First Richard now Alfred?
PUBLISHED: 13:16 26 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:18 05 April 2013
Following the discovery of one English king under a car park in Leicester, could the remains of Alfred the Great finally be laid to rest in a Winchester suburb, asks Viv Micklefield
It seems astonishing that someone whos been dead for over twelve hundred years should have more than two thousand followers on Twitter. Yet King Alf, the self-proclaimed avatar of Alfred the Greats statue that dominates the centre of Hampshires county town, has clearly captured peoples imagination. Find out about
And its perhaps with good reason. If theres one man who has come to define much of whats best about Winchester, and for that matter, modern Britain, then its Alfred. So talk of finally laying to rest the legend that hes buried at St. Bartholomews Church in Hyde is, not surprisingly, getting peoples attention.
"Hes an enigma, Im fascinated by him," admits Ellen Simpson, Winchesters head of tourism, when we meet in the shadow of William Thornycrofts Victorian memorial to the Anglo-Saxon monarch. According to Ellen, its Alfred who was just 22 when he took the throne, who can be credited with the creation of a so-called cultural Englishness. Our justice, our law and our language, she tells me, all have their foundations in his reign as King of Wessex between 871 and 899AD.
With its arts scene, bustling shops and restaurants, and centres of academic excellence, Winchester rightly promotes itself today as a vibrant and cultured city. But as Ellen is quick to point out, an ancient heritage is what attracts many, of the five million, visitors each year. "Anglo-Saxon archaeology is difficult to come by, but we are able to pick out a story that lets them know about the historical layers," she explains.
Someone else, who understands Alfreds role in changing both the national, and this particular citys fortunes, is Geoff Denford, Winchester museums principal curator. According to him, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle might only include one account of Alfred having actually been seen in Winchester, "The accepted view of scholars is that he did a great deal to kick-start learning, trade and industry." Key to this was its establishment as a buhr, the largest of a number of fortified centres, which successfully forestalled the Viking domination of southern England. Using the footprint of its crumbling Roman walls, Wintanceaster as it became known as, afforded its citizens new-found security, and its craftsmen, from shoemakers to goldsmiths, prospered.
A visit to the City Museum reveals some of the hidden treasures, unearthed by archaeologists over the centuries. The Winchester Mint that Alfred introduced saw local moneyers striking silver coins until the mid 13th century, with some reportedly found as far a-field as Russia. And my eyes are drawn to another cabinet filled with bronze strap-ends embellished with flowing folds of drapery, acanthus leaves and birds. Religious foundations including Old Minster, established under Alfreds edict to rid the population of the scourge of the ungodly Norse, signalled a golden age of art. While illuminated manuscripts exemplified the so-called Winchester School, "Everyday items were also decorated with this wonderful arts style," observes Geoff.
Other artefacts continue to mystify. Sitting alongside fragments of ecclesiastical blocks is The Alfred Stone. Although not thought to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, its discovery in Hyde provides another insight into the popular reverence towards Alfred.
But its a scale model of Wintanceaster, displayed next to its Roman counterpart that really makes sense of his legacy here, when it came to establishing the seat of power. "Whats significant is that they didnt use the Roman street system," Geoff points out, "They laid a completely new grid system and this is the one that we still have today."
Whether heading down the High Street, following the road along North Walls, or taking a shortcut through one of the back alleys, Winchester comes alive with a sense of history as you follow in ancient footsteps. Indeed, the stories behind what became of Alfreds bones since his passing are, perhaps, best understood by grabbing a map and retracing the last-known processional journey made in 1110, to Hyde Abbey.
Rumours that the only English king ever to be called, The Great One might still be buried somewhere close by, has certainly kept archaeologists guessing to this day. Whats known is that after temporarily residing at both Old Minster, and at his heir Edward the Elders 10th century New Minster, Alfred was buried before Hydes high alter, alongside Queen Ealhswith and their son. One of the most recent digs, on the site in the 1990s, confirmed that the royal familys relics remained here until the Abbey succumbed to dissolution, demolition and ransacking in 1538.
Whats unknown is what happened next. Legend has it the three tombs survived intact until their contents were pilfered and sold by a builder, working on the citys new jail at the site in the late 18th century.
Standing at the spot that marks the last known graves, the minimalist flint, gravel and stone landscaping by Kim Wilkie, provides visitors to the now restored Hyde Abbey Garden, the opportunity for quiet reflection. As Alfred once remarked, "I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works."
And today, residents of this Winchester suburb certainly take pride in Alfreds achievements. Steve Marper, chair of the Hyde 900 community group, talks enthusiastically about the growing number of events taking place. The King Alfred Lecture, has become a popular addition to the Winchester calendar, he tells me. And last year, the annual commemorative service held at St. Bartholomews, the Abbeys former lay church, saw a psalm translated into Anglo-Saxon in Alfreds honour.
Its here at the church that all eyes are now turned with the news that an unmarked grave looks set to be excavated. Understood to contain a collection of bones bought, some say, from a disreputable local antiquarian following the jails demise, its that nugget of uncertainty which has got everyone talking. "Almost anywhere people dig in the city, theres some archaeology underneath it," says Steve. And although the University of Winchester team, who will be in charge, accept that an incomplete skeleton makes identification difficult - radio carbon dating could be the one tool available, it gets the local communitys backing. "If the bones were to be analysed and understood to be Alfreds, it would provide another chapter in the story," Steve confirms.
While the chances of also discovering anything to rival the famous Alfred Jewel, held in Oxfords Ashmolean Museum may be slim, Geoff Denford would like to see such artefacts remaining in Winchester. "If something beautiful did come out [of the grave] it would be nice for it to come to the museum, so that it can be displayed, and everyone can see it,"
As recent excavations elsewhere in the country have proven, there is an enduring interest in old English kings. But, for now, Wintonians must wait a little while longer for news of their founding father.
Summing up what Alfred means to them, he is, says Ellen Simpson, "Our unsolved mystery." And not even atweet to King Alf can provide an answer to this.
It seems astonishing that someone whos been dead for over twelve hundred years should have more than two thousand followers on Twitter. Yet King Alf, the self-proclaimed avatar of Alfred the Greats statue that dominates the centre of Hampshires county town, has clearly captured peoples imagination.
Find out about