Royal Bones

A.D. 1035. This year died King Knut at Shaftesbury, on the second day before the ides of November; and he is buried at Winchester in the old minster. He was king over all England very near twenty winters.  (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

King Knut (ca. 995–1035) was son of Sweyn Forkbeard, who conquered England in 1016. About his father we possess a touching story: According to the Encomiast, when Sweyn felt death approaching, he summoned his son, passed his scepter on and “prayed the son, that if he should ever return to the land of his birth (Denmark) he should cary back with him the body of his father, and should not let him be buried a stranger in a foreign land; for he knew, that he was hateful to those people (= the English) owing to the invasion of the kingdom…”

Not so his son! Knut was 20 years later “honourably buried in the monastery built at Winchester in honour of St. Peter” and was left there until the brother of King Stephen, Henry de Blois (1101–1171) caused a translation of the bones of the royal ancestors from the old Saxon church and had them placed in leaden caskets in the feretory of the new Norman Cathedral. Probably at the same time Knut, his wife Emma and his son Hardeknut were reburied near the high altar. Later, the bones of Knut and Emma must have been transferred to the leaden caskets at which point some of these might have been replaced by wooden chests; these were once again replaced in the beginning of the 16th century by bishop Fox (1448–1528). During the Civil war in the 17th century, some of the caskets were smashed and the bones intermingled with each other. Today the caskets are situated on top of the screen in the choir.

The six chests are said to contain the bones purporting to be those of the kings of Wessex: Kynegils and Kenulf, with their successors the Saxon kings of England: Egbert, Ethelwulf, Edmund and Edred as well as those of Knut, Queen Emma, William Rufus and two bishops. Four of the chests belong to Fox’s time while the two in the western bay are copies made in 1661. The older chests are supposed to be inside.

Winchester Cathedral recently received nearly half a mill. pounds from the Heritage Lottery Foundation in order to finance urgent conservation work. However, the Cathedral is also developing ideas to help sustain it for the future by attracting more volunteer involvement and a greater range of visitors. Learning initiatives will be initiated with a particular focus upon the exquisitely illuminated Winchester Bible and the mortuary chests. The plan is to enhance their display in order to reveal the hidden stories behind this peculiar sepulchral monument through a “unique interactive exhibition”.  The exhibition will be installed in the Triforium Gallery; entitled Kings and Scribes – The Birth of a Nation it will celebrate the origins of the English nation and its association with Winchester. To what extent it will also celebrate its Danish roots is not known.

Further on, according to The Hampshire Chronicle, researchers hope to do some scientific and archaeological research into the bone caskets in order to study their content, including – if it is possible – to extract DNA and perhaps even do strontium analysis. Such procedures can for instance help to discover the health condition and the nutrition of the dead persons, e.g. to what extent they ate fish. However,  the newspaper tells that senior clerics consider the project to be highly sensitive and a Cathedral spokesman declined to discuss the project with the newspaper.

This project would involve historians, archaeologists, DNA experts, other scientists and art historians.

Encomium Emmae Reginae. Ed. by Alistair Campbell with a supplementary introduction by Simon Keynes. 1949 (1998). The description of Sweyns death is in chapter two.

Read more:
English Medieval Shrines. John Crook. Boydell & Brewer 2011

 A Worthy Antiquity: the Movement of King Cnut’s Bones in Winchester Cathedral. John Crook. In: The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark, and Norway, Alexander R. Rumble, (red.), Leicester 1994, 165-91.

Bibliography provided by Winchester Cathedral

Pictures of the chests may be seen at the Church Monuments Society