The remains of English kings keep popping up in the unlikeliest of places. In 2012 Richard III’s skeleton was discovered underneath a parking lot. Then this past Friday, researchers disclosed that a piece of pelvic bone likely belonging to either Alfred the Great or his son Edward the Elder—both renowned for repelling Viking invaders—had been languishing in anonymity at a museum storage facility. It apparently arrived there after enduring several exhumations and the construction of an onsite prison.
Born in 849, Alfred is the only English monarch known as “the Great.” He succeeded his older brother as king of Wessex at age 21 in the midst of a Viking invasion that had already subdued every other Anglo-Saxon kingdom in England. Alfred was able to hold out by retreating to the Somerset marshes and employing guerilla warfare tactics. He then defeated the Vikings in a major pitched battle in 878. Peace more or less followed, at which time Alfred erected a series of fortresses and built up a navy to prevent a repeat attack. He also worked to improve literacy among his subjects, going so far as to personally assist in translations from Latin to Old English. Barbara Yorke, a professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester, called this “an absolutely amazing thing for a warrior king to do.”
Much of what we know about Alfred’s life comes from a contemporary biography written by one of his clerical advisers. Due in large part to this work, Alfred received much acclaim in later years, particularly during the 19th century Victorian era. “Alfred was probably not quite as remarkable as the Victorians believed,” Yorke said. “But he was an impressive warrior, inventive and intellectually curious, and seems something of a micro-manager—which may have been the real key to his success.” Scholars credit Alfred for laying the foundation for a unified nation. His son Edward the Elder largely continued his policies and expanded Wessex’s territory in battle, as did his grandson Athelstan, who is often regarded as the first king of all England.
Historical records show that when Alfred died in 899, he was buried at Old Minster, a cathedral in the southern English city of Winchester. His remains were then moved next door to New Minster prior to undergoing yet another relocation in 1110 to the newly established Hyde Abbey. Though Hyde Abbey and other monasteries were dissolved in the 16th century under Henry VIII, who had broken with the Catholic Church, the bodies of Alfred, Edward and other family members were purportedly allowed to stay for the time being. In 1788, however, an eyewitness reported seeing the tombs emptied and the bones thrown about during the construction of a prison there. Matters were further complicated in the 1860s, when an antiquities collector excavated some bones from Hyde Abbey that he claimed belonged to the Wessex royal family. He sold them to the rector of nearby Saint Bartholomew’s Church, who subsequently reburied them in an unmarked grave.
There the bones remained unmolested until the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s skeleton beneath a Leicester parking lot sparked a renewed interest in missing rulers, as well as increased security concerns. “It was thought that anyone in the dead of night could come with a shovel and go digging,” said Rosemary Burns, a trustee of a Hyde Abbey-related charity. As a result, church officials approved the immediate exhumation of the unmarked grave. Researchers from the University of Winchester found the bones of at least six individuals inside, including five skulls. Radiocarbon tests revealed, however, that the bones dated from around 1100 to 1500—not old enough to be from the Wessex royal family. The antiquities collector had been wrong.
Before giving up the search, lead researcher Katie Tucker contacted the Winchester City Museum and learned about two boxes of human bones that had been excavated from Hyde Abbey in the late 1990s. More radiocarbon tests were done, and this time a piece of pelvic bone dated back to 895-1017. Additional analysis showed that it belonged to a male who died between age 26 and 45-plus. Based on the age of the man at death, the age of the bone, its resting place near the monastery’s high altar and the fact that no burials are known to have taken place at Hyde Abbey before its founding, researchers pointed the finger at either Alfred or Edward. “It’s likely to be one of them,” Tucker said. “I wouldn’t want to say which one of them.”
In order to confirm this finding, researchers would have to extract DNA from the pelvis and compare it to the DNA of one of Alfred’s relatives, not necessarily an easy task. “We’ve had quite a number of individuals who have been contacting us, sending us their family trees, saying that they are actually descendents of Alfred,” Tucker said. “There is the potential that may be worth pursuing. But it is a very long way to try and go back.” Meanwhile, researchers plan on doing further excavations at Hyde Abbey to see if they can unearth more of Alfred’s and Edward’s bones.