Brent Swancer May 14, 2021
Some people have managed to create more intrigue and mystery in death than they ever did in life, leaving behind questions we may never answer. In his day back in the 17th century, Peder Pedersen Winstrup was an important person and prominent figure in Denmark and Sweden. Born in Copenhagen in 1605, he was made Bishop of the city of Lund, in the region of Scaniain, in what is now southern Sweden, in 1638, and kept this position even when the city transferred from Danish to Swedish rule in 1958, even being ennobled by the King of Sweden. He went on to be appointed the pro-chancellor at the University of Lund upon its establishment in 1668, which Winstrup had been instrumental in paving the way for, and throughout his career made a name for himself as being at once a great Bishop, scholar, politician, and a man of science, especially in the area of medical sciences. When he died in 1679, he was laid to rest in a family crypt in Lund Cathedral, where his wife was also buried. There he would lie in peace in the darkness for centuries, until 2012, when he would emerge back into the world with some strange mysteries.
In 2012, it was decided to relocate Winstrup’s remains from the crypt, and he was found to be incredibly well-preserved, not nearly as decayed as would have been expected. Indeed, it seemed as if he had somehow been mummified during the centuries within the crypt, making him by far one of the most well preserved bodies ever found from the 17th century. It was intriguing and surprising enough that scientists decided to analyze the body to see why this was. They would find that he had not been embalmed, but rather speculated that a combination of herbs and plants including lemon balm, hyssop, juniper, and wormwood in the mat which he rested upon had acted as a sort of natural preservative, as well as a pillow of hops, and the body had likely been kept in a cool, ventilated area for some time before being put into the crypt, furthering helping along the natural mummification process. With such a fine, relatively undecomposed specimen, scientists were able to do X-ray and CT scans to discover an array of fascinating things.
Peder Pedersen Winstrup
From studying his well-preserved lungs, it was found that he had likely died of pneumonia, and that he had previously had tuberculosis. The calcified nodules present from that disease were in such pristine condition that the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and the Swedish Natural Historical Museum were even able to actually reconstruct the genome for that strain from these samples, in the process gaining new insights into the evolution of the pathogen. The analysis also showed that the bishop had suffered from a wide range of other ailments, including gout, arthritis, arterial plaque, and gallstones, as well as missing teeth, which were in a pouch that was also in the coffin, all of which gave insight into his diet and lifestyle. There were even various dead insects in the coffin from the era, many of which today are rare but which were common in Sweden at the time. Even the bishop’s clothes had been well-preserved, including a velvet cape and leather gloves, as well as his coffin, giving new knowledge on the materials used during the area. All things told, the bishop’s body, clothes, coffin, and even the bugs in there with him gave an unprecedented peek through time into the 17th century, especially shedding light on the living conditions and health of people living in the era. Yet, perhaps the biggest mystery of all was yet to come.
While scanning the coffin and remains, a small bundle was found deliberately hidden in the deep layer of herbs beneath the bishop’s vestments between his feet, and when it was studied it was found to contain the remains of a human male stillborn fetus, which had probably been delivered prematurely at five or six months’ gestation. It was a rather bizarre finding, as no one could figure out why this prominent bishop would be buried with this baby, especially considering it was known that he had had no pregnant wife at the time and no known connection to any one who was due to have a baby. It was also rather strange that, while in that era babies were often buried with their mothers, even sometimes unrelated children, this was rare for a man, and especially a man who was a bishop. So why was it there? The main theory at the time was that one of the maids or house servants had secretly hidden it away there after the bishop’s funeral after having a miscarriage, possibly in the hopes that being buried with a bishop would help usher the child’s soul into heaven. This seemed to make sense, and for years this was the main theory, until some scientists took a closer look.
A team at Stockholm’s Center for Paleogenetics used more modern DNA extraction and analysis techniques to try and compare the DNA of the bishop and the unborn fetus, finding that the two shared about 25 percent of their genes on the paternal side of the family, suggesting the possibility that they had an uncle-nephew, half-sibling, or grandparent-grandchild relationship. It wasn’t what anyone would have expected, and they were immediately going through the Bishop’s family tree looking for who it could possibly be. They came to the conclusion that the baby had most probably come from the lineage of the bishop’s only surviving son, as the other candidate, Winstrup’s brother Elias, had died in 1633, unmarried and childless. The evidence strongly supported the idea that Bishop Winstrup was the stillborn child’s grandfather. But why had it been put into that coffin and by whom?
It is thought that the baby had been placed in the coffin as a symbolic gesture. The bishop’s son had been on bad terms with his father after choosing to pursue a life with the military rather than as a man of the cloth. The son had then gone destitute after the Swedish crown reclaimed lands gifted to the aristocracy in 1680 under the Great Reduction, and never fathered a living son. That fetus was the closest he had come to carrying on the male legacy of the Winstrup family, so it is thought that a relative, likely his grieving wife, Dorothea Sparre, had placed the baby there with his grandfather as a sad gesture to make sure the last male heir of the family stayed with him in death.
In the end, no one really knows exactly who put the baby in there with Winstrup or the concrete reasons why. Even the lineage of the fetus is not 100% understood. Nor do we really understand why the bishop was so perfectly preserved. It is really a puzzle and guessing game, aided by modern technology, and yet the bishop has served to be a very intriguing and enlightening discovery in many ways, a real look into the past. Whatever the answers may truly be, Winstrup is now at rest in a new location, entombed within a fancy metal coffin to aide with further preservation and out of public view. And in case you’re asking, yes, the fetus is still with him, because as one researcher has said, “They belong together.”