Alfred the Great’s Remains Exhumed?

On 10 February we reported that as a result of interest generated in Leicester University’s positive identification of the remains of Richard III, attention has been directed towards other “lost” English monarchs, of which King Alfred the Great (849–899) heads the list of likely possibilities.  There is no secret as to where his remains are currently thought to be been buried, although their movement between earlier sites introduces a degree of uncertainty[1].  On the Church of England’s excellent web site A Church Near You, the entry for the United Benefice St Bartholomew & St. Lawrence w. St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, Winchester states:

“St. Bartholomew’s was founded over 900 years ago and lay within the forecourt of Hyde Abbey (1110). It was enlarged with a tower built from stone from the Abbey after it was demolished at the Reformation. Visitors can view 5 original capitals and 1 springing stone thought to have come from the cloisters. These are some of the finest surviving examples of mediaeval sculpture in England.

Hyde Abbey was the final resting place for the bones of King Alfred the Great, his Queen Aelswitha and their son Edward the Elder. An unmarked grave outside the east window is disputed as the place where Alfred and his family were re-buried after the Abbey vaults were excavated in the mid 19th century.”

St Bartholomew’s and its local community has been undertaking research over the last three years, and in February 2013 it was reported that the University of Winchester was seeking permission to examine the grave and subject the bones to radiocarbon dating. The BBC reports Dr Katie Tucker of the University of Winchester saying:

“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 they would be no reason for any other bones from the 10th century to be there”

“This is a long shot because unlike with Richard III there is no complete skeleton. We only know they are five skulls and some bones and we also don’t know if the bones are monks from the abbey.”

This week events took a new turn when at the request of St Bartholomew’s PCC, the remains within the grave were exhumed under the authority and advice of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Winchester, Judge Christopher Clark QC, whose order imposes a confidentiality measure for reasons of security.  A news release from the Diocese of Winchester states:

“the immediate decision to carry out this exhumation was made by the PCC (Parochial Church Council) of St Bartholomew’s to counter the risk of theft from or vandalism to the grave; this is in light of heightened risk owing to widespread recent speculation about the significance of its contents”.

A diocesan spokesperson is reported as saying

“Although no application has yet been made to carry out any scientific investigation, we do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about the remains found in this grave.”

“This would be possible by means of a faculty application to the Consistory Court of The Diocese. This could be made by St Bartholomew’s Church, or by a private applicant, which could be the Hyde900 community group.”

“Of course, that would only be granted if the Court were satisfied with everything proposed, both legally and ethically. Whatever happens, the remains will stay in the care and protection of the Church and the Consistory Court until they are reinterred.”

Comment

The exhumation of the remains from St Bartholomew’s is different in law from that relating to Richard III as it falls within the Church of England’s faculty jurisdiction, although the rites under which they are re-interred will need to address similar issues.  Past case law suggests that unless there are special circumstances such as those in St Mary Sledmere (2007) 9 Ecc LJ 343 or Re Radcliffe Infirmary Burial Ground (2012) 14 Ecc LJ 139-140, archaeological interest per se is unlikely to form the grounds of a successful petition for a faculty to exhume and examine remains: see Re St Nicholas, Sevenoaks [2005] 1 WLR 1011, and Re Holy Trinity, Bosham [2004] Fam 125.

However, St Bartholomew presents the Consistory Court with a quite different situation:

  • the exhumation has already taken place, inter alia to protect the remains from unauthorized attempts at removal;
  • the exhumation was undertaken under the Church’s faculty jurisdiction, and whilst the protection of the bones remains with the church, their eventual reinterment is the only permitted  long-term solution.

Typically, the “long shot” nature of any proposed archaeological investigation would otherwise have precluded an application to exhume and investigate.  However, in the case, it might be argued that such work should now be authorized in order to distinguish between the different sets of bones, if possible, and to ensure appropriate levels of security when the remains are re-interred. However, this is not an easy task as the possibility of a definitive result, such as that in Leicester, seems doubtful.


[1] The BBC report states that “Alfred’s remains are known to have been moved several times since he was buried in the city’s old minster in 899 AD. They were moved in 904 to a new church to be alongside his wife and children, before being moved again to Hyde Abbey in 1110. The abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and studies indicate the tomb was robbed. It is believed some bones were put on display in the 19th Century before being buried at St Bartholomew Church”.

3 thoughts on “Alfred the Great’s Remains Exhumed?

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