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Seeking the Lost Kings of England

When Richard III's skeleton was found, many people wondered how on earth the body of a King had ended up under a council car park. The answer is that when the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place under Henry VIII, many abbeys and monasteries were seized for profit and the graves of those buried in them were trashed, even if they were kings.

The dissolute Henry VIII didn't care, even though some of the lost graves were kings he was supposedly descended from (though some historians allege that the reason he was so cavalier was because he wasn't descended from the Plantagenets and hence these were not his ancestors).

Here's a list of Kings whose burial places are missing:

King Alfred the Great

Alfred was an Anglo-Saxon - the king of the west saxons (which got condensed to “Wessex”) from 871 to 899. His base was on the south coast of England, with his capital in Winchester.

His chief claim to fame was his enthusiasm for educating the population. Viking raids on England were targeted on the monasteries as that was where there was great plunder to be had in gold and silver. But the monasteries were also centres of learning, so when the monks were killed, the area around the monasteries lost the only people who could read and write, plunging them backwards. Alfred's insight was that if you taught the whole population to read and write, a few losses in Viking raids wouldn't matter, as the remaining population would still be able to access the knowledge stored in books. He set up primary schools, recruited teachers from France, and set about translating Latin books into English so they could be used as textbooks.

When he died, he was buried in New Minster, Winchester, but in 1100, his body and that of his family was moved to Hyde Abbey, north of the city. The abbey was razed to the ground in 1539, but it is thought that the graves were left undisturbed. However, in 1788 a prison was constructed on the site and the graves were disturbed because the builders wanted to steal lead from the coffins. The skeletons were all jumbled together and then reburied - it is thought that the reburial was in the cemetery at St Bartholomew's church, which is on the same site as the original Hyde Abbey.

In 2013, permission was given to exhume the graves, and tests are now being carried out to identify the bones of Alfred. This is a tougher task than identifying Richard III - it has been over 1100 years since Alfred died, and in order to identify him using the Y chromosome they need to find a direct father-son line from Alfred to the modern day. The first step will be to radio-carbon date the bones to see if they fit the period when Alfred lived and died.

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror was the first Norman king, having seized control of England in 1066. When he died in 1087, he was buried in Caen Cathedral in Normandy, and if you visit the cathedral, you can still see the effigy that was on top of his tomb. However his body is no longer there. During the French wars of Religion (wars between Catholics and Protestants known as Huguenots), the body was disturbed and trashed in 1562. When it was over only the thigh bone was left, which was then reburied. But even this thigh bone is lost, thanks to the French Revolution, which gave rise to a fashion for trashing the graves of nobility even if they were foreign kings.

It's unlikely William's thigh bone will ever be re-identified.

Henry I

Henry I was William the Conqueror's son, and succeeded his brother William Rufus to the throne, in suspicious circumstances (the two brothers were out hunting in the New Forest when William Rufus, the king, was “accidentally” shot by an arrow).

He is credited with laying the foundation of the English legal system with a network of justices who represented 'the Crown' - a system that continues to this day - and having laws officially written down and then posted in all the towns so people knew for the first time what they were, (before Henry I, the law was what the King said it was and could change on a whim, leaving people vulnerable).

Henry I was buried in a silver coffin at Reading Abbey, which he had founded in 1121. The abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and no one knows what happened to Henry's tomb. In Reading Abbey his tomb was said to have been under the high altar - but some believe that the location of the tomb is now under St James School, which is near the former Abbey. There are still ruins of the Abbey in existence that can be visited today, but no offical excavations of the site have taken place. If the tomb is under the school it will be difficult to excavate without destroying the building. It's likely that the tomb is gone - the silver coffin would have been far too tempting for grave robbers over the centuries.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell is not a king - instead he's Britain's only republican leader, styled 'The Lord Protector of the Commonwealth'. He's famous for trying and executing Charles I at the end of the English Civil War.

He is mainly remembered for being dour and humourless Puritan, but has a substantial legacy to his name. His parliament passed many laws, including the repeal of discriminating laws against the Jews that had stood for 300 years since Edward I. Cromwell's key legacy is Parliament's supremacy over the King. Outside the houses of Parliament is a splendid statue of Cromwell in his Roundhead gear. Though the king was restored after Cromwell's death (because of a power vacuum), parliament made sure that they didn't give any of their newly won powers back to him. Cromwell is thus the father of modern British democracy.

Cromwell had a splendid funeral - it was said to have cost £30,000, a colossal sum back then. In his funeral procession were the poets John Milton and John Dryden, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

However, after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, his body was taken from the tomb, ceremoniously quartered, and all the bits displayed, with the head on a spike outside Westminster Hall, where it remained until 1688 when it is said to have blown down in a storm. The head is then said to have been claimed and sold. No-one really knows where it is, though heads said to have been Oliver Cromwell's have turned up from time to time in the pre-radio-carbon, pre DNA era.


History | United Kingdom


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