Full Episode | The Search For Alfred The Great | BBC Documentary

A cold morning in March 2013.
At St Bartholomew’s Church
in Winchester,
the rector is
preparing for an unusual day.
Gathering here is a team
of local historians,
archaeologists, and a bishop. May God’s peace be in our hearts, may God’s peace be with us
in our homes… This group is hoping to resolve
a long-standing mystery
about THIS unmarked grave
in their local parish church.
To some, what these archaeologists
are doing may seem like sacrilege…
..but this could be the culmination
of an incredible story
that began
over a thousand years ago.
I can see…a coxa,
a humerus down there, there’s a mandible, tibia, femora… For 150 years, it’s been
claimed that this unmarked grave
contains the remains of one
of England’s greatest kings –
the man who laid the foundations
of the English nation –
Alfred the Great.Well, that is extraordinary. Oh… Wow! Very, very moving indeed.No-one knows for sure where Alfred
the Great’s remains lie buried.
So why does the team believe
that these might be his bones?
And why would they be
mixed together with other skeletons
in this unmarked grave?To answer these questions,I’m going to explore the story
of Alfred’s life…
and death.I’ll team up with specialists
to test the bones.
And we’ll discover
how they came to be
buried in the graveyard
of this modest parish church,
and whether they really are the
remains of King Alfred the Great.
This is an extraordinary
historical mystery
concerning a great Anglo-Saxon king.If it hadn’t been for Alfred,we would probably have
a different national identity,
we might even speak
a different language.
Alfred the Great was a hugely
significant leader in our history,
so it’s important
that we find out the truth
about the remains exhumed from
the unmarked grave.
And if they do turn out to be
those of Alfred,
then they can be re-buried
with all the dignity they deserve,
well over a thousand years
after his death.
BELL TOLLS MONASTIC—STYLE CHORAL MUSIC BELL TOLLS On the 26th October 899,the people of Wessexwere in mourning
for the death of their king.
A grand procession
bore the body of King Alfred
through the streets of Winchester,the royal capital of Wessex.It was a fitting tribute
to the king
who had forged the beginnings of
the English nation.
Alfred had bound his people together
through the power of language,
religion and military force.This is precisely the sort of place
where you would expect
to find a great king buried –Winchester Cathedral.But in fact, this great cathedral
wasn’t even built
until two centuries
AFTER Alfred’s death.
CHORAL MUSIC When Alfred was buried in 899,it was at the Anglo-Saxon
Old Minster, a much smaller church.
It stood on a site
right next to this cathedral.
If you look down there,you can see where the foundations of
the Old Minster
have been picked out in brickin the cathedral lawns,
and you can also
see that it’s been orientated
on a slightly different direction.
But Alfred didn’t rest in peace
in the Old Minster for long.
Before his death, Alfred had
been in the process of commissioning
a new monastery – the New Minster –
right next door to the Old Minster.
He wanted it to become
a mausoleum for him and his family.
It was Alfred’s dying wish
to be buried in the New Minster.
So in honour of his father,Alfred’s son Edward completed
the building. And in 903,
Alfred’s remains were exhumed,
just four years after his burial,
together with those of his wife,
who had died the previous year.
And with great ceremony
they were carried in procession
from the Old Minster to the New,
and there reinterred.
But that was only
the start of the story.
Alfred’s remains
weren’t just exhumed once,
but at least three times during the
course of the next thousand years.
The team leading the exhumation at
St Bart’s Church
wants to find out if this really isthe final resting place
of King Alfred and his family.
But before any work can beginon the bones, they have to wait for
the Church of England
to give permission
for scientific testing to go ahead.
For five months,the bones are securely stored at
the University of Winchester.
Finally, in August 2013,
permission is granted.
Dr Katie Tucker can begin the
process of unlocking their secrets.
Today, I’ve been able to start
washing the bones. Essentially
we just use normal tap water and soft toothbrushes to wash
the bones with, and just very, very gently cleaning away any soil
or any mud to get them as clean as they can possibly be to look
at them properly for an analysis. To be able to actually look
at the bones properly for the first time, to be able to get
the process under way, it’s actually very exciting
and it’s very interesting already. There’s the potential that these
could be the remains from very, very important individuals
in the history of this country. Alfred the Great was born in 849in the town of Wantage,
now in Oxfordshire.
He was born the son of Aethelwulf,
King of Wessex.
As the youngest of five brothers,Alfred was never expected
to become king.
Today, we would scarcely recognisethe England that Alfred
was born into.
In fact, it was a land of
many kingdoms and many kings.
Post-Roman Britain had been
invaded by a succession of tribes
from northern Europe –
Jutes, Angles and Saxons.
By the 9th century, there were four
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England –
Mercia, East Anglia,
Northumbria and Wessex.
In the 850s, these four kingdoms
would come under increasing attack
from another invading force…..the Vikings.Alfred would grow up in the shadow
of the Viking threat.
Alfred is the only English king
to be named “the Great”,
but we know very little
about his formative years.
The information we do havecomes from the writings of
a monk called Asser
from St David’s in Wales.In later life, Alfred commissioned
him to be his biographer.
Asser tells us that Alfred was“ignorant of letters”
throughout his childhood.
And that for all of his lifehe regretted not having had
the benefit of an education.
But the story goes that his mother
Osburh had a book,
a treasured book of poems.And that one day she said to her
sons that whichever one of them
could learn the poems by heart
could keep the book.
So dutifully Alfred set to work.And there came the day when he was
able to demonstrate
that he could indeed perform
all of the poems in the book,
and so he kept it.This love of literature and of
learning was a character trait
and it contributed
to the making of a great king.
Another powerful influence on Alfred
came not in England,
but hundreds of miles away…in Rome.In the 9th century, Rome was
the centre of the Western world
and of the Christian faith.The Anglo-Saxons
had accepted Christianity
as their primary religion
just 200 years earlier.
But they were soon enthusiastic
about making pilgrimages to Rome.
Alfred’s father was no exception and
he sent young Alfred on two visits
to the city, the first in 853 when
the boy was just four years old.
These visits to the most impressive
and powerful city
in the Western world
made a huge impression
on the boy who would be king.This was a city of towering stone,quite unlike the simpler buildings
back home.
Alfred almost certainly stayed
somewhere around here
in what was once a fully-fledged
Saxon quarter.
It was founded by Saxons
who came to Rome on pilgrimage
and on business, and over time
it became a permanent Saxon base,
which is why it’s still
called “Borgo” today –
from the Anglo-Saxon word “burh”
meaning a “fortified town”.
And “Sassia” –
from the word “Saxon” –
is still seen on street signs
around here.
In the 9th century, Rome suffered
repeated raids by Saracen bandits.
One attack had terrorised the cityjust a few years
before Alfred’s first visit.
The solution was to build
a network of giant walls –
and this is part of them here.They were built by Pope Leo IV
and in 853 –
the year of Alfred’s
first visit to Rome –
Leo initiated a tradition of
bare-foot walks around the walls,
praying for the protection
of the city as he did so.
This vivid display
of Christian faith
coupled with military readiness
made a lasting impression on Alfred.
It shaped his thinking as an adult,
as a warrior, and as a king.
FROM RELIGIOUS SERVICE Then came the real reason
for Alfred’s visit –
the moment that probably impressed
the young boy more than any other.
You have to try and imagine what it
must have been like for the boy.
Alfred’s only four years old
at this point,
and ushered into the presence
of the Pope himself.
What an occasion.Asser tells us that the Pope“anointed the child Alfred as King,
ordaining him properly,
“received him as an adoptive son,
and confirmed him”.
As Alfred’s biographer, Asser was
possibly being
a little bit creative with the truth
here to build up Alfred’s legend.
It seems unlikely that the Pope
would have anointed Alfred as King.
But we do know that
a ceremony took place.
In a letter to Alfred’s father,
Pope Leo confirms that it had
as well as spiritual significance.
The Pope wrote that “we have
decorated him as a spiritual son
“with the dignity of the belt
and the vestments of the consulate”.
This may have been
a special ceremony to honour
a son of
the royal House of Wessex.
It could possibly have been
papal recognition of Alfred
as a potential future king.
Whatever it really meant,
it clearly had a huge significance
for young Alfred,
because he was to grow into
a committed, devout Christian,
who absolutely believed in
his divine right to be king.
CHORAL MUSIC Back in the lab,Dr Katie Tucker continues her
examination of the exhumed bones.
I think we’ve got bones from
adult individuals, both males and females represented, and it’s looking like we’ve probably
got five or six individuals. Mostly cranial remains
and long bones, though we do have pieces of the
pelvis and quite a few small bones, like quite a few ribs,
bones of the hands and feet, parts of the spine, but it does seem to be largely cranial remains and long bones
that we have. We do need to separate them out
to try and work out which bones go with
different sets of remains, to see if we can get
different individuals. I have to be scientific about it and remember that all human remains
are essentially the same. You have to treat them all
with the same amount of respect. It will take two weeks to piece
the skeletons together.
If one of them
turns out to be King Alfred,
it will have been
on an EXTRAORDINARY journey.
Buried first in Winchester’s
Old Minster in 899,
Alfred was exhumed
and re-buried next door
in the New Minster
just four years later.
But Alfred’s bones would soon be
disturbed for a second time.
In 1066, William the Conqueror
invaded England.
The country he captured
was a valuable prize –
it was one of
the best-organised states in Europe,
with a reliable currency and an
efficient centralised legal system.
This was a great triumph
for William.
But for Anglo-Saxon England
it was a catastrophe.
The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was
cut down at the Battle of Hastings.
And in their place
came Norman nobles,
who took control of the country and
crushed any opposition violently.
King William stamped his authority
by building stone castles
all over the country,
that dominated the landscape.
The Normans also tore down the
Saxon churches and replaced them
with their own towering cathedrals,
like this one at Winchester.
First, the Normans
demolished the Old Minster.
Then in 1109,
they destroyed the New Minster –
the church where Alfred
and his wife lay buried,
along with their son
Edward the Elder.
The monks moved to a new home –Hyde Abbey –it was built on farmland
outside the city walls.
And this gatehouse
is one of the last fragments
of Hyde Abbey still standing.According to
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles,
in 1110, in the presence of
William the Conqueror’s son,
Henry I, and his Queen, Maud,the monks walked in procession to
their new home,
carrying the remains
of King Alfred, his wife Ealhswith
and members of the royal family. BASS VOICE SINGS CHORAL PIECE The monks carried
the remains to the new Hyde Abbey.
OTHER VOICES JOIN IN SONG And the journey ended here,where the high altar of Hyde Abbey
used to stand.
Alfred and his family were
entombed in sepulchres
beneath the floor
and in front of the high altar.
A final resting place
fit for a king.
Alfred’s bones would lie undisturbedunder the high altar of Hyde Abbey
for the next four centuries.
Back in 868, the young Alfred came
to a very different church –
a small, wooden Anglo-Saxon church –much like this one in Essex.Alfred was about to enter
a diplomatic alliance
with the neighbouring
kingdom of Mercia.
An act which would begin the processof unifying
the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
In 868,Alfred, accompanied by
members of his family,
came to be married
to a member of the nobility.
Her father was a Mercian nobleman,her mother was a member
of the Mercian royal family.
The bride’s name was Ealhswith.Alfred’s marriage to Ealhswith
was a diplomatic coup
that would increase
his power and influence.
But at the wedding feast,Alfred was suddenly struck down with
excruciating stomach pain.
He would never fully recover.Asser said that the pain “plagued
him remorselessly by day and night”.
Asser tells us
Alfred was in so much pain
his guests thought
it must be witchcraft
or perhaps even the devil’s work.More recently, experts have
suggested that the ailment
that stuck him down, and affected
him for years to come,
might have been Crohn’s disease,
which is a digestive disorder that,
amongst other things,
causes severe stomach pain.
In any event, it was
so bad that Alfred wrote to rulers
and physicians all across Europe
in hope of a cure.
Despite his chronic illness,
Alfred outlived his older brothers.
One by one, they became king.One by one, they died.So, in 871,
just three years after his wedding,
the youngest son,
who was never expected to rule,
took the throne of Wessex.Alfred was immediately called upon
to defend his kingdom.
By the time of Alfred’s coronation,the Vikings had cut a swathe
across the kingdoms of England.
East Anglia and Northumbria were
the first to fall. Mercia fell next.
Then the Vikings
turned their full force
on the only remaining
English kingdom –
Wessex.Alfred was driven into hidingin a wasteland
known as the Somerset Levels.
Today, the Somerset Levels
are dominated by farmland,
flat farmland
as far as the eye can see.
But in the 9th century,
when Alfred came to power,
this was primarily marshland.And it was just after
he had taken the throne
that he faced
one of his greatest challenges.
Alfred had fought
alongside his brothers
so he was no stranger to
the battlefield.
But in the year 875, a new
foe appeared on the horizon –
a Viking warlord called Guthrum.And in 878,when Alfred was celebrating
the Yuletide at Chippenham,
Guthrum and his men
mounted a surprise attack.
And it was into this terrain that
Alfred fled in fear of his life.
This was Alfred’s
lowest point as king.
With a core band of men,he was forced to set up
a secret fortified base
deep within
the wetlands of Somerset.
When Alfred was here, this landscape
was a watery maze of rivers
and little streams, marshland,
ponds, reed beds and little islands.
In fact,
it was the perfect place to hide.
Alfred found a way through
the treacherous bogs and marshes.
And right in the middle of it all,
he made his camp…
..on a low-lying
hill called the Isle of Athelney.
He re-built his forcesand waited for an opportunity
to strike back at the Vikings.
According to one of
the best-known legends about Alfred,
it’s around here that he sought
shelter from a farmer’s wife
and then inadvertently
let her cakes burn
because he was too distracted
worrying about his own future.
It’s almost certainly a myth and
possibly drawn from Norse legend.
But archaeological digs up here,have found not just the remains of
an abbey founded by Alfred,
but also traces of iron smelting,which makes it possible
that he and his men
were smelting weaponswhile they spent time up here
in a temporary camp.
In May 878,
Alfred decided to make his move.
He rallied his forces,
and Asser says he was joined by
“all the inhabitants of Somerset
and Wiltshire and Hampshire”.
The precise location
of the battlefield
has never been identified,but it’s thought to have taken
place down here on the low ground.
It takes its name from the nearby
village of Edington.
Asser writes that Alfred“destroyed the Vikings
with great slaughter
“and pursued those who fled,
hacking them down”.
At the Battle of Edington, Alfred
won a stunning victory,
for Wessex
and for Anglo-Saxon England.
According to local folklore,this white horse
was cut in the 18th century
to commemorate the victory.A fitting tribute.In the aftermath of the battle,
Alfred persuaded Guthrum
to convert to Christianity,and with Alfred acting as
godfather to Guthrum,
all of it taking place
amid much feasting and celebration.
The two soon agreed to divide
the country –
Alfred would keep
Wessex to the southwest,
Guthrum the lands the Vikings
had conquered to the northeast.
In battle and through diplomacy,
Alfred had established himself
as the “King above
all the other kings” in the land.
And the nation had taken a step
closer to being a united “England”.
In Winchester, Dr Katie Tucker
has finally assembled
all the bones
found in the unmarked grave.
I must admit that my first reaction
is I’m amazed by how much is here.
There’s a lot of bones
from the individuals.
Yeah. Well we have five skulls,
you can see here, and then we have the remains
of six post-cranial skeletons – so the rest of the skeleton
that isn’t the skull. Is it both sexes represented here? Yes, we do have males and females. This individual
is definitely a female.Mm-hm. You can see the pelvis is very,
very wide and of course they would generally
tend to be smaller than males. So, it’s one woman definitely?Yes.And then the likelihood that
it’s five males.
We have a definite male here.Mm-hm. This one, probably a male, and this
individual is also probably a male. So, based on that,
this could be Alfred?
That could be… That could be… That could be… And that’s…
This one definitely not.
That one’s definitely female, yes. When you look at these skeletons,
what story
do they tell about the kind of lives
lived by the people?
For such
a small number of individuals they’ve got a lot going on
in terms of disease. You can see the vertebrae, you can see they’re all
fused together into one lump.Yeah. And this is because
all the ligaments that attach all the vertebrae together,
and the tendons, they’ve all turned to bone –
they’ve all ossified.Right. So it would have left the individual
with very, very limited movement. Surely that makes it unlikely
that this would be Alfred?
There are historical reports that Alfred had some form of
chronic health problem. It’s suggested maybe it
was Crohn’s disease, but you probably would not be
able to see that in the skeleton. So, in terms of the search forAlfred and his relatives,
what is next?
Well the next stage is to take some
samples for radiocarbon dating, so we’ll actually be able to work out the age of the bones
from bone samples. By the early 16th century,we know that Alfred’s remains had
twice been exhumed and reburied.
They were now buried with
those of his family
beneath the high altar
of Hyde Abbey.
But the story was about to take
another extraordinary turn.
Hyde Abbey was about to fall victim
to one of the greatest acts
of state vandalism
England had ever seen.
Vandal-in-chief in Hampshire
was one Thomas Wriothesley,
who built himself a hunting lodge
here at Beaulieu.
Thomas Wriothesley was a highly
ambitious young man.
At the age of just 19, he dropped
out of a law degree at Cambridge
to become assistant to a man who
was on his way to becoming
the most powerful person
in the court of King Henry VIII –
Thomas Cromwell.Wriothesley would rise up
through the ranks,
eventually becoming
Lord Chancellor himself.
And he made his name helping Henryresolve one of the greatest crises
of his reign.
In the early 16th century,a religious revolution was
sweeping across northern Europe.
In protest at the corruption
and extravagance
of the Catholic church,
many people rejected Rome,
turned to the Protestant faith,and embraced a simpler,
more austere form of worship.
When the Pope refused to grant Henry
VIII a divorce from his first wife,
Henry too decided to break from Rome
and establish the Church of England.
Men like Thomas Wriothesley
were employed
to close down the wealthy Catholic
abbeys and monasteries.
Anything that symbolised the pomp
and ritual of Roman Catholicism
was destroyed or stolen.Religious images were defaced,holy relics and bones
were smashed to pieces.
Within four years,
800 monasteries were attacked,
including this one at Beaulieu.It’s almost unbelievable,
and it’s certainly hard to imagine,
that this vast, empty spacewas once the interior
of a magnificent abbey church.
You still do get a sense
of the scale though,
and the scale of this churchwould have been similar to
that of Hyde Abbey church.
The fragments that remain let you
recreate it in your mind’s eye.
Each of these piles of rubble marks
the footing for an enormous column,
each of them about 60 or 70ft high,
supporting the roof,
and then all the way down
at the end of this paving,
in the east end,
would have been the high altar.
The dissolution of the monasteries
meant yet another disturbance
of Alfred’s resting place.In 1538, Thomas Wriothesley
turned his attention to Hyde Abbey,
one of the richest abbeys
in Hampshire.
Wriothesley wrote to his boss,
Thomas Cromwell,
to assure him that at
Hyde he was hard at work
sweeping away the old bones
that were known as relics.
It was all about destroying
for the last time
the abomination of idolatry.Hyde Abbey itself
was quickly demolished.
It became little more
than a fine stone quarry
to be used for building
and rebuilding all over the area.
And you can sometimes see
fragments of the abbey
incorporated into the new.Look up there
and you’ll see a horned head,
heavily weathered, but that was once
a decorative item on the abbey.
And all the while, King Alfredand his family
were silently under the ground.
With the abbey demolished, there
was no longer any visible monument
to mark the location
of Alfred’s remains.
They now lay hidden,
possibly lost for ever.
By 880, King Alfred was
at the height of his powers.
He’d taken control of
large swathes of the country.
His kingdom would form the basis
of what would become England.
But only if he could keep it
safe from attack.
Alfred built new forts, protected
by great defensive earthworks,
like these at Wallingford
in Oxfordshire.
Overgrown as they are,
these earthworks,
are still incredibly impressive,but they’re made even more so
when you realise
that all of this was put in placeas part of a kingdom-wide system
of defences
that date back to
King Alfred the Great himself.
Now, it’s about 8m deep
at the moment,
but in the 9th century,
it would have been even bigger,
probably with a timber palisade
running around the top,
all of it acting together
to turn the town into a fortress.
These earthworks surrounded
the village on three sides,
with a river defending the fourth.Such fort-like defences
were called “burhs”,
from which we get
the word “borough”.
Beginning with his capital,
Alfred chose strategic locations –
intersecting roads and rivers –
and commissioned
33 of these fortified towns
all across southern England,from Devon to Kent
and as far north as Warwick.
These fortified towns
were placed strategically
no more than 40 miles apart,meaning Alfred’s soldiers
could be summoned quickly
to defend the nearest townand the people
could take refuge from attack.
With his defences spread across
this network of fortified towns,
King Alfred and his kingdom became
almost impossible to conquer.
It was nothing less
than a masterstroke.
But Alfred’s new defences
needed another resource.
An army.Instead of just rallying the men
to help him,
Alfred came up with a much more
efficient way of doing things.
He basically used
a mathematical formula to enable him
to calculate exactly how many men
were needed to defend each town,
and it came out at approximatelyone man for every four foot of wall.He was also careful to keep
half the men in reserve,
so that if half were committed,he had the rest waiting
fresh to join the fray.
He was organising the military
in a way that hadn’t been seen
since the time of the Romans.A new England
was emerging under his rule.
Once his kingdom’s defences
were established,
Alfred was able to realise
his other great ambition.
This would come to define his reignand help earn him
the title “Alfred the Great”.
Alfred mourned the loss in England
of all the culture and art
and literacy
that he’d enjoyed in Rome.
And so he summoned, from all across
Europe, some of the great scribes –
John, the Old Saxon, from Germany,
Grimbald from France
and, significantly,
Asser from Wales –
and he had them teach him Latinso that he could personally
supervise the translation
into Old English of the “books
most necessary for man to know”.
He was building a bridge
between Anglo-Saxon England
and the great minds
of the classical world.
MONASTIC SINGING I’ve come to the Bodleian Library
in Oxford
to see evidence of
Alfred’s determination
to educate and unite his subjects.This is the oldest surviving bookwritten entirely
in the English language.
It was translated by King Alfred
in the early 890s.
It’s Pope Gregory’s “Pastoral Care”and it’s a guide
explaining to the clergy
how they should be looking after
the people in their congregations.
It’s the best example
of Alfred’s translations.
It reveals his passion
not just for the language,
but also for the nurturing
and the care of his subjects.
In the preface, he explains
his wider ambition for the project.
He wanted a copy of this to be sent
to every bishop in his kingdom.
It was for the benefit of
the less well-educated clergy,
those who couldn’t read Latin.Hundreds of years after
it was first written,
the wisdom here was still regarded
as ESSENTIAL reading for churchmen.
This was the beginning of a new ageof Anglo-Saxon
literacy and knowledge.
At court,
Alfred established a school
to instruct the children
of the nobility
and he required his ealdormen
and reeves, the local rulers,
to learn to read
on pain of losing their offices.
Here at the Ashmolean Museum,
there’s another remarkable symbol
of Alfred’s eagerness to celebrate
the power of learning.
This stunning little objectis about as close to the manand his beliefs
as we’re likely to get.
It’s called the Alfred Jeweland it’s the most unique item
associated with King Alfred himself.
And it is a wonder to behold.It’s beautifully crafted –
gold, cloisonne enamel.
Underneath this single piece
of highly polished crystal
is a Christ-like imagethat’s thought to represent
learning or wisdom.
It’s almost certainly
the handle of an aestel,
which is a special pointer.There would have been a piece
of ivory or wood coming out here.
And it’s used to point out
the individual words,
line by line on a page of
manuscript, while reading aloud.
And then worked into the outsideand going all around this teardrop
shape are the words, in Old English,
“Alfred ordered me to be made”.This isn’t just about
love of learning.
It’s more than that.It’s the belief that kingship
entails the responsibility
to be mindful of the well-being
of the people.
And it had
an extraordinary consequence.
It unified the languages
of the people,
their beliefs and knowledge.Several disparate kingdoms
were coming together as one.
Anglia – England.Today in Oxford, Dr Katie Tucker
is handing over some of the bones
from the unmarked graveto Professor Tom Higham
for radiocarbon dating.
So, how old do you think this is? This is the big question.OK.If they’re royal House of Wessexwe’re hoping they’re, well,
Saxon. That’s 900AD-ish.
Mm-hm.Professor Higham begins by
taking a small sample of bone.
He’ll test it with a cutting-edge
carbon-dating technique.
Of all of the global carbon, a very,
very small proportion of it is what we call radioactive. About one atom in
a trillion atoms of carbon is radioactive carbon or radiocarbon. And all of us, all living organisms,
take up in food carbon, which we use to build our bones
and build our bodies. But once death occurs, the amount of radioactive carbon begins to slowly decline
and disappear. The key to the dating technique is
that we know how rapid this decay is and so our job is to measure
how much radiocarbon there is and thereby date the bones. The tiny sample of bone
is dissolved in acid
and placed into an accelerator.Travelling at a speed of
15 million mph,
the carbon is broken down
into individual atoms,
one of which is
the radioactive carbon-14.
Carbon-14 is what gives scientists
the age of the specimen.
But it’ll be a couple of weeks
before we get the results.
We know that
after Alfred’s death in 899,
he was buried and exhumed twice,before being laid to rest
in Hyde Abbey.
When the abbey was demolished
in the 16th century,
Alfred’s coffin
remained under the ground
and the land returned to farming.250 years later,the story of Alfred’s bones
took another dramatic turn.
I’ve come to Hampshire Record Office
to find out what happened.
In the late 18th century,
interest in King Alfred was growing.
This pamphlet was written
by an amateur historian
called Captain Henry Howard.Howard came to Winchester in 1797to try to find out
what had happened to Alfred’s grave.
Howard provides
the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
About ten years earlier in 1788,the site of Hyde Abbey had
been acquired by the county
for the construction of a different
sort of building altogether –
Bridewell, the new town jail.According to Howard,the keeper of the jail was
a man by the name of Mr Page.
And Mr Page told him that in
advance of the building work,
the convicts themselves
were brought in
to prepare the ground,
to clear the rubble and so forth.
And while they doing thatand while they were digging
the foundation trenches,
they also found
“a stone coffin cased with lead
“both within and without,
and containing some bones
“and remains of garments”.Howard was convinced
that Alfred’s remains
had been exhumed for the third time.Howard was appalled
by what happened next.
The stone coffin
was broken into pieces,
the lead from it
was sold for two guineas
and the bones were thrown around.It seemed likely to Howard that
the remains “of the great Alfred,
“after having been scattered about
by the rude hands of convicts,
“are now probably covered
by a building erected
“for their confinement
and punishment”.
As well as writing this account
of what had happened
to Alfred’s remains,Howard also drew a map,showing the foundations
of the demolished abbey church.
Howard marked the spot
where the graves had been
in front of the high altar,but he had no way of knowing
what had happened to the bones
after they were scattered around.To me, this is
the most critical moment
in the extraordinary journey of
Alfred’s remains after his death.
Reburied somewhere within
the foundations of a prison,
they might have been
lost now for all time.
In the years after Howard
wrote his pamphlet,
national interest in King Alfred
continued to grow.
With his famous defence of country,
Christianity and education,
Alfred was seen by many Victorians
as the perfect English king.
Fuelled by growing
national and imperial pride,
they erected statues in his memory.By this time, the site of Alfred’s
grave was under the local prison,
but that was demolished too
in the 1840s
and the area returned to farmland.This, though, was the era
of great British enthusiasm
for the Anglo-Saxon hero,and more and more people
wanted to find his remains.
One amateur enthusiast
came to Winchester in 1866
determined to find Alfred.His name was John Mellorand he was captivated by
Captain Howard’s account
of the desecration
of Alfred’s grave.
Mellor added a new twist.He claimed that Mr Page,
the keeper of the jail,
had told Captain Howard
that he had reburied the bones
from the stone coffin in a vault
beside a spring on the site.
Now, Mellor was convinced
enough to find the spring
and here is where
he started digging.
This memorial garden
is built on the site
of the high altar of Hyde Abbey.These three stones represent
the graves of Alfred,
his wife Ealhswith
and his son Edward the Elder.
Using Captain Howard’s
hand-drawn map as a guide,
Mellor claimed he found
five skulls and their skeletons.
He was convinced that these
were the remains of King Alfred
and his family.Mellor said he felt he’d “proved
beyond the possibility of a doubt”
that he’d found Alfred’s remains.To record his discovery,
he took THESE photographs.
But even with photographic evidence,Mellor wasn’t given
a warm welcome in Winchester.
All of this activity
was scandalous to some.
It was technically illegal
as well as sacrilegious
to disturb human remains
in this way.
It made the local papers.One writer, identified as Mr Q,said that he had visited the siteand had seen “numerous arm bones
and skulls and long bones
“lying huddled together
in a candle box”.
Mellor responded to his critics
by publishing a pamphlet of his own.
He insisted that he wanted to “save
the bones from further mutilation
“and violence and transfer
them to more hallowed ground”,
and he invited the people
of Winchester to come and view
the bones of their long-lost king.But in an age before carbon dating,it was impossible
for Mellor to prove
that the remains
were indeed Alfred’s.
He won little support.Maybe he was too much of an
amateur to be taken seriously.
Mellor went on to sell the bones
for just ten shillings.
That’s £38 in today’s money.And the buyer?The Reverend William Williams,
vicar of the local parish church,
this church,
Saint Bartholomew’s in Hyde.
This small church once stood
in the grounds of Hyde Abbey.
It’s only a few hundred metres from
the site of the abbey’s high altar.
The Reverend Williams reburied the
bones here in this unmarked grave.
Ever since, it’s been said that
this is the last resting place
of King Alfred the Great.If these were the remains
of Alfred and his family,
then by now they had been
exhumed and reburied four times.
But did Mr Page,
the keeper of the jail,
really put them back
exactly where he found them?
And did John Mellor discover them
again nearly a hundred years later?
The bones lay undisturbed in this
unmarked grave for nearly 150 years.
But three years ago, a local
history group called Hyde900
began the legal processthat would lead to the bones
being exhumed and tested.
They’d pieced together all
the available historical evidence
and decided to find out
once and for all
if the unmarked grave
in their local churchyard
really was the final resting place
of King Alfred the Great.
Well, that is extraordinary. Oh… Wow. It’s very moving, actually seeing
it in the flesh, so to speak. It’s almost one of those
slightly heart-stopping moments.
Circumstantial evidence suggests
it might be Alfred and his family, but, frankly, we don’t
know and we won’t know until the scientists do their job,
but I’m very excited. Six months after the exhumation,
Professor Tom Higham
has finally established the age of
the bones from the unmarked grave.
OK, Tom, the radiocarbon dates
are back.
You know that we’re looking
for a date around 900AD.
What have you got? OK, so these are the results
and they’re in calendar years. And what you can see is that
four of the five specimens are actually quite a lot later. They’re in the period
of 1300 to about 1420AD. So, way off?
Way off, I’m afraid to say.
There is one that’s older but
I’m afraid it’s not as old as… as you’d hope. That’s individual C,
this single skull here, and that one is older than those. It centres on around 1100AD but I’m afraid it’s still not as
old as King Alfred’s death date. So the earliest date we’ve got is
a skull that went into the ground
around the time
of the building of the Abbey?
Yeah, so around 1110 was Hyde Abbey,so there’s no possibility thatthat could be much further…
far enough back.
Yeah, I’m afraid I was really
disappointed when I saw the results. I was hoping, like you,
that there’d be at least one in the right ballpark,
but unfortunately not. So, who on earth are they then,
these five, six individuals
that all end up bundled together
into an unmarked grave?
It seems, unfortunately,
these are individuals
either from other graves
within the church
or other graves within
the precincts of Hyde Abbey,
rather than being from
in front of the high altar,
and Alfred and his family.So, it does make you wonder,
where is Alfred?
We now know that
the mysterious unmarked grave
in St Bartholomew’s churchyardis NOT the final resting place
of Alfred the Great.
It seems that John Mellor
was either mistaken or lying
about the identity of the bones
he excavated and sold to the church.
This suggests that
Alfred’s remains are still lying
somewhere near the site of
the high altar of Hyde Abbey,
where we know the convicts
scattered them
in the late 18th century.Just as the trail
looks like it’s gone cold,
there’s an extraordinary twist.Back in 1999, there was a community
excavation of the Hyde Abbey site.
They found traces
of Mellor’s excavation
and what they thought
to be animal bones.
These were boxed and stored in
Winchester’s City Museum.
While waiting for the test results
from the unmarked grave,
Dr Katie Tucker decided
to see what else the animal bones
from the 1999 dig could tell her
about the history of the site.
But when Katie asked the museum
for permission to study them,
she was told there were also
two boxes of human bones.
Because funding for the
community excavation ran out,
they hadn’t been fully examined
at the time.
Katie decided to examine
the bones to find out
if THEY could be the remains
of Alfred and his family.
So this is more potential material
that could be related
to the royal House of Wessex?Yes,there’s a possibility
that any one of these,
or more than one,
could be the right date.
And what have we got?These are the bones
that were found closest
to the site of the high altar.I can see, obviously, leg bones
but is this skull material?
Yeah, we have parts
of single skull here
that’s probably an adult female.We’ve got another part of skull
here, it might be an adult male
but it’s quite fragmentary.We have parts of a humerus here,
so this is the upper arm.
And yes, we have quite a lot
of a single individual here –
we’ve got parts of both arms,
the majority of one of the legs,
and part of the other leg.And then we have herea part of a male pelvis.So, in terms of looking
for Alfred the Great,
have you had these bones dated?Yes, we’ve sent
a small fragment of bone
from each of the groups of bone offand we’re now just
waiting for Tom Higham.
He’s abroad at the moment, but he’s
hopefully got the results for us
and he’s going to
join us on the screen.
Conjure him up.OK. DIALLING TONE Hi, Tom.Hi, Tom. ‘Hi, Katie. Hi, Neil. How are you?’ We’re well.Yeah, pretty good. ‘We’ve got some news –
we’ve got five new dates. ‘Three of them fall, once
again, to the 1300s period, ‘so they’re consistent
with the previous batch. ‘There’s one which is a
little older bit than that, ‘but there’s a fifth one – which
is this piece of male pelvis – ‘that’s older than anything
we’ve actually done before. ‘And it’s actually falling
into the late part of the 800s ‘and into the 900s AD.’ No! Really?!Fantastic.
‘So very, very old indeed.’
You’re joking?So, it’s right from the right
time for Alfred and family?
‘It’s bang on the money.’
That’s fantastic, Tom.
‘Great stuff.’Yeah, that’s great
news. Thank you very much.
‘A pleasure. Bye for now.’
Bye, Tom.
Well, what do you make of that?That is unexpected, I would say.
But, yeah, very good news.
I was sceptical.What does it mean, if we add it up,
what we’ve got here?
It’s this bone here, isn’t it?Yeah,
it’s the part of the male pelvis.
Um, well…the part of the pelvis that we have,it’s from a male,
from an adult male
in their 40s,so that would tie in quite well
with either Alfred
or his son Edward the Elder.Um, and, basically,
as far as we know,
from the chronicles
and from the records,
the only individuals close
to the site of the high altar
who are of the right
age when they died,
and the right date when they died,would either be Alfred or Edward.So, in terms of circumstantial
evidence, this is pretty good.
And at the distance that we’re
reaching back into time
to find the pelvis
of a 40-something man
who died around 900-ishin that location by the
high altar in Hyde Abbey,
the likelihood is,
or the strong possibility is…
Yes, there’s a good chance
I would say
because just from the records,
who else could it be?
What more would you need, then,in a court of law, I suppose,to say conclusively?Well, really, because we
only have that one piece,
there really isn’t much else
we can do from that.
We haven’t got anybody else
we could compare it with,
so from that piece of bonethere isn’t really anything
else that we could do.
However, there is the possibility
of going back to the site
to re-excavate.So more of Alfred or his son,
or both, could be there still?
Yeah, there’s the potential that
in areas that were not excavated
in the ’90s, there may still be
fragments of bone to be found.
But imagine, even given all of that,
the possibility as we stand here,
is that the life and the legend
of Alfred the Great
comes down to
this enigmatic fragment of bone.
Yeah, it’s quite amazing,
really, yeah.
This isn’t quite the conclusionthe members of Hyde900
had been expecting.
But it’s an exciting development
in the 1,000-year long story
of Alfred the Great’s remains. I was just very thrilled.
I can’t tell you. In fact, I can’t tell you.
Words can’t say. What’s fantastic about it is
that we’ve come full circle,
we’ve come back to
the site of the Hyde Abbey
and we’re in the right context.So I think that’s really excitingand is it not by any means
the end of the story.
We’ve been excited on several
occasions through this project,
but it’s another very important
step. It’s taken us
where we perhaps hadn’t anticipated
when we looked for bones
from the churchyard,
but it’s nonetheless following
the story through.
This really is an opportunity for us,
working with our partners locally, to do further excavation on this
site to see what else is turned up. I think it’s also important
that we seize the opportunity to convey the wider message
about the significance of Alfred the Great and his era. CHORAL MUSIC Alfred the Great was
the king who began
the unification of England…..who fought off
the Viking threat…
..and who inspired
a cultural renaissance.
Without him, England would
be a very different place.
And now we have evidence indicating
where his remains might be.
Our investigation has brought
us back here to Hyde Abbey
and it seems highly likely
that Alfred’s remains
are still buried here,probably close by
the site of the high altar.
It’s not clear exactly
what will happen next.
There may in time be a full-scalearchaeological excavation
of the site.
And if that work turns up
more of Alfred’s remains,
there are those who believe
they should then be reburied
with all the ceremony and honour
that they deserve.
But if history
has taught us anything,
it’s that Alfred the Great’s best
memorial is probably all around us,
the nation that he helped inspire –England.

Comments 100

  • The closed captions don't appear in the right places.

  • Cring regular tap water just invalidated any carbon dateing.

    Distiled water is the proscribed professional practice. As it has been purified of carbon contaminations. #Anthropology

  • Neil, be my boyfriend

  • Did they have those red bricks in Alfred's day?

  • That was fascinating. Neil Oliver's accent is adorable. The information and presentation kept my attention through the whole documentary. Thank you for sharing this with us in the USA.

  • Loved Neil Oliver's History of Scotland series. This documentary on King Alfred caught my eye after seeing the Netflix series The Last Kingdom, in which Alfred is a central figure. All great stuff.

  • This woman is transphobic — she believes that some skeletons are male and some are female, with the females very different from the males!! How has it happened that we have reached the point where obvious facts like these are denied, and folk are being imprisoned for affirming them!!?

  • USA! USA! USA!

  • I'm going to start Calling myself THE GREAT

  • I love the accent and I love his excitement. For someone who is into anthropology and the branch of archeology, he is the best online and tv to watch

  • Can you really just wash centuries-year-old bones with water out the spigot? lol

  • Very cool documentary..I enjoyed it quite a bit…

  • Alfred the Enigmatic has a nice ring to it. Love the accent.

  • America is so f*&ked, thanks to the tariffs Toyota who employ's 450,000 odd jobs commented that because of them they feel un-welcome in America. So what do you think is going to happen when all those jobs are gone. Lumpy will probably go for a even 1,000,000, who is next? Forget the famers they are already losing everything, health care is dead, welfare and food stamps are gone. All of the Administration, the GOP are all on board with this so now what ohh right lets go to war and push that button.

  • Neil Oliver looks like Griffin Dunne.

  • Are the any living descendants of Alfred the Great,

  • What is the male host of this BBC documentary name ? and Where could we possibly find more presentations that he hosts ? I am a history student in America and was impressed with his ability to host this ……… Anyone from UK or Europe can help me ? TY….

  • Lame. Very lame.

  • I always thought i like alfred a lot but then remembered Churchill did also so now im like umm….

  • Alfred the Great is my ancestor from 41 generations, I'm American and have always wanted to know more about him.

  • Interesting subject but the program is just not that good.

  • ++++++++++++

  • Love the narrator's accent! I understood the whole documentary with no problem. English is not even my first language :).

  • Excellent and honest documentary, in the end, what really matters is knowing and remembering the contributions of this great King.

  • Being a History "Nut", i'm delighted to have discovered all of these documentaries from Neil Oliver, i had no knowledge of him and his work until last week. Well done Good Sir!

  • final resting place? obviously not as the bones were being exhumed again lol

  • Dr Katy Tucker scares me.

  • Sorry to say it folks. The Templars have a sworn duty, not only to protect pilgrims but to also protect holy relics and the remains of famous pious Christian kings and nobles many of whom they are descendants of. Only Gods chosen, The Templars, know. Good documentary though 👍P.S America needs a education overhaul and teachers need to lead the way and we need more and they deserve a pay increase. 72,000 should be a median starting salary. It'll boost morale and performance too, not to mention test scores 😉📚✏🍎

  • A most excellent and highly interesting video.

  • So sad to think that a man whose love for knowledge and preservation of history and legacy is buried not even in an unmarked grave, but scattered with his family in a field.

  • I've got to stop picturing historians and archaeologists as older, dirty, professors. I like the hot Scot instead. I love history and the Scottish accent.

  • just like all our hisory it was made up

  • Yeah, I'm not from England either but I can get me northern goin' when I need it. This is good Tele. Cheers.

  • HOW did I not know this channel existed? Have never made the decision to subsribe so quickly, as I usually need some time to be convinced to add something to my feed. Now on to the binging, yay!!!!

  • As an American who is defended from England with a high percentage of DNA from the Anglo-Saxons found this one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It is by far the best told. The host is outstanding he had me interested and hanging on what was going to be said next. I could understand every single word he said. I love the history of England, its birth, and it impact on the world along with all of Europe’s history. I knew most of what was said and learned a few new things! Thank you for this.

  • I hope that the book at Oxford is a replica. Shouldn't he have gloves on?

  • Neil Oliver has such an incredible narrative style. I could listen to him for days at a time!

  • Love these docs with Neil by far the hottest archeologist I have ever seen, also such a great voice!

  • The Last Kingdom brought me here.

  • The last sentence just proves that irony ain't dead, for it was spoken by a Scott who looks Irish. A lot of glaswegians were of Irish decent in the last two and a half centuries. Just look at the Glasgow Celtic fc. Up the Celtic

  • If only Alfred could see what England has turned out to be today.
    He'd crawl back into his grave in tears.

  • Ezekiel 30 1-8

  • Holy shit my girlfriend and I travelled to England back in May and on our way back from Stonhenge I spotted that white horse in the distance. I had NO idea that's what it commemorated. That's incredible!

  • Thanks for a fine documentary, and as to the host, I'd be happy to listen to him read a grocery list. And I'm American, from California.

  • (25:55. Columns' height described in "feet" not "meters"…).

  • Sad to know that in 2019 they still have no idea whose pelvic bones these are. I thought they were going to
    Do DNA testing and to compare the DNA to Alfred’s granddaughter who remains were brought from Germany. Nothing was ever done. No announcement was ever made. What happened? Did they run out of funds? Was there not enough DNA to do the comparison tests?

  • Many thanks to BBC from California 🇺🇸

  • i can't ger enough of that 'R'

  • Though my own research king Alfred would have been one of my great grandfather. Would be nice to dna test.

  • I adore Scottish accents. His is very plain and easy to understand. And charming as hell… Some really are indecipherable. Even other Scotts are like say what? Lol. Is that Billy Boyd? The guy from LOTR? LOVE HIM.

  • Where is Uthred son of Uthred ?

  • Excellent. thank you.

  • I enjoyed this video very much. Thank you!

  • Whoever has issues with Neil’s english, come to me and I’ll fix your ears with my shotgun

  • Can't believe all of the positive comments about this excellent piece of pseudoscience. This guy may be attractive and have a great accent, but there is almost nothing here that really connects to Alfred. My first question is are Neil and Josh Gates related or did they go to the same school of phony journalism? Right in line with Gerald O's investigation of Capone's lost treasure. This isn't science and it isn't history. It's conjecture with very little supporting evidence. The BBC is famous for entertainment and this is an example of that rather than scientific investigation. The conclusion is that they do not have the remains of Alfred so they did not "unfold the story of one of England's greatest kings through the investigation of his 1000 year old remains. "

  • I wonder how Scots would feel about a posh plumey voiced English person doing the voice over of say a documentary about William Wallace?

  • Hi guys! Even I can understand the host's beautiful accent! And I am not an english speaker at all

  • Sadly, there can never be anything but circumstantial evidence at the end of the day, as a DNA match isn't an option. There are no decendants to match to, and even if there were, they would have been far too diluted over time. There can never be an absolute identification of arguably England's greatest king. Still, the effort IS appreciated.

  • This was fascinating. I learned about Alfred the Great as a grade schooler, only not from any of my classes, but a movie about Alfred the Great. The movie spurred me on to do research on the real Alfred and his significance to the history of England. Quite fascinating!

  • Alfred had his oath warrior to help him…..the great Utred son of Utred Lord of Bebbanburg!!! And yes he was a real person.

  • Even if you found a skeleton that was the right age as Alfred The Great, how could you determine that they are his bones ?

  • Reaching back in time to find the pelvis of a man ? Really ?

  • What about the other family you guys dug up? Are you going to have a ceramony for their proper barial? For all you know, they were just as important to the outcome of historical events, as king Alfred.

  • The host was fantastic. He did a great job. Sad to think that Alfred or his heir suffered the indignity of a fragment of pelvis in a cardboard box for years. Richard III, who murdered the little Princes, and subsequently destroyed any hope of England having as illustrious and noble a royal family as the royals of Denmark, will likely have a royal interment, if he hasn't already, instead of the ignoble cardboard box he deserved. Alfred's remains are really lost to the ages. The take home is, no matter who you are, eventually, someone is going to dig you up, shuffle you around, or chuck your bones in the garbage. Live, love, and pursue happiness. "For wealth must be expended, if it will bring comfort. Life is fleeting, and honors are forgotten in time. It is my hope that you will know the pleasures I have known, before you close your eyes."

  • If the digging and tests did not resolve the puzzle about Alfred the burial why bother making a video. No DNA tests seem to have been made. Why? If his relative’s Bones were found in Germany why not make a match. It looks like nobody cared. Much ado about nothing.

  • Great documentary, great presenter !

  • This guy is Scottish and I understand him perfectly!🥰

  • that looked like mordern brick work below them slabs

  • Stupid ad interrupts…

  • it's disgusting how the Norman conquerors seem to have had no respect for saxon and pre norman gravesites. these should have been well marked and preserved, with monuments. Too many English kings' burial locations were lost .

  • That moment where you hate profoundly hate Henry VIII and those damn convicts!!!! I seriously hope they'll find Alfred's remains someday

  • I just love you accent, Sir !

  • Maybe after being in Scotland for 3 years earlier in my life makes it so easy to understand Neil and like his history documentaries

  • man i love that sexy voice i could listen to him all day

  • The narrator is doing just fine i can understand him. He speaks very will. I enjoy this kind of history .

  • here's your bit of trivia for today.. do you know who built the obelisk that sits in front of st. peters basilica?

  • Too bad that the Vikings did not win at the time.
    Alfred has brought us a religion for weaklings

      That would have been the consequences of a victory of the Vikings:
    – no Christian Britain
    – no Jewish immigration in the Middle Ages
    – no Jewish Bolshevist subversion and disintegration of the people
    (no SJW, no LGBT)
    – no Muslim invasion of Britain

  • I love the scottish accent !

  • Yay! We found Alfred's ass!

  • If Alfred was Roman Catholic why did they have to get permission from Anglican Church to remove his bones?

  • the heavy accent of the narrator makes it difficult to understand what he says. So I stopped watching it. Next time get somebody who can enunciate words. Could not understand what happened surrounding the farmers wife when he was more concerned about his own life.

  • Why in God's name would they need the permission of The Church of England? King Alfred was a devout Catholic not a heretic.

  • The narrator have the accent of highlander

  • If English is your first language, his accent is easy to understand.

    I speak a second language and find different dialects very difficult to understand.

  • Leave the poor guy alone…

  • Love, love, love the accent 🙂

  • I love watching any documentary with Neil Oliver!!!

  • Alfred is my ancestor. Thank you for such a wonderful presentation.

  • Love this man. So easy to understand. What I can’t understand is how he got to touch the ancient book translated by Alfred without gloves! Aaagghh!

  • I just find it funny that the church of England had to give their blessing to a grave of a person that was alive like 650 years before they exsisted. I get it, but it's just kinda funny.

  • I'm not British, but isn't it odd to have a Scotsman narrating a documentary and talking about "Ewwher Glaaaaytest Ahnglash Keeen Ahhhlflred"?

  • You can always recognize a British documentary — they always contain a narrator walking around while narrating from some setting believed relevant to the story… just google any British documentary and you'll see it… if the BBC did a documentary about Jonah, it would feature a person narrating while walking around inside a whale's stomach

  • How could you lose the remains of ur greatest monarch?

  • Jane austen

  • What is this accent? I totally DIG it!

  • Alfred insisted on translating the Bible and religious tracts into Old English. Thomas More would have burned him at the stake.

  • According to Ancestry.com, Alfred the Great is my 36th great grandfather. I hope some day that his bones will be found, and reburied like Richard lll was, and have a final resting place befitting a great King of England.

  • Alfred the Great should be given proper recognition for his life's work because if not for him, England may be part of Denmark now.

  • Understand his English? He's a Scot those of you with a limited weltanschauung.

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