Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
King Alfred the Great is a national hero. At least, he is to the English – though, to be fair, we have always been very generous about sharing our heroes with the rest of Britain and, at the slightest opportunity, with the rest of the world too. Yet, somehow, we have managed to mislay King Alfred’s bones. We simply do not know where they are. Indeed, the story of King Alfred’s missing remains is one that manages to be shameful, embarrassing, fascinating and, if we’re honest, a little farcical, all at once.
“Sir! Sir! We’ve lost the king’s bones!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Caruthers. They must be somewhere; damnitall, the man’s a national hero.”
As things are, it all comes down to a pelvis. Not even a whole one, either, just a fragment that had been sitting idly in a box with some other bits and pieces, minding its own business. Before that, it had been lying, unattached from the rest of itself for years and not at all neat and tidy as it was meant to be. Even before that, it had been dug up and moved at least twice.
Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we?
Who was King Alfred?
King Alfred is not the only great monarch in British history, but he is the only monarch in English history to be called ‘Great’. However, Alfred was not a king of England, because there was no such place in his lifetime. Nevertheless, without Alfred England would not exist – and it therefore follows that a whole bunch of other things wouldn’t either. So, who was Alfred? Alfred was King of Wessex, the land of the West Saxons, more than eleven centuries ago. The heartland of Wessex included the modern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Berkshire and Somerset, but by the early 9th century the kings of Wessex controlled Devon and Cornwall to the west as well as the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent to the east. The kingdom’s northern border with the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia ran somewhere through Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and along the Thames. But Britain had always been prone to attack and by the time Alfred became king at the age of 21, in 871 AD, Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom on the island not to have been overcome by Viking Danish raiders – the ‘Last Kingdom’ of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction novels. The map shows the location of Anglo-Saxon and other territories in Britain before Viking raids began.
It was Alfred’s lifetime achievement to prevent Wessex falling to the Danes, to lay the foundations for a future unified English state, and to be considered the first king of all the English. His recovery from Danish attack in 878, emerging from hiding in the marshes of Athelney to beat the Danes in Battle at Ethandune (Edington) later that year is the stuff of schoolboy legend. Alfred also recaptured Mercian London from the Danes and deterred them from overrunning the whole of the land by creating a network of fortified towns. These ‘burhs’, or ‘burgs’ (meaning fort or castle) – from which we get ‘burgh’ and ‘borough’ – were well-organised urban areas with street plans, many of which have survived to this day. Alfred was able to maintain Wessex and a large part of western Mercia (equivalent to Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire) under a single Anglo-Saxon rule, with an area of ‘Danelaw’ in the north and east of England, but probably had dreams of a larger united country. This would be made a reality by his son Edward, daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, and grandson Athelstan, the first King of England (see Eamont Bridge for a bit about this).
That’s the thing about Alfred: he wasn’t just a successful military leader; he had vision. His concept of kingship went far beyond the survival of a parochial tribal area. He was a law-maker, a highly skilled administrator and, at a time when most kings could neither read nor write, an accomplished scholar. One story is that, when he was a boy, his mother promised a book of poetry to the first of her sons who could read it to her. Alfred couldn’t read at the time, but memorised the book so he could recite the verses by heart and won the book. As king, he encouraged learning, believing that education in his kingdom had declined disastrously following decades of Danish and Viking attacks. He taught himself Latin and, with help, translated into Anglo-Saxon those texts he thought “most needful for men to know.” These books included histories, works of philosophy and Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, a handbook for clergy. Alfred instructed his bishops to promote translation from Latin into the vernacular, to make learning and knowledge more accessible, and to teach the young to read their own language. He was ahead of his time. He is even sometimes credited as being the father of the Royal Navy.
When Alfred died in 899, he was buried in the cathedral of his capital, Winchester. This building, now known as the Old Minster, had been built for King Cenwalh of Wessex in 648 AD. It was the first Christian church in Winchester and the centre of Christianity in Wessex. However, space was tight and a new Benedictine abbey – the New Minster – was being constructed alongside the Old Minster when Alfred died. When this was completed, sometime around 901 AD, Alfred’s son, King Edward (aka Edward the Elder), had his father’s remains transferred from the Old Minster to the New. Alfred’s wife Alswitha (Edward’s mother), and Edward himself, were also buried there when their time came. Other royal bodies followed, including that of King Cnut. Cnut’s widow, Emma of Normandy, even donated the head of St Valentine; so it was quite a special place. However, in 1093 the new Norman regime in England decided to demolish the New Minster to make way for their own brand of cathedral – the one we see today. And in 1109, King Henry I ordered the monks to shift themselves, their library, relics and other goods and treasures, to a new site at Hyde Mead, just north of the city walls. Once the new abbey church at Hyde was sufficiently complete, in 1110, the Benedictine monks relocated everything there – including the bodies of Alfred, Alswitha and their son, Edward the Elder. We are told that the royal remains were carried through the streets with all due reverence, and great ceremony, before being laid in their new resting place in front of the high altar.
Hyde Abbey became a popular place of pilgrimage and, surviving near destruction during the Anarchy between 1135 and 1153, as well as events like the Black Death in the 14th century, it did pretty well for 400 years or so. Then came Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In 1538 or 1539, Hyde Abbey was surrendered to the king’s commissioners. We are told that the monks were pensioned off, the abbey’s treasures destroyed or sold and the buildings reduced to rubble.
And this where it gets a little murky on the osseous side of things. Some say that, not only were the abbey’s riches stripped from it by Henry’s men, but that tombs were raided too and King Alfred’s bones were removed. Winchester Cathedral’s own website specifically says that the king’s remains were lost when the abbey was destroyed during the Reformation and have never been found. Other sources suggest that the royal graves were not disturbed. The antiquary John Leland visited the site of Hyde Abbey in 1542 to find no substantial buildings left standing. All that remains of the great abbey today are a stone gateway and barn, an arch that spanned the abbey millstream and the church built for the pilgrims and lay-brothers, St Bartholomew’s, opposite the gateway. The church tower was built in 1541 using stones from the demolished abbey. Leland said that the tomb of Alfred and Edward contained “two little tables of lead, inscribed with their names”, which suggests the tomb had been opened; but most experts seem to believe that the bodies were left alone.
The real trouble came, apparently, in 1788 when the local authorities decided to build a gaol, or ‘bridewell’ on the site and set a gang of convicts to work digging foundations. During the course of this, they uncovered a number of graves including, apparently a great stone coffin near the site of the high altar. Captain Henry Howard, a heritage enthusiast and officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment stationed in Winchester about 10 years later, interviewed the prison’s overseer, Mr Page, and reported that the coffin was:
“Cased with lead both within and without, and containing some bones and remains of garments. The lead, in its decayed state, sold for two guineas; the bones were thrown about and the stone coffin broken into pieces. There were also two other coffins and no more found in this part, which were also broke for the sake of the garden in which they lay, broken up and buried as low as the spring.”
And that, it would seem, was what happened to King Alfred’s bones. Ironically, the gaol was demolished a short time later, in the 1840s.
Enter John Mellor. John Mellor seems to have been a quack historian and meddler of the worst kind. In 1866, he somehow got permission to excavate the site of the abbey church, guessing where the altar had been and, unsurprisingly, uncovered a number of human remains. These included five skulls, one of which, Mellor claimed, based on comparing it with a contemporary engraving of the king from a coin or medallion, was that of the great King Alfred. You couldn’t make it up. He also planted some obviously fake ‘evidence’, which had apparently been made by a local blacksmith. Notwithstanding the fact that Mellor was obviously a con-artist, the vicar of St Bartholomew’s was intrigued by his discoveries and paid him ten shillings (about £60 today) for the bones, including the skulls. Given a degree of uncertainty over exactly to whom they belonged, however, they were eventually reburied in a brick-lined vault under an unmarked stone slab at the east end of the church.
People had not given up looking for King Alfred’s bones, though. There were further excavations at the end of the 19th century and an extensive community project in 1999 – which unearthed more remains and enabled some significant mapping of the abbey buildings, particularly around the east end of the abbey church. Then in 2013, given the advances in technology, and in the atmosphere of interest in royal skeletons generated by the discovery of Richard III in Leicester, permission was given to open the vault at the back of St Bartholomew’s. Would these include the bones of King Alfred? Investigation revealed the remains of five people dating from 1230 to 1500. It was suggested four had been patients in the abbey’s infirmary and the fifth a monk. Fascinating – but not Alfred.
Which brings us to the lonely bit of pelvis. Dr Katie Tucker, Human Osteologist and Archaeologist at the University of Winchester, had been involved in the 2013 project and wanted to look again at what had been taken out of the abbey site in 1999. She identified a number of bones, including the pelvis, for radio-carbon dating. Could any of these be King Alfred’s bones? The pelvis belonged to a male and was found to date from the late 9th or early 10th century. This makes it almost certainly a ‘New Minster’ bone – and it could easily have belonged to King Alfred, or his son, Edward. Some sort of result, then.
Hyde Abbey today
The outline of the Old Minster is traced in brickwork next to the great Norman cathedral at Winchester. From there, walk north out of the city along suburban Hyde Street (the clue’s in the name), hang a right into King Alfred Place, and you’ll see St Bartholomew’s on the left with the old abbey gate opposite. Watch out for feral pigeons and their doings inside the gate. A marker on the wall notes that Hyde Abbey was the burial place of Alfred, his queen and their son. Most of the abbey site is now a residential area. To find the site of Alfred’s last known resting-place, you need to continue along King Alfred Place, past the houses, to Hyde Abbey Garden. Here, you stand over the east end of the abbey church, near to the high altar. In front of you is a glass screen, beautifully engraved with an impression of the church. It is stunning. Beyond, flint paths follow the lines of the walls, yew hedges outline chapels, steel-framed holly bushes mark the site of pillars and three great stones lie above the burial pit, each carved with a simple cross. So Alfred, Alswitha and Edward are not forgotten, even if we still don’t know exactly where they are.
The slab at the east end of St Bartholomew’s is easy to find. I couldn’t make out what was engraved on it; it was too faint to read. If only I had thought to bring a very large piece of tracing paper with me.
How relevant is Alfred the Great?
Historically, Alfred is hugely important to England, Britain and the wider world. Of course, we can only make an educated guess as to his true character, but Alfred’s reputation has undoubtedly been enhanced by a contemporary and highly biased biography written by Bishop Asser of Wales. Asser portrays Alfred as the perfect Christian king – almost too good to be true and so pious as to be really irritating. His statue in Winchester dates from 1901 and shows him holding his sword like a cross. Our perception of him is also partly a product of Victorian Britain, when the idea of righteous national heroes was hugely popular. We like the idea of the lone individual saving people from tyranny – or, in this case, Lurpak and Lego. So Alfred appeals to our love of the underdog, backs resolutely against the wall, a noble champion coming to the rescue of something or other. He is part of Britain’s story, right up there with Robert the Bruce, Owain Glyndwr, Dunkirk and the legendary Arthur, with whom Alfred is often confused or compared. Except Alfred was real.
I would be pleasantly surprised to learn that today’s secondary school pupils understand the significance of Alfred. Who we choose as our heroes is often a matter of fashion, who is in the headlines, or even just who we happen to admire. In 2002, the BBC organised a poll to determine who people then thought were the 100 greatest Britons in history and Alfred came in at No 14. Ahead of him were:
1 Sir Winston Churchill
2 Isambard Kingdom Brunel
3 Diana, Princess of Wales
4 Charles Darwin
5 William Shakespeare
6 Sir Isaac Newton
7 Elizabeth I
8 John Lennon
9 Horatio Nelson
10 Oliver Cromwell
11 Sir Ernest Shackleton.
12 Captain James Cook
13 Robert Baden-Powell.
Times change. In another poll of the Top 50 Britons, published in the Daily Mirror in 2015 (I have no idea who ran this), Alfred didn’t even get a look in. However, several sports personalities, who, whilst highly talented jolly nice people and all that, haven’t actually done much in the way of nation-building, did. Alfred would be turning in his grave – if only he had one.
During the course of researching this article, I came across a community organisation called Hyde900. As well as a social and cultural side, it supports research into the history of the Hyde area – including archaeology in the community. It looks like a fantastic organisation and its website is packed with interesting stuff.