The Bone Chests are in Winchester Cathedral. They’ve been there for over a thousand years, with a bit of a furore during the Civil War in the 1600s. Cromwell’s troops have a lot to answer for. Cat Jarman takes an archaeologists’s look at the chests, their possible contents, and the people of early English history in this very interesting book (I class it as local history!).

The Bone Chests

by Cat Jarman

In 1642, William Waller and his Parliamentarian army came to Winchester with destruction on their minds. They forced entry to the magnificent cathedral that had stood on the site for over 600 years and began to smash things.

In the cathedral’s holiest place, ten beautiful mortuary chests rested as they’d done since the 7th century. In search for treasure, the soldiers ripped open the lids and when all they found were bones they flung them at the great West Window, destroying the 14th-century stained glass with its sacred images of the Virgin Mary and St Peter.[…]

Six chests remain today – with a jumble of the original bones. In 2014 they were opened for the first time to anthropologists and archaeologist, photographed and catalogued so that the exact position of each individual item is a matter of record. Since then, cutting edge science, including isotope analysis, carbon dating and DNA analysis has revealed astonishing new insights. In Bone Chests, bestselling author of River Kings, Cat Jarman builds on evidence from these bones of the men and women who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of England, fuelled and fortified by the actions of invading and settling Vikings, to tell an unforgettable new account of this early period of history. This is Anglo-Saxon history in technicolour, with an important revisionist take on the role of women. [goodreads]

My Review

Winchester Cathedral (the post 1100 version) is up the road from me (less than ten miles), and I have been there – before the pandemic struck. I must go again, in case the exhibition the author talks about is still running. And in any case, I know there’s a lot more to see there now than I did then!

Winchester Cathedral 2019

Cat Jarman does a thorough job of research on these chests, and the people whose remains may or may not be in them. She starts with the earliest known Wessex king, Cynewulf, and ends with the last one named on the chests: William Rufus (son of William the Conqueror). This is not a period of history I know much about. Frankly most GB school history mentions Egyptians, Romans, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, and moves on to the Wars of the Roses. In fact I don’t know whether it does that much, except kids seem to know about Pharoahs, and they spend a lot of time on the history of World War 2.

So a narrative about the kings and politics of pre-1100 has the potential to be interesting. In The Bone Chests, the author takes the supposed contents of one chest at a time, and maps out the who, what, why and wherefore, based on research and records down the ages. The best thing about this book is that it adds in modern science and use of DNA, which is fascinating, revealing as it does where people came from based on their diet and chemical make-up and who they are related to once possible matches have been found in those areas. Like the discovery of Richard III in a Leicester car park, we cannot be 100% certain. But we can be pretty sure that it isn’t anyone else without a huge coincidence involved.

As a result, the book keeps your interest. This is despite some shortcomings, some of which can’t be helped. The number of names that look alike, and in many cases are the same for entirely different people — AEthelstan, AEthelgifu, AElfgifu and all those other Saxon names beginning with AEl…

ARC still?

This was an ARC, so it is possibly not the final version, but I found myself getting confused with the way the author jumped from contemporary to the king under discussion, to contemporary to the Reformation, interspersed with commentary from writers of ages in between. When we were back to later archaeological findings, it seemed fine, but some of the narrative got very confusing. There were also several places where she repeated herself, telling us the same thing twice as if she hadn’t said it before. Some tighter editing would do it the world of good.

There is a good reference section (the last 10%), covering notes as well as extensive bibliography, a list of illustrations (only the drawings of the chests were in my ebook version) and an index, which is pretty redundant in the ebook, but a goldmine for a paper copy–or a reviewer checking name spellings!.

It’s a great hook on which to hang a history of the first millennium in the British Isles, so if you’re remotely interested, take a look. Thank you to the publishers and netgalley for the opportunity to expand my knowledge!

Book Review | The Bone Chests by Cat Jarman
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