Emma & Cnut from Liber Vitae of the new Minster BL Stowe 944

DNA and the Old Bones of Cnut the Great

The remains of Cnut the Great may be identified via DNA, if scientists succeed in making sense of a treasure trove of jumbled bones held in the mortuary caskets in Winchester Cathedral

Svend Estridsson
Reconstruction of the face of Sven Esstridsson

Winchester Cathedral holds six bones chests with the alleged mortal remains of a number of Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings. But who are who? The remains of a Danish king kept in Roskilde Cathedral may hold the key to identification of at least some of the skeletons found in the chests.

The old Anglo-Saxon minster in Winchester was demolished in 1093, when the new Winchester Cathedral had been consecrated. At this point the remains of a long list of Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings of England were transferred into new leaden coffins and placed in or near the altar. However, in 1525 their mortal remains were transferred into six mortuary chests placed high up on each side of the presbytery. There they remained in peace until 1642, when Parliamentarian troops sacked the cathedral and the royal remains tumbled out onto the floor. Very soon after they were of course scooped up once more and placed in the chests once more. However this time in no particular order.

Currently the Chapter and Dean at Winchester have initiated a scientific exploration and study of the chests and their contents in order to try and find out more about the individuals, which have been laid to rest there.

Sven Estridsson skull
The Skull of Sven Estridsson

As of now we know that the bones have been dated to the relevant period, but the search does not end there. Naturally the Cathedral wishes to find out more about the individuals in order to enhance the stories told about the Cathedral and the people involved in building and upholding its fabric. This ambition has especially been nourished by the fact that the cathedral recently received a large sum of money to construct a state-of-the-art visitor centre in the Cathedral.

The question remains, however, whether it is at all possible to identify any of the individuals, whose bones are kept in the chests. The answer is that it might indeed be possible.

One key to this is the DNA, which Danish scientists succeeded to extract from the teeth of a person buried in Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark after 1074. This Danish King, Sven Estridsson, was the son of a sister to Cnut the Great, one of the kings buried in the Cathedral of Winchester. Obviously he shares mitochondrial DNA with those of his mother and uncle. From there it should be possible to match the DNA of the older king Cnut with that of his son, Harthacnut.

Granted that DNA extraction from the bones can take place at all!




The last Viking King: A royal maternity case solved by ancient DNA analysis
By Jørgen Dissing, Jonas Binladen, Anders Hansen, Birgitte Sejrsen, Eske Willerslev, Niels Lynnerup
In: Forensic Science International, February 14, 2007, Volume 166, Issue 1, Pages 21–27


The Cross of Gold and Silver is placed on the alter of the New Minster , Winchester, by King Cnut and Emma. Liber Vitae of the New Minster 1031, prefatory image, BL Stowe 944, fol 6 r.