Alfred the Great, Resting in Pieces

Oft revered as ‘the greatest King England ever knew’ and sometimes associated with burnt cakes, King Alfred the Great’s reputation precedes him by a very long way. A learned man, he firmly believed that education and law were essential to leadership and governance, much of which he put into practice by establishing schools and courts. He was also a strategic military thinker who made many successful changes to the systems and structures of his forebears. This year marks the 1124th anniversary of his death on October 26th 899.

His ascension to the throne was not generally expected as he had three older brothers. He succeeded all three and became King of Wessex in April 871. Alfred was an Anglo-Saxon, and helped defend that kingdom when the provinces of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria had fallen to the Vikings. The turning point for the defenders was the battle of Edington in 879, from whence Alfred began to liberate neighbouring regions that he ruled over as self-titled ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’.

However, a thousand plus years after his passing, the great king’s remains are in a less than great situation. To be frank, they are strongly believed to be situated in multiple locations somewhere between a car park and a row of Victorian houses in Winchester, mixed up with the skeletal bones of his wife Ealhswith, Queen of Mercia, and son Edward the Elder. This unfortunate situation(s) has arisen from a combination of progress, neglect and downright carelessness over a period spanning 900 years.

King Alfred the Great died at the age of 50 in 899 and was first laid to rest in the Old Minster at Winchester, being moved shortly afterwards to the New Minster. Under the orders of King Henry I in 1109, the monks who resided there were moved to Hyde Abbey and a Normal cathedral was built on the site. Fortunately, the bones of Alfred and his family were moved along with the monks and were reinterred in front of the altar.

Over time, and after the dissolution of the church, Hyde Abbey became a private residence and much of the masonry was taken for use in other buildings. Later, in 1788, Hyde Abbey was renamed Bridewell and became a prison or ‘house of correction’ as they were known. The first inmates were given orders to clear the grounds of rubble and debris, which is when they came across the king’s resting place. In a recent article on the topic, Justin Pollard* wrote about that particular discovery of King Alfred’s grave:

During the work to clear the governor’s garden a warden reported to Captain Howard, an antiquarian, that the high altar had been located and three graves unearthed in front of it. This was not an age of sentiment and the prisoners were apparently unmoved by the discovery of the tombs. They were almost certainly unaware of their occupants. As Howard records, they discovered that Alfred’s tomb was made from a single block of stone encased with lead. The prisoners stripped off the lead and sold it, emptied out the bones and fragments of clothing, then broke up the coffin and reburied it empty

Historians have always been interested but hesitant to start digging where they believe the remains are, as it would cause great disruption for what might be a futile venture. Future archeologists with better equipment and new methods of artefact recovery may be able to turn the odds in favour of finding the monarch and restore him and his family to proper graves. Until then, we can only hope King Alfred the Great is resting in peaceful pieces.

*Justin Pollard is the author of Alfred the Great: the Man who Made England (John Murray, 2005). The article mentioned is “The Dust of Kings” from History Today, Volume: 63 Issue: 4 2013