Statue_d'Alfred_le_Grand_à_Winchester

Statue of Alfred the Great by Hamo Thornycroft in Winchester.

Archaeologists had been interested in an unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s in Winchester for years. Many believed that it contained the remains of a 9th-century Saxon king. It was not until the remains of King Richard III were unearthed from a car park in Leicester last February that archaeologists renewed their efforts to obtain approval for excavation of the Winchester burial ground. Expectations were high, as some believed that the Saxon burial ground could contain the ‘holy-grail’ of remains, those of King Alfred the Great. After obtaining approval and moving forward with excavations, however, the team was disappointed to find skeletons that were much too recent to have belonged to Alfred the Great.

Discoveries sometimes come from the most unlikely of places. This particular discovery came from within a cardboard box that had been sitting at a local museum since 1999. The box contained bone fragments that had been excavated from what was at one time the high altar at Hyde Abbey. The amateur team that had performed the original excavation in 1999 dismissed the box of bones as animal remains. After the recent disappointment at St Bartholomew’s, a bone expert reexamined the boxed fragments and was surprised to discover that one bone among them came from a human pelvis. Radiocarbon dating then confirmed the pelvis fragment to between AD895 and 1017.

Hyde_Abbey_gatehouse

The gatehouse of Hyde Abbey, Winchester.

The significance of this discovery lies in the fact that Alfred the Great died in 899. His remains have been moved at least four times in the millenium since his death, with their last known location being Hyde Abbey. The abbey was robbed and it was thought that his remains had been removed and lost. To further complicate matters, the abbey was demolished in the 19th century and a prison was built. The workers passed any remains they found to a vicar who reburied them in an unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s.

In the end, archaeologists had assumed that any potential Saxon remains would be found at St Bartholomew’s, rather than at the old site of Hyde Abbey. The pelvis fragment, dated to the proper timeframe, has renewed the belief that the remains of Alfred the Great and his immediate family may still be buried at Hyde Abbey. Archaeologist Neil Oliver believes that the case is almost airtight that the remains are those of Alfred: “Hyde Abbey is a Twelfth Century church, there’s no historic evidence to support the fact that any 10th-century burials would have been made on that site, apart from Alfred, his wife and his eldest son.” Stay tuned for any developments in this story and for news of future excavations at Hyde Abbey.

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