THE POST-MORTEM ADVENTURES OF ALFRED THE GREAT

A Search for King Alfred's Tomb

 

(An expanded and updated version of a paper given in the last century by the Publicity Officer at a Church Monuments Society AGM at Warwick)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 899 simply states: In this year King Alfred died on 26th October. The entry for his son, King Edward the Elder, in 924 is slightly fuller: King Edward died at Fardon-on-Dee in Mercia...buried at Winchester. The relevant religious foundations in Winchester have been discussed on the main Hampshire page. The New Minster (and the Nuns' Minster) were completed by Edward the Elder and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 903 records: ...the same year was concentrated the New Minster and the relics of St Judoc were translated there.

William of Malmesbury records that Alfred was first buried in the Cathedral (that is The Old Minster) because his monastery (that is, the New Minster) was unfinished. It is curious that the canons were willing to surrender Alfred's body, but William of Malmesbury scornfully records the curious tale that they did so because Alfred's spirit resumed its body and wandered nightly through the church. Edward himself was later buried in the New Minster as was Alfred's Queen, Ealhswith, although she had actually died in the Nuns' Minster, of which she became abbess following the death of Alfred. A later king of this dynasty and one of dubious reputation - Edwy - was also buried in this latter church.

There they remained until Bishop William Giffard removed the New Minster to Hyde - a suburb of Winchester - in 1110 (time of Henry I). It seems that the monks were willing to go for a number of reasons: the two minsters were so close that the singing of the monks in one church disturbed those in the other effecting a rivalry which, according to William of Malmesbury, led to injuries on either side; there was insufficient space to enlarge to monastery; and William the Conqueror's castle,  built in the previous generation at the west of the city, had required ditches to be dug and water now stagnated around the New Minster. There was a procession of monks from the New Minster to Hyde Abbey, carrying the remains to be reburied. Alfred, his Queen and Edward were buried before the high altar of the new church.

Winchester was ravaged in the civil wars between King Stephen and Matilda and the suburbs of Hyde destroyed; the abbey was much damaged but it seems that the tombs survived

And there they again remained until Hyde Abbey was suppressed in 1538. The abbot - one Dr John Salcot or Capon - did not resist King Henry's will and it was unlikely that he would do so, having already received the abbacy as well as being made Bishop of Bangor as a reward for his services in procuring a decision from the University of Cambridge in favour of the King's divorce from Kathryn of Aragon. As a reward for surrendering the Abbey he was made Bishop of Salisbury the following year. There were twenty one monks at the suppression.
The abbey estates were obtained by Henry Wriothsley, later Earl of Southampton, who leased the abbey itself to Richard Bethel who promptly pulled down the church. All that remains today is the abbey gateway which at some point has had a stone plaque inserted recording the burials.
There exists a collective letter from Wriothesley and other of the Royal Visitors in 1538 saying we intend both at Hyde and at St Mary's to sweep away all the rotten bones that be called relics, which we may not omit, lest it should be thought that we came more for the treasure than for avoiding the abominations of idolatry. F Warren writing in 1952 thinks this to be an indication that the tombs were destroyed but I do not think that this is necessarily so.
John Leland, the topographer, visiting the church a few years after the suppression, says that the kings lay in a tomb before the high altar and two little 'tablets' of lead were found in their monuments that contained their remains. So we can assume that the tombs had been broken into at this time, probably in a search for lead.

Part of the ruins of Hyde Abbey were purchased in 1787-88 by the County and were dug in 1788 to build the New Gaol, the County Bridewell. Stone coffins and a variety of artifacts were found and anything of value was stolen. The outline of the church was found and the site of the high altar identified, where, according to Page, the Keeper of the Bridewell, a great stone coffin was found.

In 1797 Captain Henry Howard - an officer in the West Yorkshire regiment of Militia and to whom we have referred in the page about the mortuary chests, was stationed in Winchester. Mr Page - according to Captain Howard, an intelligent and accurate man and who was happy to discuss these matters with him - acted as the overseer of prisoners and other workers during the whole time of the building of the gaol. Captain Howard was an amateur antiquarian and related Page's version of events by letter from Horsham Barracks to his friend George Naylor, the York Herald, part of which is thus:

... was also found a great stone coffin cased with lead both within and without and containing some bones and the remains of garments. The lead in its decayed state was sold for two guineas; the bones thrown about and the stone coffin broken into pieces. There was also two other coffins and no more found in this part which were also for the sake of the garden, in which they lay, broken up and buried as low as the spring.

Captain Howard speculates that the 'great stone coffin' is that of Alfred and the other two those of his son and queen. He also bought a fragment of a Purbeck marble pillar which he thought to have come from the high altar or from Alfred's tomb, although from the drawing it is difficult to work out exactly what this was.

Taken out of the ruins about 1758 and placed in the walls of a shoemaker's cottage in St Peter's Street was a stone block, later to be called the Alfred Stone. Captain Howard also took this back to his home, Corby Castle, in Cumberland, where it was placed in a semi-circular niche in the hall wall. There was also a bust of Alfred above it, at one time said to have come from Winchester Cathedral; I do not know what became of this. I will be referring to this stone in more detail later.

The prison was taken down between 1846 and 1850. In 1866 one John Mellor - an amateur, enthusiastic but romantic antiquarian who also seems to have been an itinerant street musician - arrived in Winchester determined to find the King's remains. Encouraged by Dean Garnier and the author Thomas Hughes MP, he obtained permission from the Mayor, Mr Barrow Simonds MP, and the 'Lord of the Manor', Mr Benney, to dig on the abbey site, which was now a farm yard, and found five skulls in a vault eight or nine feet deep; the tomb had been rifled and filled in with clay and rubbish. He is also said to have found portions of a scepter and other royal bits although what became of these dubious finds I do not know. The skull with the remaining mandible (and separately illustrated) is said to have been that of Alfred. Mellor is supposed to have declared that the skull to be exactly like the contemporary portrait medallions of the King; a statement which defies comment. This skull is of fine proportions, with an excellent set of teeth and well preserved - as we might have expected. There are no wisdom teeth but we can deduce nothing from this as this may have been lost post-mortem, be unerupted or never have developed. He also found - although it must be noted a few days later - a lead tablet with an 'A' inscribed on it - a form which seemingly does not occur in Anglo-Saxon. This tablet, however, turned out to be of more recent manufacture, having been made by the local blacksmith. Was Mellor the hoaxer or the hoaxed! There certainly seemed to be much hostility against him in Winchester, not for being a charlatan but for seemingly desecrating royal graves, which had hardly been taken care of over the years.

 The vicar of St Bartholomew's church - the parish church of Hyde which is opposite the abbey gateway - was a William Williams, who was at the time of the discovery of the skulls absent from ill health but had requested his churchwarden, Mr Hugh Wyeth,  take charge of the remains which were placed in two boxes and removed to the church. It seems Mr Wyeth's daughter gave Mellor a concertina to help him earn some money as he had to leave Winchester. The Vicar proposed to ask William Butterfield, the architect, to design a mortuary chest in which to keep the bones and a niche in the church, which was then being rebuilt, to keep them in. A letter from him exists requesting donations to erect a tablet in the new church.
We will never know if Page had broken open the graves, robbed them and reburied the remains or just thrown them about: conflicting tales turn up about this matter.
William Butterfield rebuilt the parish church. Mr Williams reburied the remains - although there is no official church record of this, the last burial in Hyde parish church - in a brick vault beneath the east window  under a stone slab marked only with a simple cross.
A local committee investigated the story of the skulls in 1870 and concluded that Mr Mellor did indeed taken them from the site of Hyde Abbey but as burials had taken lace there for 400 years there must have been an awful lot of skulls. Early in the 20th century it was decided that, because of the uncertainty of identification, no inscription should be put on the grave.
In 1871 James Gibbs of Canterbury published Mellor's own account: 'The Curious Particulars Relating To King Alfred's Death and Burial Never Before Made Public'. This quotes from Captain Howard but there are differences from his account sent to George Naylor; did Mellor have access to a fuller account or was her just elaborating?
Ethelwald (Æthelweard, Alfred's eldest son who had predeceased him), Alfred and his Queen Alswythe lay in the three stone coffins; but they were broken into in 1788 by a Mr Page, who robbed the coffins of all valuables, and sold the lead from that of the Saxon King for two guineas. King Edward and his Queen Egwina, lay in a chalk vault...to the left of the three stone coffins, in the abbey choir of Hyde, near the altar. Mr Page told Henry Howard...that he (Page) had carried away a stone with him bearing Alfred's own name upon it, also some spiral twisted fabric, marble pillars &co., which appear to have been dug up beneath the abbey floor...upon which were some lilies entwining; also two small animals running up the sides thereof, just the same as the flowers upon the illustrated scroll of the Hyde Chronicle.
This is still further proof that these are none other than the real bones of Alfred and his Queen, who were last buried there in 1112; for Mr Page told Mr Howard that, seeing the skeletons, by the ermine, scepters, gilt cloth, crucifixes, gold rings &co. were really those of royalty, he did not further disturb them but left them alone at the bottom of the vault next to the spring or gravel at a depth of six feet in order to be out of the way of the governor's garden. He left them, it is true, coffinless and dishonoured, after first stripping them of all valuables, then filling up the royal vaults with clay and other rubbish. And here is where I found them in 1866.

The Alfred Stone - to which I have alluded earlier - has a further history. The stone was offered to Winchester Museum by the executors of the late Mr Philip Howard, grandson of Captain Henry, for £50 and it was thus purchased by the City of Winchester in 1934. The family had wanted more had the stone been genuine but did not get it. It is now preserved in Winchester Museum. What is it? The name tablet of a statue? Part of a tomb, although it's difficult to see what this could be? It is made of limestone, 120 lbs in weight and rectangular, 17"X11". It is very clearly inscribed with the name King Alfred and the date DCCCLXXXI. Milner, the Winchester historian, writing at the end of the 18th century, thinks that the stone may have been placed under a bust of Alfred. The date - 881 - is curious: it does not form a particular date in the life of the King, not his birth, ascension or death. It is not the foundation stone of the New Minster, as some have suggested, as this was not built for 20 more years.

Image reproduced by kind permission of Winchester City Museums Service.
The stone may still be seen in the City Museum

Correspondence between the Winchester Museum Curator and Robinson, Williams & Burnands, the London based firm of estate agents who had arranged the purchase of the stone, indicate that the agents believed there were also other pieces of carved stone seen when the inventory of the contents of Corby Castle had been carried out and that they could probably acquire these for the museum. However a later letter from the agents says that the factor  at Corby Castle states that, despite a thorough search, no further stones could be found. The agent again adds that he certainly remembers these stones in the inventory.

An opinion on the stone was requested by Curator of Winchester Museum from the British Museum who although they could not help, referred the matter to Sir Frederick Kenyon, President of the Antiquaries and ex-member of the Department of Manuscripts. There was some urgency in this request as it was uncertain where the stone should rest. The Dean of Winchester had written to the Museum suggesting that it should be re-sold to the Friends of the Cathedral if it could be proved that it came from the Old or New Minsters. Sir Frederick gave an opinion on the lettering on the stone: he did not think that that the stone was contemporary with the lettering on it. He also thought that the date on the stone (DCCCLXXXI = 881) was actually a mistake for 871 (DCCCLXXI) the date of Alfred's ascension. Furthermore he felt that such a mistake would have been improbable near the time but might have been made and remained undetected some centuries later. The lettering indicated to him the 11th or 12th centuries - when such lettering ceased - and this could indicated the date of the transfer of the New Minster to Hyde Abbey. He thought it highly unlikely that a bust of Alfred stood on it, as this was unknown at the time, but it might have been placed under a statue or a chest containing the King's bones. This seems unlikely as we are told that the King was buried in a tomb in front of the high altar. Thus we do not know if this stone is part of a tomb or not.

In recent times the church of Hyde Abbey has been excavated and the site of the High Altar discovered. In front of this the sites of the graves were identified but unfortunately there were no signs of monuments, coffins,  or human remains. The site has now been converted into a small garden and the grave sites covered by rectangular stones, each decorated with a simple cross. The photograph was taken through a glass screen at the entrance to this garden and on which has been etched an imaginative reconstruction of the east end of the church with the three graves before the high altar. The real stones in the garden can be seen through the glass seemingly in front of the images of the etched reconstructions, although in reality they are actually behind them.

There are no contemporary remains of monuments to pre-conquest kings. Other than those we have discussed in Winchester Cathedral: there is a brass to Alfred's brother, Ethelred I, at Wimbourne, an effigy and tomb chest of Athelstan, his grandson, at Malmesbury, Wiltshire and the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey but these are of later medieval construction. A monument to Ethelred the Unready at Old St Paul's was lost in the Fire of London. Moreover several royal tombs were possibly destroyed at the Dissolution - two Edmunds and one Edgar at Glastonbury, Harold II at Waltham Abbey, Henry I at Reading Abbey, Stephen at Faversham (although a local tradition tells that his bones were moved to a tomb in the nearby parish church) and Richard III at Grayfriars' Church, Leicester. Sometimes tombs and remains were moved by descendents from a dissolved abbey church to the local parish church, as may be found by browsing through these pages, or the abbey church was saved by the parishioners; it is very curious that this was not done with royal tombs and especially that of Alfred the Great.

Further information has recently come to light in the tale of King Alfred: the bones in St Bartholomew's church have been dated and confirmed not to be those of Alfred or any of the Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty. Also a pelvis bone excavated at Hyde Abbey (see above) has been dated to be of the time of Alfred and is undergoing further investigation. Further details from the Winchester Museum site : http://www.winchester.gov.uk/heritage-conservation/museums/university-winchester-reveals-significant-find-sea/
Return to Hampshire