Winchester: When the English rose

By Jim Eagles

Alfred was one of England’s greatest kings, uniting the land, fighting off invaders and building a society. Jim Eagles goes in search of the lasting legacy of a heroic monarch.
King Alfred's Tower on the Stourhead estate, England.
King Alfred's Tower on the Stourhead estate, England.

The final resting place of England's greatest king - the only British monarch to merit the title "the Great" - is somewhere under the asphalt of the car park of a leisure centre in his capital, Winchester.

Alfred the Great is widely considered to be - to use the subtitle of a recent biography - "the man who made England". During his reign he subjugated the Viking invaders, merged most of England into a single unit, encouraged education, promoted learning, successfully reorganised national defence, instituted a comprehensive system of administration and created a consistent legal code.

But, although his reign is celebrated by several statues, numerous pubs and even brands of ale and flour, his bones have never been allowed to rest with the honour his deeds surely deserved.

Winchester High Street shoppers.
Winchester High Street shoppers.


Indeed, as I discovered when I tried to follow the trail of this most far-sighted monarch, little associated with him remains.

My pilgrimage began in the pretty little Oxfordshire town of Wantage, where Alfred was born in 849, the youngest son of King Athelwulf of Wessex. The exact site of the royal estate where this happened is unknown but I learned at the local museum that there is a reference to it being between two streams, which probably means it was just north of the present market area.

Of course, the museum had a lot more than that to say about the town's most famous son, with an excellent exhibition tracing his life from bright but sickly youngest son to his unexpected ascent to the throne following the deaths of three older brothers; fleeing in defeat only to return as an unlikely victor, and finally his 28 years of wise rule.

There were pots, implements, weapons, armour, coins and quills dating from Alfred's time, as well rather cool Saxon helmets and shields to play with.

I was particularly taken with a replica of the so-called Alfred Jewel, inscribed "Alfred ordered me made", thought to have been one of the precious pointers he sent to his bishops with religious texts he had translated into the vernacular as part of his educational programme.

Wantage is a pleasant town to walk around, with attractive, narrow cobbled streets and arched passages lined with lovely old buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The focal point is the market square where in 1877 they unveiled a statue of Alfred, paid for by local industrialist Lord Wantage - who apparently also served as the model - and sculpted by a nephew of Queen Victoria.

From Wantage I moved on to one of the few sites associated with Alfred that does survive, Swanborough Tump, an ancient Saxon meeting place in Wiltshire where, in effect, his ascent to the throne was guaranteed.

In 871 Alfred and his brother, by then King Ethelred, met local warbands before another battle against the invading Danes. As he later recorded in his will, "When we assembled at Swanborough, we agreed, with the cognisance of the West Saxon Council, that whichever of us survived the other" would, in effect, become king and look after the other's children. Ethelred died later that year and Alfred became king.

There's not a lot to see at Swanborough Tump itself, just a picturesque roadside mound and a stand of trees, with a couple of plaques recording the place's history and some signposts showing it to be on the ancient White Horse Way.

But getting to it, through a maze of tiny wooded lanes, past lovely old farms and glorious little villages filled with thatched cottages and venerable churches, was quite an adventure. After many a wrong turn, when we came round a corner and saw the marker sitting amid a blaze of bluebells under an umbrella of ash trees, I gave a whoop of excitement.

Sculpture in the crypt of the cathedral.
Sculpture in the crypt of the cathedral.


For the first few years of Alfred's kingship he was constantly on the move, trying to unite his fragmented realm in the face of constant Danish attacks, winning some battles but losing others. In 878 he reached the low point of his reign, defeated in a treacherous attack and forced to flee, almost alone, to the safety of the tiny island of Athelney amid the trackless Somerset marshes.

This is where, in one of the most famous stories about Alfred, the defeated king was given shelter by a peasant whose wife asked the homeless stranger to keep an eye on her baking cakes of bread. Alas, Alfred let the cakes burn, and was given a good scolding.

The consensus among historians is that this never happened. But still, as we entered the tangle of fields and drainage ditches that surround Athelney today, it seemed all too believable. So when we stopped at the Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre - dedicated to the ancient art of making wickerwork with willow switches - I couldn't stop myself from asking the cook what she thought Alfred's cakes might have been. She looked puzzled and offered me a date scone.

One of the walks at the centre took us up to a viewing point from where you can see many villages and farms built on the low hills that were islands before the marsh was drained, right across to Athelney where a farmhouse sits almost on the spot where Alfred built his fortified refuge.

Later, driving to a roadside layby just over a drainage ditch from the farm, we were able to see a small monument surrounded by grazing cattle. After he emerged victorious, Alfred built an abbey on the spot to give thanks to God, but this was abandoned after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and it gradually crumbled. Today only the monument, built in 1801 by a local baronet, marks the spot and there is no public access.

From Athelney, it was on to Stourhead, now a National Trust property, where in 1772 wealthy banker Henry Hoare built a tower to mark what he believed to be the location of Egbert's Stone, the rallying point for Alfred's supporters when he emerged from the marshes.

The estate is notable for its beautiful gardens and the triangular 50m-high King Alfred's Tower which, though tricky to climb, offers wonderful views across a beautiful corner of rural England. Although there is now doubt about whether it's in the right place, the tower seemed to me a fitting tribute to one of the great fightbacks in history.

And so on to Winchester which, as soon as he had defeated the Danes and secured his realm, Alfred established as his capital, the base for his reforming work. This is a glorious city, dotted with spectacular reminders of its importance to the regimes of Romans, Saxons and Normans.

But of Alfred's legacy little remains beyond the street plan he supervised and a superb bronze statue, erected in 1899 to mark 1000 years since his death, in the main street of Broadway.

Next to the majestic Winchester Cathedral, which William the Conqueror ordered built to underline his triumph over the Saxon line, you can see marked out on the lawn the shape of the Old Minster, built by the early Saxon kings, which is where Alfred was initially buried alongside his father Athelwulf and others of their line.

As it turned out, shortly before his death Alfred had begun work on a new church, the New Minster, and when this was finished his remains were transferred there, later to be joined by those of his wife Ealhswith and son King Edward the Elder.

Winchester Cathedral.
Winchester Cathedral.


When the new Norman cathedral took over the site, the remains of Athelwulf and other Saxon kings in the Old Minster were transferred to the cathedral, where they still abide in a row of mortuary chests. But those in the New Minster were instead buried before the high altar of a new abbey in the city's northern suburb of Hyde. When Dissolution came 500 years later, Hyde Abbey was demolished, and with it Alfred's burial place.

Arriving in Winchester on my Alfred pilgrimage I wanted to know where his remains had ended up. But no one seemed to know. The site of the abbey, I discovered, was now part of the North Walls Recreation Ground, a charming park on the banks of the River Itchen. In a corner of a car park there was the Hyde Abbey Garden, created in 2003 to mark the last known resting place of Alfred. On a strip of asphalt, forming a link between a housing estate and the park, stainless steel frames bursting with holly trees had been erected to show the position of the church columns, and three large ledger stones carved with crosses marked the graves of the king, his wife and son.

My pilgrimage had, it seemed, come to its end. I did a bit more research at home and came across a report from the Hyde Community Archaeology Project, set up by the Winchester Museums Service to answer that very question.

I learned that in 1788 the site of the abbey, still covered with rubble, was developed as a prison. Accounts from the time tell how, during work on the garden, the site of the old high altar was found with three graves before it.

"The coffin thought to be Alfred's was made of a single block of stone encased with lead . . . The prisoners threw the bones about, broke up the coffin and sold the lead. Then the original grave pit was dug deeper to the level of the watertable and the broken coffin reburied."

Excavations carried out by the archaeology project seem to confirm that account, finding the pit the prisoners dug and fragments of masonry which "may be the remnants of the tomb structure" and "fragments of the royal coffins". But "no human remains have been found which date from the relevant period".

King Alfred the Great (849-899).
King Alfred the Great (849-899).


Alfred's bones, the report suggested, "went missing in 1788 when the prisoners were clearing the site for the country Bridewell (prison)."

I had my answer. But it wasn't one I liked. While other, lesser, monarchs rest in state in places like Winchester Cathedral, Glastonbury Abbey, Westminster Abbey, St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle and the royal burial ground at Frogmore in Windsor, Alfred the Great's bones probably lie scattered under a car park.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates offers daily flights between Auckland and London with direct connections at Dubai from $2289, Economy Class return. emirates.com

DETAILS

Find out about Wantage and its museum at wantage.com
Stourhead and Arthur's Tower are on the web at nationaltrust.org.uk

ONLINE

visitwinchester.co.uk
visitbritain.com

- NZ Herald

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