The Search for Alfred the Great’s Tomb

Alfred the Great's statue at Winchester. Hamo Thornycroft's bronze statue erected in 1899. Photo Credit- Wikipedia

Alfred the Great’s statue at Winchester. Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze statue erected in 1899. Photo Credit- Wikipedia

The only monarch in English history to bestowed the title “the Great” was Alfred of Wessex. Born to King Aethelwulf and his wife Osburh at Wantage in 849 CE, Alfred as the fifth and youngest son, was never intended to be king. His intelligence and love of learning was well documented. There is story in Bishop Asser’s biography of Alfred of his mother offering a book of Saxon poetry to the first of her children to memorize it. Despite being the youngest, Alfred won. He placed much importance on education, setting up schools and promoting literacy despite more pressing concerns.

However, Alfred was born into tumultuous times. Viking raids were common and frequent. The Great Heathen Army, the name given to the invading army of Danes by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, landed in 865 CE intent on conquest. Aethelwulf made his sons promise to all succeed each other instead of leaving the kingdom in the hands of an under aged child. Ultimately, the kingship was decided by the Witan, a council of ealdormen, thegns and clergy, abided by Aethelwulf’s wishes.

Subsequent battles and illness claimed his brothers in turn, leaving Alfred to guide the country through the Viking attacks and dark times. By 878 CE, Wessex was the only Anglo Saxon kingdom in England standing. The lowest point was Gundrum the Dane’s attack on Alfred’s estate at Chippenham over Christmas forcing his house thegns and family to flee. They retreated to the Somerset marshes at Athelney and began a systematic guerrilla campaign against the Danes. This culminated in a victory at Eddington against the Great Heathen Army forcing their leader Gundrum to become a Christian. The skirmishes with Danes were far from over, but Alfred had saved Wessex.

The Alfred jewel made of gold and enamel, bears the Anglo - Saxon inscription 'Aelfred mec heht gewyrgan' (Alfred had me made). Thought to be the crown of a writing implement. Photo Credit- http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_6.htm

The Alfred jewel made of gold and enamel, bears the Anglo – Saxon inscription ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrgan’ (Alfred had me made). Thought to be the crown of a writing implement. Photo Credit- http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_6.htm

When Alfred died in 899 CE, William of Malmesbury recorded that he was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. Then later was moved to the New Minster to rest with his wife Lady Ealhswith and son King Edward the Elder. William records this unprecedented move was allowed because “his spirit resumed its body and walked.” The royal family was moved in 1110 CE to the abbey at Hyde, a suburb of Winchester. They were reburied at the High Altar of the abbey church.

There they stayed peacefully until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Hyde Abbey was dissolved and given to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Salisbury, who leased it to Richard Bethel. Bethel promptly tore down the church and swept away “any bones on the altar used as relics”. Some experts believe the tombs were destroyed at this point, but it is not known for sure.

This plaque and the arch next to it are all that remain of Hyde Abbey. Photo Credit- http://royalrestingplaces.com/

This plaque and the arch next to it are all that remain of Hyde Abbey. Photo Credit- http://royalrestingplaces.com/

In 1788, part of the abbey grounds were dug to build the New Gaol, the County Bridewell. At this time, many artifacts were found and anything of value was stolen. Mr Page, the prison warden, said, “the prisoners threw the bones about, broke up the coffins and sold the lead.” Those bones were then reburied at St. Bartholomew’s Church in an unmarked grave.

Modern projects to excavate the grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church and Hyde Abbey turned up skeletons that were from later period than the one Alfred lived. It seemed his remains were lost to the mists of history. Then a cardboard box containing bones were found in the basement of a local museum from an excavation of where the high altar of Hyde Abbey would have been. They were previously dismissed as animal bones by the amateur team. A bone expert reexamined them and found the pelvis of a man. Further tests showed this to be a pelvis from a man aged 26-45, who died in 895-1017 CE. This means the remains could be from Alfred or his son Edward the Elder.

More study is needed, but this could be as significant a find as Richard III’s remains in a parking lot. I am hopeful that the man who saved England will be buried with his family and given the honor he deserves.

ER