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‘Queen’s bones’ found in Winchester Cathedral royal chests


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John Crook / Winchester Cathedral

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The six chests have been found to hold the remains of at least 23 individuals

Bones held in mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral could include those of an early English Queen, researchers have found.

The contents of six chests have been analysed and radiocarbon-dated.

University of Bristol biological anthropologists found they contained the remains of at least 23 individuals – several more than originally thought.

One is believed to be that of Queen Emma who was married to kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut.

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Winchester Cathedral

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Queen Emma’s bones are part of the Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation exhibition at Winchester Cathedral

Although the chests, originally placed near the high altar, had inscriptions stating who was supposed to be within them, it was known the names bore no relation to the actual contents.

The contents had become mixed when the cathedral was ransacked and the bones were scattered by Roundhead soldiers during the English Civil War in 1642.

They were repacked by locals so it was not known whose remains were replaced, or if they were the same bones.

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Culture Club/Getty Images

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Emma married Cnut after the death of Æthelred

Queen Emma

  • Born in the 980s, the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy
  • Married two kings – Æthelred the Unready (reigned 1002-1016) and Cnut the Great (reigned 1017-1035)
  • Had children including two kings – King Harthacnut (reigned 1040-1042) and Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066)
  • A key political figure in her own right, she gave the dukes of Normandy a hereditary claim to the English throne, leading to the Norman Conquest in 1066
  • Described in a Latin inscription on a mortuary chest as the “mother and wife of the kings of the English”

Source: British Library

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Winchester Cathedral

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The six chests originally rested near Winchester Cathedral’s High Altar

A research project began in 2012 and has dated the contents of the chests to late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

More than 1,300 bones were reassembled and analysing the sex, age and physical characteristics led researchers to conclude that a mature female’s remains could be those of Emma of Normandy. Her bones were found dispersed in several of the chests.

Further DNA analysis is being carried out to confirm the royal identity.

It had originally been thought that the remains of between 12 and 15 high status individuals were held in the chests, however, the research revealed the partial remains of at least 23 people.

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Winchester Cathedral

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Experts were able to create a 3D likeness of one of the boys whose skeleton was found

There was also an unexpected find of the skeletons of two boys aged between 10 and 15.

Prof Kate Robson Brown said they were “almost certainly of royal blood”.

“We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain that this is a very special assemblage of bones,” she said.

The findings, as well as the bones of Queen Emma, form part of a major Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation exhibition which opens later this month.

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