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The mystery of the mummified bishop and the stillborn fetus in his coffin

4 min read

In life, the 17th-century bishop Peder Winstrup was a man of both god and science, but also a politician who advocated for his city, Lund, which sits in what is now southern Sweden.
In death, he is still making his name in the folds of his funerary garb, in an enigma that researchers are only now beginning to solve.

In 2012, when Lund Cathedral officials decided to relocate his remains from the crypt, director of the Lund University Historical Museum and his colleagues were able to analyze the coffin’s contents, also with CT scans and X-rays.
They found that he had been laid to rest on a comfortable bed of lemon balm, hyssop, juniper, and other plants, which may have helped prevent his decay. And in fact his body had mummified naturally, maybe also from being kept in a cold, ventilated environment for weeks before his funeral.
Moreover his remains, as well as the plants and preserved textiles in his coffin have given researchers an interesting view into 17th-century diets and illnesses, the evolution of diseases like tuberculosis, and even insects common in Sweden at the time, but now rare: nearly 50 invertebrates were present in the coffin, including Sweden’s oldest known bedbug!
However, there was something else buried with the bishop. Someone had hidden a five- or six-month-old human fetus between his legs, beneath his vestment.
For years, researchers speculated that the stillborn child had belonged to a servant in the bishop household, or maybe even the undertaker.
But now ancient DNA analysis has shown that the fetus belonged to the Winstrup lineage, and was most likely the Peder’s grandson.

A team of biologists was able to obtain the entire genome of both bishop and fetus thanks to recent advances in ancient DNA analysis and extraction.
The result showed a second-degree kinship, most likely along paternal lines, such as uncle and nephew and, combing through the Winstrup family tree, they determined he most probably came from the lineage of the bishop’s only son to survive to adulthood, Peder Pedersen Winstrup.
In 2015, they hypotized that the remains had been hidden in the coffin by a servant or other staff member of the bishop’s household who had experienced a miscarriage. Peder’s health was clearly failing, as he had been bedridden for two years before his death, and the servant could have saved the remains, putting them in the coffin in the hope that the respected bishop might shepherd the poor child to the afterlife.

Yes. Probably the stillborn was the bishop’s grandson, but the mystery is only partly solved.
Who placed the remains there?
The story begins in the shadow of the cathedral’s imposing Romanesque towers, which have stood watch over the city for nearly a millennium.
When cathedral construction began in the 12th century, Lund was part of Denmark (Peder himself was born in Copenhagen) and would remain so until the mid-17th century.
Peder was already bishop of Lund when transition to Swedish rule occurred in 1658 and, as he was very practical, he seized the moment. He thought how to benefit, so why not start a university in Lund so that the city itself, the province, would prosper whether it was Danish or Swedish?
Apparently, despite being a conservative, even dogmatic, Protestant bishop, he was deeply interested in natural science and, as chancellor of the university he helped found, successfully fought to include the medical sciences.
Access to his remains allowed researchers to reconstruct his final years in very painful detail.
Bedridden, suffering a range of illnesses, including tuberculosis, gallstones, heart disease, and severe tooth loss, he finally died, likely from pneumonia, in December 1679.
And, at some point, before his interment the following January, someone hid the fetus with him in his coffin.

Shared adult-child graves in Sweden is fairly common in Scandinavia in medieval times.
Despite ancient DNA cannot answer who hid his stillborn grandson in the coffin, probably it was the child’s grieving mother, Dorothea Sparre, who wed Peder Pedersen Winstrup just a year or two before the bishop’s death. The younger Winstrup was likely a disappointment to his father, as apparently the son was a gambler, and his heart was not in the Bible at all. And that would have meant a great sorrow for the old bishop.
There is no record of any offspring, and within months of his father’s death, the younger Winstrup lost the family fortune when the Swedish crown took back lands and residences previously granted to the aristocracy. Dorothea and the bishop’s son ended up totally poor, and details of their deaths are unknown.

Now the elder Peder Winstrup’s remains have been placed in a new, metal coffin intended to preserve him for future scientists. He is interred in a part of the cathedral out of public view, behind the building’s massive (and noisy) medieval astronomical clock.
A little bit disturbing for a bishop’s final resting place despite, of course, the remains of what would likely have been his grandson are buried with him.

Images from web – Google Research