His Royal Highness, The Duke of Gloucester, visited the University of Winchester in June 2014 to hear about the discovery of remains in the current Alfred campaign. And, as you are about to read, with good reason…
Winchester has long associated itself with the legendary King Alfred (846-899), described as “The Greatest Englishman” by Winston Churchill. Alfred’s statue, situated at the bottom of the high street in line with the Westgate, marks the layout of the city’s streets under his design. Winchester’s historic patriotism is reflected in this iconic figure, referred to as “King of the English” by his contemporaries. The image of royalty triumphant in war, and yet also functioning as a peacekeeper, is manifest in the statue’s composition. Alfred’s victory over the Vikings, his large-scale street planning, the building of churches and a Royal Palace formed the structure of Winchester and the notion of a capital city of Wessex. The design of “Old Minster,” meaning old church in Anglo-Saxon, can still be detected as marked by cobbles in the Cathedral close. Anglo-Saxon history, however, which spans the 5th-11th centuries, isn’t as visible in our lives today as the Norman-Romanesque castles, cathedrals and medieval street designs. Being harder to uncover makes the mystery of King Alfred’s remains even more enticing.
The hunt for our Royal ancestors has taken a more feverish turn. It all began with the mass hysteria created by the Richard III Society over the latter’s possible remains beneath a Leicester car park. Similar events in Winchester, however, have in recent months taken a more serious tone. Previously an unsuccessful search involved the radio-carbon dating of a set of six skeletons, including five skulls excavated from St Bartholomew’s Church exhumed from the site of Hyde abbey in 19th century. This sparked interest in uncovering the remains of King Alfred, but was subsequently dated as too late to be identified with him. And yet all was not lost to history forever as this investigation paved the way for a wider hunt. It seems that these were not the only remains with links to the King’s burial, said to have been at the High Altar of Hyde Abbey.
Some remains already excavated from Hyde Abbey for safekeeping sat quietly in two boxes in The Museum of Winchester’s storage, patiently awaiting a well-funded and high-profile research project to come their way. It did, under the direction of Dr Katie Tucker, a researcher in human osteology at the University of Winchester. Last year these boxes of bones from Hyde Abbey were carefully transferred from storage to their next hiding place, deeply ensconced in the warren of corridors in the University’s archaeology department. Dr Tucker has paid particular attention to a section of hip bone separated from the collection and found at the location of the Abbey’s high altar – a position reserved for the most important and high-ranking individuals.
Although deeply hush-hush, it became common knowledge in the history department that King Alfred was secretly hidden away in our university buildings. This created an exciting rush as we went to lectures knowing that something – or someone – magical was in our midst. The results, however. are slightly more vague. Dating and analysis placed the bone between AD 895-1017, and belonging to a man between 26 and 45 or over. King Alfred died in his early fifties in 899. There are, however, more possible identities such as King Edward the Elder or his brother, Ethelweard, who were also buried at the abbey.
Now that the novelty has worn off, especially after the broadcast of a BBC2 documentary in January 2014, I ask Professor Barbara Yorke (Emeritus Professor in Early Medieval History, University of Winchester) what all the hype was really about. Is this King Alfred or not? And what does the project mean for the future? Professor Yorke stresses that radio-carbon dating is not precise. “The bone, if it is a royal one, could just as easily be that of one of Alfred’s sons who were also buried there,” she explains. “There were also quite likely other significant Anglo-Saxons moved from New Minster to Hyde, such as abbots.” Although one bone can reveal information about diet, perhaps, if it were to actually lead to the discovery of more bones then the state of play would get much more interesting. “Personally I would love to know what Alfred looked like,” Professor Yorke remarks, “and whether he did suffer from a serious illness, as his biographer suggests”. Bringing these ancient characters to life would certainly generate interest in the Anglo-Saxon past. “I would like people to be as interested in Alfred’s son Edward the Elder, as he was also a remarkable king who ruled more of England and was more of a patron in Winchester. A verified tangible relic would act as a focus of interest in him, but we are not there yet, and more finds would be necessary to distinguish him from Edward (and, potentially, another son) – though I’m not sure if one could ever certainly do so.”
Rumour has it that a hunt is on for Alfred’s ancestors in order to help identify the bone. As Professor Yorke clarifies, “The potential of DNA and other scientific analyses is very exciting, but it’s still being developed. A few years ago the remains of a granddaughter of Alfred, named Eadgith, were excavated in Magdeburg cathedral. (She married a German emperor). Water residue in her teeth confirmed that she was likely to have been brought up in southern England – quite different from those of other people in Magdeburg cathedral – and really was Eadgith. However, although they had most of her bones, it was not possible because of their condition to extract DNA from them. The radio-carbon dates were way out for her lifetime, possibly to do with her diet. Eating fish can skew the results.”
So although the Alfred campaign has not bought the great King back to life through a tangible and identifiable body, it has sparked interest in his sons and granddaughter. All of this is incredibly important to Anglo-Saxon history. Meanwhile the excitement of DNA testing, and the thought of identifying real Royal figures with remains, is far from fading. The mortuary chests that belong in Winchester Cathedral are said to hold the bones of Anglo-Saxon kings and their Danish successors, including King Cnut. They’re being conserved, and it’s no secret that future aspirations lie in re-articulating the skeletons and DNA-testing. The bones, it seems, were unfortunately mixed up when the Civil War soldiers threw them through the Cathedral’s stained-glass windows to break the images of saints. “The kings and bishops in the mortuary chests would pose major problems,” cautions Professor Yorke, “as the bones have moved around a lot. This could affect radio-carbon dating and other scientific tests, and it would be very expensive to do other than take samples. There is much of potential interest in them, but it may need to be further away in the future. Detailed study may have to wait for further scientific advances.”
Imagining a line-up of Anglo-Saxon Kings buried here at Winchester, fortifies its historic legacy even more. Let’s hope that successful DNA testing is not that far off, as the opportunity to find out what each king looked like and who they were makes a mysterious other world suddenly become human, tangible and almost living.
Writer, dance critic, history geek and Winchy lover. Rebecca is a mature student at The University of Winchester studying Choreography and Dance combined with History. After teaching for eight years, she now writes for various publications and blogs about dance and all things arty-farty, whilst drinking copious amounts of tea and day dreaming in Winchester’s many café windows. @rebeccajsnice