On 14 December 1642, during the English Civil War, a Parliamentarian army stormed Winchester Cathedral and destroyed its contents – including ten beautifully decorated 7th century mortuary chests high up on the stone screens, that housed the mortal remains of West Saxon kings, saints and bishops.
The soldiers smashed several chests to the ground, using the bones as missiles to shatter the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Afterwards, the clergy scrambled to collect the scattered remains. In 2014, the six remaining chests were reopened, and a team of forensic archaeologists, using the latest scientific methods, attempted to identify the contents. They found an elaborate jumble of bones, and have since made some surprising discoveries.
In her book, The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons – our book of the month for October 2023 – bioarchaeologist, historian and bestselling author Dr Cat Jarman builds on this evidence to untangle the stories of the people within. Running through more than a millennium of British history, her book tells the story of both the seekers and the sought, of those who protected the bones and those who spurned them; and of the methods used to investigate.
History Hit’s Matt Lewis spoke to Dr Cat Jarman about her book on the Gone Medieval podcast. Here we discuss some of the highlights from the interview, and take a further look at how science has helped analyse and unlock the content of the bone chests to unveil some of England’s monarchs whose remains were housed within.
The bone chests
After walking down the nave of Winchester cathedral and reaching the presbytery, visitors can see large stone screens. High up on a ledge on either side, are six carefully carved and decorated wooden chests, with writing on the outside. These chests are mortuary chests, and contain some of the most illustrious royals of early medieval England.
These include eight kings, including William Rufus and Cnut the Great (the only Scandinavian king to rule England and a North Sea Empire); three bishops; and a formidable queen, Emma of Normandy. These were the very people who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of the kingdom of Wessex in the 7th century; who lived through the creation of England as a unified country in response to the Viking threat; and who were part and parcel of the Norman conquest.
Winchester cathedral is a Norman cathedral, built in the 11th century. Before this, it was the site of two former churches, one dating back to the 7th century. It is these churches that would have once housed the original bone chests. The chests seen today replace the earlier chests, and date from the 16th century. Some bone chests (mortuary chests housing these remains) were made in the 1400s, and some even earlier ones date back to the 12th century and before that – highlighting how these mortuary chests go back practically a millennium.
Why were the chests targeted in 1642?
During the English Civil War, churches were especially at threat from being ransacked. In December 1642, Winchester had been targeted by parliamentarian troops who had started raiding and looting its key buildings. Between 9-10am on the morning of 14 December 1642, (according to an eye witness account), the parliamentarians – some on horseback carrying lit flares – suddenly burst through the west doors and rode down the nave, destroying the inside of the cathedral along with anything they could find.
Having found the presbytery and its stone screens, they climbed up to the chests and started rifling through them. At this point there were 10 mortuary chests, and after finding the bones inside, the troops threw the chests and bones to the floor, hurling some of the bones at the cathedral’s stained glass windows to shatter the glass.
The eyewitness account claims that at one point, someone called out and told them to stop (aware of the bones’ significance), which left 4 of the chests intact. The rest had been broken, but 2 chests were made as replacements shortly after the incident, leaving a total of 6. Whatever bones could be found were gathered up and placed back in the chests.
The Mortuary Chest project
It had long been believed that the 6 mortuary chests contained the mortal remains of pre-Conquest kings and bishops, but for many years this was merely speculation. The bones had been co-mingled over the centuries and it was clear that the chests did not contain whole skeletons.
Conservation of the mortuary chests began in 2012, led by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists from Bristol University, and supported by the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral. This provided an opportunity for the scientific analysis of the contents for the first time, recording the contents and determining the number of individuals represented.
For a long time it was also known that more people were included in the chests than the words depicted on the outside, with some records specifying they contained at least 15 people. Through studying the contents and history of the chests, the team also assessed the likelihood of whether the human remains in the chests related to the historical burial records, rather than being a fake relic. It wasn’t until 2015 that radiocarbon dating carried out by experts from Oxford University confirmed the bones were from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, confirming that the bones date from the same periods as the names on the chests.
In total, the researchers reassembled over 1,300 human bones, each one carefully measured and recorded, and at least 23 partial skeletons were reconstructed.
Modern forensic methods such as isotope analysis, DNA, and carbon dating were also able to determine sex, age at death, diet, and physical characteristics, resulting in some exciting discoveries. This included the remains of a mature female dispersed across several chests, now believed to belong to Queen Emma of Normandy who died in 1052 in Winchester. Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and the wife of two successive Kings of England (Ethelred and Cnut), and the mother of King Edward the Confessor and King Hardacnut. She was a powerful political figure in late Saxon England, and her family ties provided William the Conqueror with a measure of justification for his claim to the English throne.
Completely unexpected was the discovery of two juvenile skeletons, adolescent boys who had died between age 10 to 15 years old in the mid-11th to late 12th-century. Their presence in the chests was not recorded and their identity is thought to possibly be that of two princes.
Here we can see how history and science can work together to find out information of help to both parties; neither can answer it all on their own.
In her fascinating book, Cat Jarman builds on this scientific evidence to untangle the stories of the people within the mortuary chests. Through studying their lives, Cat Jarman uncovers the entire story from the 7th century and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period (the beginning of the kingdom of Wessex) right up to the Normans and the burial of William Rufus (son of William the Conqueror, who died in 1100).
Cat Jarman is a bioarchaeologist and bestselling author of River Kings – and a former co-host of History Hit’s Gone Medieval podcast. Her book, The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons is published by HarperCollins Publishers.