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7 October 2023

The bones that built Britain

Winchester Cathedral’s mysterious “bone chests” tell a story of how warring kings and queens forged a new nation.

By Pippa Bailey

The Norman Conquest of 1066 draws a neat line through the history of England, dividing the “Anglo-Saxon” from the “English”. It is from this point that English monarchs are numbered: Edward I was preceded by three Anglo-Saxon kings with that name. When William the Conqueror was crowned, it was at London’s Westminster Abbey, and there that he and most later monarchs were buried. But before this reorientation towards the new capital, Winchester was the seat of power – first of the kingdom of Wessex, then of England. By 1066 more monarchs were buried in its cathedral than anywhere in the country.

In 2012 Cat Jarman looked on as a team from Bristol University removed six wooden chests from the top of the stone screens surrounding the central presbytery of Winchester Cathedral. Inside, according to their Latin inscriptions, were 11 skeletons: eight kings – including the only two to have been dubbed “the Great” – two bishops and a queen. But the chests were found to contain 1,300 bone fragments, from at least 23 individuals – 12 more than are named. Among them were one woman and two adolescents, thought to be aged between 11 and 15. All, as expected, were radiocarbon dated to the early medieval or early Norman periods. This, as Jarman records in The Bone Chests, was the only part of the project that was to prove straightforward.

[See also: When women were warriors: the forgotten female leaders of the Middle Ages]

Those interred weren’t initially buried in this way. The earliest named individual, Cynegils, died before there was so much as a chapel on the site. The earliest church there was erected in the 7th century, a forerunner to the Old Minster, so called to distinguish it from the adjacent New Minster, built in 901. Eventually, all was demolished when the cathedral was built on the instruction of William the Conqueror.

The remains were translated from their scattered resting places around the complex into lead sarcophagi in the 12th century by Henry of Blois, then Bishop of Winchester. Another bishop, Richard Fox, divided the remains among ten new boxes in the 1520s. Six of these were destroyed in 1642 by Parliamentarian soldiers, who threw the chests to the ground and tossed their bones through the stained-glass windows. Today, four of Fox’s chests remain, plus two 17th-century replacements.

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Even the provenance of the names listed is murky. Blois collected bones from graves without tombstones and interred them jumbled together. By Fox’s time, the niches on which the chests rested had been engraved with names; he divided up the bones and labelled the boxes as best he could. But contemporary sources complicate the issue: some rulers appear in records as being buried in Winchester, but are not marked on the chests; some are listed on the boxes but their recorded burial place is different.

Readers hoping for neat answers to the mystery of the bone chests’ inhabitants will be disappointed. The Bristol project is still ongoing, and while Jarman can theorise, her book offers little certainty. Instead, Jarman uses the burials as a jumping-off point for an accomplished history of Wessex and, later, England, from Cynegils, the chests’ earliest named inhabitant, who died in 643, to William Rufus, their latest – the son of William the Conqueror and the last king to be buried in Winchester. In the process, she tells not just the stories of those the chests might contain, but of the birth of England.

[See also: How England lost the Hundred Years War]

Jarman’s early chapters focus on Wessex, the kingdom in which Winchester was located and the burial place of West Saxon kings. Britain was Christian – as was the Roman empire – from the 360s, but Wessex remained pagan until the seventh century, when Cynegils became its first Christian king. His son and successor, Cenwealh, is notable because after his death in 672, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “Seaxburgh, his queen, ruled one year after him”. If true, this is the only time a woman ruled Wessex in her own right in the period.

By the late eighth century, Vikings – the subject of Jarman’s 2021 book, River Kings – enter the narrative. After the raid at Lindisfarne, no further incursions are recorded until four decades later – an absence Jarman attributes to chroniclers’ “bias towards the south-west” rather than to actual peace. During this period Egbert became king – not just of Wessex but, by his death in 839, of Kent, Surrey, Essex and Sussex. He briefly held Mercia, too, making him the eighth king to be Bretwalda, often translated as “Britain ruler”. Egbert named his son Æthelwulf his heir at an assembly in Kingston upon Thames – the first time a West Saxon ruler had formally named his offspring his successor. Æthelwulf was also unusual for giving his wife the title of queen, which, say the Annals of St Bertin, “was not customary before then to him or his people”.

In 865, Jarman writes, “something changed in the dynamics of the Viking presence in England”. A Viking army set up camp in East Anglia, before taking York, Northumbria and Nottingham. It was this army, led by the Dane Guthrum, that King Alfred subdued at the Battle of Edington, after which Guthrum was baptised and a treaty signed determining the boundaries between Alfred’s kingdom and that of the “Danelaw”. (Though Alfred came to style himself “King of the Angles and the Saxons”, it is Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, who can be considered the true first king of England.) From this time, Alfred’s military reforms and new system of fortifications were largely successful in protecting his people from further Viking incursions – later earning him the epithet “the Great”.

On his death in 899, Alfred was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester, but his son and successor Edward later had his remains translated to the New Minster, away from centuries’ of other kings. “If we understand graves… as memorial devices, designed to be read by the living,” writes Jarman, “Edward’s handling of his father’s remains helped him to keep Alfred’s legacy relevant and in people’s minds.”

Alfred’s eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, was married to the lord of the Mercians and, after her husband’s death in 911, ruled Mercia in her own right. She and her brother waged a joint campaign against the Vikings, together taking all the land south of the Humber. When Æthelflæd died, her daughter ruled for six short months before Edward seized her lands.

The only woman inscribed on the bone chests is Queen Emma of Normandy. Her title indicates Viking descent: the Frankish king Charles the Simple gave Rouen and the surrounding region to a Viking leader, Rollo, in 911; the word “Normandy” comes from “northmen”. Emma married Æthelred the Unready in 1002, in a strategic match designed to unite England and Normandy against Scandinavian raiders. Despite this alliance, Æthelred’s reign was dominated by Viking incursions, and a Norseman, Cnut, eventually came to power – the only man to rule England, Norway and Denmark at once. He married Æthelred’s widow, Emma, a sort of continuity candidate during the transition from English to Viking rule. It was her lineage that later gave William the Conqueror a claim to the throne.

To Jarman it is “seems highly plausible” that the female skeleton interred in the chests is Emma; theories about the other 22 individuals remain just that. This is the great allure and the great frustration of medieval history: alongside what is known, there is interpretation and mystery – and the possibility that, one day, new scientific methods might unveil all.

The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons
Cat Jarman
William Collins, 272pp, £25

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[See also: Anne Boleyn’s blunders]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits