Archaeologists investigate mystery of young Civil War woman buried in unusual grave in Oxford

By Ben Miller | 14 May 2015

Archaeologists look to unravel mystery of Lady of St Cross College, found buried in garden in Oxford after almost 400 years

A photo of a woman in a white lab coat looking at a human skeleton across a table
Osteoarchaeologist Alice Rose takes a look at the mystery body found in Oxford© Oxford Archaeology
Archaeologists believe a young female wrapped in a pin-fastened shroud, carefully buried during the English Civil War of the mid-17th century and discovered beneath garden soil at a college site in Oxford, was still in rigor mortis when she entered her grave, having died while sleeping or in bed.

Excavators were surprised to find the grave of the woman, who had coins from the period near her head, in an unusual placement outside of consecrated or church land at the St Cross College development. The listed medieval wall of a palace, the remains of 18th and 19th century buildings, wells and gardens and a Quaker’s House have also been unearthed.

A photo of a set of human bones on a table being looked over by a person in a white coat
© Oxford Archaeology
“The discovery has been accompanied by much speculation in the local press as to the mystery behind who she was and why she had been buried in a garden during the 17th century,” says Carl Champness, of Oxford Archaeology.

“Wild theories have developed in the press, including suggestions of modern foul play, witches being buried alive or the murder of a Civil War prostitute.

A photo of a set of human bones on a table
© Oxford Archaeology
“However, the care taken over the burial suggests that the woman had not been considered an outcast or buried in haste.

“It is possible that her death may coincide with a series of outbreaks of typhus or plague. A typhus epidemic, called 'morbus campestris' - camp fever - was recorded in 1643, and the plagues of 1644-45, during the siege of Oxford by parliamentary forces, meant formal burials may have been difficult.

A photo of a set of human bones on a table
© Oxford Archaeology
“The overcrowding and insanitary conditions recorded in the town during this period were as a result of the billeting of royalist officers, soldiers and their families and were highlighted as a potential cause for the outbreaks.”

Thomas Willis, a physician who treated the Oxford victims of the outbreak, spoke of “nastiness”, “filth” and “stinking odours” befalling the king’s garrison. Another army physician, Edward Greaves, issued a pamphlet to describe the “malignant and contagious fever”, with symptoms including a weak, creeping pulse, fever, vertigo, vomiting, severe chills and purple spots.

A photo of a set of human bones on a table
© Oxford Archaeology
“Not all people who caught the disease died from the condition,” says Champness.

“It was highly contagious and appeared to have spread quickly throughout the town. Greaves's leaflet suggests that most people recovered from the disease, possibly to help reassure the population.

"Parliamentary spies reported that as many as 40 people died a week in July 1643 within the town.

“The burial records for the local parish church - St Mary Magdalen - indicate that over 200 individuals were buried during the typhus outbreak, potentially overwhelming the church graveyard.

A photo of a set of human bones in a grey stone archaeological pit outdoors
A close-up of the skull and shilling in-situ© Oxford Archaeology
“During many of these outbreaks the local parish churches would have also been closed in order to help prevent the spread of the disease.”

The woman was found among later rubbish pits, garden features and animal burials, although a map of Oxford, created in 1675, suggests that the area was a back garden of a tenement.

A photo of two ancient silver coins against a white background
The coins could indicate that the woman came from a wealthy background© Oxford Archaeology
An accompanying Charles I silver shilling, from 1640 or 1641, and a silver half Groat, from 1635 or 1636, could have been placed over the woman’s eyes or mouth.

“The tradition of placing coins over the eyes of the deceased date back to ancient Greek and Roman times, when the inclusion of coins was believed to be payment for the ferryman who would take a person's soul to the afterlife,” says Champness.

“This was not a universal practice among Christian burials and seems to be more a local and cultural, rather than a religious, custom.

“The closing of the eyes in Britain is cited as being more likely due simply to guard against rigor mortis setting in while they are still open – the eyelids being one of the first parts to be affected.

“This was often combined with a superstition that being looked at by a corpse could be a bad omen. To aid this, pennies were sometimes placed on eyelids to keep them shut.

“The value of the coins would indicate that this person was from a reasonably wealthy background.”

More historical records will be used to investigate the burial, which the archaeological team hope to draw further conclusions about once their post-excavation work has been completed.

“We hope to uncover a sufficiently interesting story in order to publish the results of this work with the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society Journal, Oxoniensia,” says Champness.

“Ultimately our aim is to try to identify who the Lady of St Cross College was and why she was buried within the garden.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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