Image: Police forensic vehicles at the scene in woods where human remains were found
Christopher Furlong  /  Getty Images
Police forensic vehicles at the scene Tuesday in woods where human remains were found on New Year's Day in King's Lynn, England.
updated 1/3/2012 4:25:18 PM ET 2012-01-03T21:25:18

A murder mystery with elements of an Agatha Christie whodunit is unfolding at the vast country estate where Queen Elizabeth II and her family gathered in rural splendor to celebrate Christmas and New Year's.

British police said that a young woman's body was found in the forest at Sandringham and that they are treating it as a murder case.

An autopsy was conducted Tuesday, but the precise cause of death was not disclosed, and investigators have yet to establish the woman's identity.

The royal family is not implicated in the crime in any way.

The body was discovered by a dog walker on New Year's Day three miles (5 kilometers) from the queen's elegant country home. Norfolk police said tests showed the body had been there one to four months.

Police said a forensic pathologist found that it was highly unlikely the death was of natural causes and that there was no evidence of accidental injury. Investigators hoped to use DNA to identify the woman.

The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, celebrated the holidays at Sandringham with their children and grandchildren. The royal couple were still at Sandringham on Tuesday, along with their youngest son, Prince Edward, and his wife, Sophie.

Part of the nearly 31-square-mile (8,000-hectare) estate is open to the public, and the body was found at Anmer, a hamlet of several dozen people. Situated 115 miles (185 kilometers) northeast of London, Sandringham has two stud farms and a fruit farm and employs more than 100 people full time.

Forensics investigators in white gear were seen walking through the woods Tuesday in an area cordoned off by police.

"We are at the very early stages of the investigation and it could be a complex inquiry," Detective Chief Inspector Jes Fry said Tuesday. "The body had been there for some time."

Fry said authorities were examining missing-person reports and unsolved cases around the country to see if there were any possible links.

The royal family owns vast tracts of land throughout Britain, and it is not unprecedented for serious crimes to be committed on property under their control.

In 2010, the body of a 46-year-old woman was found on the crown estate near Windsor Castle. She had apparently been killed by hammer blows to her head. Her estranged husband was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Last March, the body of an American with a royal obsession was found on an island in the park opposite Buckingham Palace. Authorities said Robert James Moore, who had sent rambling letters and strange packages to the queen, may have been dead for as much as three years. The cause of death was not determined.

Now Sandringham, which has served as a private residence for British monarchs since 1862, has been touched as well.

Sandringham has long been one of the queen's favorite residences, especially during the holidays. The queen has a long-established routine that calls for presents to be exchanged on Christmas Eve, followed by a church service in the morning and a gala lunch. There are usually long walks through the countryside as well.

The royal family also typically enjoys horseback riding and shooting parties at Sandringham in the brisk winter weather.

The New Year's highlight this year was the reappearance in public of Philip, who had to be airlifted from the estate two days before Christmas for emergency treatment after complaining of chest pains. The 90-year-old prince was found to have heart disease and had a stent inserted to keep his arteries open.

Buckingham Palace officials are staying mum about the murder case. Police are keeping many details confidential as they try to develop leads.

"I cannot confirm whether she was clothed because, at the moment, only my staff, the person who found the body and the person or people who put it there know that, and I would like it to stay that way," Fry said.

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Video: Body found on royal Sandringham Estate

  1. Transcript of: Body found on royal Sandringham Estate

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: A surprising story out of Great Britain tonight and it's brought new attention to the royal family for a strange reason. The body of an apparent murder victim has been found on the grounds of the queen's country estate where she and Prince Philip have been spending the holidays. We get our report tonight from NBC 's Michelle Kosinski .

    MICHELLE KOSINSKI reporting: Just yesterday, Queen Elizabeth was on horseback enjoying the grounds of her Sandringham estate , where the royal family spent Christmas together; but by nightfall, she and husband, Prince Philip , recovering there from minor heart surgery, got some most unwelcome news from police.

    Detective Chief Inspector JES FRY (Norfolk Police): A member of the public had been walking their dog in the area and had found the body of a female in a wooded area.

    KOSINSKI: The body of a woman, apparently murdered, found on the estate less than two miles from the queen's residence.

    Offscreen Voice: What do you know about what's happened to her?

    Det. Chief Inspector FRY: Very little at this time.

    KOSINSKI: Police do say the unburied remains had been there for up to four months in this divider between farm fields. Sandringham , though, is enormous, 30 square miles , including both towns, farms, woods, a 500-acre park and pathways accessible to the public all the time. It's been a favorite royal retreat deep in the countryside since Queen Victoria 's reign. Queen Elizabeth 's ancestors hunted here, her father died here. It's where the family could always escape the public eye. Now a murder mystery on royal land that has investigators delving into cold cases and the muddy woodland for clues, while the queen remains in residence. Michelle Kosinski , NBC News, London.


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