BONES that could be King Alfred the Great have been removed from a Winchester churchyard.

Amid great secrecy, archaeologists exhumed the unmarked grave at St Bartholomew's in Hyde on Monday, diocesan chiefs announced today.

Human skeletal remains were found and have been taken for storage at an undisclosed location.

The exhumation was undertaken with no pre-publicity because there were concerns about the security, said a diocesan spokesman Nick Edmonds.

He said: “I cannot go into detail. It was regarded to be a real threat. People were concerned about someone turning up with a pickaxe and doing some DIY on the grave.”

A TV company was present at the operation which started at dawn behind metal screens and took about ten hours.

Diocesan officers would not even say which TV company was involved nor which firm of archaeologists had undertaken the work for fear of betraying where the bones are now.

The excavation was approved by Chancellor of the Diocese of Winchester, Judge Christopher Clark QC, whose order imposed confidentiality on the proceedings, said Mr Edmonds. He declined to confirm the financial details of any agreement between the church and the TV journalists.

Before work began, the Bishop of Basingstoke, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock and Revd Canon Cliff Bannister, Rector of St Bartholomew's, led prayers at the grave. Canon Paul Townsend, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth, was also present.

The work was commissioned by St Bartholomew's, supported financially by Hyde900, the community group.

No formal permission for scientific investigation has yet been given, although approval must be viewed now as a formality. However if permission is not granted within six months then the bones will have to be re-interred, Mr Edmonds added this afternoon: “Understandably, there is widespread interest. For now we can't say any more about the remains, their nature or whereabouts, but promise to keep people updated when we can.

“Although no application has yet been made to carry out any scientific investigation, we do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about exactly what this grave contained.

“This would be possible by means of a faculty application to the Consistory Court of The Diocese. This could be made by St Bartholomew's Church, or by a private applicant, which could be Hyde900.

“This would be subject to the Court's satisfaction with everything proposed, both legally and ethically. Whatever happens, the remains will stay in the care of the Church and the Consistory Court until they are reinterred.”

Mr Bannister said: “I am very pleased and relieved that this sensitive procedure has been completed successfully, and that the contents the grave are now safe and sound.

“Our chief concern this week has been to ensure that the exhumation of human remains from a consecrated Christian burial site has been fulfilled in a reverent and dignified manner, on the Chancellor's advice and order, with all diligence to professional standards and best practice.”