A mystery of 15 missing bodies surfaced this week after a hidden burial vault was found during the renovation of Sheffield Cathedral.
In what is described as a “hugely important historical discovery”, workers unearthed a long-forgotten entrance to the vault of the Shrewsbury family.
Records show that 17 members of the family were buried there between 1538 and 1787 - and now there are only two coffins.
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 burial vault was discovered under the 500-year-old Shrewsbury Chapel.
Behind the ancient oak door to the tomb were just two coffins, belonging to Gilbert, the seventh earl, who died in 1616, and Henry Howard, in 1787. They were also found by historian Joseph Hunter, who explored the vault in 1809.
But Cathedral officials say there is no record of what happened to the other 15 coffins. It may be that a further internal wall was built at an earlier date to conceal them or that for some reason they were moved out of the vault to an unknown location.
The Cathedral is being refurbished under its Centenary Gateway project. The pews are being taken out, and a new stone floor with flexible bench seating installed. The heating system is being replaced, new lights fitted and a new entrance created.
Outside, steps will be removed, and wheelchair lifts installed.
The building work is due for completion early next year ready for the Cathedral’s centenary.