Bones of Powerful Medieval Queen Identified at Winchester Cathedral

Bones of Powerful Medieval Queen Identified at Winchester Cathedral

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Archaeologists have potentially made a very important discovery after tests on human remains from early medieval mortuary caskets in England. They examined a large number of human bones and believe that they have identified some as belonging to a powerful medieval queen from the Viking Age in England. It is believed that they have found the remains of Queen Emma, who played a very important role in the history of medieval Europe.

Emma Receiving The Encomium, In 'The Encomium Of Queen Emma' MS 33241

Who is the medieval Queen Emma?

Emma (988-1052 AD) was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy and first married the English king Ethelred the Unready and, after his death, married King Canute . She was the mother of the future English king Edward the Confessor and Canute III, who was king of Denmark and also the ruler of England for a time. She was an influential figure and held real power in England when it was fought over by the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons.

Perhaps her greatest importance in history was that she provided the Dukes of Normandy with a claim on the English throne. William the Conqueror used his descent from Queen Emma to justify his invasion of England in 1066. This invasion changed English and also medieval European history .

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The Ordeal of Queen Emma by William Blake.

Since 2012 a team, led by University of Bristol osteologists, Dr. Heidi Dawson-Hobbis and Professor Kate Robson Brown have been examining the remains according to the Independent. The remains purportedly belonging to the medieval queen have been held for centuries in Winchester Cathedral , and the team was invited to examine them by the Dean.

Royal Mortuary Caskets

The bones were held in six elaborately painted caskets and according to the BBC, “were displayed on stone screen walls either side of the high altar for hundreds of years.” It is believed by some that they were held in the original basilica and were subsequently kept in the new cathedral that dates from the 11 th century. Winchester was the de-facto capital of England, especially after the rise of the Kingdom of Wessex, during the Viking invasions.

Once it was believed that the caskets contained the remains of up to 15 individuals but now according to the Independent it is known that there are “23 individuals, represented by the 1,300 bones kept in the cathedral in six wooden caskets.” The caskets are believed to hold the bones of at least five kings , several bishops and members of the English Royal family.

Mortuary chest from Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, England. This is one of six mortuary chests near the altar in the Cathedral, this one purports to contain the bones of Cnut and his wife Emma, along with others. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

English Civil War desecration

The study by the team from Bristol is necessary because of an act of sacrilege during the English Civil War . In 1642 Parliamentarian forces sacked Winchester Cathedral because it was seen by them as a symbol of royal power. The soldiers destroyed many precious works of art and they also scattered the bones that were kept in the caskets around the basilica. Later the clergy and local people gathered up the bones and returned them to the caskets and they have been held in the cathedral ever since. However, the bones became mixed and no one knew their identity for sure.

The experts from Bristol University began the painstaking process of identifying ‘the sex, age and physical characteristics of these individuals’ reports Sky News . They found the bones of two juveniles which was unexpected. They were able to establish that some of the bones belonged to a ‘mature woman’ according to Sky News . This was perhaps the most exciting discovery yet. Based on the inscriptions on the mortuary caskets they knew that only one woman had been interred in the wooden caskets in the cathedral.

This allowed the osteologists to tentatively state that they had identified the remains of Queen Emma. She is described by an inscription on the casket as ‘"mother and wife of the kings of the English" reports the BBC.

Queen Emma and her sons being received by Duke Richard II of Normandy. Cambridge University Library.

The discovery of the Viking Age Queen’s remains proves that Winchester’s cathedral was a very important Royal mausoleum. It is expected that the probable remains of the Queen will be returned to their resting place next to the altar in the cathedral at a later date.

The findings from the study as well as the possible remains of the medieval queen are going to be displayed as part of the ‘Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation exhibition’ held at the cathedral.