Mystery unveiled: the body in the tomb
The body of the daughter of a former ruler of England has been found in a Herefordshire church, experts have confirmed.
Blanche Mortimer, who died in 1347, was the daughter of Sir Richard Mortimer, a traitor who overthrew King Edward II to become the de-facto ruler of England in 1327. He was later overthrown in turn by Edward II's son, Edward III, and sentenced to death by hanging in 1330.
A memorial to Blanche, who married Sir Peter Grandison, was built in St Bartholomew's Church in Murch Marcle in the 14th century, but it was not until an unexpected discovery by conservator Michael Eastham last autumn that it became apparent that her body lay in the tomb.
Mr Eastham was shocked to find a lead-lined coffin hidden within the memorial, which is widely regarded as one of the finest in the country and had not required any conservation work until recently, over 600 years after it was originally built.
"We could not work out what it was when we first took the stone panels from the front of the memorial," Mr Eastham has said.
"We thought it might be a layer of slate but as we explored further we realised it was a lead coffin. It's the first time in more than 30 years as a conservator that this has ever happened."
It was previously believed that memorials were built over or close to the body of the deceased, which it was thought would have been buried beneath the floor of the church building.
Reverend Howard Mayell, who oversees St Bartholomew's, said the discovery has been "a real surprise".
"There wasn't much left in the coffin, so we can't be absolutely certain it is Blanche but we believe the remains are hers," he told the BBC.
"We are quite overwhelmed by the idea Blanche is still in the church."
The coffin has now been safely returned to its original hiding place, though it now has stainless steel support inserted for preservation purposes. Mr Eastham is continuing his conservation of the tomb, but his work is now being filmed to keep a record of any other findings.
"St Bartholomew's is a stunning church anyway, the building dating from the early 13th century," notes Paddy Benson, the Archdeacon of Hereford.
"We felt that keeping as good a record as we can for future generations would be worthwhile because if Michael Eastham has done his work well it could be another 700 years before anyone gets a chance to look inside again."