Sunday 11 August 2013

The Search for King Alfred the Great

The search is now on for the mortal remains of King Alfred the Great.  After finding the grave of King Richard III against all odds under a car park in Leicester in August 2012, searching for our lost monarchs seems to have become bit of a national pastime here in the UK.  Now it is the turn of the Anglo Saxon King Alfred the Great, he of the burned cakes, as his grave has never been identified.  Archaeologists believe that he is lying in an unmarked grave somewhere in Winchester, possibly in St Bartholomew’s churchyard where they have a collection of unidentified bones including five skulls.

The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel

The first task facing the archaeologists is to sort the bones out as separate individuals and then determine the sex and the estimated age they would have been when they died. The bones will then be radiocarbon dated to check if they do indeed date from the Anglo Saxon period.  If they manage to isolate a male skeleton that dates to the time of Alfred the Great, they then intend to extract a DNA sample and try and match it with the DNA of a living descendant.  This will be much more difficult than the task that faced the investigators who had to find a living relation of Richard III, as King Alfred lived much longer ago between 849 and 899 AD.  The family tree is much older and it is going back into a shadowy time in our history from where there are fewer documents and less historical evidence that has survived.

The churchyard at St Bartholomew’s was reserved for high status burials back in the 9th century, so if they do identify male skeletal remains from the right time period, there is a good chance they could prove to be Alfred’s.  But who was Alfred the Great and why are archaeologists so keen on finding his burial?  Alfred the Great came to the throne at a turbulent time in England’s history. During the Anglo Saxon period, England was not one country, but was divided into several different kingdoms.  Alfred was born the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his first wife Queen Osburh.  He was well travelled as a child, as he visited Rome at the age of four  where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, and then made a later visit to the papal city when he accompanied his father on pilgrimage, also spending time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks on the journey.

Alfred had three older brothers, who were champing at the bit to gain more power, and when the pilgrims returned to Wessex Aethelwulf was deposed by his son Aethelbald.  This move disrupted the kingdom and rather than having to go through a destructive civil war, the nobles made the warring rulers accept a compromise; Aethelwulf would rule in the east, while Aethelbald would hold onto to the lands he had seized in the east.  When Aethelwulf died in 858, all three of his elder sons ruled in succession.  However, it is not until the reign of the third brother Aethelred in 866 that Alfred comes to prominence.  At this time, the four Anglo Saxon kingdoms were under threat from the Vikings who had invaded East Anglia in 865.  He was  given the title ‘secundarius’, which meant that he was the officially recognised heir to the throne in the event of Aethelred’s death, ensuring a smooth succession and continuity of rule.

The Viking horde was known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’ because at that time the Vikings were not Christians and still worshipped their traditional Norse gods.  They swept through the kingdom of East Mercia, led by a man called Ivar the Boneless.  Alfred is recorded as having joined his brother in attempting to fight off the Viking horde in East Mercia, but by the end of 870 they had managed to push into Wessex itself. The following year 871 was to be a difficult one for Alfred as he had to fight in nine military engagements and his brother Aethelred died in April, making Alfred the King of Wessex.  His army suffered a heavy defeat while he was absent at the burial ceremonies of his brother and was defeated again at the Battle of Wilton when he was back leading his men in May.  The new king was forced to sue for peace, and although the terms of the treaty are not known, the Vikings did retreat back to London, probably after being bribed with a large amount of money to do so.

By 876 the Vikings had a new leader called Guthrum. They marched once more into Wessex, eventually forcing King Alfred to flee from his Christmas court at Chippenham.  The king and a small band of followers took refuge in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset for the rest of the winter of 878.  It was at this low point in his career that the infamous burning of the cakes supposedly occurred.  According to legend, Alfred and his followers were taken in and given shelter by a local peasant woman.  She gave the monarch the task of watching some cakes that she was cooking on the fire, but Alfred was so distracted by his difficulties that he let the cakes burn. The woman scolded him mightily for being so careless. Although this story is more legend than fact, it represented the nadir of Alfred’s political career.

In the spring Alfred emerged from his hiding place and surprised the Danes at the Battle of Edington, winning a decisive victory.  Guthrum was forced to retreat back to Chippenham, where Alfred’s army besieged him for two weeks.  He was driven to surrender, and under the terms of the Peace of Wedmore he agreed to be baptised as a Christian and to leave Wessex.  Guthrum took his army back to East Anglia and Alfred got on with building his power base.

He was to prove to be an innovative and resourceful monarch, and the only English king to be known as ‘the Great’.  He took steps to build a navy to help contain the Viking threat from across the sea in Scandinavia, and on land managed to wrest control of London back and forced the Danes back up into the east and north of the country.  This area became known as the Danelaw, and in the south and west King Alfred’s Saxon laws were applied.  He also encouraged the growth of fortified towns, established schools and promoted culture.

So Alfred the Great was the king who united the divided kingdom of England, as well as introducing new laws and other administrative changes that were to shape the emerging nation.  So it would be very exciting if the remains of this monarch could be identified and given the kind of burial that he so richly deserves.

  The Alfred Jewel image Richard M Buck Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported