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Last night, BBC 2 aired its Search for Alfred the Great, presented by star TV presenter Neil Oliver. The programme’s plot had however been been given away the week before at a press conference in Winchester, which announced the results of tests on bones thought to be those of King Alfred (d.899). Many (including myself) had predicted that it wouldn’t be possible to be confident about the findings. Well, we were wrong about that: it is possible to be confident, but only because it turns out these bones are actually from entirely the wrong period.

However, the press conference – and the programme – pulled a rabbit out of the hat: another bone, excavated separately some years before, is suitably old. Cue the suggestion, widely reported in the media as a credible announcement, that King Alfred has finally been found. This must have spared red faces in the BBC (who had been involved at a very early stage: after all that filming, something needed to happen). But given how disturbed the site has been, Anglo-Saxon burial practices, and the approximate nature of carbon-dating, to say that it would ‘stand up in a court of law’ is, to put it mildly, overstating things a bit. The bone might be King Alfred (or Edward)’s pelvis; but it probably isn’t.

In some ways this is a shame. Too often pre-Conquest history is treated as a little bit mythical, best kept for dressing up in primary school (Beowulf may be partly to blame, but only in part). It’s no coincidence that the one thing everyone knows about Alfred, other than that he’s vaguely important in English history (the ‘making of England’, as the documentary put it), is that he burned the cakes: people often also know that this is a later legend, yet that doesn’t seem to matter very much. If we could gaze upon the certified remains of a real individual, perhaps this attitude might begin to shift a little.

Yet there is also something rather unsettling about the ongoing mania for monarchical bones in a country where power is supposed to rest with the people. It seems to speak of a rather old-fashioned concentration on the Great Men of English History. And though there’s actually a very venerable tradition of putting Alfred into this framework, there’s also something slightly ahistorical about it, too.

In fact, while King Alfred was certainly an extremely important figure in English history, his achievement was emphatically a collective one (for an excellent 15 min. intro, try here). He didn’t fight off the Vikings single-handed, nor did he personally draft the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: both these actions had long legacies, but many people were involved in them. And ultimately, understanding them wouldn’t be helped by a lump of pelvis. We already know that Alfred’s dead, and that he had a hip. Even if this was all that’s left of Alfred, concentrating on the individual in this rather decontextualised way says more about contemporary British (English?) public (or media) attitudes to the past than it does about the West Saxon king: a potent Whig history/celeb culture hybrid.

It’s possible however that this approach will silently receive its just deserts. Contrary to the reportage, actually Alfred and his son Edward weren’t the only men who died in the tenth century and who were eventually buried in Hyde Abbey: for so too was the monk Grimbald (d. 901). Later venerated as the monastery’s patron saint, Grimbald’s relics were certainly present at the site, and most likely around the high altar. So the bones archaeologists have just discovered are as likely to be the remains of a saint as those of a king.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to the pelvis. It might be quietly returned to its box in some archaeological store when the fuss has died down; but there have already been suggestions that some more ceremonial resting place should be prepared for suitable veneration. It’s possible, then, that the ultimate outcome of this high-profile excavation’s failure would be to elevate into a monument to the English national story the bones not of an English king, but of a saint: an ironic reversal of the work of Henry VIII’s reformers.

And there’s a further twist: for Grimbald was from modern-day France. He had been invited over by Alfred to help inject Gallic scholarly know-how into England, part of a strong European dimension to Alfred’s rule that’s often forgotten amidst the popular attention to his role as foundational English king, though it was essential to Alfred.

Alfred, who had a high opinion of Grimbald and who was apparently very conscious of his own sinfulness, might have smiled about this. For him, after all, English identity wasn’t conceived in opposition to Europe, and he was anyway used to having his publicity managed for him by foreigners at his court (apart from Grimbald, a certain Welshman named Asser comes to mind). But it doesn’t seem quite to fit the dominant historical narrative that’s driving these royal excavations. As Twitter might put it: #awkward.

Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His book, Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100, is out now with Cambridge University Press. You can read Charles’ other History Matters blogs here and find him on twitter @pseudo_isidore.

Tags : archaeologyGrimbaldKing AlfredmedievalSearch for Alfred
Charles West

The author Charles West

33 Comments

  1. What I do not understand is why they gave a wide age range the upper limit of which is 45 years and then said it would apply to two 50 year old men. By the way, surely Wales was no more or less ‘foreign’ than Northumbria (discuss!)

    1. Quite so! Actually, though, palaeosteology tends to underestimate the age of ancient skeletons (or so I understand: think Katie Tucker mentioned this in the press conference): so it’s not really conclusive one way or another. Point taken about Wales versus Northumbria…

  2. It is a double edged sword. Yes a hip bone isn’t going to tell us much. However the possible story does raise interest in the public at large and without that interest it is hard to raise funding for important research. However it is also giving people the wrong idea of what Archaeology is about. I suppose BBC were hoping for a similar programme to the Richard lll one. They do at least also have Michael Woods programmes on Alfred for balance.

  3. I agree: as I said in the blog, if it helps raise the profile of Anglo-Saxon history, so much the better, and I was pleased they showed Michael Wood on Alfred again. But yes, it does rather mislead about the nature of this kind of research.

  4. What I find fascinating about these programmes is not their hunt for the sites and material cultures of royalty per se: there is a long tradition of archaeology doing this and it remains an important venture for understanding early medieval societies as a whole. Instead it is the taste for hard, cold bones. Without bones to analyse with machines that go ‘ping’ and without faces to reconstruct, the best of new discoveries raise little media interest by comparison.

  5. Yes: I guess it’s symptomatic that an excavation of Hyde (an important site in its own right) was left unfinished and unstudied for over a decade – it seems to take a fabricated media circus to generate the funds for bread and butter work which actually does enhance our understanding.
    PS I’m guessing they’re disappointed it was a pelvis, and not a skull: a hip reconstruction seems unlikely to cut it.

  6. For the record, the excavation of the east end of Hyde Abbey church in the late 90’s is the subject of a Winchester Museums publication drawing together several strands of evidence of the wider Abbey site. The excavation was not left unfinished either; the aim, to gain a plan of the east end of the church, was achieved whilst leaving in situ as much stratigraphy relating to the church, rather than its later disturbance, as possible.

    Otherwise, what a refreshing article to assert balance on this programme.

      1. Yes, that was one of the objectives but it formed part of a larger project (Hyde Abbey Community Archaeology Projectc c1995-99) exploring other areas of the abbey site, esp. adjacent to the mill stream.

        The final season (excavation on the east end of the chapel) was sub-titled ‘The Search for Alfred’. Three heavily disturbed adjacent pits were identified in the location of the High Alter – believed to be the robbed graves of Alfred, his wife and son. To this end the objective was achieved. It was never believed at the time that any in-situ remains were ever going to be found.

        What was absent from the programme was any detailed insight into this major project – or indeed those directly involved with it. (e.g. Graham Scobie – Site Director or Ken Qualmann – City Archaeologist).

        1. Looking back through the Winchester Museum Newsletters, I came across the following: The Search for Alfred the Great [in bold on a line by itself]: Exhibition and a selection of finds from the Community Archaeology excavations at Hyde Abbey, Summer 1999 ((WMN Aug 1999 p1). Doesn’t look like a subtitle to me!

          1. Yes- but the project started in c 1995 (as I recall – I ran the excvations then: It was called The Hyde Abbey Ccommunity Archaeology Project or similar – see Newsletter issus 22, 25 and 29 (1995-98) – It was only in its final year that it wes called ‘Search for Alfred the Great’ (as the were digging in the chapel area)

          2. I would only add to Steve’s comment that the Search for Alfred tag was used to attract volunteers from the US to the Earthwatch team that took part, lead by Eric Klinglehoffer.

  7. Thank you: I stand corrected on this point! (Though I can’t find it on COPAC?). I’d be delighted if I’ve added any balance, though I fear that a blog like this won’t really make much of an impact on the wider public debate…

  8. “it probably isn’t”. So it is the pelvis of a man who died roughly between 900 and 925, aged in his late 40s or so, who was buried in New Minster,and was important enough to translate to Hyde Abbey.There were no pre-1110 burials on the Hyde Abbey site, which was just fields. Who then is it, probably? Not Grimbald, he was too old when he dies.Probably not Alfred or Edward, says Charles West. I would welcome alternative suggestions as to his identity within limits.

  9. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment, Alice! You have a point, and I’m not saying we can rule out Alfred (or Edward) definitively. But:
    – as I understand it, the C14 dating was a little broader than that (though that would fit Grimbald perfectly anyway)
    – palaeosteology isn’t great at identifying the precise age of ancient skeletons: the man was certainly fully mature, but I wouldn’t be confident about the specific decade
    – we don’t anyway know how old Grimbald was when he died!
    – We don’t know that Hyde Abbey’s site was entirely fields; there could have been a small chapel/cross/holy site etc. Anyway, late Saxon isolated burials are not uncommon.
    – We don’t know which other bones the community of New Minster could have taken with them (would they necessarily have abandoned all their deceased brethren?)
    – We don’t know whether the monks identified Alfred’s bones successfully back in 1110!

    I accept might be wrong, of course – but the inherent uncertainty is in a way the point I’m trying to make (and also, whether we should be making such a fuss…).

    1. Thanks Charles for your careful reply.
      Can’t comment on the C14 dating.
      I understood that Grimbald was in his 80s when he died.
      If there was a small chapel around that area it was probably on the site of St Bartholomew’s church, to the west of Hyde Abbey. Some of its lowest courses of stone are massive and crudely hewn and the archaeologists think they may be Saxon. I suppose there could have been 2 small chapels near each other.
      I don’t think the monks could have carried all their dead brothers with them.
      If Alfred was buried in a marked grave before the High Altar, as in Hyde Abbey, then they would not have had too much difficulty identifying his bones.
      I suppose I could be wrong too!As to whether we should be making such a fuss, it is natural for the people of Wessex to make a fuss about King Alfred. He is still revered in Winchester. His relics would mean a lot to many Wessex folk, though to others his immaterial legacy is more important, which I thought the film spent quite a lot of time on.

    1. Hi Paul. No pressure obviously, but (speaking, or rather writing, as the blog’s editor) if you were interested in ‘previewing’ some of the findings in a follow-up blog to Charles’s piece then that would be fantastic. I’m sure people would be really interested. There’s been a lot of engagement with this piece.

  10. These are all very interesting points: thank you! But:
    – If anyone can prove when Grimbald was born, I’ll be happy to retract the point. There is a Vita Grimbaldi, but this is much later in date, if I remember rightly. Birth dates weren’t customarily noted in the early Middle Ages.
    – Chapels: you doubtless know more about the local topography than me, though it does sound like there’s some uncertainty there too
    – Why do you think the monks wouldn’t have taken select bones from former brethren they considered holy with them, along with the remains of Grimbald (and Alfred)? Sanctity not quite so closely monitored then as later.
    – We don’t know much about the grave of Alfred in New Minster, do we?
    – I accept the importance of local pride. And I had no intention of doing it down. Alfred and his court were without doubt hugely significant in English history, so it’s no surprise that they’re so esteemed in a place that was important to him. Though: it’s interesting you describe them as relics! I assume you meant it in a general way, but there is something of the relic about these remains, don’t you think?

    1. Yes, I think the search for anybody’s bones can only be understood in the context of many people’s natural tendency to venerate relics, irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack of them.

      1. Regarding the monks in Hyde Abbey – I would have thought they (the venerated relics) were the first thing that they would have picked up before moving out before Henry V111’s mob got them. Find where the monks went – then maybe the bones. The subsequent explorations happened 100s of years later – do you think his bones (venerated relics) would have been left in a ruined building.

        (my own opinion of course!)

        1. Wriothesley actually reported to H8 that they had destroyed all the relics. Salcot, the abbot, was a tool of H8’s so I am sure he didn’t let the other monks do anything that would have annoyed the monarch.

          1. Sorry, forgot to say that the bones were actually under the church floor so presumably the monks thought they would be left in peace. I doubt if Salcot would have allowed them to dig up Alfred & family anyway. The monks went their separate ways – a few of them became parish priests.

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