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Who are they?

27 February 2015

MANY years ago, I was allowed to hold in my hands the skull believed to be that of Edmund Ironside, King of England, son of Æthelred the Unready, who died - probably murdered - in 1016. The skull was among the many bones in one of the mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral, and it was thought he could be identified by the wounds to his head. Now that the six chests, that almost certainly hold the bones of several of those early kings, including Cnut and his wife, Emma, as well as three bishops, are being opened again, and more scientifically examined, that supposed identification could well be proved wrong.

The chests usually stand high on the walls either side of the high altar, but have been taken down and are currently arrayed in the Lady chapel. The bones, many of them broken, have been mixed up since they were thrown about by the parliamentarians who did their destructive worst in the cathedral in 1642. This time, the bones will be examined with the minimum of intervention, but certainly with more accurate results.

Recent carbon dating of some of the fragments has already confirmed that they are of the late Saxon and early Norman period, and the chests themselves record their contents as royal: Cynegils, the earliest king, (d. 643), Cynewulf (d. 786), Ecbert (d. 839), Æthelwulf (d. 858), Eadred (d. 955), Edmund Ironside (d. 1016), Cnut (d. 1035), Emma (d. 1052), and William Rufus (d. 1100). The three bishops are Wini (d. 670), Alfwyn (d. 1047), and Archbishop Stigand (d.1072).

There was always a question about William Rufus's being in one of the chests, as the anonymous black tomb in the middle of the choir has long been believed to be his.

A great deal of the earliest history of England is in Winchester, and the results of this new and detailed examination of the bones will be awaited with enormous interest. It should certainly confirm the dates when the individuals lived, their sex, their age at death, and some of their physical characteristics.

"This is an exciting moment for the cathedral, when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon kings who became the first monarchs of a united England," the Dean, the Very Revd James Atwell, says. It may establish Winchester as the first formal national mausoleum.

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