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Alfred the Great

Have archaeologists finally found King Alfred the Great?

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In August last year we reported on plans to search for the remains of Alfred the Great , a Saxon king who ruled from 871 to 899 AD. The task was not easy as archaeologists first needed to secure permission to excavate the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s Church in Winchester, England, then locate the unmarked grave in which he was buried along with at least five other individuals, and finally,  find a living relative with which to compare a DNA analysis. However, it appears that scientists may have achieved their goal and finally located the long lost king

Alfred the Great ruled England as King of Wessex during the 9th century and is particularly known for his social and educational reform and his military victories against the Vikings, who had invaded much of the north of the country.  He has the reputation of a learned and merciful man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom's legal system and military structure.  He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet 'the Great'. 

Alfred was buried at the Anglo-Saxon cathedral in Winchester — but his remains and those of other royals were moved in 1100 by monks, ending up at the newly built Hyde Abbey.  The abbey was dissolved in 1536, and the whereabouts of Alfred's remains and those of other members of his royal family thereafter became unclear. Prisoners building a jail on the site in 1788 are thought to have come across the royal coffins, pillaged them, emptied out the remains and scattered the bones around.

Testing conducted on remains exhumed at Bartholomew’s Church led to a dead end because the skeletons dated from a much later period.  So researchers decided to examine a number of bones stored in Winchester Museum, which had originally been dug up 15 years ago from the medieval abbey but never tested. An analysis conducted on the remains revealed that a pelvic bone is likely to have belonged either to Alfred the Great, or to his son King Edward the Elder.

While the discovery of a pelvic bone in a museum box may appear inconsequential, researchers said the finding should pave the way for further exploration of the site and the prospect that more bones could be found. This would then afford the opportunity to give Alfred the Great, a significant figure in England’s history, a proper burial.

By April Holloway

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