News about archaeological finds frequently stir religious and national passions in the Mideast, where the pathways of history and religion have converged for centuries and have left remains that are held dear by believing Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This has been less true in Europe. But in Great Britain over the last few years, both romance and religious sentiments were stirred by a signal archaeological find. The remains of King Richard III of England, much reviled by William Shakespeare who wrote an eponymous play, were found beneath a parking lot in 2012 in Leicester. He had died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth and then hastily buried at a small church. Over the centuries the church was abandoned and destroyed, later becoming a car park.
It has since emerged that Philippa Langley, the screenwriter who was behind the successful search for Richard III, believes that King Henry I, the fourth son of William the Conqueror, may be buried similarly under a parking lot or a playground on the site of where the historic Reading Abbey once stood. Henry died in 1135, but the abbey and his tomb were destroyed some 400 years later. According to BBC History Magazine, Langley opined , "The thinking in Reading, using current estimates of the size of the abbey, is that this burial spot is located beneath a school.” She added, "If the abbey is larger, it could be situated underneath either what is today a playground or a car park."
William the Conqueror came to England in 1066 where he defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. The event indelibly changed the British isles. William was a descendant of Viking warriors who had settled in France along the coast of Normandy and had become Christians. Seeing a weak king on the throne in England, William found the pretext for invasion in a spurious claim to the throne based on his status as a second cousin once removed to Edward the Confessor: the childless king who immediately preceded Harold. Even while Edward had named Harold to the throne, William asserted a claim and mounted an invasion of the island kingdom on a scale that had not been seen in centuries. He defeated Harold, who died in battle, but he spent the rest of his life consolidating his power and contending with his eldest son, Robert. After his death in 1087, his English realm was given to his son William II while Normandy was given to Robert.
Henry I came to the throne in 1100 under a cloud after his brother William II died in a suspicious hunting accident. In 1121 he paid for the construction of Reading Abbey in 1121, which was to become his eventual final resting place. In a dedication, Henry wrote that the foundation was “for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors." Henry was interred in a sarcophagus at Reading Abbey , which was mostly destroyed during the dissolution of Catholic monasteries during the 16th century by Protestant Christian reformers and royal lackeys.
Screenwriter Langley, along with husband-and-wife historians John and Lindsay Mullaney are seeking to find the outlines of the destroyed abbey through the use of ground-penetrating radar. A public body, Historic England, has agreed to provide its expertise. The work will start in 2016. The researchers are interested in finding what may be left of Henry and his sarcophagus, but also in Reading Abbey itself. “I am really excited for Reading and we are going to tell the town’s story, which begins with the abbey,” she said. “It was a religious powerhouse, which made Reading one of the most important medieval towns. At the time of the dissolution, the abbey was the sixth wealthiest in the country.” It has long been rumored that some 400 years ago that Henry’s allegedly silver sarcophagus was looted and his bones strewn to the winds.
Pressure is mounting that should Henry’s remains be found that they should be re-buried with dignity. In the case of the discovery, exhumation and reburial of Richard III, there was considerable British pomp and circumstance. Tens of thousands of curious tourists have descended on Leicester cathedral since since Richard’s reburial in March 2015. Professor Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Richard III dig, has said that the discovery of Henry I would be a remarkable discovery even though the odds are long that his remains will indeed be long.
Identification of Henry’s remains will be problematic. His ancestry would have to be traced about 350 years before Richard III. Genealogical evidence over time is much less reliable. In the case of Richard, the age at which he died was a known. In the case of Henry, birth dates range from 1068 to 1069.