Remains of 15th-century anchoress identified

Lady Isabel German was an anchoress who lived in the English city of York during the 15th century. Researchers believe that they have identified her remains, according to a study published in Medieval Archaeology.

The research, carried out by a team from the University of Sheffield and Oxford Archaeology, involved examining a collection of 667 skeletons that had been discovered at York’s Barbican during excavations held in 2007. These remains are now at the University of Sheffield.


The team focused on Skeleton SK3870, which was found inside All Saints Church in Fishergate – it was a medieval woman buried in a tightly crouched position within the apse of the church foundations, a small room located behind the altar.

Only clergy, or the very rich were buried inside churches at this time, so the new study suggests the location of this highly unusual burial makes SK3870 a prime candidate to be that of the All Saints’ anchoress, Lady German.


Dr Lauren McIntyre, University of Sheffield Alumna and Osteoarchaeologist at Oxford Archaeology Limited, conducted the analysis of the historical and osteoarchaeological evidence, which included using radiocarbon dating and isotopic investigation to examine skeleton SK3870.

“The location of the skeleton in the apse suggests this was a woman of high status, but the crouched burial position is extremely unusual for the medieval period,” Dr McIntyre explains. “The lab research also shows the woman buried at All Saints Church was living with septic arthritis and also advanced venereal syphilis. This would have meant she lived with severe, visible symptoms of infection affecting her entire body, and later on, neurological and mental health decline.

“Lady German lived in a period of history where we typically think of there being a strong association between visible and disfiguring illnesses and sin, with that type of suffering seen as a punishment from God. While it is very tempting to suggest that someone with visible disfiguring disease would be shunned or want to commit to living as an anchoress as a way to hide from the world, this research has shown that this might not be the case. Such severe disease could also have been viewed positively, being sent by God to grant martyr-like status to someone special.”

As an anchoress, Lady German would have chosen to live a life of seclusion. Living inside a single room of the church without direct human contact, she would have devoted herself to prayer and accepted charity to survive.


“The new study data allows us to explore the possibilities that Lady German chose to devote herself to a life of solitude as a way to remain autonomous and in control of her own destiny,” Dr McIntyre notes. “This chosen lifestyle would also have made her a highly significant figure within the local community, and she would have been viewed almost like a living prophet.”

The article, “The All Saints Anchoress? An Osteobiography,”  by Lauren McIntyre, Lauren Kancle, Janet Montgomery, Joanna Moore, Darren R Gröcke and Geoff M Nowell, appears in Medieval Archaeology. Click here to read it.

See also: Excavating All Saint’s: A Medieval church rediscovered

Top Image: A photo of skeleton SK3870 on site at the excavations at York Barbican. Credit: On Site Archaeology.