NOTES & QUERIES ABOUT THE MORTUARY CHESTS

 

This is the first draft of an on-going investigation about the Anglo-Saxon and Danish remains in Winchester Cathedral

The Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops were first buried in the Old Minster, and some were later translated to the crypt of the Cathedral, around the time that the former church was demolished. Dean Kitchen in 1886 found little evidence of burials beneath the 14th century earth infill which was removed from the crypt at that date so it is likely that the burials would have been in free standing sarcophagi. The Winchester historian Milner states that Bishop Henry de Blois (ob. 1171) - King  Stephen's brother - is said to have collected the remains of the Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops from the crypt and placed them in lead coffins, in  a place known as the 'Holy Hole'. This was a passage constructed below a raised feretory platform behind the high altar. Later some of these were replaced by wooden chests. Another possibility is that the kings and bishops were buried in a memorial court in the western part of the Old Minster around the grave of St Swithun; this memorial court was considered of such importance remained after the demolition of that latter church. The Old Minster (a portion of it lies under the present cathedral) was excavated by the archaeologist Martin Biddle in  the 1960's. A thirteenth century document states that:

In the year of Our Lord 1158 Henry, Bishop of Winchester, caused the bodies of the kings and bishops to be brought from the Old Minster into the new church, which were removed from an unseemly place and placed together in a more respectful manner around the altar of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

During building works in 1965 several limestone blocks with inscriptions, which from their tooling are considered to be of 12th century work, were excavated. These inscriptions refer to donations or burials and carry the names Ælfwine, Edward (the Elder) and Æthelwulf; the names of the  first and the last of these appear now on the mortuary chests. The blocks are not rectangular but rather, when laid out, form a semi-circle corresponding to the original Romanesque apse of the cathedral. It is considered that they come from the retaining wall around the above mentioned feretory platform and refer to the coffins resting on this . The shrine of St Swithun originally rested on this platform and it seems the Henry of Blois moved the remains of the kings and bishops so that they would rest near the saint as they had done formerly. The Holy Hole may have been constructed to allow pilgrims to crawl below the platform and be near to the bones of the Saint.

Two of the inscribed limestone blocks excavated in 1965


The Romanesque apse was demolished in the early 14th century and the present straight screen constructed, the entrance to the Holy Hole forming a central and unusual feature. Along the front of the screen is cut an inscription:

The bodies of saints lie here buried in peace,
From whose merits many miracles shine forth
.

A row of canopied niches, which originally contained statues removed at the Reformation but now hold a series of icons,  can be seen in this screen. Below these niches are cut a series of names:

Kinegilsus Rex; Sanctus Birinus Episcopus; Kinewaldus Rex; Egbertus Rex, Adulphus Rex; Eluredus Rex, filius eius; Edwardus Rex Senior; Adthelstantus Rex, filius eius; Sancta Maria; Dominus Iesus; Edredus Rex;  Edgarus Rex; Emma Regina; Alwinus Episcopus; Ethelredus Rex; Sanctus Edwardus Rex, filius eius; Cnutus Rex; Hardecnutus Rex, filius eius.

These statuettes were probably intended to commemorate some of the kings and bishops whose bones lay above. However it does include some who were certainly not buried at Winchester and well as Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It thus may be intended as a display statues of preconquest kings and others.

The stone screens on which the chests now rest was inserted into the 14th century arcade under  Bishop Richard Fox in 1525.  It is possible that the original chests were too numerous to place in their new positions since more coffins than are seen today were originally described by Thomas Rudbourne, a Winchester monk, writing his Historia Major Ecclesiae Wintoniensis (The Greater History of the Church of Winchester) in the mid 15th century. In this work Rudborne deals with the period 164-1138 and bases his work on earlier sources - such as the lost work De Basilica Petri - for the church's early history, including the burials; some of these works may be authentic, others not. He also states that where the identity of the burial was unquestioned, a separate coffin was ascribed. However, a chronicle of England with special reference to Winchester, the Epitome Historiae Major (The Epitome of the Greater History) and the Epitome Historiae Minor (The Epitome of the Lesser History) which is attributed by some authorities to John of Exeter, another Winchester monk about the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, states:
Escuin and Kentwin whose bones were moved in the time of Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and in ignorance of which were kings and which were bishops , as there were no inscriptions over the monuments, the aforesaid Henry placed in leaden sarcophagi kings and bishops, bishops and kings, all mixed together, as is recorded in the book of acts of Bishops William and Henry, by Robert, Prior of Winton.

The mortuary chests themselves are also mainly the work of  Bishop Fox. They are of wood, carved, painted and surmounted by crowns and shields. They rest on the parclose screen of the choir, three to the north and three to the south. Wall, writing at the end of the 19th century, says that they appear to have been painted three times and some of the inscriptions altered for Gale, writing in the seventeenth century, gives a different inscription on the westernmost chest on the south side to that at the former's time. The Cathedral register states that they were repainted and altered between 1684 and 1693, probably following damage by the Parliamentary troops who entered the Cathedral after the battle of Cheriton. At this time too the westernmost chests were damaged and replaced by new chests later.

On the morning of Thursday 14th December 1642 William Waller's Parliamentary Army entered the cathedral and began to wreck and destroy items in the cathedral, including the mortuary chests, throwing the bones around the church; it seems from an account written after the Restoration by Bruno Ryves in Mercurius Rusticus 1685) that they brought down the westermost chest but were restrained by their commanders from causing further damage to the remainder .

A report by the Cathedral Precentor, one Thomas Gray written about 1684 - forty-two years after the damage - states there were eight chests before the Civil War damage but by his time of writing there were six only, the westernmost ones being unpainted. Thus it seems likely that there were originally eight  such chests ( although some sources say ten) before the attack, the four westernmost ones were brought down and damage and their bones scattered. The contents of these four chests were later collected and returned to the two chests that we see today, which are  copies of the original chests although of a slightly inferior workmanship. The shields on top of the original chests are wooden while those on the later chests are of lead.

The chests have been opened and their contents examined, described, drawn and photographed on several occasions. In July 1797 Henry Howard, an army officer with antiquarian interests, and others, including a surgeon, one Mr Hastings, obtained permission to open certain tombs in the Cathedral, including the mortuary chests. His report was given to and recorded by Milner, the Winchester historian. The details are given below.

In 1874 the antiquarian Francis Joseph Baigent produced drawings of the chests including a watercolour of the inner chest containing the bones of Cynegils and Æthelwulf. He reports that these inner chests were contained in the two chests on the north side, that is they were in their correct position. This report concluded that there were the same number of skulls in the chests as there were names on them.

The two easternmost chests (that is those inscribed Kingils & Adulphus and - in his time - Edred) were opened by Dr Kitchen, Dean of Winchester, and two physicians in November 1886; both chests were found to contain inner chests containing the bones. Unless the reports are recorded incorrectly at what point did the inner chest on the south side migrate?

 
Cynegils's and Æthelwulf's  Inner Chest   Ecgbhert's and  Cynewulf's Inner Chest


 In 1932 the contents was 'sorted' and new inner chests constructed, the inner medieval chests being removed at this time. The material was 'cleaned' in 1959. All three modern inner chests on the north side and the easternmost chest on the south side are of oak and inscribed 'box made 1932'; the other two on the south side are of pine and their lids are labeled 'lid added 1932'.
 
Who are the kings buried in the mortuary chests? Cynegils is the earliest and the first Christian king and who died in 643; there is then a gap to 786 before the next burial, that of Cynewulf. Of the intervening kings of Wessex, some were buried at Winchester, some were not; but there are no monuments. Cynewulf's successor, Brihtric, was not buried at Winchester but at Wareham (no monument) but his successor, Ecgberht is the next name to appear on the chests, as is his son Æthelwulf. The latter's sons, Æthelbald and Æthelbert were buried at Sherborne (the coffins to be seen there are probably later but a modern brass recalls the burial), Æthelred I at Wimborne Minster, where there is a later brass, and Alfred is dealt with elsewhere, as is his son Edward the Elder. Æthelstan was buried at Malmesbury (later medieval monument), Edmund I at Glastonbury and then the next king Eadred is the next name to appear on the mortuary chests. Edwig was buried in the New Minster, Edgar again at Glastonbury and Edward the Martyr at Shaftesbury but now probably rests at Brookwood, an interesting tale in itself. Æthelred the Unready was buried in Old St Paul's, London, Edmund Ironside again at Glastonbury (but see below) and then Cnut is the next name to appear on the chests. His son and successor, Harold Harefoot, was initially buried at Westminster but disinterred by his half brother, thrown into the Thames but later recovered at buried at St Clement Danes, The Strand, London. This half brother, Harthacnut, is now buried in the wall of the choir screen, rather than in a mortuary chests for no reason that I have been able to discover. Edward the Confessor is buried at Westminster Abbey, where his restored shrine may be seen, Harold I at Waltham Abbey, Essex (no monument), William the Conqueror at Caen, Normandy (modern stone) and then the burial of his son, last king to be associated with Winchester, William Rufus, is described in these sections.

NORTH SIDE - EAST CHEST
Cynegils died in 643, not 641. He was the first Christian king of Wessex, having been converted by St Birinius and baptized in Dorchester in 635. At this time it was decided that the see be moved from there to Winchester.

Æthelwulf died in 858, not 857; he was the father of King Alfred and appointed St Swithin bishop. The Anglo-Saxon name Æthelwolf (noble wolf) has a German form Adolf, composed of the Germanic elements Adal (noble) + Wolf  (wolf); this name was introduced into Britain by the Normans, replacing the older Anglo-Saxon form but did not become common and is certainly never used now because of its association with an infamous holder in recent times. The Latinized form of Adolf is Adolphus; hence the inscription on the mortuary chest. Curiously this form has been used in the Swedish royal family, e.g. Gustavus Adolphus, the king killed in the 30 years war.

Howard describes two skulls, and two sets of thigh and leg bones.
Kitchen describes the late fifteenth century inner chest (curiously not described by Howard)  which is now displayed elsewhere in the Cathedral, containing two almost complete skeletons. Thus the two reports more or less correspond.

One side of this aforementioned inner chest bears the inscription:
ISTIC KYNGILSI SIMUL OSSA IACENT ADVLPI
(In this very place lie the bones together of Cynegils and Æthelwolf)
and the other:
HIC FUNDATOR SIC CHILTECOMBE DATORUM
Here the founder and here the giver of Chilcombe, referring to the gift of this manor to the Cathedral.


NORTH SIDE - CENTRAL CHEST
Cynewulf died in 786 not 714. I am presuming the name Kenulphus, as written on the chest, refers to Cynewulf  and not, as is sometimes given, to Cynegils's son Cenwealh.

Ecgberht died in 839 not 837; he was the father of Æthelwulf.  Ecgberht is often stated, when there is a reference to him, to be the first English king, although this is strictly incorrect.

These two Anglo-Saxon kings were certainly buried together in c 1460, that is before the present chests were constructed, as a chronicle of that year which refers to the verse: Hic rex Egbertus pausat cum rege Kinewlpho.

Howard describes 3 skulls, one of which very small, 1 thigh bone with corresponding hip and leg bones and 1 pair of hip, thigh and corresponding leg bones.
However, see below for inner medieval chests inscribed to these two kings.


NORTH SIDE - WEST CHEST & SOUTH SIDE - WEST CHEST
Emma was the wife of King Cnut; she had previously been married to the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred the 'Unready'.
Wine was the first bishop of Winchester following the removal of the see from Dorchester to Winchester.
Ælfwine was bishop at the time of Cnut.

Howard refers to these two chests as the third and fourth chests so we can thus assume that he is proceeding in an anti-clockwise clockwise direction around the choir as this discussion is also doing. He describes no skulls  but several sets of leg and thigh bones, one set (in the north chest) being smaller than the rest. With no other evidence he assumes these latter bones - together with the small skull (see above) belong to Queen Emma. My own observation indicates that one of these chests (the west one) contains numerous long bones, ribs, scapulae and a tin containing teeth and other fragments. Howard also mentions that these chests are also inscribed Stigand although they no longer contain this name.

The plain tomb with the Purbeck Marble coped lid under the central tower (described in the main section) is often said to be that of William II, more usually known as William Rufus. This son of William the Conqueror was killed by an arrow while hunting in the new forest. There is no firm evidence that this is or was the tomb of the King and it is now thought to be that of Henry of Blois, King Stephen's brother.

Gale (17th century) gives a different inscription on the inscription on the South-West mortuary chest as:
HIC JACENT OSSA CUNUTONIS ET WILHEMI RUFI
(Here lies the bones of Cnut and William Rufus)
and on the opposite chest:
HIC JACET STIGANDUS ARCHIEPISCOPUS
(Here lies Archbishop Stigand)
Stigand succeeded Ælfwine to the see of Winchester and in 1052 was elected Archbishop of Canterbury - the archbishop shown in the Bayeux Tapestry.

A story of Emma states she walked unscathed over nine red hot plough shares in the nave of the cathedral following an alleged affair with Bishop Ælfwine. In gratitude for this deliverance they both granted nine manors to the cathedrals. It may raise a smile to note that the Queen and the Bishop now lie together!


SOUTH SIDE - CENTRAL CHEST
Here the confusion begins!

This chest is inscribed Edred but Howard, whom we assuming is proceeding anti-clockwise, describes the sixth chest (that is the most easterly) being inscribed Edred. Also Dean Kitchen opened the two most easterly chests, that referred to above, and the other which is described as being inscribed Edred. Thus we most assume that these two chests - Howard's fifth and sixth and our south-central and south-east - have been transposed at the time of - or more likely later than - Dean Kitchen's examination. Canon John Vaughan in his Winchester Cathedral  (1919) also states that the south central chest is that of Edmund.

Edred was the son of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred.

Howard describes 2 skulls and many thigh bones.
However Dean Kitchen again refers to the earlier - dated around 1425 - inner chest (again curiously not recorded by Howard) which contains no skulls but fragments of 5 different skeletons. This chest carries the inscription:
HIC REX EGBERTUS PAVSAT CVM REGE KYNVLPHO
(Here King Ecgberht waits with King Cynewulf .
The outer chest for these two kings are on the opposite side of the choir.

SOUTH SIDE - EAST CHEST
Howard (referring to this as the fifth chest - see above) reports 5 skulls, two of which are said to be of the elderly and which Howard assumes to be of the bishops, and 3 or 4 thigh bones. My own examinations confirms there are 5 skulls but many (not 4 or 5 and not all thigh bones) long bones; at least one femur (thigh bone)  is bowed. On one skull - the largest - is now penciled 'Edmundus Rex 1765 T.I (or L).

Who was this King Edmund, whose date of death has been conveniently (or inconveniently) omitted? In the Historia Major, Thomas Rudborne states that this Edmund was Alfred the Great's eldest son who had died in infancy: The first born of all was called Edmund. While his father was still taking an active part in human affairs he caused him to be anointed and crowned king. Not long afterwards he was oppressed in the bonds of death before his father and was buried in the ancient monastery in Winchester: as is quite clear to those who examine the marble stone of his tomb. He lies to this day in the ground north of the altar where Morrow or Chapter Mass is celebrated. And the epitaph carved in marble is thus: Hic iacet Edmundus Rex, filius Aldredi Regis. However the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention such a person and Asser's Life of Alfred (said to be contemporary but almost certainly a later medieval forgery) states:  Now there were born to him by the above mentioned wife sons and daughters, namely Æthelflæd, his first born, after her Edward and then Æthelgifu, and after her, Ælfthryth, and then Æthelweard, besides those who were surprised by an early death in infancy, among whose number were ... Unfortunately here the sentence in incomplete. Rudborne obtained his information from earlier chronicles, some of which may be bogus, but the epitaph may be derived from an inscription on a stone now set in the stone bench beneath the south presbytery screen: Hic iacet Edmundus Rex Eþeldredi regis filius. (Here lies King Edmund, son of King Ethelred). For a photograph of this stone see the main section. It is said that Rudborne misread the þ (the 'extra' Anglo-Saxon letter, thorn, pronounced th-) as w and he thus misread Eþeldredi as Ewelredi, which he considered to be one of the variants of Ælfredi. The stone was originally in the pavement of the Gardiner chantry in about the position Rudburn reported it to be; it was only moved to the present position in the early nineteenth century. It is of Purbeck Marble and this together with the style of lettering indicates that it is no earlier than the later twelfth century.  However there was a King Edmund who was the son of King Ethelred - King Edmund Ironside, son of Ethelred 'the Unready' - but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, among others, clearly states that he was buried in Glastonbury Abbey. John Leland, writing at the eve of the Dissolution, states that Edmund Ironsides's tomb is in Glastonbury Abbey and states it position but does not describes it, nor any epitaph.
However, Professor Martin Biddle reports that Cnut visited Glastonbury in 1016 (Gesta regnum) and paid homage to Edmund at his tomb in the abbey. He believes that Cnut may well have translated Edmund's body to Winchester at a later date. Although there is no contemporary record of this translation, there is evidence that Cnut and his queen Emma intended the creation of a family mausoleum in the Old Minster. Edmund had become Emma's stepson by her marriage to Æthelred and became Cnut's posthumous stepson through his marriage to Emma. William of Malmesbury records that Cnut was accustomed to call Edmund his brother. (this information in this paragraph was kindly provided by Professor Biddle )


 

 

Return to Hampshire (Winchester) page here