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Royals and Bishops rub shoulders in Winchester Cathedral’s mortuary chests

17 May 2019

Experts seek to solve the identities of the 1300 human bones contained in six chests


Queen Emma inscribed on one of the mortuary chests

Queen Emma inscribed on one of the mortuary chests

SIX mortuary chests that lie in Winchester Cathedral are being examined, as experts attempt to piece together the 1300 human bones contained in them.

It is thought that the chests could contain the bones of royalty and bishops from before the Norman Conquest, but the identity of those bones has been a mystery for almost a millennia.

The bones became mingled when they were moved from the old Anglo-Saxon cathedral to the Norman building, and later during the English Civil War, when Parliamentary forces ransacked the cathedral. A contemporary chronicler at the time of the demolition of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral noted that “kings were mixed with bishops, and bishops with kings.”

Radiocarbon dating in 2015 revealed that the bones were from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, confirming 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.

A team of biological anthropologists from the University of Bristol have been working in the Lady Chapel to try to piece together the 1300 bones, to assess the likelihood of whether the human remains in the chests relate to the historical burial records. At least 23 partial skeletons have been reconstructed.

One female skeleton that was partially formed could be Queen Emma, the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, the wife of two successive Kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut, and the mother of King Edward the Confessor and King Hardacnut.

Two juvenile skeletons were also found, surprising researchers; they were boys who had died between the ages of ten to 15 years in the mid-11th to late-12th-century.

Professor Kate Robson Brown, who led the investigation, said: “We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain that this is a very special assemblage of bones.”

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