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
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
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 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
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?
and Æthelwulf's Inner Chest
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
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
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
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
ISTIC KYNGILSI SIMUL OSSA IACENT ADVLPI
(In this very place lie the bones together of Cynegils and
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
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
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
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
'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
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 )