The bones of an 11th-century English queen are believed to have been discovered during research into a cathedral’s secret treasures.
Remains found in six 1,000-year-old chests in Winchester Cathedral are thought to be those of Queen Emma, wife of two Anglo-Saxon kings.
She was betrothed to King Ethelred The Unready and upon his death, married his successor, King Canute.
Emma is regarded as one of the most powerful queens in English history and was mother to two later kings: Edward the Confessor and King Harthacnut.
Canute is the man behind one of Britain’s most enduring legends, of the king who tried to turn back the tide.
Emma was a powerful landowner and power broker in the years before the Norman Conquest.
Her importance was such that she was the first queen whose portrait was painted by artists and immortalised in court records.
She has her own legend, in which she walked over red hot metal without harm to prove her marital fidelity.
If confirmed, the discovery would make Emma the second major royal figure whose body has been rediscovered in recent years.
The bones of the last Plantagenet king, Richard lll, killed in battle in 1485, were unearthed below a car park in Leicester in 2012.
Researchers are also hoping to find the tomb of the Norman King Henry I, which lies under the site of the destroyed Reading Abbey.
The bones believed to be Emma’s were among relics of a number of bodies consigned to painted mortuary chests and first stored in Winchester’s Old Minster, which was demolished after the Norman Conquest in 1093.
In the building of the new cathedral, chroniclers said, the remains of ‘kings were mixed with bishops, and bishops with kings’.
Further confusion was caused by puritan Roundhead troops who ransacked the cathedral at the start of the Civil War in 1642.
The sex, age and physical characteristics of the remains have now been identified after a six-year inquiry which involved radiocarbon dating of the bones.
The dating process included checking the bones for traces of the diet high in fish thought to be eaten by the wealthiest in the first half of the 11th century.
The Church of England said yesterday that among 1,300 separate bones from 23 individuals there were ‘the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests’.
Other bones in the chests are thought to belong to two boys aged between 10 and 15, certainly royal princes, but as yet unidentified.
‘It is not yet certain, but these bodily remains could be those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard 1, Duke of Normandy,’ they said.
Emma, who lived from 985 to 1052, was married first to Ethelred, cruelly labelled ‘the Unready’ by history, and then to his successor Canute.
Her blood connections gave William the Conqueror a claim to the English throne as she was his Great Aunt.
Canute is best known for the story that he tried to teach his advisers the limits of his power by instructing them to carry him to the beach, and then demonstrating that he could not order the tide to stay out.
However, the popular version of the story tends to depict Canute as a deluded king who believed he could in fact turn back the tide.
Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was said to be the richest woman in England. She was a major landowner in her own right in Wessex and eastern England, and a major power broker, especially over the Church.
She is considered to have wielded power alongside her husband and son in her later years.
She was a central reason for William Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, which led him to invade and overthrow the Anglo-Saxon monarchy in 1066.
The legend of Emma’s ordeal by fire is thought to have begun two centuries after her death.
She is said to have been accused by her son of adultery with the Bishop of Winchester, and obliged to prove her innocence by walking over red hot ploughshares in the cathedral nave.
She is said to not to have felt the iron or the fire beneath, nor been harmed by it. The incident was pictured in an engraving by artist and poet William Blake in 1793.
Lead researcher Professor Kate Robson Brown of Bristol University said: ‘We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain this is a very special assemblage of bones.’
Names on the chests – which may not be those of the people whose remains are still in them – include those of Cynegils, the first Christian King of Wessex, who died in 641, and King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, who was killed hunting in the New Forest in 1100.
The bones will go on display as part of an exhibition of the Cathedral’s history, Kings and Scribes, which will open later this month.
Winchester was the ancient Kingdom of Wessex and had authority over all other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Egbert, king of Wessex, got formal dominion over the rest of the realms in 827 AD.