In 2012, the remains of King Richard III were found in a car park in Leicester, having been lost for centuries. The story led to intense media coverage. Every revelation from the initial dig in Leicester, uncovering the bones, confirming their identity through DNA tests and his subsequent reburial in Leicester Cathedral was watched avidly all around the world. Yet Richard III is not the only English monarch whose mortal remains have been lost. Many of these monarchs are still missing today. This, then, is the story of the other missing, muddled and misplaced monarchs and the heightened interest in locating them since Richard's rediscovery.
Alfred the Great (871-899) - Missing
Alfred the Great is Britain's only king given the title 'the Great'. The first to be called the King of the Anglo-Saxons, he encouraged learning, defended the Kingdom of Wessex from Viking invasion and transformed his small kingdom into what later became England.
After his death in 899, he was buried in Winchester's Old Minster. In 901 the New Minster was built next door and his body was transferred to that, along with other members of the House of Wessex Royal Family. His son King Edward the Elder and later members of the royal family were also buried there. After the Norman Conquest, the New Minster was demolished to make way for Winchester Cathedral and some of the grounds of Winchester Castle, so in 1110 his body was reburied beneath nearby Hyde Abbey's High Altar. In 1538 King Henry VIII dissolved the abbey and though the building was demolished, the tombs underneath were left unscathed.
In 1788 the site of Hyde Abbey became Hyde Meadow County Bridewell, a local prison, and convicts were ordered to dig the foundations for this new building. Page, Keeper of the Bridewell, recorded:
A great stone coffin was found, cased with lead both within and without, and containing some bones and remains of garnets. The lead, in its decayed state, sold for two guineas; the bones were thrown about and the stone coffin broken into pieces. There were also two other coffins and no more found in this part, which were also broke for the sake of the garden in which they lay, broken up and buried as low as the spring.
Alfred's bones, and those of his family, had been scattered, possibly smashed, and reburied somewhere in the grounds of Hyde Abbey. In 1840 the bridewell was demolished. In 1866 The Chronicle and Chartulary of Hyde Abbey was published, which raised local interest in the abbey. In 1866-7 'historian' John Mellor began excavating the abbey, discovering skeletal remains and putting them on display as the Royal House of Wessex even though he had no proof that the bones he had found belonged to Alfred or his family. He also tried to raise interest in his dig by 'discovering' fake historical remains. Discredited, Mellor agreed to sell the bones for 10 shillings to the Reverend William Williams of St Bartholomew Church in Hyde. There in 1867 the bones were reburied in an unmarked grave at the church's east end.
Since then other excavations have taken place, particularly in the 1890s in preparation for the Alfred Millennium Celebrations, and in the 1990s, when more bones were found. In 2010, to celebrate the 900th year since the founding of Hyde Abbey, permission was requested to exhume and examine the bones in the unmarked grave. Following the rediscovery of Richard III this was granted. The bones were carbon-dated to six individuals, dating from 1100-1500, yet one male pelvis bone uncovered in 1999 was tested and dated to the reigns of King Alfred or his son, King Edward the Elder. Sadly finding a known DNA source to compare and confirm the bones' identity with is likely to prove problematic; it proved impossible to extract DNA from Edward's daughter and Alfred's granddaughter, Ædgyth1.
This was the subject of a BBC documentary entitled The Search for Alfred the Great that was broadcast on BBC2 on Monday, 10 February, 2014.
Edward the Elder (899-924) - Missing
Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, was also reburied in Hyde Abbey at the same time as his father, with his body sharing the same fate. His last known resting place is supposedly marked by a slab in Hyde Abbey's grounds.
Harold II Godwinson (1066) - Missing
The death of Harold II, reputedly hit in the eye with an arrow at the Battle of Hastings, is one of the most famous events in English history. What happened after is a mystery. Suggestions have been made that Harold's remains were trampled beneath a horse's hooves. Historical reports state that after the battle Harold's mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir2, asked victorious William I the Bastard3 for her son's body in exchange for its weight in gold, only to be denied and the body to be buried by a William Malet 'near the sea'. In 1954 an Anglo-Saxon burial of a male skeleton missing his head and legs at Bosham, near Chichester Harbour, was uncovered. It has been speculated that this body was Harold's, as he was known to have attended church and met King Edward the Confessor there. This would also be consistent with descriptions of his injuries. An alternative theory is that eventually William relented and allowed Gytha to bury her son, and that she buried him in the grounds of Waltham Abbey. A third theory is that he somehow survived the battle and lived a quiet life as a hermit, before eventually being buried at Waltham Abbey.
On 14 October, 2014, the 948th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, an archaeological investigation using geophysics began at Waltham Abbey. This aimed to locate the remains of Harold II. Since that date, no announcements of any significant discoveries have been made at time of writing (2015).
Henry I (1100-1135) - Missing
The fourth son of William the Bastard, he did not inherit any land on his father's death. When his elder brother William II Rufus died mysteriously in the New Forest4, Henry was coincidentally close by and able to claim the throne before his elder brother, Robert Curthose of Normandy, could react5.
Generally considered to be a harsh but fair king, his reign was relatively stable and the powers of the monarchy were strengthened, until the White Ship disaster. Henry's only son and heir, William, drowned when the White Ship sank in the English Channel. Although Henry made the English lords swear loyalty to his daughter, Empress Matilda, she was an unpopular choice with the English lords who preferred to support Stephen, Henry's nephew. After the loss of his son, Henry gave vast wealth to the church, especially to Reading Abbey, which he founded in 1121. When Henry died in 1135 his body was brought to Reading and buried in front of the altar there in 1136.
In 1538, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, much of the abbey was destroyed and the exact location of Henry's tomb lost. Local legend has it that the tomb was later discovered by robbers who believed that the coffin was made out of silver. In March 2015, two days before Richard III's reburial, it was announced that English Heritage planned to use ground-penetrating radar to search for the remains of Henry I in Reading Abbey.
Stephen (1135-1154) - Missing
King Stephen, grandson of William the Bastard, ruled during a period known as the Anarchy, a civil war against his cousin Empress Matilda. After the death of his beloved eldest son Eustace in 1153 he agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, a truce that recognised that Stephen's heir would be Matilda's son Henry, who became Henry II. Stephen died soon after this and was buried next to his son at Faversham Abbey.
Faversham Abbey was demolished in 1538 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and the site of the abbey's royal tombs was lost and forgotten. Although an archaeological dig on the site, now Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, in 1965 did not find anything, modern archaeological methods may be more successful. On the day of Richard III's reburial, 26 March, 2015, it was announced that archaeologists would begin searching the site, hoping to find his remains.
Edward V (1483) - Mystery
The sons of Edward IV, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, are known to history as the Princes in the Tower. After his father's death Edward was appointed king but never crowned, with his uncle Richard III claiming the throne instead. The children were last seen within the Tower of London. The theory popularised by William Shakespeare claimed that they were both murdered on Richard's orders.
In 1674 some bones were found by one of the Tower's stairways. Charles II declared these to be Edward and Richard and ordered them to be reburied in Westminster Abbey. In 1933 an investigation concluded that although some of the bones interred belonged to animals, these were the bones of two children, one aged 12-13 and one 9-11, who were both tall for their age and possibly showed evidence of strangulation. This did not conclusively prove that the bodies were the missing princes.
Another theory is that a tomb discovered in 1789 in St George's Chapel, Windsor, containing two children's coffins, are the final resting place of the young king and his brother.
Although it is now known that DNA tests could verify or disprove whether the bodies found in the Tower were the young princes, a Westminster Abbey spokesperson issued this statement in 2013:
The recent discovery of Richard III does not change the abbey's position, which is that the mortal remains of two young children, widely believed since the 17th Century to be the Princes in the Tower, should not be disturbed.
James II (1685-1688) - Missing
The second son of Charles I, James II was one of England's most unpopular monarchs. Being pro-French, having spent much of his life in exile there, and Catholic, he felt he should rule as an absolute monarch just as the French kings did. His nobles disagreed, and following the birth of James' son whom he intended to raise as a Catholic, they invited his daughter and nephew to replace him, to reign jointly as William III and Mary II. After briefly landing in (and fleeing from) Ireland, James spent the rest of his life in exile in France. He died in 1701 and his lead coffin was placed at the Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in Paris, but not buried according to his wishes. James hoped that he would be allowed to be buried in Westminster Abbey along with other British monarchs.
Instead, his brain was sent to Scots College in Paris, displayed in a silver case, while his heart was delivered to the Convent of the Visitandine Nuns at Chaillot. His intestines were divided between the Church of St Omer and a church at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye. Following the French Revolution, royal remains were prime targets for revolutionaries raiding the churches. The lead coffin containing his body and the silver case keeping his brain were stolen and sold off. In 1824 when the church of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye was demolished, some of his intestines were found.
Other members of England's early monarchy were buried in Winchester, and transferred into Winchester Cathedral. These included monarchs of Wessex as well as England. The Kings and Queens thought to be interred in caskets in the Cathedral include:
- Cynegils (611-643)
- Cenwalh (643-672)
- Egbert (802-839)
- Æthelwulf - (839-856)
- Ædred (946-955)
- Ædwig the Fair (955-959)
- Cnut, also known as Canute (1016-1035) King of Denmark, Sweden and much of Norway as well as England
- Queen Emma of Normandy, Cnut's wife6 (c985-1052)
- Harthacnut (1040-1042)
- William II Rufus (1087-1100)
During the Civil War, on 13 December, 1642, Parliamentary forces broke into the Cathedral and among other vandalism, opened the mortuary chests containing the royal remains and threw the bones through the stained glass west window. Following this attack as many bones as could be located were gathered up and placed in six surviving mortuary chests. They were muddled up as there was no way of telling which bones belonged together.
In February 2015 it was announced that a team from the University of Oxford and Bristol University are working to analyse, and hopefully identify, these bones. This is being paid for by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant awarded following the rediscovery of Richard III.
Charles I (1625-1649) - Misplaced
Of course, Richard III is not the only monarch to have his body lost and found; a similar, though not as dramatic, fate happened to Charles I. After being beheaded at the end of the Civil War, Charles I was quietly buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was put in the same vault as Henry VIII, but this vault's whereabouts was forgotten. It was not until 1813 when the Prince Regent ordered the construction of a new burial vault that his coffin draped with velvet was rediscovered by workmen. The Prince Regent instructed Royal Physician Sir Henry Halford to conduct an autopsy and he concluded that the coffin definitely contained the remains of Charles I, who had a detached head complete with pointy beard.
Richard's Rediscovery Legacy
In olden days, archaeologists needed to travel to far-flung lands to look for the tombs of pharaohs, Caesars and other rulers. Yet Richard III's rediscovery in 2012 has led to a golden age of English archaeology, with none of England's car parks, churchyards or playing fields immune from archaeologists excavating for a king or two.
Now are the remains of our missing monarchs gloriously searched for, thanks to this son of York.