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.