From bioarchaeologist and bestselling author of River Kings, a gripping new history of the making of England as a nation, told through six bone chests, stored for over a thousand years in Winchester Cathedral.
In December 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentarian troops stormed the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, intent on destruction. Reaching the choir, its beating heart, the soldiers searched out ten beautifully decorated wooden chests resting high up on the stone screens.
Those chests contained some of England’s most venerated, ancient remains: The bones of eight kings, including William Rufus and Cnut the Great – the only Scandinavian king to rule England and a North Sea Empire; three bishops; and a formidable queen, Emma of Normandy. These were the very people who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of the kingdom of Wessex in the 7th century; who lived through the creation of England as a unified country in response to the Viking threat; and who were part and parcel of the Norman conquest.
On that day, the soldiers smashed several chests to the ground, using the bones as missiles to shatter the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Afterwards, the clergy scrambled to collect the scattered remains.
In 2014, the six remaining chests were reopened. A team of forensic archaeologists, using the latest scientific methods, attempted to identify the contents: They discovered an elaborate jumble of bones, including the remains of two forgotten princes. In The Bone Chests, Cat Jarman builds on this evidence to untangle the stories of the people within. It is an extraordinary and sometimes tragic tale, and a story of transformation. Why these bones? Why there? Can we ever really identify them? In a palimpsest narrative that runs through more than a millennium of British history, it tells the story of both the seekers and the sought, of those who protected the bones and those who spurned them; and of the methods used to investigate.
Imprint: Collins UK/HarperCollins
Publication date: 14/09/2023