Fifteen bodies have disappeared from the burial crypt of one of Sheffield’s most important families including three Earls of Shrewsbury, The Star can reveal today.
Workmen at Sheffield Cathedral discovered the historical mystery when they stumbled across the entrance to Shrewsbury tomb – only to find just two coffins inside.
At least 17 members of the Shrewsbury family, who were the Lords of Sheffield Manor for generations, were laid to rest beneath the 500-year-old chapel and are now missing.
The ancient burial vault was found and opened for the first time in 200 years as part of the multi-million pound Gateway Project taking place in the Cathedral.
Among the missing bodies are the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, who built Manor Lodge, and sixth, who married Bess of Hardwick and was Mary Queen of Scots’ jailer.
They owned vast amounts of land and property, including Sheffield Castle, and were among the most influential men in the country.
The monuments made after their deaths are the most impressive in Sheffield Cathedral – yet until today the disappearance of their remains has been a secret.
The hidden burial vault lies underneath the Shewsbury Chapel and its entrance came to light after several layers of the ancient building’s floor were removed.
The tomb is around six-feet high and contains just two coffins behind its crumbling oak doors – one belongs to the seventh Earl Gilbert who died in 1616 and the other is aristocrat Henry Howard who was buried in 1787.
There is no record of what happened to the other 15 coffins which should be there.
Dean of Sheffield Peter Bradley said: “We will be working closely with our partners at Sheffield University to solve this mystery as one of the missing bodies belongs to one of the most important men in Elizabethan England, George Talbot the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury who was the husband of Bess of Hardwick and custodian of Mary Queen of Scots during her 14 years imprisonment in Sheffield.”
The Cathedral remains open to visitors during the restoration project although both Shrewsbury monuments are largely hidden by protective screens.
The Earls of Shrewsbury are among the most important people to have every lived and been buried in Sheffield – but where are they now?
The fourth Earl, who died in 1538 and was buried with his two wives, left very specific directions for the tomb which should be placed over his body.
He had created the Shrewsbury Chapel 18 years earlier so members of his family could be laid to rest together in the heart of Sheffield.
In his will he directed: “I wille that a tombe be made over my body of marble w’t three ymags, one of me in my mantell of garters, and thother of my Wife in her robes and hir armes on my right hande. And the thirde to be of my Wife that now is, on my leftehand w’t hir mantell and armes, the tombe to be made of marble well garnyshed.”
His monument, and that of his grandson the sixth Earl, have been an eye-catching feature of Sheffield Cathedral for centuries but where are their bodies?
History experts at Sheffield University are looking into the mystery and, as the lead coffins containing the bodies have also disappeared, the theory of body snatchers appears to have been ruled out.
The last person to step inside the crypt before it was sealed was historian Joseph Hunter in 1809 and at the time he recorded just two coffins but it was never widely acknowledged.
Hunter, author of Hunter’s Hallamshire 1819, also refers to Ralph Thoresby, a late 17th century antiquarian, in his account which indicates that at that point other coffins were still in sight: “Formerly more of the coffins were in sight; for Thoresby, who collected everything, had preserved in his museum ‘a shred of the velvet pall now wholly divested of its blackness by lying many years over the Countess of Shrewsbury’s coffin in the vault at Sheffield’.”
At least 15 bodies are missing and the two more plausible theories are that a further internal wall was built centuries ago to hide them or they were moved out of the vault to an unknown location.
Experts from Sheffield University are working with the Cathedral in a bid to solve the mystery.
The Talbots were one of England’s richest and most prominent families of their time and their influence spread across the country.
The fourth and sixth Earls were close associates of the Queen, owned most of Sheffield and were key figures in history.
The fourth Earl of Shrewsbury George Talbot died in 1538. He had two countesses – Ann who died in 1520 and Elizabeth who died in 1567.
He married Ann at the age of 13 and they had 11 children.
He became involved in military and diplomatic work and was a commander in the English invasion of France in 1513.
He was later made Lt General of the North.
In 1530 he entertained Cardinal Wolsey in Sheffield who was travelling south to face trial.
In 1536 the Earl was responsible for putting down the rebellion against Henry 8th’s religious policy, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
The largest monument in Sheffield Cathedral is to George, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, and it stands against the south wall of the chapel.
His second wife was Bess of Hardwick, then the second richest woman in the country behind the Queen. He was custodian of Mary Queen of Scots during her 14 years of imprisonment in Sheffield.
The statue in the Cathedral shows him lying on a rush mat on a lofty sarcophagus, wearing elaborately engraved armour, his feet on a Talbot dog.
The inscription records his faithful military and diplomatic service during the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I and his integrity as the guardian of Mary Queen of Scots.
Looking after Mary nearly ruined him financially. He was also reported to have fallen in love with her – yet was made to watch her execution.
The chapel later became the property of the Dukes of Norfolk who inherited the Manor of Sheffield from the Shrewsbury family through marriage.
In 1933 it was presented to the Cathedral by the Duke of Norfolk for ‘the use of the parishioners’.
Lords of Sheffield Manor
1406 - Sheffield was passed to the first Earl of Shrewsbury John Talbot from Sir Thomas Nevil
1453 - The first Earl of Shrewsbury John Talbot died in battle in Chatillcon in France. He was immortalised by Shakespeare in King Henry VI as “Valiant Talbot, above human thought, Enacted wonders with his sword and lance.”
1460 - The second Earl of Shrewsbury John Talbot died during the Wars of the Roses, and the Lordship passed to the third John Talbot.
1510 - The fourth Earl of Shrewsbury George Talbot ordered the construction of Sheffield Manor House just one mile from Sheffield Castle. The land in between was a deer park.
1520 - The fourth Earl added a chapel to the Parish Church, now Sheffield Cathedral, to hold the family vault.
1530 - Cardinal Wolsey visited Sheffield Manor House as a guest on his way to London to stand trial for high treason before Henry VIII.
1538 - The funeral of the fourth Earl takes place in Sheffield amid much pomp and ceremony
1553 - The sixth Earl of Shrewsbury George Talbot, took over the lordship of the manor.
1570 to 1584 - The sixth Earl was responsible for safe custody of Mary Queen of Scots and kept her at Sheffield Manor, Sheffield Castle and Worksop Manor as well as at his Midlands estates.
1590 - More than 20,000 persons attended the elaborate funeral of the sixth Earl at Sheffield Cathedral. Gilbert Talbot, son from his first marriage, became the seventh Earl of Shrewsbury and inherited the Lordship of the Sheffield manor.
1616 - The seventh Earl of Shrewsbury, whose coffin is still in the crypt, died. He had no sons so his property, including the Sheffield estates, were inherited by his daughter Alethea Talbot. She was married to Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, Surrey and Norfolk so the Sheffield estates were absorbed into the House of Howard and the Talbot chain ended.
WHO SHOULD BE BURIED THERE
1538 Mary Lady Talbot first wife of Francis Earl of Shrewsbury.
1538 George fourth Earl of Shrewsbury.
William Talbot Marshal of Ireland his fifth son.
1560 Francis Earl of Shrewsbury
1565 Thomas Talbot an infant son of the sixth Earl.
1566 Gertrude Countess of Shrewsbury
1572 Mary Countess of Northumberland
1573 George Pierrepoint, an infant, probably son of Henry Pierrepoint by Frances Cavendish, daughter to the Countess of Shrewsbury
1577 George Talbot, an infant son of Gilbert, later Earl of Shrewsbury.
1581 Elizabeth Countess of Lenox.
1582 Francis Lord Talbot
1590 George sixth Earl of Shrewsbury
1594 Charles, son of Sir Charles Cavendish and elder brother to William, later duke of Newcastle.
1595 Henry Talbot, brother to Gilbert Earl of Shrewsbury
1616 Gilbert Earl of Shrewsbury
1632 Mary Countess of Shrewsbury
1787 Henry Howard esq.