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Alfred the Great or Edward the Elder? Pelvic bone ‘most likely’ belongs to Anglo-Saxon King

Researchers believe that a pelvic found discovered over fifteen years ago belongs to an English king: either Alfred the Great or his son Edward the Elder.

Alfred the Great statue in Winchester

This significant find was announced at a press conference by representatives from the community cultural group Hyde900 and experts from the University of Winchester. Together they presented the results of rigorous skeletal and radiocarbon dating tests and highlighted supporting historical evidence.

They also revealed the discovery had not been without its twists and turns. Initial investigations into an unmarked grave, that was rumoured to contain the remains of King Alfred, proved fruitless. However, archaeological evidence came to light that reignited the search.

A BBC documentary, The Search for Alfred the Great, followed the project team throughout. The documentary airs in the United Kingdom on BBC2 tomorrow night (January 21) at 9pm.

King Alfred was best known for defending Wessex against the Viking invaders, but he also laid the foundations for a unified English nation. He was above all passionate about education and learning.

“Alfred was hugely influential across the British Isles, but here in Winchester, capital of Wessex, Alfred’s story is particularly resonant,” said Professor Joy Carter, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Winchester. “There have been many attempts to find and identify his final resting place over the last century and beyond, but all have proved inconclusive.

“The last months have seen more twists and turns in that story as we have waited with bated breath for our academics to reveal the results of their research.”

History recalls that when King Alfred died in 899, he was interred in the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester, known as the Old Minster. From there his bones were moved by monks to New Minster and then Hyde Abbey.

The remaining part of Hyde Abbey - Hyde Abbey Gate, just North of Winchester. Photo by Gary Reggae
The remaining part of Hyde Abbey – Hyde Abbey Gate, just North of Winchester. Photo by Gary Reggae

Professor 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.”

In 1866-67, an antiquarian claimed to have excavated the bones of the Wessex royal household from the site of Hyde Abbey. He sold these to the Rector William Williams of Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, who reinterred them in the Unmarked Grave in the late 19th Century.

Early in 2013, Hyde900, working with Saint Bartholomew’s Church, petitioned Winchester Diocese to grant permission to exhume the remains of the Unmarked Grave.

Archaeologists from the University of Winchester exhumed the remains in March 2013. Dr Katie Tucker, Researcher in Human Osteology at the University of Winchester, led the exhumation. She established that the bones, including five skulls, came from a minimum of six individuals.

“All were adults: one definitely female, one definitely male, two possible males and two incomplete individuals,” said Dr Tucker. “These people had suffered from multiple pathologies, including common conditions such as dental disease and arthritis.”

Radiocarbon dates revealed the skeletons dated from about 1100 to 1500 AD, much later than Alfred’s reign.

Dr Tucker said the evidence pointed to one conclusion: “The occupants of the Unmarked Grave were not among the West Saxon royal family.”

“This was disappointing news but we didn’t give up,” commented Rosemary Burns, Trustee of Hyde900. “As part of Dr Tucker’s research she 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, and that led her to an exciting development.

“Dr Tucker was advised of two boxes of bones in the Museum’s storage facility that had been identified as human, but not until some years later after the excavation had ended and the funding had run out.”

Alfred_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI
Medieval image of Alfred the Great

Upon examining the remains, Dr Tucker’s interest was piqued by a pelvis bone that had been found at the site of the Abbey’s High Altar. Radiocarbon dating showed it dated from AD 895-1017. Osteological analysis found it belonged to a man between 26 and 45+ at death.

“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 Dr 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.”

Medieval image of Edward the Elder
Medieval image of Edward the Elder

Dr Nick Thorpe, Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Winchester, added, “The Department of Archaeology is extremely excited to have been able to plausibly link this human bone to one of these two crucial figures in English history.”

“We also believe that we are thereby helping the city to right a historical wrong done to the remains of these great kings, which began with the dissolution of Hyde Abbey in 1539, to be followed by centuries of neglect, destruction and disturbance up to the last antiquarian diggings in 1901. Monks brought their remains to Hyde in 1110 because they wanted to preserve and honour them, and this project enables us to do this once more.”

In a stateement, Hyde900 adds, “Unravelling the complicated story of both the bones and site has brought into focus the enormous significance of Hyde Abbey and its legacy after half a millennium of neglect. Solving the mystery of the Unmarked Grave in St. Bartholomew’s Churchyard and commissioning the research which led to the discovery of the pelvis of either King Alfred or his son King Edward has given us a much better understanding of what specifically has happened on the site over the past two hundred years. Further investigation of the site and its history is now under consideration in conjunction with our partners.”

Hyde900 and the University of Winchester are now considering how to take forward these exciting findings, on the continued quest to find further remains of Alfred and the Wessex royal family.

Sources: Hyde900 and the University of Winchester

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