Lady Anne Mowbray: A little girl who might have been queen? – Part 1: The mummy on the building site

Posted By on December 10, 2014

© Margaret Bell  Holy Trinity Church in 1913. It had replaced what was left of the original abbey church destroyed by fire in 1796. It was here, eleven feet below ground level, that Anne Mowbray’s coffin was found during demolition in 1964.

© Margaret Bell
Holy Trinity Church in 1913. It had replaced what was left of the original abbey church destroyed by fire in 1796. It was here, eleven feet below ground level, that Anne Mowbray’s coffin was found during demolition in 1964.

Thank you to author and historian Marilyn Roberts for sharing this two-part article on Lady Anne Mowbray with us in commemoration of her birth on 10th December 1472 and the finding of her remains on 11th December 1964. Over to Marilyn…

Last February, in my article The Howards and Lady Anne Mowbray, I wrote of how, less than 60 years before Katherine Howard’s execution, Lord John Howard, great-grandfather of both Katherine and her cousin Anne Boleyn, had come into a large part of the ancient Mowbray family’s fortune, and how the extinct dukedom of Norfolk had been recreated for him by King Richard III. All this came about through the untimely death in November 1481 of eight-year-old Anne, Duchess of York and Norfolk, the last of the Mowbray line. Had circumstances taken a different turn, there was an outside chance this child might one day have been queen, and perhaps the Tudors would never have come to power. However, as always when looking at ‘what might have been’, what we really have to consider are the many reasons ‘why it never was’ and, in this case, why Anne remained all but forgotten until a lead coffin was found on a building site in December 1964, almost exactly half a century ago.

On Friday 11 December 1964, operations were in full swing on an East London building site a few hundred yards north of the Tower to remove a mishmash of bomb-damaged buildings and derelict railway arches and warehouses, together with what was left of the Holy Trinity Church after years of neglect. All were on the former site of a prestigious medieval abbey. There was only a fortnight to go until Christmas, it was 2.40 in the afternoon and dusk was drawing in, so the men on the site were already looking forward to the end of the working day when a demolition vehicle driver called Henry Cooper was startled to see his excavator bucket disappear into a hole.

Worried his vehicle might tipple forward into the void, he went to investigate and found himself looking into what appeared to be a small brick-lined vault. Had he and fellow worker Terry Docherty known that they had found remains of part of the church of the medieval Abbey of St Clare, things might have been different, but totally unaware, they enlarged the hole with a big hammer, and on the earth floor of a small vault came across a lead coffin in the shape of a human being, most probably a child. Having no idea what to do, but feeling they ought not to hold up the demolition work any longer than necessary, they attached a chain to the coffin and hauled it up, regrettably upside down, eleven feet to ground level.

From almost the moment it was discovered, the fate of the remains in the ancient casket became a fiasco. Rumours that a ‘mummy’ had been found spread like wildfire and people from nearby offices rushed out into the street to take a look. The workmen realised the coffin probably contained a body and started telephoning to various agencies for advice on what to do. Unfortunately, the press arrived before the police and persuaded Mr Cooper to turn the 4 foot 6 inch coffin upright and pose with it for the picture which made the front page of London’s Evening News. So, twice in the space of a few hours the contents of the coffin had been dramatically disturbed.

The coroner came along and filled in some forms, and then the police attached a ‘found property’ label to the coffin and transported it to nearby Leeman Street police station. The heavy casket was a very rare find and appeared to be medieval, so in the early evening it was collected by an archaeologist from the London Museum, at that time housed in the royal palace at Kensington. By this hour the museum had closed for the night, so he took the coffin in his Land Rover to a disused warehouse, where excited volunteers quickly mustered and stood guard over it until Saturday morning, unable to comprehend fully that their wildest dreams of being called upon to assist in just such an eventuality had actually come true.

© Marilyn Roberts Hamalworth House, the shiny building, lies on the site of the old abbey church on St Clare Street EC3.

© Marilyn Roberts
Hamalworth House, the shiny building, lies on the site of the old abbey church on St Clare Street EC3.

Today, half a century on, it sounds like an archaeologist’s nightmare, yet all was done in good faith. The troubles, however, had hardly begun. Over the Christmas and New Year period London Museum assembled a team of experts in various disciplines for what promised to be a ground-breaking exercise. One of the first things they did was decipher the Latin inscription revealing that the casket belonged to Anne, Duchess of York and Norfolk, daughter of John Mowbray 4th duke of Norfolk, wife of Prince Richard of York (one of the Princes in the Tower), and daughter-in-law of Edward IV. This confounded the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, as they thought she was buried there in an unmarked grave. They therefore gave permission for the coffin to be opened. There was a hole at the neck (not made by those who found it) and over the centuries soil and water were able to get in, so part of the skeleton lay in mud, and when photographs of the dishevelled contents appeared in the newspapers on 15 January 1965, Lady Anne’s 487th wedding anniversary, the floodgates of criticism opened wide.

The catalogue of unfortunate errors associated with the removal of human remains from the site without an exhumation licence having been issued – or even having been applied for retrospectively – was bad enough, but Westminster Abbey had no legal right to authorise the coffin to be opened. All of this, together with the subsequent scientific examinations, caused an outcry among some members of the public. Certain powerful Establishment figures of the day began lobbying for Anne’s immediate reburial. The loudest dissenting voice belonged to Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, the then Duke of Norfolk, who complained angrily that his ‘relative’s’ bones were not being treated with due respect, a misdemeanour made worse in his opinion because they were the remains of a child. The Government tried its utmost to support the London Museum, but pressure from powerful detractors was just too great.

There were heated exchanges as well as to the ethics of an Anglican burial of someone who had died a Catholic, a compromise finally being reached by acknowledging Anne would have had a Catholic funeral originally, so there was no need for a full service again. Within six months, before the examinations of her skeleton were completed, the child was reburied, swathed in material purchased from the John Lewis Department Store and Courtaulds. There was a dignified ten minute candlelight service in Westminster Abbey before she was laid in a very shallow grave beside that of Anne of Denmark, queen consort of King James I and VI.

The team of experts had been allowed barely enough time to sort and clean the bones that had been so irreparably disturbed, twice, the afternoon Lady Anne was found. Her remains were then sewn into strong material so they would not move if anything similar should befall the coffin in the future. No Official Report was forthcoming and the findings of various experts were published piecemeal, if at all, so, despite worldwide interest when she was found, once more Anne all but disappeared from memory.

Anne Mowbray was found unexpectedly by non-specialists on a Friday afternoon, and a good deal of damage had already been done to her remains before professional archaeologists were even informed. What cannot be explained is why an exhumation licence was not applied for retrospectively early in 1965 in spite of the then Home Secretary being willing to grant it. Forty-eight years later King Richard III’s remains were found in a Leicester car park. Finding him had been anticipated, so this time there was a valid exhumation licence, issued before his skeleton was removed, and those involved complied with the requirements of the Burial Act of 1857, the same licence and conditions that could have been issued retrospectively in 1965.

© Marilyn Roberts Mansell Street, London EC3. The Abbey of the Minoresses lay on the left of the picture, where the trees are now and covered about 2½ acres. The sisters also had a farm, which lay behind the buildings centre and right of the photograph. In Victorian times the coming of the railways swept through the area. The railway arches (right) swung round at this point towards a large goods depot where the trees are now, so it is remarkable that Anne Mowbray’s coffin survived.

© Marilyn Roberts
Mansell Street, London EC3. The Abbey of the Minoresses lay on the left of the picture, where the trees are now and covered about 2½ acres. The sisters also had a farm, which lay behind the buildings centre and right of the photograph. In Victorian times the coming of the railways swept through the area. The railway arches (right) swung round at this point towards a large goods depot where the trees are now, so it is remarkable that Anne Mowbray’s coffin survived.

In September 2012, the Minister of Justice, acting in the same capacity as the Home Secretary would have done 50 years ago, issued a standard exhumation licence, but little thought appears to have been given to the unique nature of the remains of a lost King of England, or the considerable interest and controversy surrounding Richard III himself. Loose ends, legal loopholes, the opinions of ‘relatives’ 16 or more generations removed, arguments about the nature of a funeral for a man who died in the Roman Catholic faith, and a lack of understanding of the strong feelings between rival Richard factions in Leicester and York have resulted in legal wrangles and King Richard’s reburial having to be postponed until March 2015, more than two-and-a-half-years after he was discovered. Perhaps lessons could have been learned from the discovery of his niece-by-marriage and first cousin-twice-removed, Lady Anne Mowbray, whom he had escorted at her marriage to his little nephew all those centuries ago.

Click here to read Part 2.

Marilyn Roberts is the author of The Mowbray Legacy, Lady Anne Mowbray – The High and Excellent Princess, British Royal Family Trees and The Bare Bones of Queen Victoria’s Family Trees, and she is currently working on a book on Katherine Howard, the Dowager Duchess and Norfolk House, Lambeth. You can find out more about Marilyn and her work at www.queens-haven.co.uk/

28 thoughts on “Lady Anne Mowbray: A little girl who might have been queen? – Part 1: The mummy on the building site”

  1. Moniek says:

    Wow, I’d never heard this story before. Can’t wait to read more about it! 🙂

    1. Ann says:

      This Anne Mowbray was also the daughter of Elizabeth Talbot, full sister of Eleanor Talbot Butler, the lady mentioned as precontracted to Edward IV.

  2. Gail Marion says:

    Red tape aside, accounts of discovery of long-lost burials are always compelling.

  3. Aurelia Rosabelle Briar says:

    Wow.

  4. Taryn says:

    Great article!

  5. Courtney Snyder says:

    I don’t know a lot about the Howards, but seems they only got the Duke of Norfolk through his child bride. Does anyone know if this was the only reason they were a “prestigious family? ” I only ask because they seemed to be rather haughty.

    1. Courtney Snyder says:

      Sorry, read that wrong, but question still stands…was the marriage into the Mowbrays the only reason they had a name for themselves?

      1. Thomas Mowbray, first duke of Norfolk who died in Venice in exile in 1399, was the last of the Mowbrays to father more than one surviving child. Lady Anne was the only child of his great-grandson, the 4th and last Mowbray duke, and lack of closer relatives meant that her heirs were the elderly sons of Thomas Mowbray’s daughters Margaret and Isabel, her great-grandfather’s sisters. Lord John Howard was the son of Lady Margaret and (Sir?) Robert Howard. Howard was far beneath Margaret in status and this might have been a love match; neither would have dreamed their son would become duke of Norfolk.

        The present Fitzalan-Howard dukes of Norfolk make little reference to their Mowbray antecedents, although the earls Howard of Effingham have in recent generations included the name Mowbray in the list of forenames of the eldest son – the 7th earl of Effingham is David Peter Mowbray Algernon Howard.

        So, yes, the various Howard branches owe it all to an earlier Mowbray/Howard marriage in about 1420, and the fact that Anne Mowbray died before she had any children.

        1. Courtney Snyder says:

          Wow! Thanks! Had to read it a couple of times to sort it out but I think I got it. Lol. Thank you for the information. I love history & read a lot. This article was so interesting, that it made me realize that I have neglected the Howard & Mowbray connection. Ready to read the 2nd article!

  6. Charlie Palmer says:

    To a Yank, your history is bloody confusing.

    1. Christine says:

      It’s confusing to me to.

    2. MargeW says:

      Hahaha! I read up on these articles and books all the time and this Yank gets confused too! I take the quizzes on The Tudor Society website and find that I’m painfully lacking (or just confused) in knowledge, yet I still can’t get enough of it.

  7. Christine says:

    I didn’t know an exhumation licence was needed on ancient burials, is it the Home Secretary who has to authorise it? How exciting though I was only four at the time and Id love to get hold of some copies of the newspapers when the news broke who she was, the little Princes in the Tower are quite well known but I bet not many knew that she was married to the youngest brother, children’s coffins are so sad, I don’t believe there’s a sadder sight, did they say what she died of?, or maybe that wasn’t possible due to the condition of her remains, both her and her young husband were denied a long life, but at least she wasn’t murdured.

    1. Because of the odd and controversial circumstances of the find there was never a report. Newspaper cuttings are almost impossible to find after half a century, but in the book “Lady Anne Mowbray – the High and Excellent Princess” I have included the picture of Henry Cooper posing with the coffin and another of the casket cleaned and lying in the open grave with a wreath of spring flowers lying on it just before reburial in Westminster Abbey. I would have loved to include them with this article, but would have been in breach of my agreement with the copyright holders – I have permission only to publish in the book on Anne Mowbray, and nowhere else – sorry!

      It looks as though she was carried off by some sudden illness, as the professor from Guy’s Hospital who examined her bones found no sign of long-term illnesses or fractures.

      Until recently the Home Secretary (in Anne’s case Sir Frank Soskice) had to sanction exhumations of human remains, but now the licence is issued by the Minister of Justice, as was the case for Richard III. It is the same licence now as it was in 1964.

      1. Christine says:

        Thanks for the info Marilyn I’d love to read your book, I’m glad she lies in Westminster it’s her right, and I hope she’s reunited with Prince Richard too, only that maybe sounds rather fanciful, they were just playmates really, or maybe for all we know they could have hated each other, but it’s a nice thought.

  8. Lisa says:

    I can’t wait to read the second part!

  9. Janis says:

    I read the account of the marriage of Jane Mowbray and the young prince in a fictional account of Jane Shore and the king one winter break when I was about 14. This was a fascinating article.

    1. Christine says:

      I read The Goldsmiths Wife by Jean Plaidy years ago which was a fictionalised story of Jane Shore I loved the book, but only recently I discovered that her name was Elizabeth so don’t know where Jane came from, it’s a lovely story though and covers the whole of Edward 1Vs reign, the death of the Princes and the Battle Of Bosworth.

      1. James Harris says:

        The notion that Mistress Shore was called Jane originated with an Elizabethan playwright (not Shakespeare), and subsequent historians and novelists until fairly recently tended to simply copy that mistaken information. All the contemporary 15th century sources give her name as Elizabeth though.

  10. Thank you to everyone for your encouraging comments.

  11. Shoshana says:

    Somewhere in my stored books I have a book that has a photo of Anne’s skull; it still retained hair when she was exhumed. She also had the remains of a headdress. You could tell she had an over bite and was a small child and most probably very pretty. When I saw the photo I almost cried that a little girl so young died.

    1. Christine says:

      Yes I saw that photograph too

  12. Vermillion says:

    The photograph of Anne’s skull appears in Alison Weir’s ‘The Princes in the Tower’. It is a sad image indeed.

    1. I have done some lecturing work for Alison Weir on her historical tours (www.alisonweirtours.com/) and am proud to call her a friend. We first met about three years ago through mutual research on the Abbey of the Minoresses, where Anne Mowbray was found in 1964.

      Her Princes in the Tower has been revised and re-released but I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. I enjoyed the original very much.

      Anne’s hair was in remarkable condition and photographs can be seen in the Anne Mowbray Archive at the Museum of London.It’s interesting that her hair was red.

      1. Christine says:

        I read her book about the Princes, I do like Alison iv read quite a few of her books iv got her book on Elizabeth of York on my xmas list, she’s unbiased which is good for an historian, iv often e mailed her and she’s always replied, a very nice lady.

  13. Caroline says:

    I remember the original newspaper article, I would have been eleven years old. I was fascinated by the story of this young princess. I cut the photograph (showing the skeleton) out of the newspaper,much to my parents disapproval. Very interesting article to read after all this time, it has stayed with me and I have had a lifelong interest in mediaeval British history.

  14. BanditQueen says:

    It was very sad that little Anne died aged eight, let alone the terrible disrespect of her bones and her remains. It was partly because of the treatment of the remains, the unlawful exhumation, the opening of the coffin without the proper authority and the type of precautions that should be taken to preserve the remains and to keep them from public and press view, before they have been examined that care was taken over the exhumation of Richard III. Despite the legal wrangles; his bones were protected; the press were only allowed in after the license was granted and the burial had been recovered and protected for two weeks. Even then it was only the agreed coverage; it was the exclusive rights that were filmed; everyone else had to wait until the experts had taken all the precautions needed to protect the bones. Even then it was controlled at every turn. The bones have been treated with every dignity; it was a great pity that a row broke out about where Richard should have been buried.

    The only positive thing that came out of the delay was that the university have been able to do further tests on the agreed samples; but it would have been better for his remains to have been placed in fresh holy ground in Saint Martins in May last year as originally planned. At least now we have consulted at length with the Cathedral and have agreed all of the arrangements for his final journey, resting in repose and the three days of services that will take place on 23rd, 24th and 25th March to honour him before the internment on 27th.

    I have read your book and it is very moving. I am certain that the workmen believed that they were doing the right thing; but they should have stopped work, secured the site and called the authorities. There are proceedures, but not everyone is aware of them. At least in the end, little Anne was laid to rest with respect and prayers.

    As Duchess of York, had she lived and grown to marriage, and her husband been allowed to live and not murdered with his brother the KIng, Edward V, who knows what her life would have been like. She would have been part of the ruling royal family; married to her cousins; the Plantagenets; and the Tudors may not have come to the throne at all. I do not believe that Richard III killed the Princes; but someone did; Buckingham perhaps. Sad though; how frail life was even for noble children in those times.

  15. Charlene Legg says:

    As a lover of English history, this was a touching read and recognizing so many English names of American families (Mowbray, Butler, Talbot) here where I’m from, the eastern shore of Maryland, where my family helped settle.

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