The Bone Chests: Unlocking the secrets of the Anglo-saxons


For those not familiar with the eponymous ‘bone chests’, they are the – rather innocuous-looking – wooden chests placed high atop the choir screens in Winchester Cathedral, which, based on the names written on the outsides, purportedly contain the remains of some of the most famous Anglo-Saxon kings and bishops (as well as a queen, Emma, and one Norman king, William Rufus). The remains of these figures were reportedly salvaged during the time that the Old and New Minsters of Winchester – where they were originally buried – were replaced by the new Norman cathedral. But they have not always had a peaceable history, and were almost completely destroyed during the ransacking of the cathedral by Parliamentarians during the Civil War – a story with which Cat Jarman opens her latest book.

The title might lead readers to think that this book is all about the results of the recent project that examined the contents of these chests (see CA 353), and while Jarman does cover this investigation and its main results, she instead uses the chests as a device through which to tell the stories of these eminent figures of Anglo-Saxon history. Each section of the book discusses one of the six chests, based on the names written on each, starting with ‘Chest I’, Cynegils (d. 643) and Æthelwulf (d. 858), and ending with ‘Chest VI’, Wini (d. 670), Cnut (d. 1035), Ælfwyn (d. 1042), Emma (d. 1052), and Rufus (d. 1100). This could have been a challenging way to set up the book, given the fact that the names on the chests are by no means in chronological order, but despite this Jarman does a brilliant job of harmonising the story of Wessex and the wider Anglo-Saxon world, breaking them down into overarching themes like ‘Threats’, ‘Succession’, and ‘Identity’.

For those who are already well-versed in the history of the Anglo-Saxons, this book may be a bit too elementary, but for readers looking for an introduction to the period this is a brilliant place to start. It covers, in relative detail, the highlights of the period, and will leave readers with a good foundational knowledge. As Jarman is telling the story through the Winchester Cathedral chests, however, it is obviously presented through the perspective of Wessex, with the other kingdoms taking a back seat and only making an appearance in relation to their interactions with this southern kingdom.

Additionally, while the detail provided by Jarman serves well as an introduction, by virtue of this fact some of the nuances of the period and of particular events are lost. For example, when she discusses the conversion and subsequent baptism of Cynegils (r. c.611-642), the first Christian king of what would become the kingdom of Wessex, she mentions that Oswald of Northumbria just happened to be present, offering to take him on as his ‘godson’. While this is a true account, it glosses over the political motivations behind this event, and other kingly conversions at this time. This is a small quibble, however: if Jarman were to have included all of these details, her book would have been way too long.

For me, the standout aspect of the book is how Jarman manages to pack so much information into a story that covers more than 500 years of history, and manages to make it clear and understandable. She expertly weaves together the historical and archaeological evidence, as well as incorporating scientific evidence such as the recent DNA and isotope project that examined mobility during this period (see CA 392), all the while managing to do so in a way that is comprehensible to all audiences. This can make the book a bit ‘dry’ in places, but, to me, this is what sets it apart from other accounts of the period, which often focus solely on the historical evidence. Overall, this is a great second book from Jarman (the first being River Kings, which I also highly recommend). I look forward to her third.

Cat Jarman
William Collins, £25
ISBN 978-0008447328