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Summary of Hyde Community Archaeology Project

Illustration of King Alfred

This article is a summary of the results of the Hyde Community Archaeology Project run by Winchester Museums Service completed in 1999. The principal aims were the recovery of the plan of the east end of Hyde Abbey Church and the identification of the burial place of Alfred the Great. The project was designed to allow those interested in archaeology to work beside professionals to reveal part of Hyde Abbey's past. The excavations are now complete and the post-excavation analysis has started.

Although Hyde Abbey was founded in 1110, its origins lay with Alfred and the re-establishment of Winchester in the late 9th century. Alfred probably initiated the founding of a new church, called the New Minster, located immediately to the north of the Old Minster, to serve as Winchester's congregational church and the burial place of his dynasty. Work was not completed, possibly not started, by his death on 26 October 899 and Alfred was buried in the Old Minster. Following the completion of the New Minster in c.903, his remains were transferred to the new church where, in time, he was joined by his wife Ealhswith, and their son king Edward the Elder and Edward's children.

Following the Norman Conquest, the Cathedral was built on the site of the Old Minster, and took the place of New Minster as the city's main congregational church. At the same time the nearby Royal Palace was extended. As a result, the New Minster lost its primary role, while both enlargements were at the expense of its land. It was probably due to these factors that Henry I ordered New Minster to be moved to the city's northern suburb of Hyde. By 1110, work was far enough advanced for the monks to enter their new church. Once again, the founder of the house, Alfred, along with his family, was exhumed and reinterred in front of the high altar of the new church.

The 1999 excavations consisted of four trenches designed to gain as much information as possible about the east end of the Abbey Church. Trenches I and II were positioned to the east of the transepts in the area occupied by the choir, presbytery and high altar, while trenches III and IV revealed part of the plan of the east end of the church.

Two phases of construction were identified. The church, as built in 1110, was constructed of flint and chalk rubble bonded by a pale brown chalky mortar. The foundations and lower part of the walls survived the robbing and demolition carried out by Henry VIII's commissioners in 1539. Some stone reused in the foundations, including decorated and burnt fragments, is thought to have came from the domestic buildings of the New Minster, destroyed by fire in 1065.

The choir was defined by the arcade that separated the body of the church from the surrounding ambulatory. The foundations showed a distinct curve indicating an apsidal east end. The foundations of the external walls could be seen to curve in a similar way. This would suggest that the site of the high altar lay at the eastern limit of the excavations.

Pilgrims, visiting shrines and chapels located at the east end of the church, would have walked along the ambulatory alongside the choir. One such chapel, projecting from the south side of the church, consisted of a small rectangular room with an apsidal east end. Part of a second chapel, of similar plan, was identified to the north of the church.

The original east end of the 1110 church consisted of a small chapel that had been rebuilt in the late 12th or early 13th century using a pale, honey coloured, fine-grained limestone bonded by a hard orange mortar.

The stratigraphic sequence suggests that the original chapel was standing while the new structure was built. It was demolished on completion of the work, possibly to limit the interruption to services. The date of construction is uncertain, but it may be associated with the programme spurred on by the 'miraculous events' that occurred at the shrine of St. Barnabas in 1182.

There is some evidence that the new work was not confined to the eastern chapel. Large fragments of collapsed masonry using a similar mortar type have been found a good distance from the eastern chapel and it is possible that a large part of the church was rebuilt, reusing the 1110 foundations.

This suggestion is further supported by the collapsed, but near complete, section of blind arcading found to the south of the church, which was made of similar stone.

The Royal Graves
Directly in front of the high altar was a group of deep intercutting pits that represent past attempts to find the tomb of Alfred the Great. At the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, graves in front of the high altar are said to have produced small lead tablets bearing the names Alfred and Edward. No archaeological trace of this first recorded breaching has survived, but subsequent discoveries suggest that the graves were left intact. Within a year the church and cloisters were demolished and the site of the church was lost from the landscape. However, late 18th century maps show that the site was littered with mounds of rubble.

The earliest pit identified in front of the high altar probably dates to1788 when the site of the Abbey Church was bought by the County for construction of a Bridewell or gaol. One of the first tasks set the prisoners was to dispose of the rubble left by Henry VIII's commissioners.

The method used appears to have involved digging deep pits in which the larger masonry fragments were buried. It was probably during digging one of these pits that the royal tombs were rediscovered (note the large masonry fragment in the photo).

A few years after the event, the site was visited by Captain Howard, a noted antiquarian, who was aware of the discoveries made by Henry VIII's Commissioners. He interviewed Mr Page, the Prison Warden, who told him that during works in the Governor's garden the of site of high altar was found, with three graves located before it.

The coffin thought to be Alfred's was made of a single block of stone encased with lead. He was also told of its fate - 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.

The earliest pit in the area accords well with Page's description. It extended across the full width of the high altar area and had been dug down to the watertable (1 on the plan). Slight hints of earlier cuts were found that might represent the three royal tombs. At the base of the pit were fragments of masonry - some ashlar blocks with mortar adhering and others of a coarse, shelly limestone of a type not seen elsewhere on the site. The former may be the remnants of tomb structures while the latter may represent fragments of the royal coffins. Recovered from the upper fill of the pit was part of a human pelvis, probably belonging to an adult female who suffered from an arthritic hip. Carbon 14 dating has shown that this is a later, post-medieval intrusion.

A second pit found in front of the high altar probably dates to 1866 when the site was excavated by the antiquarian John Mellor (2 on the plan). He claimed to have found intact the site of Alfred's tomb . His claims were met with skepticism at the time, and if the second pit is correctly identified with him, this skepticism was justified for two main reasons.

Firstly the pit was positioned too far west, and secondly, although he was aware of Page's statement that Alfred's grave was redug as deep as the watertable, this pit was far too shallow.
Plan suggesting site of royal tombs.

The third pit probably dates to 1897 when the Mayor of Winchester, Alfred Bowker, excavated the site to check Mellor's claims (3 on the plan). This large trench was aligned east-west. Bowker's interest was to protect the site of Alfred's tomb and he was instrumental in obtaining the site for the city for the creation of North Walls Park. Later he was responsible for the erection of Winchester's famous King Alfred statue that stands in the Broadway. Although he may not have realised it, he had before him the whole story of the post-medieval Search for Alfred, for in his trench was the block of masonry that the prisoners buried when they uncovered the royal tombs.

It is perhaps a mark of the importance which Alfred has held through history that he was never really allowed to rest in peace. In the 650 years following his death, his remains were treated with respect, but were transferred to new locations on two occasions. Following the Dissolution of Hyde Abbey in 1539, the site of his grave lay forgotten until 1788 when it was rediscovered during building works. There were two further attempts to relocate the site of his tomb. Our Community Archaeology Project was designed to investigate these attempts and to determine the ultimate fate of Alfred's remains.

Although no human remains have been found which date to the relevant period, the site of the royal tombs has now been located. The excavations have also unraveled part of the long history of the Search for Alfred. But what happened to Alfred's remains? On balance, it is suggested that they went missing in 1788 when the prisoners were clearing the site for the County Bridewell. During the digging of the foundation trenches many graves must have come to light. Indeed, the local historian and Catholic priest Dr Milner, who described the works, was horrified by the disturbance and desecration of graves of the former monastic site. The prisoners probably saw the royal tombs much as any other graves and their importance probably only came to light when Captain Howard, who was aware of the discoveries made in 1539, interviewed the Prison Warden a few years after the event. By then Alfred's remains had probably already been lost.

We would like to thank all those who have worked so hard, and also those who have expressed interest in the Hyde Community Archaeology Project. The post-excavation process is now underway and as new information is received updates will be published.

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