The latest edition of my History in the News Series, a look at current events that have some sort of historical slant.
King Alfred is the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings and one of the most famous monarchs in England’s long recorded history. His list of deeds includes defeating Viking hoards, uniting the Anglo-Saxons, strengthening the islands defenses, legal reforms, fomenting scholarship and general, all around enlightenment. Rare for a king of his time to accomplish so much, especially with hereditary monarchy being such a crap shoot. He is England’s Charlemagne. He truly was deserving of the nickname ‘The Great.’ So why was his pelvis bone found in a box at the Winchester City Museum?
“I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.”
Words purportedly spoken by the great king. But first, some more on the man and his times.
King Alfred was born the son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex in the year 849. His older brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred all served as kings of Wessex before him during a time of great instability. Why he was not name Ælfred with an Æ is lost to history. In 865, The Great Heathen Army (yes, that’s what it was actually called) attacked England. They had been a previously disorganized, divided lot who came together under the rule of Ivar the Boneless (I plan to do a post on peculiar royal sobriquets in the future, and his will be tops) for the purpose of the island invasion. This is where Alfred rose to prominence.
Northumbria, East Anglia and then Mercia fell to the Viking marauders, leaving Wessex alone in it’s fight for survival. Æthelred died in 871, leaving Alfred as the King of Wessex. Victories for the Saxons were often followed by multiple defeats and the fighting dragged on for more than a decade. Alfred was forced into hiding and defeat for Wessex seemed inevitable. Alfred emerged from his swampy hideout to gather the last remaining forces in the lands for a final offensive against the pagans.
In May of 878, Alfred defeated the Vikings in the Battle of Edington. The Danes took refuge in nearby Chippenham. Alfred starved them out and they sued for peace. Terms were favorable for Alfred and the vanquished would immediately leave his country. The army retreated back to East Anglia, it’s leader became Christianized and Alfred was now the strongest man in the land.
Alfred’s reign went through a long period of peace. He would go on to fend off various other lesser Viking attacks but his realm would not see the infighting that his father lived through. During this time, he re-inhabited London.
Among his other achievements, Alfred re-organized the military and tax code, designed a navy, put codified law in writing in his ‘doom book’ and did more to further learning in England than anybody before him and many a king since. He also propagated the use of English in learning. He is the only English monarch to be known as ‘The Great.’
He died in 899 of unknown causes and this is where things get tricky. He was buried in Winchester but moved to Hyde Abbey in 1110. But the abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539 and the church was demolished. After some shuffling, the graves of Alfred and his family were lost.
Lost and Found
In 1999, a dig in Winchester revealed various bones that were put into boxes. It remained in the city’s museum and received little attention until the recent discovery of the remains of King Richard III in a parking lot in Leicester. Tests have concluded that the pelvis bone in question belongs to a man who died around the time of King Alfred. The burial location, near the high altar of the abbey, leads many to conclude, after cross-checking the chronicles of the time, that it must be Alfred or his son Edward. DNA tests should be forthcoming, but identifying actual living descendents to check against may take some time.
How is it that one of England’s most revered Kings, the most influential from Pre-Norman times, gets misplaced, with his pelvis found in a box some 1100 years later? It’s not hard to imagine how Richard III’s body could be misplaced, he was on the losing end of a civil war and the history books have not treated him kindly. Whether what has been written about him is true, or an invention of the regime that followed in an attempt to instill a bit of legitimacy to their claim, is a matter of debate. His lack of a legacy is not. Hello parking lot.
Alfred, on the other hand, was beloved and you’d be hard pressed to find a bad word written about him. What happened? An easy culprit is Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, a series of legal and administrative reforms that closed most Catholic monasteries in the British Isles. Most were left in disrepair and 1000 years of scholarship and history were wiped away in one swoop. There’s still some more blame to be shared, but I doubt we’ll be able to find who’s feet to lay it at. Could it be that only in England is there a history so long and storied, recorded for posterity, so many kings, that they be able to find two missing ones in the span of a year?
- Bone Fragment ‘Could Be King Alfred or Son Edward’ (BBC)
- King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (Medieval Reader)