Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Finding Alfred the Great's Bones

"After the car park king comes the cemetery sovereign," famously says The Times. Scientists and historians claim to have found the remains of Alfred the Great, undoubtedly the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, buried in an unmarked grave in Winchester. Enthusiastic archelogists are seeking to excavate the grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hampshire.

Unfortunately for them, the grave contains jumbled remains of five people, and so correctly identifying which bones go with which skull and which one of them is indeed Alfred is going to be a tough task. Another tough task is going to be to find a living direct descendant so proper DNA testing can be conducted to identify the skeleton as truly Alfred's. Given that Alfred reigned over England in the late 800s, finding a living relative is a task of monumental proportions.

This is what The Times, irreverently, says about Alfred's remains: "In life King Alfred may have fought a prolonged guerrilla war against the Danes, but his bones have arguably had an even more tumultuous time in death. Initially buried in 899AD beside Winchester Cathedral, with the expansion of the cathedral in 1110AD they had to be moved. Relocated in the newly built Hyde Abbey, he rested in peace for almost half a millennium in front of the altar. But when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the altar and everything around it was lost. During the following centuries, assuming they remained, the greatest of the Wessex royals found themselves beneath first derelict land, then a prison, then beside St Bartholomew’s Church."

Alfred was the first West Saxon king to be called the King of the Anglo Saxons. In 871, he succeeded to the throne of Wessex. In 878, at the Battle of Ethandun, he defeated the Viking King Guthrum, and as part of the treaty, ceded East Anglia to him as Danelaw and the rest of England and Wales became the united Anglo-Saxon kingdom. (Some people say that the signing of this treaty took place in 880.)

As the years of mostly peace followed this, Alfred showed himself to be a just and wise king and human being. Militarily, he reorganizd his forces with a standing, mobile field army, built a network of fortified burhs, and assembled a small fleet of ships to navigate rivers and other bodies of water. He strengthened the economy through a policy of monetary reform, urban planning, scaled taxation, and revamped law codes. In law as in cultural aspects, Alfred was ruled by his ideas of what a Christian person is and what a Christian king should be. He undertook an ambitious effort to revive learning in the entire land under his command, and he was adamant that all available literature should be in the accessible Anglo-Saxon (AKA Old English) language easily understood by everyone.