We have no surviving funerary monument for King Alfred ‘the Great’ of Wessex who died in AD 899. Buried first in the Old Minster, then translated to the New Minster, Winchester, his remains were subsequently translated to Hyde Abbey. The television show The Last Kingdom therefore as to be creative to portray a tomb for the king in an ecclesiastical setting in Winchester c. AD 910, while Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, is king of Wessex and his grandson and the future-successor to Edward is still a child. What do they opt for as Alfred’s tomb and what does this reveal?
The answer can be seen here. King Alfred is represented as being afforded with an effigy tomb within a decade of his death, seemingly placed on the north-side of church close to the modest altar and beneath a clear-glazed window.
At various points in the series, key figures interact with the tomb, notably his widow Ealhswith, with and without her grandson Aethelstan. Then, when the pagan Danish warrior-woman Breda briefly takes over the royal capital (and no, this didn’t happen), she takes time out from the pillaging to approach Alfred’s tomb and run her hand down the effigy’s chest and crotch in a gesture that is not exactly appropriate, but respecting the integrity of the tomb as a representation of the dead king and marking his grave.
While the Danes and Saxons are shown in oppositional terms, in honouring the dead the pagans and Christians are depicted as sharing in a desire to respect their leaders. Alfred’s tomb in series 4 is thus the Christian counterpoint to Ragnar’s in series 3.
The origins of effigy tombs in England
Is this effigy tomb an accurate depiction? Well, no.
The rise of the effigy tomb in medieval Europe and its introduction into England is relatively well attested as a 12th-century phenomenon, at least 240 years after the setting of The Last Kingdom. It is by c. 1150 that we start to get the impressive effigies of Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, Tolpuddle and Sherbourne Abbey, Exeter and Salisbury Cathedrals (Gittos and Gittos 2019). Nigel Saul (2009) charts the clear shift following very late 11th-century exemplar, including the cast bronze effigy of Rudolf, Duke of Swabia, in Merseberg Cathedral (dated c. 1080-1100) with further examples known from c. 1130. This emerging trend in the representation of the dead has been linked to the aesthetic and theological transformations of the 12th century including the broader trend for figural iconography.
England only seems to demonstrably take up this trend by c. 1140-1150 with the effigy of Bishop Roger (d. 1139) and Bishop Jocelyn de Bohun (d. 1180s), both in Salisbury Cathedral., and a comparably dated 12th-century trio of episcopal effigy tombs from Westminster. So when the effigies arrive in England, they are not only over two centuries after Alfred’s death. Moreover, the commemorated subjects are not royalty or secular aristocrats, but abbots and bishops. The early effigies don’t tend to include pillows either as this example does (Fozi 2016). It is only in the 13th and early 14th centuries that effigy tombs become widespread and we have a fuller sense of their original tomb-chests, often lacking/lost for the earliest examples. So in many regards, Alfred has a 13th-century tomb.
Moreover, there is nothing in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, including specifically those monuments and architectural fragements from the South-East and South-West of England (Tweddle et al 1995; Cramp 2006), that afford a direct analogy to the decision to recreate Alfred’s tomb as an effigy.
Moving beyond ‘wrong’
Yet I don’t want to simply dismiss this funerary monument as ‘wrong’. There are details to the effigy tomb of King Alfred that demand respect and attention. The tombs of Rudolf of Swebia and Widukind of Saxony portray kings who faced serious conflict during their rise to power, and while far later, do provide an analogy in general terms appropriate parallels with Alfred’s reign (Fozi 2016).
Colour is attempted, in part. For while muted on the effigy, and bizarrely lacking completely from the tomb chest itself, the king is depicted with a gold-painted crown and red robes.
Oddly, there is a line of interlace beneath the effigy that would not be out of place in 8th-11th-century sculpture. While it lacks parallels with anything surviving from Wessex and the South-East, it does resonate with Viking-period sculpture from the north of England, including some of the grave-slabs from York (Lang 1991).
The frieze of figures seem to depict events from Alfred’s life, and that has no early medieval precedent. Still, in general terms, there is a sense of the Hovingham composite shrine in this representation, even if figures are not contained within an arcade (Lang 1991: 146-147). Yet seemingly unpainted, it has a Late Antique feel to it.
The corner-posts of the tomb are thought through, reminding me of the tower of Westminster cathedral as depicted on the funerary scene of Edward the Confessor from the Bayeux Tapestry.
Putting these points together, while demonstrably anachronistic, some attempts are made to make Alfred’s tomb look ‘early medieval’ in general terms.
In addition to the crowned head resting on a pillow, a further detail is the hands resting together over the waist, the right resting on the left. Effigies usually depict the hands clasped in prayer, or raised in blessing in some ecclesiastical examples, or else holding key artefacts and implements linked to their royal, ecclesiastical or knightly status. I’m unaware of any exemplar for the unpresuming stance of Alfred’s tomb, other than to reflect the natural gesture of the actor as depicted in life. However, it is worth noting that hands over the supine repose is itself a trope of modern representations of fantasy and science-fiction film and television, as identified by Sian Mui in her contribution to my co-edited book The Public Archaeology of Death. I suggest the posture of Alfred relates more to our aesthetics for the ‘honoured dead’ than it does to early medieval practices.
In conclusion, King Alfred’s tomb is one fit for a Victorian fantasy of the 9th-century monarch: mashing together some Late Antique and Anglo-Saxon sculptural elements with those of the later Middle Ages and Victorian portraiture of a bearded king. As such, it is ultimately pandering to a present-day aesthetic of what a tomb of a king should be. In this regard, the tomb is more Arthur mixed with Aragorn than Alfred.
Cramp, R. 2006. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Volume VII: South-West England. London: The British Academy.
Fozi, S. 2016. Two Romanesque effigies and the problem of plastic form, in A. Adams and J. Barker (eds) Revisiting the Monument: Fifty Years since Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture, pp. 30-48.
Gittos, B. and Gittos, M. 2019. Interpreting Medieval Effigies: the Evidence from Yorkshire to 1400. Oxford: Oxbow.
Lang, J. 1991. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture III. York and Eastern Yorkshire. , London: British Academy.
Mui, S. 2019. Grave expectations: burial posture in popular and museum representations, in H. Williams, B. Wills-Eve and J. Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death. Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 73-84.
Saul, N. 2009. English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tweedle, D., Biddle, M. and Kjolbye-Biddle, B. 1995. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture IV: South-East England. London: British Academy.