Saxon Execution Cemeteries
This might sound a tad gruesome but theme of this blog is History and Mystery after all and this is history and mystery and it’s in Winchester! Simples…so please bear with me.
A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever Crime Writers’ Association conference, in Southampton just down the road. I’ve been to several other writers’ conferences and enjoyed them all and this one was no exception. It was great to meet many well-known authors, among them Peter Lovesey, Kate Ellis, (I love her books so I gushed embarrassingly at her), and Felix Francis who used to work with his famous father, Dick Francis, and now writes under his own name.
The first talk was by Dr Annia Cherryson, an archaeologist with the Winchester Museum Service. Her topic – Late Saxon Execution Cemeteries in Hampshire. A dig at the Old Dairy site in Harestock, on the edge of Winchester, turned up several decapitated skeletons. There were cut marks on the vertebrae of seven of them and while some skulls were missing, others were placed between the legs. Even allowing for subsequent disturbance, it seems as though at least eleven of the bodies had been decapitated.
The usual Saxon burial method laid the body west to east, flat on the back and with arms at the side and treated with reverence. At the Old Dairy some were simply thrown into the graves, four of the bodies had their hands tied together, three of them behind their backs and the fourth in front. Besides this, fourteen were buried north to south. At the Old Dairy the bodies are mostly male, though it’s not been possible to determine some of them through disturbances over the years. Quite a few were just thrown in the grave, not much reverence there! Young adult males predominate which makes it very different from a ‘normal’ cemetery. Elsewhere in Hampshire are two similar cemeteries. The one at Meon Hill has six decapitations, some of them with bound hands, while the other, at Stockbridge Down, has four decapitations – and a decapitated dog!
Why were they decapitated? Athelstan says (early C10) ‘If anyone swears a false oath…he shall not be buried in consecrated ground’. Later in the same century, Edmund writes: ‘Those in holy orders should observe celibacy. If they fail to do so they shall forfeit burial in consecrated ground’. Could this be the case in Winchester?
I hope my notes were correct. To find out more, take a look at this article: http://www.winchester.gov.uk/NewsArticleL.asp?id=SX9452-A7842969
I found it fascinating. I don’t know much Saxon history, not that a little detail like that stopped me using some Saxon details in my forthcoming book, ‘A Crowded Coffin’. This is the second in my Harriet Quigley series, which will be published next year. If only I’d known earlier about these skeletons, I could have incorporated some lovely gory details in this mystery.
I’m sorry about the teaser in this post’s title though – I still haven’t managed to find out why the poor dog lost his head!