Unmarked grave dug up in hunt for England's King Alfred the Great

A statue of Alfred The Great on February 6, 2013 in Winchester, England.

Story highlights

  • Human remains are excavated from an unmarked grave in a Winchester churchyard
  • Archaeologists think they may belong to King Alfred the Great
  • The ninth century monarch is credited with fending off a Viking invasion
  • No tests have been done as yet to confirm whether the remains are his

Archaeologists dug up an unmarked grave in a quiet English churchyard in search of remains of King Alfred the Great, a ninth century monarch credited with fending off the Vikings.

The exhumation was apparently triggered by fears that interest over the recent discovery of the skeleton of Richard III could lead grave robbers to dig the area for his bones.

Alfred the Great is known to generations of schoolchildren through a popular legend that tells of his scolding by a peasant woman for letting her cakes burn while he watched over them.

He was at the time preoccupied with the problem of how to repel the Danes, who had captured swaths of Anglo-Saxon England.

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What is thought to be his grave in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew's Church, in the Hyde area of the ancient city of Winchester, was excavated Monday and Tuesday, the Winchester diocese said in an online release.

"Following the completion of work, we can confirm that skeletal remains were discovered and have been exhumed from the grave," said Nick Edmonds, a diocesan spokesman.

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"Understandably, there is widespread interest in this situation. For now we can't say any more about the remains, their nature or whereabouts, but promise to keep people updated when there is something to tell."

The diocese said the decision to carry out the exhumation now -- following three years of research -- was "to counter the risk of theft or vandalism to the grave. This is in light of heightened risk owing to widespread recent speculation about the significance of its contents."

The revelation last month that bones found under a parking lot in Leicester were those of Richard III, whose story was immortalized by Shakespeare, sparked enormous interest. It also prompted competition between Leicester and another English city, York, over where he should be reinterred.

Remains exhumed in Winchester will be stored safely until they are buried again, the diocese said.

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No scientific tests have been carried out to find out more.

"We do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about the remains found in this grave," Edmonds said.

But, he said, an application would have to be made to church authorities before any scientific investigation can take place.

Despite historical significance, the church is taking precautions, said the Rev. Canon Cliff Bannister, rector of St. Batholomew's Church.

"Although we know there is historical interest in this site, our chief concern this week has been to ensure that the exhumation of human remains from a consecrated Christian burial site has been fulfilled in a reverent and dignified manner," he said.

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