A great discovery: remains of king Alfred or his son found in Winchester?

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Does this bone belong to Alfred the Great?  Image: University of Winchester
Does this bone belong to Alfred the Great?
Image: University of Winchester

A fragment of human pelvis excavated in Winchester is ‘very likely’ to be part of the remains of King Alfred the Great (849-899), or his son Edward, archaeologists announced today at a packed press conference.

Found during archaeological work at Hyde Abbey  in the 1990s, the piece of bone belongs to an adult male aged 26-45, who died in AD 895-1017. Although disturbed by later activity on the site, the individual had originally been laid to rest near the abbey’s high altar, the excavation team report, a prestigious position that, during the 9th century, would have only been accorded to Alfred or his son and successor, Edward the Elder (874—877 — 924).

‘Who else could it be?’ said the team’s osteologist, Katie Tucker.

When Alfred died in 899, he was interred first in the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester (the Old Minster), but when this site became overcrowded, his bones were moved first to the New Minster, and then to the newly-founded Hyde Abbey, which marks its 900th anniversary this year.

Tradition suggested that he had been moved once more, however, and buried in an unmarked grave in St Bartholomew’s church, Hyde, after a 19th century  antiquarian sold bones claimed to belong to the Wessex royal family to the Rector, William Williams. Recent radiocarbon dating of the contents of this burial indicates that this was not the case, however.

Representatives from the community cultural group Hyde900 and experts from the University of Winchester described how, following the media sensation following the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton last year, an emergency order was obtained to excavate the grave and take its contents into safe keeping.  

The remains of at least six individuals, including five skull, were recovered from the grave, but recent radiocarbon dating of the remains placed all of them too late to belong to the Saxon king, yielding dates ranging from c.AD 1100-1500.  

There was only one possible conclusion, Katie Tucker said:  ‘The occupants of the Unmarked Grave were not among the West Saxon royal family.’

Undeterred, Katie contacted  the Winchester Museum Service to find out more about a community excavation that took place on the site of Hyde Abbey between 1995 and 1999. This led her to a box of human bones that included part of a pelvis found at the site of the Abbey’s High Altar.

Alfred statue in Winchester - Henry Burrows

While most of the bones were too late to belong to King Alfred, the pelvis was considerably earlier, radiocarbon dated to AD 895-1017. ‘Bang on the money’, as Tom Higham, who carried out this analysis, put it.

‘The simplest explanation, given there was no Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hyde Abbey, is that this bone comes from one of the members of the West Saxon royal family brought to the site,’ said Katie Tucker.  ‘Given the age at death of the individual, and the probable male identity, the plausible candidates are King Alfred, King Edward the Elder, or the brother of King Edward, Æthelweard. All were buried in the Abbey. However, historical evidence indicates that only the coffins of Alfred and Edward were at the site of the High Altar. The discovery of the bone in a pit dug into the graves in front of the High Altar makes it far more likely that it comes from either Alfred or Edward.’

If this is part of the skeleton of Alfred or his son, it had a lucky escape: the bone was the only fragment of this individual found in backfill from 18th century disturbance.

Barbara Yorke, Professor Emerita of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, said: ‘Although Hyde Abbey was dismantled after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century, the bodies seem to have been allowed to remain. But when a bridewell — a prison/workhouse — was built on the site in 1788, they were emptied out and the remains ‘thrown about’, according to an eyewitness.’

We will bring you more information as we have it – and in the upcoming issue of CA. Watch this space!





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