Bones unidentified for centuries may belong to one of England’s most historically important queens

Up to 22 other Ango-Saxon royals and major figures also represented in trove that was ransacked during Civil War

David Keys
Archaeology correspondent
Thursday 16 May 2019 11:44 BST
Bones unidentified for centuries may belong to one of England’s most historically important queens

Early England’s forgotten monarchs are set for a high-profile comeback – more than 1,000 years after they died.

Scientists are investigating the remains of up to 18 Anglo-Saxon kings and queens to try to determine their identities, potentially including the pivotal figure of Queen Emma. Emma of Normandy was the wife of two kings and the mother of two others, and one of the most significant figures of late Anglo-Saxon England.

The trove is believed to be the largest assemblage of medieval royal skeletal material ever scientifically analysed anywhere in the world.

For hundreds of years, some 1,300 royal and other high status bones have been kept in elaborate wooden caskets in what was, back in Anglo-Saxon times, England’s de facto capital city, Winchester.

Between the mid-seventh century and the mid-tenth, at least a dozen Anglo-Saxon kings were buried there – and, in at least the seventh and eighth centuries, it was probably the main administrative centre of the important Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, which by the late ninth century had expanded to become the Kingdom of England.

Until now, historians had thought that the bones belonged to just 11 individuals – six Anglo-Saxon kings, an Anglo-Saxon queen, an Anglo-Norman king, an Anglo-Danish king and two Anglo-Saxon Bishops.

But new scientific research, led by University of Bristol osteologists, Dr Heidi Dawson-Hobbis and Professor Kate Robson Brown on behalf of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral, has revealed that they are the partial remains of at least 23 people.

It is therefore likely that they also represent the remains of many other prominent Anglo-Saxons, potentially including up to half a dozen more early Anglo-Saxon kings.

The detailed scientific investigation into the bones will take several years to complete and should enable scientists to determine, in some cases, which bones belonged to which kings.

To achieve this, scientists have already dated some of the bones, have determined the individuals’ sexes and have succeeded in working out how old each individual was at the time of their deaths. Now they plan to carry out DNA testing to reveal specific family relationships between the individuals, additional radiocarbon dating tests and isotopic analyses to try to determine approximately where each individual grew up.

Specialists from Bristol University are also currently in the process of restoring the skeletons. So far, 10 have been substantially reassembled. The research will also enable scientists to learn more about what Anglo-Saxon elites ate, what diseases they suffered from and even what potential physical activities, such as archery and horse-riding, they engaged in.

The regal remains were housed in ornate mortuary caskets (Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral)

Until the mid-17th century some individuals’ bones had been kept in separate caskets, but during the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops ransacked Winchester Cathedral and, almost certainly aware of the royal nature of much of the skeletal material, scattered the bones around the building.

Now, more than 370 years later, scientists are set to reverse that act of anti-royalist desecration. For the first time in centuries, they are now at least partially restoring the skeletal integrity of some of England’s earliest monarchs.

The skeletal restoration process is likely to shine a spotlight on a largely forgotten era of British history – the origins and early development of the kingdom of Wessex and its ultimate transformation into the Kingdom of the English, the embryonic Kingdom of England.

It is thought that among the 23 individuals, represented by the 1,300 bones kept in the cathedral in six wooden caskets, are King Cynegils of Wessex (died 642); Bishop Wini (the first Bishop of Winchester, died around 670); King Cynewulf of Wessex (murdered by a rival in 786); King Ecgberht of Wessex and overlord of most of England (died 839); Alfred the Great’s father, King Æthelwulf (literally ‘Noble Wolf’, died 858); the conqueror of Viking Northumbria, King Eadred of Wessex, King of the English (died 955); King Edmund Ironside who agreed the partition of England between English and Danish rule (died 1016); the Danish King of England, Denmark and Norway, Canute (died 1035); Bishop Ælfwyn (died 1047, traditionally accused of cuckolding the King of England), Queen Emma (the wife of two English kings, died 1052); and the son of William the Conqueror and second Norman King of England, William II (died 1100, probably by assassination).

The 17th century wrong today’s scientists are trying to put right was described by a contemporary chronicler who claimed that, in 1642, Parliamentarian troops used the royal and other bones as missiles to destroy the cathedral’s priceless medieval stained glass windows and as weapons to damage other parts of the building.

Now, for the first time, scientific examination of the skeletal material appears to confirm that account.

Indeed, a significant percentage of the royal and episcopal femur bones – the largest in the body – had been broken in two or had had their distal ends snapped off, suggesting that they may indeed have been used as weapons or missiles during the mayhem in the cathedral.

Describing the scene, a Royalist clergyman called Bruno Ryves provided a chillingly immediate present-tense report of what seems to have transpired. He wrote: ‘They violently brake open the Cathedrall Church, and being entred, to let in the Tyde [of soldiers], they presently open the Great West doores, where the Barbarous Souldiers stood ready, nay greedy to rob God, and pollute his Temple.

“The doores being open, as if they meant to invade God himselfe, as well as his possession (the cathedral), they enter the Church with Colours flying: their drums beating, their Matches (sulphur tapers) fired (already lit), and that all might have their part in so horrid an attempt, some of their Troops of Horse also accompanied them in their march, and road up through the body of the Church, and Quire, untill they came to the Altar, there they begin their work, they rudely pluck down the [altar] Table, and break the [altar] Rayle: and afterwards carrying it to an Alehouse, they set it on fire, and in that fire burnt the Books of Common-prayer, and all the Singing-books belonging to the Quire: They throw down the Organ, and breake the [wooden sculptures depicting the] Stories of the Old and New Testament, curiously cut out in carved work, beautified with Colours, and set round about the top of the Stalls of the Quire: from hence they turne to the Monuments of the Dead, some they utterly demolish, others they deface.

“But these monsters of men, to whom nothing is holy, nothing is Sacred, did not stick to profane, and violate these Cabinets of the dead, and to scatter their bones all over the pavement of the Church: for on the North side of the Quire, they threw down the Chests, wherein were deposited the bones of the Bishops, the like they did to the bones of [King] William Rufus, of Queen Emma, of [King] Hardecanutus and were going on to practise the like impiety on the bones of all the rest of the West Saxon Kings.

“But the Outcry of the [local] people, detesting so great inhumanity, caused some of [the soldiers’] Commanders, more Compassionate to these auncient Monuments of the dead than the Rest, to come in amongst them, and to restrain their madnesse. But that divelish malice which was not permitted to rage and overflow to the spurning and trampling on the bones of all, did satiate it selfe, even to a prodigious kind of wantonnesse, on those [bones], which were already in their power: And therefore as if they meant, if it had been possible, to make these bones contract a Posthume (posthumous) guilt, by being now made the passive Instruments, of more then heathenish Sacriledge, and profanenesse, those Windowes which they could not reach with their Swords, Muskets, or Rests (musket supports), they brake to pieces, by throwing at them, the bones of Kings, Queenes, Bishops, Confessors and Saints: So that the spoyle done on the Windowes, will not be repayred for a Thousand pounds.”

The current scientific examination of the bones helps to reveal, in an unprecedented way, the visceral hatred felt by at least some radical Parliamentarian troops, not just for the King they were fighting against but for the whole concept of royalty. The caskets containing the royal bones were located some six metres above the floor of the cathedral – and would have required ladders and considerable effort to reach and throw down.

Remarkably, one tiny wooden carving of an exotic animal, probably a giraffe – potentially depicted as part of the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark, perhaps among the sculptures said by Bruno Ryves to have been destroyed in the choir - was mistaken for a bone fragment by the mid-seventeenth century cathedral workers collecting the scattered bones, and was consequently placed together with the real bones into one of the caskets that they had come from.

Replicas of some of the skeletal material will form part of a new permanent Anglo-Saxon and Medieval history exhibition at Winchester Cathedral (Kings & Scribes: The Birth of a Nation), due to open to the public this coming Tuesday.

The only individual whose bones have been tentatively identified is one of the most famous and important Anglo-Saxon royals, Queen Emma, the wife of King Ethelred the Unready and subsequently the wife of King Canute. She was also the mother of two Kings of England – Edward the Confessor and the Anglo-Danish monarch, Hardacanute. Her influence on English and subsequently therefore wider history is substantial, not least because her dynastic family connections gave William the Conqueror part of his legal justification for invading England and seizing the throne.

Her skeleton has been partially reassembled and a 3D-printed replica has pride of place in the new exhibition.

It is the first time her bones have been put together since Parliamentarian troops scattered them (and others) across the cathedral floor in 1642 – and the first time that they have been in their correct anatomical positions since they were exhumed and put into mortuary caskets back in the early 14th century.

The scientific analysis of the bones has also revealed a tantalising mystery – the discovery that some of the bones in the mortuary caskets belonged to two Norman boys, both aged between 10 and 15, who would have lived in the mid-11th to late 12th centuries.

Their presence in the caskets was not suspected and their identity is currently unknown, but they are likely to have been of royal blood. A major aspect of future research will be to try to discover who they were, whether they were siblings and the circumstances of their deaths.

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“Our analysis of the 1,300 bones from the mortuary chests will shed important new light on the lives of the individuals they represent. Our ongoing research will reveal aspects of their diet, the diseases they suffered from, and the physical activities they engaged in,” said Bristol University osteologist and biological anthropologist, Dr Heidi Dawson-Hobbis.

“The current scientific research is extremely important because it complements the historical information we are also amassing,” said Dr John Crook, Winchester Cathedral’s archaeological and historical consultant.

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