Winchester (G-B): Have archaelogists found Alfred the Great too?
Dig at Winchester graveyard will look for king's remains
A team of archaeologists believe bones buried in an unmarked grave in Winchester could be those of the 9th Century Saxon leader
Big dig: St Bartholomew's Church - Alamy
Days after confirmation that Richard III had been found, trowels are being sharpened to dig for more royal remains.
A team of archaeologists is hoping to locate Alfred the Great and believe bones buried in an unmarked grave in Winchester could be those of the 9th Century Saxon leader.
They will begin excavating at St Bartholomew’s church in the spring and the results could be known by early summer.
A vicar reputedly bought the bones after Alfred’s original crypt at Hyde Abbey was ransacked.
If the remains turn out to be those of Alfred – widely regarded as the greatest ever English king – it would be one the most significant archeological discoveries ever made.
Katie Tucker, an archaeologist from the University of Winchester, who will be leading the search, admitted their attempt to identify the bones will be “a long shot”.
But she said: “If the bones are from around the 10th century then that is proof they are Alfred and his family, because Hyde Abbey was not built until the 12th Century, and there is no reason for any other bones from the 10th Century to be there.”
Historians agree if it wasn’t for Alfred, who died in 899AD, Britain could be a very different country today.
In turning back the tide of Viking conquest, he ensured the survival of English as our language and Christianity as our religion.
Loved: King Alfred
And during his 28 years on the throne, he established many of the democratic principles and institutions we take for granted, reforming the justice system, drawing up the first written code of laws and founding the navy.
He was 22 when he took the throne after the death of his brother Aethelred.
At the time the Vikings controlled of most of Britain but Alfred refused to submit.
Known as an intelligent war strategist, he defeated the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878 and saved Kent from another Danish invasion in 885.
The following year Alfred went on the offensive and captured London.
He later made peace with the Danes and their king, Guthrum, was baptised as a Christian with Alfred as his sponsor.
It was during his years fighting the Vikings that the popular legend emerged about how, after being given shelter by a peasant woman, he burnt the cakes he had been asked to watch because he was so preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom.
As an administrator, Alfred was equally successful. He advocated justice and order and established a code of laws and a reformed coinage.
Although technically King of Wessex, he was later known as the first King of the English. He died of natural causes aged 50 in 899 and was laid to rest in the old minster in the Hampshire city.
In the decades after his death, Alfred’s body is believed to have been moved twice, ending up across town in Hyde Abbey, so he could be buried with his wife Ealhswith, who died aged 90, and his sons
Hero: King Alfred The Great statue in Winchester - Alamy
But in 1538, during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Hyde Abbey was ransacked and destroyed – which is when the mystery over the whereabouts of Alfred’s remains begins.
Tradition has it that the graves of Alfred and his family were left undisturbed, but later pilfered during construction of the town jail in 1788.
Robin Iles, education officer for Winchester museums, said: “The truth is we don’t know what happened. An excavation in the 90s confirmed where the tombs used to be and slabs now mark the spot.”
If his bones were stolen by a builder working on the jail, they may have reappeared a century later when a vicar from St Bartholomew’s church in Winchester bought a collection of bones from a shady character for 10 shillings.
He was told the bones – which included five skulls – had originally been buried under nearby ruined Hyde Abbey. They were put on display for a time, then interred in the church grounds.
The University of Winchester team has warned the process of identifying the bones could prove to be much more difficult than in Richard III’s case.
Firstly, there is no complete skeleton, just a collection of bones which could belong to a number of different people.
Secondly, Alfred died almost 600 years earlier than Richard, making DNA testing exceptionally difficult.
German scientists have been analysing the skeleton of Alfred’s granddaughter in Magdeburg, Germany, to try to find DNA but their efforts have failed.
Instead, experts must rely on radiocarbon dating to confirm what would be a crowning achievement.