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Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons: The Winchester Cathedral Bone Chests

Tucked away high on the stone screens of the presbytery in Winchester Cathedral, six ancient wooden chests hold the mortal remains of some of the most pivotal figures in early English history. These "mortuary chests" contain the bones of at least 23 individuals, including eight kings, three bishops, and two queens who lived and died between the 7th and 12th centuries. From Cynegils, the first Christian king of Wessex, to William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, the chests represent a tangible link to England‘s journey from divided Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to a unified medieval state.

The Rise of Wessex

The oldest remains in the chests date back to the early days of the Kingdom of Wessex in the 600s AD. This was a transformative period, as the pagan Anglo-Saxons began to convert to Christianity. Cynegils, who ruled from 611 to 643, was the first Wessex king to be baptized. His remains, and those of his son Cenwalh, were among the first interred in the mortuary chests in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster that preceded the current Norman cathedral.

Over the following centuries, Wessex grew in power and influence, absorbing the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The unification of England was spurred in large part by the shared threat of Viking invasion. Cnut the Great, whose bones also rest in the chests, was the ultimate symbol of this struggle. The Danish king ruled a vast North Sea empire in the early 11th century, uniting England, Denmark, and Norway.

The Norman Conquest

The chests also bear witness to one of the most pivotal events in English history – the Norman Conquest of 1066. When Edward the Confessor died without an heir, it sparked a succession crisis between the Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinson and the Norman duke William. William‘s victory at the Battle of Hastings irrevocably changed the course of England.

The remains of Edward and his powerful mother, Queen Emma, lie in the chests, as do those of William‘s son William Rufus. The presence of two adolescent boys, who died around the time of the Conquest, hints at the dynastic intrigues and power struggles of the period. Their identities are unknown, but they were undoubtedly caught up in the upheavals of the time.

Sacred Relics and Reformation

In the medieval period, the mortal remains of saints and kings were more than just historical curiosities – they were sacred relics imbued with spiritual power. Pilgrims would travel great distances to pray at the tombs of figures like St Swithun, whose bones were also interred in the chests. The Cathedral relied on these relics to attract offerings and establish its status.

However, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century brought a fundamental shift in attitudes. Under Henry VIII, saints‘ shrines were dismantled and relics destroyed as idolatrous. The mortuary chests survived this iconoclasm, but their significance transformed from the sacred to the secular.

Civil War and Destruction

The greatest threat to the chests came during the English Civil War in the 17th century. In December 1642, Parliamentarian soldiers ransacked Winchester Cathedral, smashing the stained glass windows and destroying monuments associated with the royal and ecclesiastical establishment they were fighting against.

Several of the mortuary chests were pulled down and broken open, the ancient bones inside scattered and used as missiles. It was a shocking desecration, but not an unusual one in the context of the widespread destruction of religious art and architecture during the conflict. After the attack, the Cathedral clergy recovered what bones they could and placed them back in the chests, albeit in a jumbled state.

Uncovering the Secrets

For centuries after, the contents of the chests remained a mystery. It was clear they held the remains of multiple individuals, but their exact identities and the details of their lives were lost to time. That began to change in 2012, with the launch of the Mortuary Chest Project.

A team of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians began a meticulous scientific analysis of the bones. They carefully removed, cleaned, and catalogued each of the over 1300 fragments, using physical characteristics to sort them into individuals. The remains were then sampled for radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, and ancient DNA testing.

The results were revelatory. Radiocarbon dates confirmed the bones belonged to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, with some as old as the 7th century. Isotopic signatures in the bones provided clues to diet and geographic origins, suggesting some of the individuals were highly mobile during their lives. While the ancient DNA was too degraded for individual identification, it hinted at familial relationships between some of the remains.

Osteological analysis revealed details of age, sex, stature, and health. For example, the woman believed to be Queen Emma was in her 60s at death and stood around 5 ft 2 in tall. Several of the individuals showed signs of chronic illnesses such as arthritis, while others bore evidence of healed trauma, possibly from warfare or accidents.

Piecing Together the Past

By combining these scientific findings with the historical record, researchers have been able to sketch biographical outlines of some of the individuals in the chests. For instance, we know Cnut travelled widely across his North Sea realm, which may explain the varied isotopic signatures in his bones. Emma‘s remains were found scattered across multiple chests, reflecting her central role in English politics for over four decades.

The two adolescent boys add a poignant mystery to the story. They were around 10-15 years old at death and their bones show signs of chronic health stress. Were they young princes caught up in the power struggles of the Norman Conquest? Or perhaps noble youths sent to the church for education? Further research may yet uncover their identities.

However, the true significance of the mortuary chests goes beyond these individual stories. They are a microcosm of early English history, encompassing the rise of Wessex, Viking invasions, the unification of England, the Norman Conquest, and the Reformation. Each event left its mark on the chests, from the earliest inhumations in the Anglo-Saxon minster to the Parliamentarian attack during the Civil War.

A Testament to Continuity

Through all the upheavals and transformations, the presence of the mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral has been a constant. They are a testament to historical continuity, to the enduring power of memory and the potency of physical remains in connecting us to the past.

The chests also speak to the complex interplay between the sacred and the secular, between science and history. For centuries they were revered as holy relics, then reviled as symbols of the old order. Now, through the lens of modern archaeology, they offer an unparalleled window into the lived experience of England‘s early medieval elite.

Most importantly, the mortuary chests remind us that history is not static – it is a living, evolving discipline that is constantly enriched by new discoveries and perspectives. Just as the Mortuary Chest Project has shed new light on these ancient remains, future research will undoubtedly uncover fresh insights.

In this sense, the Winchester Cathedral mortuary chests are not just a collection of old bones – they are a vibrant, vital link to our shared past. They connect us across the centuries to some of the most significant figures and events in English history, offering tangible evidence of lives long past. As long as we continue to study and learn from them, they will keep unlocking the secrets of the Anglo-Saxons.

Key Facts & Figures:

  • The chests contain the remains of at least 23 individuals from the 7th-12th centuries
  • Over 1300 individual bones were analyzed during the Mortuary Chest Project
  • Radiocarbon dates range from the 600s AD to the early 1100s AD
  • Notable individuals include Cynegils (611-643), Cnut (1016-1035), Emma (d. 1052) and William Rufus (1087-1100)
  • Two unidentified adolescent boys aged 10-15 were found, who died in the late 11th century