Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The remains of Alfred...or not

I thought I should post something on the latest historical kerfuffle making the news - namely, the discovery by archeologists of a piece of human pelvis which might have belonged to Alfred the Great. The bit of old bone was not found inside a cathedral, where you might expect to find the remains of a dead king, but in a cardboard box in a dusty storeroom in Winchester museum, mixed in with a load of animal bones and random human fragments. 

That's right. We gave Margaret Thatcher a state funeral, with politicians lining up to weep over her gaudy jewelled tomb before firing it into space, but for centuries the greatest of England's kings has languished inside a cardboard box. Or at least a bit of him: the rest of his bones were lost in the 18th century, when Hyde Abbey was torn down to make way for a new prison.
Just put me in here, I'll be fine
I posted quite recently on the subject of digging up the dead, and the ethics of it. Should we really disturb the graves of our ancestors, just because we're curious to know what they looked like? It's not as if the various facial reconstruction techniques are very accurate. If so, then poor old Richard III, who surely had enough to cope with, bore a marked resemblance to Quentin Tarantino.  
Quentin III
In the case of Alfred, archeologists have found a bit of him in a box rather than digging up his grave, so the question of ethics doesn't apply. The whole exercise seems curiously pointless: they can hardly reconstruct his face from a piece of pelvic bone, and it may not be his anyway. The bone has been carbon-dated to between the late ninth-early tenth century, which at least covers the date of his death in 899, but belonged to a man aged between 26 and 45 at death. Alfred was fifty when he died. The other option is that it may have belonged to his son, Edward the Elder, but that's even further out, for Edward died in his mid-fifties. Perhaps the likeliest candidate is Alfred's youngest son, Aethelweard, who died in 922, probably in his forties.  
Whether or not the bone belonged to Alfred, or a member of his family, is unlikely to be top of the agenda in the next few weeks. The official line is that Alfred Has Been Found, for few are likely to be attracted to news stories and TV documentaries devoted to the discovery of a bit of pelvic bone belonging to Aethelweard, a historical nobody with an odd-sounding name. 
We are the King of Wessex, not a 'fun ride'
The team who discovered the bone are said to be 'elated', as well they might be, since more excavation of the Hyde Abbey site will now be greenlighted...and perhaps some of the tourist dollars about to flow into Leicester could be redirected to Hyde. In due course the site may become the home of the Alfred the Great Fun Centre, with Viking longboat-themed rides and fast food outlets selling Alfred-Burghers, plastic horned Viking helmets and Saxon battle-axes for the kids, Alfred the Great cakes (slightly burned), Alfred the Great t-shirts, plastic replica Alfred Jewels...the possibilities are endless, people! 
Now, who else can we exhume and make a fat profit from...? 


  1. Profit from the alleged or imagined bones of the saintly and illustrious funded almost all our fine institutions. So why the surprise?

  2. I have often wondered what it is about such discoveries that fascinates me. It's not a prurient interest, i.e., the ick and gore of the dead. I can only speak as an American girl but I grew up reading tales of castles, kings, great deeds and magic. For me, all these things were associated with romance and England. Although I know now that the Grimm's tales came from Germany, I read them in English and pictured everyone from Rapunzel to King Arthur living in ancient, stone castles in England. I had it all conflated as one giant, green countryside with dragons, maidens and kings. This may not answer your anger, or it may exacerbate it.

    Honestly, though, I do hope there will be no Alfred burgers or plastic Viking helmets with horns. We should be past that by now.

    1. Thanks Petrea - I'm not angry, but the whole thing just leaves a slightly nasty taste in the mouth. It's always about money.

    2. True. And that can be good or bad, depending upon how that money is used. If it's only going into the pockets of those who already have enough, that's bad.

      Another thing is the land itself. Building an amusement park anywhere near Hyde Abbey would be a travesty.

  3. Im still giggling at 'Quentin the 3rd' ...funny man David!! I agree totally with your sentiments regarding lack of respect for the dead remains of human beings , the hypocrisy is revolting, when you consider how these ancients are lauded in British history yet dumped in boxes in reality. Its all showbiz , media and money unfortunately.