I recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.
When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.
However, in the 19th century, a self-described antiquarian John Mellor claimed to have a document that stated the bones of King Alfred had been reburied. He then dug up the skeletons and sold them to St. Bartholomew’s Church where they were re-buried in a grave known as the “unmarked grave”. Mellor was a bit of a charlatan, but despite other excavations on the site this appeared to be the best chance there was of identifying Alfred and in 2012, a team led by Dr Tucker set out to open the grave and test the bones. What they found was disappointing, the bones were dated to be from centuries after; most likely from monks in the abbey, due to signs of unusual diseases caused by rich food and sedentary lifestyle.
That may have been that for Mellor and his unmarked grave, but the bones were almost certainly still out there. The team found a box of untested bones from a previous excavation in the 90’s and began to test them. From the locations that they were found, these would have been the bones that were strewn about in 1788. In that box, they found one fragment – a piece of pelvis – that could be dated back to Saxon times. A remarkable find, but could this have been Alfred? The abbey was built on a new site so presumably there were no pre-existing Saxon bodies there before the move. There was a short list of candidates that had been moved from the New Minster to Hyde, but only two fit the gender and age at time of death – Alfred or his son Edward the Elder.
There is obviously still more work to be done here, finding more fragments or comparing the DNA to some of the remains left in Winchester Cathedral could start to flesh out and back up this interpretation. It is by no means a foregone conclusion but the methodical investigation and a bit of luck means that we may be a bit closer to solving the mystery of Alfred’s last resting place.
Dr Tucker has co-written a book on this process, available at Amazon or elsewhere. I’m yet to read it but apparently it has a good balance between a biography of Alfred, that makes up the bulk of the book, and the tale of his last resting place, that makes up the final chapters – so it might be worth a look for anyone interested to find out more.
* The Florence Arms, for Skeptics in the Pub
* Well, almost – the churches were so close than the sounds of the choirs and bells would mingle and give everyone a right headache.