Analysis begins of royal bones in mortuary chests at Winchester Cathedral

Romsey Advertiser: The quest for Saxon kings in Winchester Cathedral The quest for Saxon kings in Winchester Cathedral

DNA analysis of the oldest royal bones in England has begun at Winchester Cathedral, the Chronicle has learned.

Experts could finally be on the cusp of resolving an internationally-significant mystery that has perplexed historians for centuries.

Six mortuary chests, which have sat on top of stone presbytery screens around the quire for over 350 years, are thought to contain the bones of seven Anglo-Saxon kings, and one Norman monarch.

Experts believe those interred there include Canute, King of England, Denmark and Norway, his Queen Emma of Normandy, as well as their son Harthacanute.

Canute, who died in Shaftesbury in November 1035, was originally buried in Winchester’s Old Minster before work on the city’s magnificent cathedral had even begun.

Two years ago the chests were moved from the quire to the Lady Chapel at the building’s east end, so work could begin without removing them from consecrated ground.

This is closed off to visitors, with the mortuary chests lined up under strong lighting behind the screen.

An official cathedral guide told her group of tourists while approaching the Lady Chapel on Tuesday: “What’s happening here is very exciting. We’ve begun work here to look at the DNA of some of our oldest kings.”

Winchester Cathedral has until now insisted that the conservation work only related to the chests in which the bones were interred.

When asked about what is being said on their official tours, a Cathedral spokesman said: “I didn’t realise that that (information) was already out there.”

Rumours continue to circulate that a confidential deal has been signed with a television company to produce a documentary about the work, though these have again been vehemently denied.

There would be huge national and international interest should DNA testing prove the veracity of the bones.

Recently a confidential agreement was made between Hyde 900 and the BBC regarding the contents of the grave at St Bartholomew's church in Winchester. It was hoped it might be King Alfred but results were inconclusive.

Two years ago the cathedral received Heritage Lottery Fund support for a £10.5m bid for repairs to the building’s fabric and development entitled Kings and Scribes – The Birth of a Nation.

A grant of £475,000 was awarded to fund the work required to make a full application.

The Daily Mail has previously reported that celebrity archaeologist Professor Mark Horton would be working on the bones, together with a team of scientists from Bristol University.

He has close links with several television shows, including the long-running TV programme Time Team.

It is believed that the bones have previously been moved twice over the centuries, the first time by Bishop Henry of Blois in 1158 so that they could be re-interred.

English Civil War Roundhead troops stormed the cathedral in 1642, plundered the chests and used the larger bones to smash the building’s precious stained glass windows.

When they were gathered up and returned to the mortuary chests in 1661, it was not known which bones went together so they were simply placed in a jumbled form.

The Kings and Queens thought to be interred in the caskets are: Cynegils (who ruled 611-643), Cenwalh (643-672), Egbert (802-839), Ethelwulf (839-856), Eadred (946-955), Eadwig (955-959),  Canute (who, contrary to popular belief, probably did not vainly try to turn the tides, 1016-1035), his wife Queen Emma of Normandy, and Norman monarch Rufus, who died in the New Forest in 1100, after being felled by an arrow.

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