A pile of old bones is just a pile of old bones … unless they’re located in Winchester Cathedral. Then they could belong to an ancient member of British royalty, since the cathedral was founded in 642 and used by the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex from that time until 1066 when William the Conqueror moved all things royal over to Westminster Abbey. Six elaborately painted wooden mortuary chests (caskets) containing 1300 bones were protected and preserved during the various destructions and reconstructions of that early period of Winchester Cathedral’s history, but the exact identity of who those bones belonged to – believed to be well over six individuals – has remained a mystery … until now. Biological anthropologists from the University of Bristol have painstakingly analyzed and radiocarbon-dated the remains and determined that they belong to at least 23 people – including the powerful Queen Emma, who was married to two kings and gave birth to two more.
“Winchester Cathedral is a living monument to the heritage of England and is one of the most historically significant buildings in Britain. From the time of Alfred the Great until after the Norman Conquest, Winchester was England’s capital and the Cathedral was its royal chapel. Much of England’s early history was based here and twelve English kings are believed to be buried here – meaning that Winchester can lay claim to being the first Royal Mausoleum.”
The announcement is part of the opening of the “Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation” exhibition at Winchester Cathedral, which is the end result of a seven-year project detail its history and unlock the secrets of its many ancient artifacts and remains. While it was long believed that the six mortuary chest were from the dates inscribed on them and possibly contained the remains of pre-Conquest kings and bishops, there was no actual proof, and analysis was deemed to be nearly impossible since the chests had been opened many times and obviously contained many more than six individuals.
“A major development in 2015 revealed that the bones were from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, thanks to radiocarbon (C14) dating on selected fragments by the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford. These findings confirmed that the bones date from the same periods as the names on the chests, which include eight kings, two bishops and one queen, rather than being the result of later activity within the Cathedral.”
According to the exhibition website, that determination prompted the assembly of a team of biological anthropologists who carefully and meticulously catalogued the bones, identifying unique individuals and their sex, physical characteristics and age at death. That proved there were at least twenty-three partial skeletons in the caskets and, based on the exact time period determined along with the cathedral’s history of being the burial place for Wessex royalty, narrowed down the list of possible identities. Because only one was a female, it’ s highly likely that those are the remains of Queen Emma.
Emma lived from 985 to March 6, 1052 and was a queen consort (married to a king) of England, Denmark and Norway. As the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, she was the descendant of Vikings and helped her first husband, Æthelred the Unready (at least the British are honest about their leaders) unite the English throne with the Normans, giving William the Conquerer, grandson of her brother Richard II, a claim to the throne. Emma was considered to be merely a figurehead during Æthelred’s reign from 1002–1016. When Æthelstan, Æthelred’s eldest son from his first marriage, died, Emma fought to have one of her sons designated as heir-apparent. However, Æthelred’s death in 1016 came just a year after Cnut, a Danish prince, invaded England. In order to maintain Anglo-Saxon control of London, Emma married Cnut, an act which historians believe saved the lives of her sons, one of whom who eventually became King Edward the Confessor. She also had a son with Cnut who became King Harthacnut and co-reigned for a time with Edward the Confessor.
Encomium Emmae Reginae, an 11th-century Latin encomium in honor of Queen Emma that was most likely written by a monk of the time, shows that Emma was more influential during Cnut’s reign and was key in establishing the co-reign of her two sons. According to it and other records, after her death in 1052 Emma was interred alongside Cnut and Harthacnut in the old Winchester Cathedral, before being transferred to the new cathedral built after the Norman Conquest. During the English Civil War (1642–1651), all of the remains were disinterred and thrown onto the Cathedral floor, which explains why the six coffins that survived contained the remains of so many individuals.
Is the female in the mortuary chests really Queen Emma? Professor Kate Robson Brown, who led the investigation, gives this answer:
“We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain that this is a very special assemblage of bones.”
Close enough to make this a very special and historic exhibition.