The undignified fates of the bodies of Anglo-Saxon kings in the medieval period
The discovery and reburial of the remains of Richard III in 2013 sparked renewed interest in a subject that has, for one reason or another, never failed to fascinate: the fates that can befall royal bodies after death. Here, medieval blogger Dr Eleanor Parker investigates...
Compared to some of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors, Richard III was lucky. In the medieval period, reburying kings' bodies could be a perilous activity, both for the remains and for those who moved them. The historian William of Malmesbury tells a story about the reburial of King Edgar (who died in 975) that makes Richard's long sojourn under a car park look dignified by comparison.
Edgar, a great patron of monasteries, was buried with honour at Glastonbury Abbey, and in 1052 the monks decided to move his remains to another location in the church. On opening his tomb, they were dismayed to find that the reliquary [a container for relics] they had already prepared was too small for the body. The abbot, Æthelweard, decided to take a knife to the king’s remains to make them fit into the reliquary, but at this disrespectful action streams of blood poured from the body, much to the horror of the watching monks.
William says that Æthelweard was swiftly punished for his deed: he went suddenly out of his mind, and broke his neck and died as he was leaving the church. Edgar’s ill-treated body was reburied with appropriate ceremony above the high altar. The monks had clearly learned their lesson about treating the king's body with respect.
In telling this gruesome story about Edgar's remains, William might have reflected with satisfaction on the knowledge that some Anglo-Saxon kings were more fortunate in their resting places. King Æthelstan, Edgar's uncle, was buried at William's own monastery of Malmesbury – a fact of which William was very proud. And William had himself been present on an occasion when the king’s tomb was opened. He describes from observation the appearance of Æthelstan’s body, recording that his hair was “beautifully intertwined with golden threads”. Historians like William have always found peeking inside royal tombs an irresistible opportunity.
Although most of their tombs were long ago destroyed, many towns and churches in England can lay claim to being the resting places of Anglo-Saxon monarchs. The royal burial sites of the various independent kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England were not always recorded, but we know that the kings of Kent were buried at Canterbury; the royal family of Wessex at Winchester, Sherborne, and Wimborne; and the rulers of Northumbria at York and Whitby.
But kings did not always remain where they were buried, especially if they came to be venerated as saints after death. St Oswald, king of Northumbria, was dismembered by the Mercians when he was killed in battle in 642, and his relics could be found – at various times – all over the country: his head in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham, and other parts of his body at Bamburgh, Bardney, Peterborough, Gloucester or Glastonbury.
Alfred the Great was never made a saint, but his body was important enough to be reburied at least twice in the centuries following his death in 899. First interred in the Old Minster, Winchester, his body was reburied a few years later in the neighbouring New Minster. When the New Minster community moved outside the city in 1110, Alfred’s body went with them. Its subsequent fate after the Dissolution remains unclear.
These successive reburials were at least dignified, but the political upheavals of the later Anglo-Saxon period meant that dead kings could not always rest in peace. When the Danish conqueror Svein Forkbeard died in 1014, after less than two months as king of England, he was first buried in York, but after the return of his rival, Æthelred, Svein’s body was quickly disinterred and taken back to Denmark.
By the time Æthelred himself died in 1016, large parts of England were occupied by a Danish army, and the king could not be buried in Wessex alongside his ancestors at Glastonbury or Winchester. He had to be laid to rest in London, where his remains were later moved to lie beside those of Sæbbi, a seventh-century king of the East Saxons, in Old St Paul's Cathedral. The tombs of both kings were destroyed there in the fire of 1666.
Unlike Æthelred, Cnut was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester, beside several former kings of Wessex. The vicious rivalry that followed his death between his sons, Harold and Harthacnut, meant his successor was not so lucky. His elder son Harold died in 1040 after a short reign, and was buried at Westminster (perhaps the first king to be buried in what is now Westminster Abbey). But Harthacnut had Harold’s body exhumed, beheaded, and thrown into the Thames. According to John of Worcester, Harold’s body was retrieved by a fisherman and given to the Danes, who reburied it at their church in London.
Harthacnut, meanwhile, was buried beside his father in Winchester, but he was not destined to rest in peace any more than his half-brother was. In 1642, during the Civil War, Harthacnut's bones – together with those of his parents, Cnut and Emma, and a number of other early kings – were removed from their tombs by parliamentarian soldiers and scattered on the floor of the cathedral. Mixed up together, the remains were collected and preserved in six mortuary chests, where they lie today – still as yet unidentified, although now undergoing analysis.
The fate of the body of the last Anglo-Saxon king is unclear, and remains a historical mystery. After Harold Godwineson was killed at Hastings, a variety of legends sprung up about how his enemies had treated his remains (along with stories that claimed he had not died in the battle at all). Some sources asserted he had been buried by the seashore as a final humiliation; others, more plausibly, that his body was returned to his mother and given a decent burial at Bosham or Waltham Abbey.
The legends about Harold's burial were bound up with the controversy surrounding the status of his kingship and the Norman claim to the English throne, and the facts became less important than the symbolism.
Royal remains are potent in their very powerlessness. They serve as a challenging reminder of mortality, and of the limits of earthly authority: kings who in their lives wielded great power are left, in death, at the mercy of a rival's spite – or an abbot's knife.
Dr Eleanor Parker is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglo-Norman England at the University of Oxford. She blogs about medieval England at www.aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter @ClerkofOxford