In all the panoply surrounding the occasion of a royal coronation, the actual act of crowning a new British monarch takes place on the coronation throne in Westminster Abbey in London. Until recently, the coronation throne enclosed a stone, sacred to the Scots and on which all Scottish kings had been crowned. In an act of subjugation the stone was taken by the English King Edward I (Longshanks) from the Palace of Scone and housed in Westminster Abbey. Known as the Stone of Destiny, it was placed in the coronation throne and thereafter all English kings and queens were crowned while seated upon it. Eventually a wiser council prevailed and the stone was returned to its rightful owners in the latter part of the 20th Century. The English, however, had a perfectly good coronation stone of their own, existing from an earlier age, and on which kings were crowned in England. This one was perfectly serviceable and is the rightful property of England. It has its own story.
Setting the Stone
If you were to ask a native of Kingston-upon-Thames from where the name 'Kingston' originated, it is most likely you would receive the answer that it is derived from the King's Stone, a large piece of rock presently situated in front of the town's Guildhall. It is a long held but mistaken belief, as logical as it sounds, that the coronations of seven Saxon kings took place on that stone. The name Kingston derives from the Anglo-Saxon words cyninges, (later cynges) and tun, meaning 'king's estate' or 'enclosure'. It first appears in a document from around 838, written in Latin and currently housed in the British Library. Kingston refers to a 'great council at Cyningestun, that famous place in Surrey'. The document records the meeting of the Saxon King Egbert, his son Athelwolfe, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with 24 bishops and nobles of the Kingdom of Wessex. The date of the document is certainly earlier than any coronation that is claimed to have taken place in Kingston. Why Kingston should have been described as 'famous' at that time is not stated and remains something of a mystery.
Whatever fame Kingston has, it is not least as the place of coronation of seven Saxon kings during the 10th Century. Local tradition holds that the consecrations took place in a small chapel adjacent to the All Hallows church next to the marketplace. The new king would be crowned while seated on the sacred King's Stone, and afterwards presented to the populace in the adjacent market square outside the church. The evidence for these coronations is sparse, and for the coronation stone itself all-but-non-existent. The kings that are alleged to have been inaugurated there1 are:
Athelstan c895 - 939. Son of Edward the Elder, crowned 4 September, 924
Edmund I (Eadmund) c922 - 946. Son of Edward the Elder, crowned 940
Edred (Eadred) c923 - 955. Son of Edward the Elder. Was is poor health most of his life and known as 'Weak in the Feet', crowned 16 August, 946
Edwy (Eadwig) c941 - 959. Son of Edmund I, crowned January 946
Edward II, the Martyr (Eadweard II) c962 - 978. Son of Edgar. Murdered by his stepmother and stepbrother, crowned 975
Ethelred II, the Unready (Aethelred) c968 - 1016. Son of Edgar. The name, derived from the Anglo-Saxon, means 'ill advised' or 'without council', rather than unprepared. Crowned 14 April, 975.
Famous place or not, archaeological evidence from Kingston and its surrounding areas show the first indications of habitation as far back as the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (the Old and Middle Stone Ages). Further evidence of continuous settlement exists through the Bronze and Iron Ages, up to the Roman occupation and on into Saxon England. Literally thousands of years of history are embodied in the region.
It is clear that Kingston's location holds the key to its importance in Anglo-Saxon history. The literal translation of Cyningstun is a royal estate or enclosure. This would be an important place - probably a seat of local administration or a forerunner of what would later become a Hundred2 Court. Where Kingston now stands the Thames formed the border between the kingdoms of Mercia on the north bank and Wessex on the south. It is known that in Saxon times the river was shallow at this point, surrounded by marshland, and may have provided a ford. This would have been one of the first fords above the London reaches of the Thames and a strategic place for bringing together the two kingdoms. It is also near the head of the river - the high point at which the incoming tide turns twice a day.
Archaeological evidence shows that a church was built on a gravel bar in the marshland, surrounded by the Thames on one side and a local stream, the Hogsmill, on the other - at the point where it flows into the Thames. There is also evidence here of a silted-up channel that left the main watercourse just above Kingston and rejoined it half a mile or so further downriver. The conjunction of these old streams reinforced the island nature of the nascent dwelling place, and likely gave it a air of isolation and protection, and perhaps mystery, to the first dwellers.
John Leland, a 16th Century chronicler, recorded that the townspeople of Kingston contended '...that wher their toun chirche is now was sumytime an abbay'. The church was adjacent to a square and some surrounding habitation. The original Saxon building is thought to have been a minster church, probably built of wood with an adjacent smaller annexed chapel, of which the footings are now marked by plaques in the ground. The chapel was named St Mary's and sometimes known as the Coronation Chapel. It housed portraits of the kings who are said to have been crowned there, but none survive today. The modern-day church, known as All Saints since the reformation, was rebuilt by the Normans in the 12th Century. Some of that building remains in the fabric of the modern building occupying the site today.
By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Kingston was still in the hands of the crown, judging by an entry in the Domesday book. It was a small, loose-knit society that could barely be described as a village. In 1086, the Domesday Book described it as a Royal 'Vill' with 86 villans and 14 bordars. It went on: 'In Chingestun Hundred The King holds in demesne Chingestun... there is land for 32 ploughs... There is a church and two serfs and five mills worth 20 shillings, and two fisheries worth ten shillings, and a third fishery very good but not rented.' Nevertheless, it was still important enough to have been the place of coronation of at least two Saxon kings.
The evidence for the coronation of seven kings in Kingston is sparse, and some of it better authenticated than others. In fact, good evidence exists for only two coronations, with a third one a good possibility. The most compelling evidence comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles written c1000 and c1050. The chronicle for the year 924 records: 'In this year King Edward died at Farndon in Mercia ...and Athelstan was chosen by the Mercians as king and consecrated at Kingston.' Referring to the crowning of the last of the seven, Ethelred the Unready, the 979 chronicle records: 'In this year Ethelred was hallowed king at Kingston on the Sunday, 14 nights after Easter; and there were at his hallowing two archbishops and ten suffragan bishops.'
Florence of Worcester, a monk and contemporary chronicler who died in 1118, recorded that Eadred and Eadwig were consecrated at Kingston. Florence's record includes what appears to be a transcript of text from a different version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that has not survived. Eadred, the fourth of the seven kings, refers to Kingston in a charter dated 946 in which he made grants of land: '...the king, presented gifts to many in the king's residence which is called Kingston, where also the consecration was performed'. This gives good evidence for at least two consecrations at Kingston, and a possible third. The remainder are unsupported, except where later medieval recorders, writing hundreds of years later, have embellished the record. That is not to say that because no record exists these kings were not crowned in Kingston.
The Coronation Stone is an unremarkable greywether sandstone, approximately square in section and just over 30 inches high. Greywether is a sedimentary rock of almost pure quartz sandstone, cemented together by silica, and is only marginally less hard than granite. It is also of a type referred to as a sarsen, which is probably derived from the Anglo Saxon sar-sten, meaning 'a troublesome rock'. An alternative, and slightly more colourful interpretation of sarsen is that it is derived from the word Saracen, meaning alien or heathen - a foreigner in a strange land with origins are in another place.
Greywether stones are the remains of a cap of sedimentary rock laid down in the Tertiary Period over 55 million years ago. They covered much of southern England over the beds of limestone deposits that make up Surrey’s North and South Downs. The cap was broken up during the latter ice age, and individual boulders scattered by glacial movement and ice flows. The Kingston stone is similar to those found around the south of England on Salisbury plain and in Essex, Kent and Berkshire.
Greywether-sarsen is not a good building material, being heavy and not possessing a natural grain that would make it easy to split it into useful portions. William Stukeley, the English antiquarian, recorded that sarsens were '...always moist and dewey in winter which proves damp and unwholesome, and rots the furniture'. Nevertheless, uses have been found for these stones. Many have been put to use as way or boundary markers. But probably the most notable instances are the prehistoric stone circles and monuments in the south-west of England, such as Avebury and Stonehenge. Tellingly, there are a number of examples of sarsens being incorporated into the fabric of church buildings to protect of the corners of walls or doors where a high rate of wear is anticipated.
The Stone's provenance
Not very much is known about the Coronation Stone prior to the late 18th Century. The first recorded mention of it occurs in 'The British Directory' of 1793, which refers to the stone in the grounds of All Saints Church and records that 'Some of our Saxon kings were also crowned here; and close to the north side of the church is a large stone, on which, according to tradition, they were placed during the ceremony'. An earlier and oft quoted reference to the stone is credited to Elizabethan cartographer John Speed, from a document3 published in 1627: 'At Kingston likewise stood the chair of majesty whereon Athelstan, Edwin and Ethelred sate at their coronations and first received their Sceptre of Imperiall Power'. This almost certainly does not refer to the stone, rather it is an embellishment of Speed's knowledge of the act of the ceremony itself.
The 'rolling' Stone
Greywether sandstone is not normally found in the London and Thames Valley area, so it is uncertain how Kingston's stone came to be there. It is possibly an example of an 'erratic sarsen'. This is a rock that has been picked up from its place of origin by ice and moved by glacial action, eventually to be dropped onto the landscape when the ice melted. The ice cap of the last Anglian ice age reached no further south than north London. It is possible that the rock was moved into the Kingston area by human hand from the Berkshire or Wiltshire area, where it is common. It is known that the pressure of ice moved the course of the Thames from north of London to where it is now. There is speculation that the melting ice uncovered the stone or washed it to its present location. Further speculation posits the possibility that the stone was set up to mark the fording point which would probably have included the gravel bar on which the church was later located.
Be that as it may, at some point the stone was either housed in, or was part of, the fabric of St Mary's Chapel. In 1730 the wall of St Mary's collapsed due to the excessive exertions of the verger, Abram Hammerton, undermining the foundations while digging graves. The collapse killed poor Abram and one other. His daughter Ester, who was his assistant, was trapped for seven hours in the grave under the debris, before being rescued. After recovering from her injuries, she succeeded her father as the verger. It was written that she had '...received a hurt that prevented her from ever wearing stays. In consequence of this and of her occupation in her father’s position, she ever afterwards used men's garments'.
The chapel’s remains were cleared away, but it was never rebuilt. The stone seems to have stayed beside the church until 1825, as 'The British Directory' entry places it there in 1793. In 1825 it was moved to the adjacent market square beside the old Elizabethan Town Hall. Its convenient shape and size made it useful as a horse-mounting block.
In 1840 the old Elizabethan building was pulled down to make way for a new town hall on the same site, in the centre of the square. The stone was moved to the yard of the Courts of Assizes outside Clattern House, a local government building about 150 yards beyond the marketplace. In 1850 it was placed on a heptagonal stone plinth located on an island in the road outside Clattern House.
There it remained for 85 years until a new guildhall was built on the site of Clattern House in 1935. The stone and its mounting were moved temporarily to the memorial gardens on the other side of the town square until the new guildhall was completed. It was then returned to the front of the new guildhall building, where it remains to this day.
Romancing the Stone
The patriotic Burghers of Victorian England were not slow to promote Kingston's association with the stories of the Saxon kings' coronations and its connections with royalty. Bringing together the erroneous Kingston name and the King's Stone story, they seem to have come up with what must have seemed a good idea. Not being ones to let the lack of any substantive evidence get in the way of a good story, they took a leap of faith and rediscovered the Coronation Stone.
In 1850, the then lord mayor of Kingston, Alderman Gould, inaugurated the stone in its new position (on the traffic island in front of Clattern House). It was mounted on a plinth and surrounded with railings and seven piers surmounted with copies of Saxon spears. The names of the kings appear on the plinth, and a silver coin from each of the reigns is incorporated into the legend on its base. The inauguration was carried out on Thursday 19 September, 1850 and included a public holiday and celebrations with full Masonic honours by the Freemasons of Surrey. This was followed during the afternoon by a public dejeuner and aquatic sports and a grand display of fireworks on the river. This of course elevated the stone's position on the social ladder overnight, from boot-scraper to revered historical object.