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Who lies in the mortuary chests at Winchester Cathedral?

The remains of several kings of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, including Edmund Ironside, Cnut and William II Rufus are believed to be in Winchester Cathedral. A new project hopes to uncover their remains after they were scattered about nearly 400 years ago.

Mortuary Chests in Lady Chapel - photo courtesy Winchester Cathedral

Officials at Winchester Cathedral have announced that they will begin a project to analyze the contents of their six mortuary chests. It is believed that the bones of 11 or 12 people are in these chests, including the kings Cynegils (d.643), Cynewulf (d.786), Ecbert (d.839), Æthelwulf (d.858), Eadred (d.955), Edmund Ironside (d.1016), Cnut (d.1035) and William Rufus (d.1100). Also thought to be buried in the chests are Cnut’s wife Emma (d.1052), Bishop Wini (d.670), Bishop Alfwyn (d.1047) and Archbishop Stigand (d.1072).

Historical records indicate that their bones were placed in the mortuary chests around the high altar of the cathedral in the twelfth-century. However, in 1642, at the beginning of the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops entered the cathedral and toppled the chests in an act of sacrilege. The church officials, who had no way of knowing which bones belonged to who, simply placed them back in six chests.

The officials at Winchester have announced the preliminary findings from the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford. It showed that these bones come from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, which is consistent with the historical burial records of the named individuals. More research on these bones will now be carried out by the University of Bristol.

Speaking of this discovery, and the coming project, The Dean of Winchester, The Very Revd James Atwell, said, “This is an exciting moment for the Cathedral when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon Kings who became the first monarchs of a united England.  Winchester holds the secrets of the birth of the English nation and it does seem that some of those secrets are about to be revealed as future research continues.  The presence of the bones in the Cathedral, where they would have been placed near the High Altar and the relics of St Swithun, remind us just how significant the inspiration of the Christian faith was for the foundation of our national life.”

Mortuary Chest

The cathedral notes that recent developments in forensic archaeology means that it is now possible to examine the contents of the mortuary chests with a minimum level of disturbance to the remains. They now hope the new research will record the contents of each chest, determine how many people have remains buried within them, the dates in which they lived, and their physical characteristics, including sex, statute and age at death. They also hope to uncover what else besides mortal remains is inside the chests and why they may have been placed there.

The Project Director is the Cathedral’s Receiver General, Canon Annabelle Boyes. She explains, “This welcome news marks a further stage towards achieving our aspirations to tell the stories of the people who have inspired and been inspired by the Cathedral.”

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