Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Today I am pleased to share a guest article written by Evelyn Croft. The recent discoveries of hard-working archaeologists are very exciting, indeed. It makes me wonder if the remains of Eadric Streona might one day be discovered. Alas, given the disgraceful nature of his death, that is highly unlikely!

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Meeting The Monarchs: The Hunt For King Alfred

Over the last few months the world has watched in awe as the story of the last Plantagenet King of England, Richard III unfolded. With his body being found in a car park, and the resultant tests on the skeleton and facial reconstruction bringing forth much historical debate and scholarly discussion on matters relating to his rule and now how and where his body should be reburied.

Whilst this was happening, in another corner of the United Kingdom, work was also being quietly undertaken to ascertain whether the body of possibly the most well known Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred The Great, has now been found and what this means in terms of research on his life and times.

Alfred The Great

It is thought that the bones of Alfred The Great (c849-899), who ruled from 871 to his death, and who was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, had lain in St Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester since the 19th Century. He had previously been buried at Hyde Abbey, but when it was ruined during the 1530s, the his remains and possibly five of his family members including his wife were exhumed and reburied in the aforementioned church.

This recent excavation comes about after it was feared that following the successful excavation of Richard III, there may be an attempt to steal the bones or vandalize the resting place. The decision to undertake the exhumation was made by the Parish Council of St Bartholomews church.

Long standing arguments settled

If these are indeed the bones of Alfred, it will settle a long argument as to what actually happened to him after his death, as it was for a long time felt that his bones had been lost forever. This is not an unusual occurrence for the time – as in the following century, Alfred’s grandson King Athelstan (generally though to be first King of England as a united country) died and was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, but his tomb is now believed to be empty and his remains lost.

The University of Winchester is seeking to gain permission to undertake osteo-archaeological and DNA study of the bones exhumed to ascertain whether they do belong to Alfred and his wife and family or not.

The chances that they are his remains are entirely plausible. When the bones were first exhumed from Hyde Abbey hundreds of years ago, they were said to be the oldest there. Monks had only been present at Hyde from the 12 century onwards, meaning the only other burials there may have been higher ranked individuals from previous centuries. Scientists will need to undertake a radio carbon dating of the remains to ascertain their age. If they date from the 10th century or even slightly before it offers an excellent probability that they belong to Alfred and his family.

What his bones may be able to tell us

One of the main issues with the bones, if they are that of the late King, is that they are now so old that DNA might be totally impossible to extract – though it is not impossible.

In 2008, the body of Alfred’s granddaughter Princess Eadgyth was unearthed Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, more than 1000 years after her own death. Her remains had also been thought lost, but had actually been reburied as late as 1510 in a lead sarcophagus in the Cathedral. On studying the bones they were able to find out that she ate a high protein diet, rich in marine life that she was a frequent horse rider and that most importantly, they indicated that she had been born in the Kingdom of Wessex, which proved beyond all doubt she was Alfred’s granddaughter.

If it was possible for Scientists to be able to take a sample, perhaps from one of the teeth or indeed leg bones that may have survived, this can provide a rich seam of information for the modern historian on everything from his diet, his lifestyle, his overall health and any medical conditions he may have suffered from, including matters pertaining to his sexual health too. Osteo-archaeologists can tell from merely looking at the bones themselves what conditions a person suffered from in life. If, for instance, the King suffered from a condition such as syphilis, the bones of his legs or arms may be pock-marked or take on a honeycomb style appearance. They will show up any mineral deficiencies he may have had and even might be able to indicate whether he suffered from any degenenerative or chronic health conditions that may have shortened his lifespan.

Once permission is gained to begin the study and examination of the bones it is hoped that a whole new interest in a fascinating King and a relatively little known period of history will be re-kindled. Archaeologists involved also hope that in the event the bones are proved to be Alfred’s, they may also be able to find living descendants just as they have done with the late King Richard.

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Article by Evelyn Croft

5/1/2013

 

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