was completed in 1520 and as a Chapel Royal is still a place of Christian worship, it is perhaps most famed for being the final resting place of two of King Henry VIII’s six wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as the burial site for many of the ‘traitors’ beheaded on nearby Tower Hill.  As part of early investigations to enable plans for better disabled access into the chapel, it was necessary to first understand the impact that any future works might have on the archaeology of the site.  A team of experts from Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that cares for the Tower of London, working with archaeologists from Pre-Construct Archaeology embarked on two trial digs in order to gather information on the chapel’s boundaries and that of associated burials within its grounds. It was during these excavations that a burial site was discovered.

Under an existing entrance to the chapel, beneath the remains of what appears to be an earlier chapel located on the site, were two burials. The skeletons of an adult female and a young child, were found cut into the remnants of a medieval floor.  These remains were found lying on their backs facing up or ‘supine’ and were aligned with their feet facing east, typical of a Christian burial. Due to the presence of coffin nails, and the positioning of the skeletons, it is thought that the adult female was buried within a coffin whilst it is likely the child was simply wrapped in a blanket or ‘shrouded’ prior to being buried. These are typical of later medieval and early Tudor burials and due to further materials and artefacts uncovered it seems likely that these remains were laid to rest between 1450 and 1550 – between the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Edward VI, the much longed-for son of King Henry VIII.

Whilst no artefacts were found with the skeletons, the remains have done much to inform curators and historians about life at the Tower. They are the first complete remains to be uncovered at the fortress since the 1970s and are the first full skeletons found within the grounds to be assessed by an osteoarchaeologist (bone specialist). By looking for marks related to growth, damage, wear and disease curators have been able to create an image of how these individuals lived and died. The female is considered to be between the ages of 35-45 while the child is thought to have been around 7 years of age. Both skeletons show signs of illness and the adult shows signs of chronic back pain. Their growth shows that they did not have a comfortable life, but this was relatively ordinary in the period in which they lived. Furthermore, there are no signs of a violent death concerning either individual leading curators to believe that the chapel burial ground was also used for those who lived and worked within the Tower of London; not just as a depository for the rich and the traitorous!

During the late medieval and early Tudor period the Tower would have been a thriving mini village, it would have served as not only a royal residence, but it operated daily functions as the Office of Ordnance and Royal Mint with its own chapels and pubs, with hundreds of people working and living amongst its walls.

Alfred Hawkins, Curator Historic Royal Palaces, said: “This excavation has brought to light new information and artefacts that have the potential to completely change how we think about the evolution of the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula. Whilst archaeologists exhume skeletons across hundreds of sites around the UK every day - these two individuals do stand out. 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. 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. 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.”

The remains have now been reinterred in the chapel during a special ceremony conducted by the Tower of London chaplain, The Reverend Canon Roger Hall.

The discovery will be explored as part of the final episode of Inside the Tower of London on Channel 5 on 22 October 2019 at 9pm. The programme is the second series made by Lion Television that uncovers the history of the Tower and modern life within its walls.

Notes to editors

For further information and images, please contact Cat Steventon in the Historic Royal Palaces press office on 0203 166 6302 or email [email protected]

Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle and Gardens.  We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built. We raise all our own funds and depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, sponsors and volunteers. With the exception of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, these palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Historic Royal Palaces cares for Hillsborough Castle and Gardens under a separate contract with the Northern Ireland Office. Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk