Could an unmarked grave in Winchester contain the remains of King Alfred?

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Prayers being led on the unmarked grave suspected to be that of Alfred the Great.
Image: Diocese of Winchester.

The remains of an unmarked grave suspected to be that of King Alfred of England who died in 899 AD were exhumed in order to protect them for security reasons from St Bartholomew's Church in Winchester. Prayers were led by The Right Reverend Peter Hancock during the exhumation which was led by archaeologists on March 25–26 due to fears that the bones may be subject to theft.

Wikinews interviewed Nick Edmonds from the Diocese of Winchester and Professor John Clarke from the University of Buckingham about why the bones were dug up and the likelihood that they are those of Alfred the Great.

Nick Edmonds

((Wikinews)) Why were the remains exhumed from the unmarked grave? Did you believe that it may attract criminal activity?

Nick Edmonds: Yes, under advice from the diocesan chancellor, and with many instances of amateur investigations of supposedly significant burial sites, the remains have been exhumed for reasons of safety and security, and are now in storage in accordance with English Heritage guidelines.

((WN)) Are there plans for some form of testing to be carried out on the bones, such as DNA testing or carbon dating?

NE: No plans or permission at present. This may change, but would require a faculty (the church of England's planning permission process) to allow any kind of investigation. Such tests are of course possible down the line, and DNA is a hard test to predict reliability of.

((WN)) What is the likelihood that these are the remains of the former King?

NE: This presupposes that this investigation is looking for King Alfred. In fact the interest is to investigate an unmarked grave, the contents of which are unknown. Of course, an outside possibility is a link to Alfred and the royal house of Wessex. To answer this question, you need to take a full look at the provenance and make your own judgement. Nonetheless, Alfred's bones were moved twice, before being unearthed by prisoners in the late 18th c. And subsequently possibly falling into the hands of a disreputable antiquarian in the 19th century. That's a heavily abridged version, but we are talking about a slim outside chance.

((WN)) How long did the operation to exhume the bones take?

NE: 10 hours.

((WN)) Could the bones be potentially buried again in the near future?

NE: By order of the Chancellor, if no further procedure is granted, the bones would be re-interred within 6 months maximum.
A file photo of the St Bartholomew's Church in Winchester.
Image: Michael Ford.

Professor John Clarke

((Wikinews)) What is your role at the University of Buckingham?

Prof. John Clarke: I am Professor of Modern History and Secretary to Council at the University of Buckingham.

((WN)) How likely do you think it is that these are the remains of King Alfred?

JC: Very difficult to say — although, as capital of Wessex, Winchester would be the obvious place. Much would depend on scientific evidence (see below). Also needs to be checked against any relevant literary sources such as the AS Chronicle [Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] and Asser's Life [of King Alfred]. There is nothing I have seen so far that positively excludes identification with Alfred. I have an idea that there may have been a Victorian claim about the burial being that of Alfred. This makes me just a little suspicious. The Victorians were very keen on Alfred and one cannot rule out the possibility of a fake by an overenthusiastic admirer. With not much else to go on I would say 50 per cent.

((WN)) Is DNA testing difficult to conduct on bones of such an age? Would you say that there has been a surge in interest in finding the remains of former British monarchs?

JC: Royal remains are big news now. The Alfred story comes up close behind that of Richard III — which does raise the thought of a 'bandwagon.' In other words there does seem to be surge in interest in Royal Remains. An interesting combination of rather primitive fascination with 'relics' and the complexities of scientific analysis. The people at Leicester are certain that the bones they have are Richard III, and I have no reason to question their findings. In the case of Alfred there are three obvious differences.
Richard III's burial was some 500 years ago whereas Alfred's was about 1100 years ago. Other things being equal — and I do not know anything about the condition of the bones — it is likely to be harder to make positive identification for human material that is more than twice as old as Richard's
Again I must stress that I am not an archaeologist or DNA person but my understanding is that in Richard III's case procedure centred on comparison between his DNA and that of people who are alive today and who are descended from other members of his family — including his brother the Duke of Clarence and his niece Elizabeth of York. I was struck by how many figures of importance today are related to Richard — in other words they are the sort of people whose family trees are well known. While I am sure that there are many people related to Alfred, the greater length of time and the dispossession of so many Saxons at the time of the Norman Conquest would mean that present day descendents would be harder to trace with certainty. In other words I do not say that the DNA method would be impossible but it would face much bigger challenges than in the case of Richard III.
One of the clinching factors with Richard III was that contemporary accounts describe the King as having a humped back — as did the skeleton. As far as I know Alfred did not have any unusual physical features.


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