Mystery of the missing earls deepens further!

The chapel that houses the vaults of the Earls of Shrewsbury at Sheffield Cathedral
The chapel that houses the vaults of the Earls of Shrewsbury at Sheffield Cathedral
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Research at Sheffield Cathedral has shed more light on a mystery surrounding missing bodies of Earls of Shrewsbury that hit The Star front page.

However, it also adds to the mystery as well!

Tomb of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury detail. Pic: Sheffield Cathedral.

Tomb of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury detail. Pic: Sheffield Cathedral.

Janet Ridler, the cathedral’s heritage learning officer, has been doing research into the building’s history for new displays that will tell its story.

The information relates to the burial vault for the Earls of Shrewsbury, Lords of Sheffield Manor, that is hidden below the chapel that houses the tombs of some of the family.

When the story appeared in The Star a year ago, it made headlines around the world and created a lot of interest among the public, who still ask cathedral staff if the bodies have been found.

Janet believes that this mystery is as important to Sheffield as the discovery of Richard III’s body is to Leicester.

The fourth Earl of Shrewsbury built Manor Lodge, and the sixth, who married Bess of Hardwick was Mary Queen of Scots’ jailer.

Janet said: “I’ve managed to get hold of a rare copy of Pawson & Brailsford’s Illustrated Guide to Sheffield of 1862 which sheds some very interesting new light on the mystery of the missing Shrewsbury coffins.

“Apparently, after Joseph Hunter went down there in 1809 and saw only the two coffins of Gilbert the 7th Earl and Henry Howard, in May 1858 the vault was entered again ‘for the purpose of making a search in connection with the celebrated Shrewsbury peerage case’.

“Here’s the interesting bit: Hunter had thought that the body of George the 4th Earl was behind the north wall of the vault, directly underneath his monument.

“So ‘an excavation was made in that direction. After this had been prosecuted for about four feet, as it was found that it had reached the original foundation of the church, no trace of a vault or any human remains was found’. 
Janet continues: “And it gets even more interesting… ‘Search was then made under the floor of the vault. Here was found a body encased in lead.

“‘The lead tore like coarse paper and, having been removed from over the face, it disclosed the skull, evidently of a male person, on which there still remained some reddish grey hair.

“There was, however, no inscription. Two coffins were found under this, one containing the body of John Sherbourne, gentleman, and the other of Ruth, his widow.

“Here were also the remains of an empty wooden coffin, without date or name.

“A great number of loose bones were found, with no traces of coffins.

“The conclusion was that at some period the vault had been ransacked, the lead stolen, and the contents buried here.

“After excavating the floor for about six feet, the labourers found themselves stopped by the solid rock’.”

Janet thinks that this account raises more questions as the space in the vault is only 10 feet square and six feet deep and is meant to hold 18 of the family’s coffins, interred there between 1520 and 1787. Clearly the space is far too small for this.

She wonders if other coffins are walled in somewhere but all attempts to find them have hit solid rock.

And if the valuable coffins were stolen from the cathedral, surely someone would have noticed?

She concludes: “It seems like the more we find out, the more questions are raised!”

However, the renovations of the cathedral that have taken place mean that an entrance to the vault has now been created in the floor, so that further investigations could be made in the future.