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English cathedral identifies ancient royal remains of Queen Emma through carbon dating

Posted on: May 20, 2019 11:04 AM
Ancient mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral contained Anglo-Saxon human remains, including those thought to belong to Queen Emma
Photo Credit: Winchester Cathedral

[ACNS, by Rachel Farmer] Ancient remains thought to belong to Saxon Queen Emma, the mother of King Edward the Confessor and wife of two successive Kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut, have been found in Winchester Cathedral. The historic secrets hidden within six painted wooden caskets – called mortuary chests – are gradually being unlocked as part of an on-going research project supported by the Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter.

Biological anthropologists from the University of Bristol turned the Cathedral’s Lady Chapel into a temporary laboratory while they reassembled over 1,300 human bones, in an attempt to try to discover the identity of the kings, one queen, and several bishops traditionally thought to be within the chests. Each bone has been carefully measured and recorded, and at least 23 partial skeletons have been reconstructed so far.

Identifying the sex, age and physical characteristics revealed the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests, which could prove to be Queen Emma, who was a powerful political figure in late Saxon England. And it was her family ties that provided William the Conqueror with a measure of justification for his claim to the English throne after his invasion in 1066.

Professor Kate Robson Brown, who led the investigation, said: “We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain that this is a very special assemblage of bones.”

Along with the female remains, mystery surrounds an unexpected discovery of two juvenile skeletons. The two boys had died between the ages of 10 to 15 years in the mid-11th to late 12th-century. Their presence in the chests was not recorded and their identity is still unknown, but they were almost certainly of royal blood.

Winchester Cathedral’s mortuary chests are displayed on stone screen walls either the side of the high altar area. These caskets contained the remains of many important kings and bishops who had been buried in the original Anglo-Saxon cathedral. Other famous individuals thought to be in the chests are King Ecgberht and his son Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, and Archbishop Stigand who appears on the Bayeux Tapestry.

These new discoveries could place Winchester Cathedral at the birth of the English nation and establish it as the first formal royal mausoleum.

Visitors can find out more about the project and ongoing discoveries from tomorrow (Tuesday 21 May) when Winchester Cathedral launches its landmark National Lottery-funded exhibition “Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation”. Replicas of the bones of the female skeleton, which could be Queen Emma, have been 3D printed and laid out as a key exhibit.