Unlocking the secrets of the Winchester Cathedral mortuary chests

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One of the mortuary chests displayed in Winchester Cathedral.
One of the mortuary chests displayed in Winchester Cathedral. (IMAGE: John Crook)

Ongoing research into Winchester Cathedral’s mortuary chests – one of which is shown – is providing vital new evidence about the identities of the individuals interred within them, it has been announced.

The six chests are thought to contain the bones of high-status Anglo-Saxon individuals including Cynegils, the first Christian king of Wessex (d. c.641); Wine, the first bishop of Winchester (d. c.672); and Æthelwulf, father of Alfred the Great (d. 858), as well as the early Norman ruler William II, better known as William Rufus (d. 1100).

Originally interred in Old Minster, chief burial place of the Wessex ruling dynasty, these individuals are believed to have been transferred to Winchester’s Norman cathedral after the minster was demolished in 1093 to make way for the new construction. Their bones were placed in chests, but these were heavily disturbed during the English Civil War, and the remains are today commingled, with several individuals found within each chest, and some individuals spread over multiple boxes.

Now a team of archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of Bristol are analysing the bones to establish who the remains represent. This project began in 2012, when the chests underwent conservation, making it possible to examine their contents for the first time. Since then, a team led by Professor Kate Robson Brown has been reassembling the more than 1,300 human bones. So far, at least 23 partial skeletons have been reconstructed – significantly more than the 15 individuals the chests were thought to contain.

The sex, age, and physical characteristics of each reconstructed individual have been osteologically assessed, a process that revealed the presence of an older woman’s bones dispersed within several chests. While the evidence is not conclusive, the team believes that these could be the remains of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, wife of two Anglo- Saxon kings – Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016) and Cnut the Great (r. 1016-1035) – and mother of Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut of Denmark.

The remains have also been radiocarbon dated at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) and the Bristol Radiocarbon Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility (BRAMS), which confirmed that the majority of the remains were late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman.

More surprising findings, though, were the remains of two adolescent boys who had died during the mid-11th to late 12th centuries. No one from this period is recorded as having been placed in the chests, but – as only the most prominent members of society seem to have been included – the team thinks it likely that they could also be as-yet unidentified royalty.

The project is ongoing, but the latest results are highlighted in a new exhibition at Winchester Cathedral, Kings and Scribes: the birth of a nation. This includes a 3D model of the female skeleton thought to be Queen Emma, as well as a facial reconstruction of one of the anonymous boys.

This article appeared in CA 353.

1 Comment

  1. I have a remote connection to a Bishops of Winchester and Ely. Thomas Green b 1658 Bishop of Ely, was the father of Anne Green who married Charles clarke whose mother was Anne Trimnell daughter of Charles Trimnell and her brother Charles Trimnel was Bishop of Winchester. His grand nephew Charles married Anne Lucy Becher my fourth Gt Grandneice,daughter of my 5xGt Grandfather Lionel George Becher.

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