Identifying and understanding the Old English -ing3 patronymic constructions in the ‘Historia de Sancto Cuthberto’

A year and a half later, and I still can’t get a good handle on what I actually achieved in my time studying for a PhD (not that I even got as far as completing the MPhil bit, but hey, that’s crippling anxiety for you). One thing I do know is that the literary uses of Old English (OE) singular -ing and plural -ingas name formations were the only topic I ended up writing about properly (i.e. 1000s of words with full referencing etc.). Which in a way was/is an achievement in itself, because there’s been an unhealthy tendency in past scholarship to keep toponymic and non-toponymic instances separate and analyse them without much reference to the “other” type. I remain steadfast in my belief that you really can’t hope to understand one without the other, or to get a true grasp of some plural -ingas place-names without knowing the significance of singular -ing name formations first. And on a not-unrelated note…

I bought Ted Johnson South’s 2002-published edition of the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (hereafter HSC) last year as a Christmas present to myself, mainly to have it as a point of reference for a couple of bits of research I have in mind to do in the coming years. For those who don’t know much/anything about it, the HSC is a Latin-language history interweaving tales from the life (and indeed Lives) of St Cuthbert, his cult, and records of the benefactions of land made to the ecclesiastical community that took his name and that moved around Northumbria before ultimately setting up shop at Durham. Three medieval manuscripts of the HSC survive. South (2002, 14-22) uses the following reference schema for them: O for the late 11th-century Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 596 (folios 203r-206v); C for the later 12th-century Cambridge, University Library, Ff. 1. 27 (pages 195-202); and L for the 15th-century London, Lincoln’s Inn, Hale 114 (folios 153r-159r).

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The title to the HSC in the 12th-century copy, with added Cuthbert… Cambridge, University Library, Ff. 1. 27, page 195

None of the aforementioned manuscripts represents the original HSC text. Indeed, one of the most prominent issues concerning the HSC is when it was first written. There are three schools of thought on the matter. Up until 15 years ago, either it was argued that the HSC was commenced in the 10th century with additions made at two points in the 11th century, or that it was a single-phase piece of work started and finished in the later 11th century (see South 2002, 25-36, who came down in favour of the latter; the main proponent of the former was Edmund Craster in a 1954 English Historical Review article I’ve not read). Then, in 2004, Dr Sally Crumplin introduced the ‘composite text model’, arguing for the earliest portions of the HSC perhaps having originated as far back as the late 8th century, and being followed thereafter by multiple episodes of additions and reworking. These might be roughly grouped sequentially into a “pre-West Saxon” part, a “West Saxon” part, and a handful of late 10th/early 11th-century chapters to round it off (Crumplin 2004, 41-69). What is clear whichever interpretation is preferred is that the HSC draws its information from an array of extant and lost texts of the Anglo-Saxon period (South 2002, 4-8; Crumplin 2004, 62, 66).

It transpired upon reading the HSC over the festive seasons that it contains a remarkable quantity of evidence for OE singular -ing formations. They rapidly became of more immediate interest to me because of the way they appear in the text, even more so when it became clear that they have received precious little in the way of scholarly discussion. Hence this blog post!

Royal examples

I’ll begin with the following passage, as it’s the most unequivocal instance of the obvious error that lies at the heart of what this blog post is about (all texts and translations are as per South’s published edition unless otherwise stated).

Chapter 8: succesit in regnum Ceowulf filius Cuthwining (‘Ceowulf son of Cuthwining succeeded to the kingship’: South 2002, 48, 49)

We know from other sources that Ceolwulf’s father’s name was Cuthwine, not Cuthwining, and that the -ing ended spliced onto the end of his name was an OE ending that had patrilineal significance, i.e. it signified that the first-named person was the son of the second-named one. This is a feature of OE genealogical texts, such as those of the so-called Anglian group edited and analysed by David Dumville (1976). As per the classification of OE -ing name-formation endings by AH Smith, this patronymic type is -ing3 (1956, 290-91; the 3 is meant to be superscript but I don’t know how you do that on WordPress). I’ve blogged about the type before as, well, I find them enormously interesting from both an onomastic and an historical perspective.

The tautological, bilingual phrasing here and, as will be shown below, elsewhere in the HSC suggests that either the author/s knew the significance of the -ing suffix but forgot to remove it from the name of Cuthwine etc., or did not know what it meant but worked out the relationships between the men in question nonetheless (or found out by using another source). Other, more complex scenarios might also be countenanced, too.

In the case of the above instance, a probable source can be suggested; the top line of the Bernician II-III genealogy on folio 65v of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183 (Ceowulf Cuþwining: edited by Dumville 1976, 32):

What makes this manuscript the probable source is the fact that it is one with a known connection to the community of St Cuthbert (South 2002, 6). Comparison can be made between this and the phrase Wulfhere filium Pendici (‘Wulfhere son of Penda’: South 2002, 48, 49) found in the preceding chapter of the HSC. It may have been adapted from a combination of the Mercian royal genealogy and regnal list in the same manuscript (Dumville 1976, 33), although again supplemented or confirmed by recourse to another text. Or, rather more straightforwardly, it was based on a different source altogether.

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The names of Penda and Wulfhere appear in the regnal list on the left, but it’s Æthelred who appears as Pending in the genealogy to the right. Note also Penda Pybbing below the latter. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 66r

We may perceive use of the same source earlier in the HSC text, but one that has its attendant complications as well. The passage in question is:

Chapter 3: tempore Pendae regis filii Pybbindti [O, C] / Pybbindri [L] regis, quibus successit rex Osuingius [O, C] / Osuigius [L] (‘in the time of King Penda, son of Pybba, whom King Oswin succeeded’: South 2002, 44, 45)

Arguably the first half of the sentence is an adaptation of the phrase Penda Pybbing in the Mercian genealogy in Corpus Christi College MS. 183 fol. 66r (Dumville 1976, 33). This assumes the -d- represents an original -g-; the significance of the -ti-ri endings is not clear to me at the time of writing (might there be an analogy to be drawn with the spellings Suthgedling [L] / Suthgedluit [O, C] in chapter 6? South 2002, 48, 49, 81, 138; Pickles 2009, 322 inc. footnote 60).

The second half is not so easily traced. The name form(s) must be set alongside the forms Osuingius [O, C], Osuigius [L] found near the start of the same chapter. South did pass comment on these name spellings (South 2002, 72-74). He noted that there appears to be a level of confusion between the name of Oswine and Oswiu in this chapter of the HSC, but that this doesn’t necessarily account for the above name spellings. Significantly, he introduced the possibility of a patronymic ending explaining the above forms, highlighting how Oswiu’s name is on record suffixed by -ing. The example he chose to illustrate this particular point was Ecgfrið Osuing found in ‘the earliest surviving version of the Anglian collection’, i.e. London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian B. vi (South 2002, 74 footnote 4; Dumville 1976, 30). Curiously, he did not reference the equivalent name in what would seem to be a more obvious source, albeit with a different spelling – the St Cuthbert’s community-linked CCCC MS 183 (Ecgfrið Osweoing: Dumville 1976, 32).

The obvious explanation would be that the source was a lost text; South suggested ‘an authentic charter of King Oswiu’ (2002, 74). If Osuingius is an -ing3 elaboration of the name, then it must have been taken from a different genealogy, one not part of the ‘Anglian collection’ tradition, as neither Penda nor Pybba were Oswine’s son! However, I guess it’s not wholly inconceivable that, dealing with names from what even by the later Anglo-Saxon period was long ago, the author of this bit of the HSC was all at sea with working out the name of Oswine, and hence assumed a king of the mid-7th century, be he Bernician or Mercian, was more likely than not to have had a name ending in -ing. All in all, the origin of Osui(n)gius remains something of a mystery, and would merit further investigation.

Non-royal examples

Chapter 6: bonus abbas Cineferth filius Cygings [O] / Cygincg [C, L] (‘The good abbot Cyneferth son of Cygincg’: South 2002, 48, 49)

Whatever the source of this phrase, the context alone shows that it did not come from a royal genealogy. The ‘good abbot’ in question may be the Cynefrith who appears thrice in the anonymous Life of Ceolfrith (aka Historia abbatum: South 2002, 81-82), two times as the brother of the main man, and who was the abbot of Gilling (for a more extensive discussion of the identity of the abbot in the HSC, offering four possibilities but no judgement on which is the most likely, see Pickles 2009, 322-23). That text includes an anecdote about Ceolfrith’s father (and mother) organising a banquet at which the king was due to be in attendance, suggesting he was a someone of high social standing (Plummer 1896, 401). Maddeningly, however, it does not give the father’s name!

In onomastic terms, an OE personal name *Cyging is otherwise unattested but far from impossible. A nobleman named Cyga is on record in the early 9th century (S 159) and *Cyging would be a perfectly credible -ing variant of that name. The terminal -s of the O and C MSS could further act as supporting the idea of a name ending -ing (for which the genitive singular inflection would be *Cyginges). But this very fact Cyga is an attested OE personal name, when taken in combination with the HSC‘s recurrent formula of OE name + filius + OE name ending -ing strongly suggests that here again we are looking at a reinterpreted genealogical phrase.

The source of such a phrase is not easy to identify. A handful of charters show sub-royal, aristocratic/elite sorts deploying the -ing3 formula. So, for example, we find Eadbyr’h’t Eadgaring and Æðelheh Esning in S 1187 (dated 804; this charter also includes the name Berclingas as a reference to the community of Berkeley minster – but that’s another story for another day) and Mucele Esninge in the OE bit of S 190 (dated 836). Perhaps we have a case of reuse of a similar tidbit of information extracted from a lost charter. This would be pretty inspired, and displays a level of attention to detail that’s not exactly a hallmark of the HSC. Therefore, it’s probably safer to conclude that it came from some other type of text. My next two examples may offer some clues in this regard:

Chapter 22: Elfred [O, C] / Alfred [L] filius Birihtulfinci (‘Elfred son of Brihtwulf’: South 2002, 60, 61)

Chapter 24: Edred filius Rixinci [O, C] / Riuxinci [or Rinxinci L] (‘Eadred son of Ricsige’: South 2002, 62-63)

Elfred/Alfred is the star of chapter 22 of the HSC, and Eadred of chapter 24; neither of their fathers play any further part in their stories. You would imagine the relatively late date in which the events described took place would mean it would be straightforward to find out more about the men and their fathers using other sources. Not so. South, who in his commentary on the chapter correctly emends his recorded name to ‘Elfred Brihtwulfing’, observed that nothing else is known about him, and this seems to check out even with a resource like PASE to draw upon (South 2002, 104).

I’m not entirely happy with identifying Rix(i)– < OE *Rīcsige, but can make no better suggestion (other than to opine that the spelling in the L manuscript might be more authentic to the original – as could be argued in respect of Cygincg above). Eadred’s father was suggested by a 19th-century author to have been Ricsig(e), reputedly king of Northumbria 873-76 (South 2002, 106 inc. footnote 108), and this seems like a not-unreasonable conjecture given the geographical and chronological context. He is directly attested only in much later sources, including Symeon of Durham’s so-called Historia Dunelmensis ecclesiæ, a work of the early 12th century that repeats and elaborates on ‘virtually every episode from the HSC‘ (South 2002, 9; also Grey 2013). We might expect the phrase to have been suffixed by Latin regis in this case, but Symeon described him as ‘a person’ who was ‘appointed’ by the Northumbrians as their king, which hardly suggests he was born to rule (Grey 2013). Thus, while he could merit citation under my above-mentioned royal examples, there are more immediate reasons for discussing him or rather his son here.

South (2002, 106-107) was probably not the first to point out that the two narratives about Elfred and Eadred share enough commonalities of theme and detail as to suggest their author confused two separate stories, albeit not to the extent that he invented one of them. Both men came over ‘the mountains’ from the west to rock up at and prevail upon the community of St Cuthbert. Elfred was fleeing from piratas (‘pirates’), whereas Eadred took a more indirect route, stopping to kill a princeps named Eardwulf and seize his wife/widow! Obscure as they might be to us now, Elfred and Eadred must have been men of some consequence back in the day, as both were able to persuade Bishop Cutheard, head of the community of St Cuthbert, to present them with substantial tracts of land. They received these in return for faithfulness and all due renders, and perhaps made good on this by participating in the battle of Corbridge against King Rægnald. Unfortunately they were on the losing side: Eadred lost his life, and Elfred was put to flight once more.

I’m drawn to South’s conclusion (2002, 105-106) that the inconsistencies surrounding the date of the battle at Corbridge are the fault of the author in terms of how they understood the source material, and that this might have arisen because he was working well over a century after the events described in the chapters. Naturally, it doesn’t work as well for Crumplin’s interpretation of these chapters being written much closer to the events in question. Even so, it need not preclude the supposition that at least one of the sources utilised was relatively long and detailed (at least when compared to a line in a genealogy!) given all the little bits of information provided about Elfred and Eadred.

By way of possible analogues, I’ve been reminded of some of the lengthy OE memoranda of the later 10th century, some of which survive as single sheets, e.g. S 1447 of circa 968, which reports all manner of background details in addition to the “real” business of the tenure of the estates of Sunbury and Send (Surrey). Even if equivalent lost documents did provide most of the information for chapters 22 and 24, could they have contained the OE phrases *Elfred Brihtwulfing and *Eadred Ricsiging? This is unknowable, of course, but conceivable. A comparable memorandum from Kent, S 1458 of circa 995, includes reference to a man named Ælfstan Heahstaninc, showing -ing3 name constructions were used in 10th-century vernacular memoranda. Interestingly, other elite father-and-son combos are mentioned in both chapters in phrases lacking any sign of -ing3 endings: Aldredi filii Eadulfi (‘Ealdred son of Eadwulf’) and Esbrido filio Edred (‘Esbrid, the son of Eadred’: South 2002, 60-63, 106). It need not follow from this that means more than one source was used; S 1458 also includes multiple examples of a man being identified as the son of another man through use of OE sunu.

My final example is much briefer. Also from the reign of Edward the Elder (899-924), and found in the same chapter as the story of the murderous Eadred, it is as follows:

Chapter 24: Wulfheardus filius Hwetreddinci [O] / Hwetorddinci [C] / Huecreddinci [L] (‘Wulfheard son of Hwetredinc’: South 2002, 62, 63)

The above excerpt of text shows the scribe of the C manuscript in fact made a further error, misunderstanding and/or miswriting the latinised name-form Wulheardus as Wulfear dux (“duke Wulfear”). Whatever the faults in its textual transmission, there can be little doubt following the previous five examples that we have here yet another instance of the same formula, pointing to the same origin as an OE phrase *Wulfheard Hwetred(d)ing. If the attribution to Edward the Elder’s reign is accurate, this would place it just beyond the latest attested men of the name Hwætred (according to the PASE database).

It is worth adding that this final example forms part of a single sentence, effectively a self-contained statement which goes on to record that Wulfheard gave to (the community of) St Cuthbert uillam quae uocatur Bynnewalle (‘the vill which is called Benwell’: South 2002, 63). Short and sweet it may be, but it provides all of the essential details: names of king at the time, donor, and holding in question. The record is pithy enough for me to think that it was drawn from an inscription in a book of the St Cuthbert’s community. South (2002, 6-8, building upon earlier work by Simon Keynes) posited that ‘it was the practice of the community to preserve its important “business records” by inscribing them in gospels and other treasured books’. Not all of these survive. Some do, and contain textual insertions of 10th- and 11th-century dates, while in other cases the books are lost but their secondary contents are known.

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Folio 11r of the Stockholm Codex Aureus with its added vernacular inscription, as seen in the British Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (a little bit more about it here on Twitter)

The -ing3 styling evidenced in the HSC is the same as adopted by secular elite witnesses in the 9th century, so why not do the same in the context of the written record (in the vernacular) of a benefaction? Perhaps in the cases of Elfred and Eadred, the information came not from single-sheet memoranda but extended narrative notes, a little like the famous note added to folio 11r of the Stockholm Codex Aureus (shown above) to record how Ealdorman Ælfred (of Surrey!), his wife Werburg and daughter Alhthryth paid a ransom to the “heathens” (i.e. vikings) who had stolen the gospel book and maybe others besides, and then gave them to Christ Church, Canterbury, receiving monthly prayers for their souls thereafter (S 1204a). All of this is squeezed into the top, bottom and (much more sparsely) right-hand side margins of the richly decorated page.

Discussion

There can be no doubt that the HSC represents an at-times clumsy synthesis of a multitude of sources, some but by no means all of which can be identified. It’s impossible to know if other “son of” phrases in the text represent translated or fully corrected original OE -ing3 constructions present in an earlier version (or even versions) of the HSC, but, given their distribution across different chapters pertaining to different centuries, I’d wager the six instances present in the extant text are the sum total.

There are grounds for seeing them as deriving from more than one source. The royal instances are unproblematically associated with the genealogies reproduced in CCCC MS 183 and maybe other works available to the author of the host chapters. The non-royal counterparts are harder to place. I’m not even sure they all derive from the same sort of source: Cineferth filius Cygings occurs a more overtly historical chapter, whereas the remaining three are at their cores records of changes in land tenure affecting the community one way or another. In this case, the former may derive from a vernacular history or hagiography, and the latter from memorandum documents or notes entered into blank spaces in a manuscript.

The trio of examples from chapters 22 and 24 relating to events that took place early in the 10th century might be telling in terms of the production of some kind of new manuscript or standardised recording procedure in an existing one that informed the author of this part of the HSC. Here again, the inability to understand a pretty basic bit of OE and hence to knock off the -ing ending as part and parcel of converting them to Latin phrases is conducive to thinking these chapters of the HSC as we have them were either composed or reworked a considerable length of time after the early 900s.

What the above has shown most clearly is that the distortion of the OE patronymic formula has meant a number of personal names have been misidentified by scholars. Thus, the PASE entries for Cygincg and Hwetreddinc are in effect “ghosts”, and the underlying evidence should be treated instead as pertaining to further bearers of the names Cyga and Hwætred respectively. The name spellings have also got me wondering if there might be some chronological significance to the -inc- as opposed to -ing- spellings, one being earlier than the other. BUT… I’ve also started to think that some of those -inci endings, when rendered with the final downward stroke, might actually stand for distortions of -ing ones found in earlier manuscripts of the HSC. Of course, to have any degree of confidence in such as suspicion would require much greater competence with palaeography than I can ever hope to possess, so I’ll let the matter rest here (unless those who know about such things would like to offer their opinions).

Revisiting the dating(s) and textual history of the HSC

And what might all of this signify in terms of the dating of the compilation of the HSC? To follow South’s reading of the HSC as a complete work by one author and one writing campaign, could the repeated misunderstanding of -ing3 constructions indicate it was written after the formula had fallen out of active use? On the other hand, if we accept Crumplin’s arguments for multiple stages of writing and reworking, with two major “pre-West Saxon” and “West Saxon” parts, the former earlier than the latter, a different question must be posed. This is because the name constructions occur in both parts (three in each, in fact). Could this betoken a late episode of emendation across the entire text?

Tengvik (1938, 140-46) traced a large number of OE patronymic bynames ending in -ing, although favoured many in fact to be nicknames. He was probably wrong on this point, at least in the majority of cases – as was often the case in Swedish names scholarship of the 1930s, most of the names are seen to have meant “fat, corpulent” (make of that what you will). Tengvik’s earliest example came from the 8th century, his latest from the 12th century. In other words, the period in which such name formations can be demonstrated to have been in use overlaps with the period during which the HSC was composed. However, none of his examples comes from any further north than Nottinghamshire (he did cite Cineferth filius Cygings/Cygincg but as one using Latin filius in place of OE sunu: Tengvik 1938, 147). The sample is too small to be confident whether this is a factor of patterned regional usage, relevant documentary survival, or the scope of Tengvik’s research.

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Not boring! Ealdwulf Bosing, “high-reeve”, in the annal for 778 of the mid-11th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS D: London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, fol. 25r

The misunderstood -ing3 patronymic constructions are common to all extant copies of the HSC. South presents the justification for his observation that ‘none of the three surviving texts has been copied from either of the others’ (2002, 26). He also highlights that the texts display some issues with correctly identifying certain insular letter-forms (2002, 25-26, 38-39), but in general OE personal and place-name spellings are reproduced competently. Crumplin’s postulated multiple-authored “non-West Saxon” and “West Saxon” parts of the HSC must also be factored in here. The fact that the texts that we have, and the lost final form we can perceive behind them, show such trouble with these names, even the examples pertaining to events in the reign of Edward the Elder, does to my mind count against ascribing any of the received wordings/phrasings to the early to mid-10th century. 

To go the other way, it’s not impossible to believe that one or more member of the Cuthbertine community involved in the production of the lost final form of the HSC from which the O manuscript was copied was not an OE speaker. They may have been a skilled and faithful copyist of Norman origin, caught out only by a handful of OE idioms and insular letter-forms. Addition of filius could have been done by a OE speaker ironing out any non-Latin “inconsistencies” in the text, but it would be expected (particularly given the temporal spread of Tengvik’s aforementioned name data) that the -ing endings would be deleted as they were redundant. South (2002, 8-9) identifies a marked upswing in the production of ‘historical and hagiographical’ works at Durham in the 50 years after the Norman Conquest, also coinciding with the commencement of the rebuilding of the cathedral church under the new Norman bishop, William of St Calais.

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Durham cathedral, commenced by Bishop William of St Calais, still dominating the scene in this photo I took in mid-October 2015

In these circumstances, it’s conceivable that an earlier manuscript of the HSC was glossed with Latin filius to aid comprehension by any non-OE-speaking reader, all instances of which were subsequently misunderstood as corrections of errors whereby the word explaining the father-son relationship of the two named men had been left out. Maybe I’m being naive as someone who’s not a manuscripts person, but the fact six such glosses made it through into text as we have it might indicate these were then accepted and copied into a lost late 11th-century manuscript that was the exemplar for the earliest extant copy of the HSC. Alternatively, it could even be the case that the glosses were accepted without question by the scribe of the O manuscript. Thanks to the great kindness of Dr Charlie Rozier, I have been able to see images of some of the folios of MS Bodley 596, and the way in which the texts of the relevant passages are written displays no stylistic differentiation whatsoever between the Latin and (originally) OE words that might support either of these scenarios.

A simpler alternative would be that filius was added in-text at the time a new exemplar copy was being produced in the post-Conquest period, i.e. the final third of the 11th century. Indeed, this could be taken a stage further, by positing that the first such copy was the earliest extant HSC manuscriptThings becomes all the more interesting so far as the latter suggestion is concerned when it is acknowledged that there seems to be widespread acceptance of the identification of the scribe of the oldest surviving copy as Symeon of Durham (see South 2002, 15, 16). Unfortunately, I’m not equipped to explore the implications of this, and this post has gone on for far too long already, so maybe this is something I’ll revisit one day.

Conclusion

Contrary to what I thought when I began writing this blog post, the six mangled examples of the OE -ing3 patronymic formula in the HSC probably tell us nothing about its date or dates of composition. They do reveal, or at least hint at, the types of vernacular sources used by the author(s) of the relevant chapters. One of these sources may survive (CCCC MS 183), whereas for others even the basic type of text (e.g. genealogy, charter, memorandum) can only be guessed at. More to the point, regardless of the date when the HSC was commenced and the sources used in writing it, the recurrence of the OE name + filius + OE name ending -ing formula has all the hallmarks of a late introduction to the text. They point towards a more complicated history of textual annotation and/or transmission in the later 11th century, almost certainly in the post-Conquest period. Therefore, rather than proving that use of OE patronymic -ing formations was on the wane in these decades, they may reflect a shift in the make-up of the St Cuthbert’s community, and the linguistic knowledge of its new Norman members.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked when available for free online)

Dumville, David N., ‘The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists’, Anglo‑Saxon England, 5 (1976), 23-50

Crumplin, Sally, Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries, unpublished University of St Andrews PhD thesis (2004)

Grey, A. H., ‘Historical figure profile: King Ricsige of Northumbria’, A H Grey (2013), online at <https://ahgray.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/historical-figure-profile-king-ricsige-of-northumbria/> (accessed 11th March 2019)

Pickles, Thomas, ‘Locating Ingetlingum and Suthgedling: Gilling West and Gilling East’, Northern History, 46:2 (2009), 313-25 [pre-publication version without published pagination available here]

Plummer, Charles, Venerabilis Baedae: Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, Historiam abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgberctum, una cum Historia abbatum auctore anonymo (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1896)

Smith, A. H., English Place-Name Elements, Part 1 (Á–Īw), English Place-Name Society, 25 (Cambridge: University Press, 1956)

South, Ted Johnson, ed., Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, Anglo-Saxon Texts, 3 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002)

Tengivk, Gösta, Old English Bynames, Nomina Germanica, 4 (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri-A-B, 1938)

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Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Church, Dating, Documents, Genealogy, Hagiography, History, Language, Latin, Literature, Monasteries, Northumbria, Old English, PhD | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingston upon Thames: ‘Where England Began’, and bad history for good (and not-so-good) causes?

The following post follows on from this one, and concludes (for the time being at least) my look at Anglo-Saxon-period Kingston upon Thames that began with this paper.

Kingston upon Thames as a 21st-century town wears its “Anglo-Saxon” history more prominently and proudly than most, and not without good reason; it was demonstrably one of the most significant locales in South-East Britain in the later Anglo-Saxon period (broadly the 9th-11th centuries CE). But how does it commemorate and communicate this past?

The answer is – no big surprise here – in a variety of ways. As was highlighted in my previous post, Kingston has a superlative study of the town’s history in the form of Shaan Butters’ ‘That famous place’, which really engages with the early documentary sources rather than race through them as fast as possible (or ignore them altogether) because of, y’know, “Dark Ages” preconceptions. That book also draws upon the early medieval archaeology of the town, which has been more extensively excavated (and published!) than any other comparable urban centre in the historic Surrey county area. Some of the finds are on display, alongside items of early medieval metalwork and a log boat fished out of the Thames, in the very good Kingston Museum.

But Kingston is also in the habit of clinging on to much more poorly-evidenced stories, not least the astonishing persistence of the idea that the so-called Coronation Stone was an integral part of the coronation ceremonies known or otherwise suggested to have been held there in the tenth century. I had a little bit of a pop at this in my previous post through critical scrutiny of a video included on Where England Began, a fundraising website of the parish church of All Saints, Kingston (aka ASK).

Here, I want to take aim at the approach that seems to be at the heart of Where England Began (which, for the purposes of a couple of plays on words, we’ll call WEB) – although it is anything but unique to it – namely, history being interpreted and presented in a very skewed way in order to “sell” a particular cause to a wide(r) audience. WEB is the online platform for the project to restore the parish church building (completed) and moving the Coronation Stone from its present, slightly out-of-the-way location to a more prominent one in All Saints’ churchyard, next to a new community centre building (yet to be commenced, and with the precise future site of the stone seemingly still not 100% certain). Just to be clear before I go any further, I have no issue whatsoever with the project itself; a fantastic job has been done in the restoration of the church, and the next phase again looks like a laudable undertaking.

A WEB of lies?

It was in the process of running an initial online search for information relevant to my post on the so-called Coronation Stone that I came across a number of local media articles dealing with the yet-to-be-realised plan to move the stone to a new site by the largely-medieval parish church in the centre of Kingston. If memory serves, this led me to find first the page titled ‘Where England Began’ on the ASK website, and very quickly thereafter the separate, eponymous fundraising site. On the welcome page of the latter you can find the following potted history of 9th- and 10th-century Kingston:

‘In 838 King Egbert of Wessex held a Great Council in Kingston and helped to cement the relationship between Crown and Church which has shaped our national history to the present day. In the tenth century the first Kings who can be called Kings of England were anointed and crowned in Kingston in a predecessor of the present church – Kingston crowned Kings before Westminster Abbey was built.’

So much of this is comprised of dubious or outright incorrect readings of the relevant evidence that it’s worth unpacking point by point:

  • Yes, there was a major council held at Kingston in 838 (hence S 1438 and just possibly S 281); ‘Great Council’ might be over-egging it a little, though. Also, it was attended by Ecgberht and his son Æthelwulf (ruler of a big chunk of West Saxon territory) as equals – the record of the agreement styles the two men as “kings” (Ecgberht et Aetheluulf reges).
  • Maybe it was significant in forging better relations between the crown and the Church, but it’s worth playing close attention to the judgement of the most recent editors of S 1438 that ‘the essential business of the council was to sort out a modus vivendi between the Canterbury archdiocese […] and the new rulers of England south of the Thames’ (Brooks and Kelly 2013, 657). So I don’t know if it can be said to have been an event of lasting national significance. Nor should we discount the lasting contributions in this regard of previous and subsequent major council meetings (a subject about which I know precious little so encourage you to do your own research – perhaps using Cubitt 1995 as a starting point – and form your own judgement).
  • Yes, there was a church at Kingston in the 10th century (or at least by the latter part of the century), and it probably was on the site of ASK. As was noted by St Lawrence Finny (1943, 1), the coronation ordo used in the late 10th century mentions a church on two occasions. One of these is at the point when the new king was led to the church from from the witan, who were presumably gathered outside in the open air, so it was not the sole theatre for the ceremony. An OE version of this text is prefaced with the statement that it was copied verbatim from an earlier version ‘which Archbishop Dunstan gave to our lord at Kingston’ (æt Cingestune) and was used in at least one coronation ceremony there in the 970s (Keynes 2018, 300-301). Joan Wakeford (1985, 109) hammered the final nail in the coffin of old notions that St Mary’s Chapel was the theatre for the coronations by observing that this was incompatible with the mid-11th-century dating of its first phase, and in the absence of any other obvious candidates, ASK best fits the bill. However, the only physical evidence that can be linked to a Late Anglo-Saxon-period minster on the site of ASK is not architectural, rather a chunk of probably late 10th-/11th-century cross-shaft. [This has really piqued my interest as the documentary evidence for a church in Kingston in the 10th century has gone largely unnoticed and so I reckon deserves much fuller exploration by means of another blog post!]
  • No, Kingston was not the coronation site for all 10th-century English kings; Edgar’s coronation took place at Bath in 973, which may have been after Westminster Abbey was built.

Continue a little deeper into the WEB site (geddit?) and you will find uncritical retellings of the history of the 10th-century coronations at Kingston (yup, seven of them again) and of the provenance of the Coronation Stone (‘The Stone may have originally been kept in the Saxon Chapel of St Mary’).

Are we seriously to believe, following the implication of Where England Began, that it was because Æthelstan was crowned at Kingston that he achieved a new political relationship with the British kings who met him at Eamontbridge in 927, thereby effectively marking the creation of England as a polity, an achievement reinforced a decade later by his famous victory at the battle of Brunanburh (Dumville 2018, 71-73)? Give me strength. Why is the same not said of the place where he was conceived? Or born? (Answer: neither of these locations is known, so far as I can establish.) Or the place where he first learnt of the death of his father, Edward, thereby triggering the succession so that he became king? It’s not hard to see the logic at play here, but by the same token nor is it hard to see the very shaky basis for arguing for the political advent of the English nation-state occurring at an event (and by extension a place) which was not specifically held in order to achieve such a goal.

I don’t know who wrote the texts for WEB. Perhaps it was a lay parishioner in more than one sense of the word. The title of this sub-section isn’t to be taken literally – I’m pretty certain the author wasn’t deliberately penning falsehoods despite knowing better. But we are talking here about an unusually well-connected church and congregation, able to attract big-name historians and figures in the broader heritage sphere to the cause, so it’s not like it doesn’t have the option to hand of being able to tap into relevant expertise. All of which just adds to my frustration/concern that the Where England Began campaign is trying to do a good thing in part by using bad history, or perhaps that should be using history badly, despite the evidence being available and the story it would tell being scarcely less compelling.

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Æthelstan in Kingston: A ceramic (?) version of the famous frontispiece of the presentation copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert, featuring the king himself, currently attached to an external wall of the Eden Walk shopping centre (more about the original manuscript here).

Not that they are the first to make this mistake…

The beginnings of “where [insert name] began”

I can’t recall the first time I encountered this topos of a nation “beginning/being born at a particular place”, but I certainly do remember the first time I pushed back against it. Sometime in 2017 I saw Tom Holland, writer and broadcaster of things of a historical nature, had tweeted that the Government’s current preferred Stonehenge Tunnel design threatened to destroy Blickling Mead, a site of proven multi-period archaeological significance, “where Britain began”. The latter claim was such bollocks from a variety of standpoints (key amongst them being that Britain did not “begin” at Blickling Mead either geographically or politically) that I tweeted back, and duly we got into an extended debate which lasted most of the rest of that day.

At the back end of last year, I saw that he was back doing precisely the same thing again, and the flimsiness of his premise and misguidedness of his rationale being laid bare very quickly by a couple of leading archaeologists:

What I found most troubling was/is Holland’s willingness to deploy a wanton historical falsehood in order to advance his cause, especially at a time when patriotic/nationalistic sentiments stirred up by Brexit have taken on an ever-more extreme character. When I (and others) challenged him on this point, he professed obliviousness and scepticism about the suggestion that there was any possibility of his humble tweet having any ill-effect through people buying into a false version of British (pre)history. National myth was being created and propagated before our very eyes, and its author – ‘the leading author on the ancient world’, according to his website – saw (and evidently continues to see) no harm in this so long as it gained some more signatures for the petition against the tunnel.

Playing politics with the past

So, Brexit. To my mind, it is founded in no small measure upon the idea of a future based upon a return to past glories, one that chooses to ignore the inconvenient fact that the world has moved on (if the good old days ever existed in the first place) and so the promise of “sunlit uplands” or whatever is almost certainly unobtainable. As the likely reality of it all becomes ever clearer, in particular the suite of negative impacts upon daily life (but *yay* for all that extra sovereignty), so proponents have had to double-down on the references to episodes from national history, more often than not to erroneous and misleading effect. This piece by Anoosh Chakelian summed up excellently the general state of play in that regard as of late summer of last year, and this essay by Richard J Evans did the same for last autumn (although doubtless they have become outmoded by more recent consequence-free Brexiteer maulings of the fundaments of British and European history).

These days, when an incorrect historical claim comes out of the mouth or from the pen of a Brexit-supporting politician, you never know if it’s done on purpose or just out of ignorance. Here’s a not-atypical example from last summer:

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Erm …. NO

Let’s bypass discussion of the metrics of stability and success to focus on a minister within the UK Government getting Great Britain & Northern Ireland (est. 1922) confused with England (est. 927). Of course, she’s not the first to do so, and the positive direct quotation of her words by a fella with an England flag in his screen name (alongside, irony of ironies, St Patrick’s Saltire) speaks volumes about the historical illiteracy/myopia of Brexit-dominated current political discourse.

If you’ve read this far and are thinking to yourself “But Rob, you can’t seriously be telling me that bigots buy into such nonsense and repeat it to pernicious effect”, well, wake up – it’s 2019! You have been on the internet lately? Although certainly coloured to a degree by my personal opinion on the issue (Brexit is BAD), I do get the strong sense that just behind the front of fervent patriotic zeal projected by many Brexit supporters lies a core of xenophobia, racism, and bigotry against others not conforming to views of what counts as being traditionally “British”. I’m sure I wouldn’t have to go very far through some Google search results to find some hands-down distasteful takes, but I want neither my search history nor my mental health to be stained by such horrors.

Instead, I’d like to change tack a little and direct your attention to this brilliant blog post written last year by Fran Allfrey and Beth Whalley, two KCL PhD students, off the back of two workshops with primary school children as part of the ‘A Spot Called Crayford’ project. About halfway through it deals with a number of interlocking issues to do with the (Upper) White Horse Stone, an absolute unit of a sarsen (possibly once part of a prehistoric megalithic monument, most likely a Neolithic chambered long barrow) in mid-Kent. One sub-section considers the adoption of the monument in recent years by a group of Odinic Rite members, who call themselves The Guardians of the White Horse Stone. The website’s not been updated for a while so I can’t say for certain whether the group’s still a going concern. What stands out nonetheless is the conclusion to its page about the history and folklore of the Stone (I added the bold formatting for emphasis):

‘Whatever the truth, the White Horse Stone has, for many, come to be the symbolic birthplace of the English nation and for Odinists and other Germanic heathens it represents the coming to these lands of their faith and their Gods.’

These many people may or may not include the Guardians; the group’s website is rather opaque on this point. I have to tread carefully here, given what I’m going to suggest. I don’t detect the same degree of white supremacism in the Guardians’ ethos and actions as do the authors of the blog I’ve linked above. However, it’s not hard to see that the intersection of religious and historical beliefs embodied in the quotation above provides a space, a grey area, in which things can become elided and confused and extrapolated to extremes, particularly for those at a remove from the group itself.

You may have heard of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group franchise for meatheads that’s spread around the world since its beginnings in Finland in the latter part of 2015. As this report by the Anti-Defamation League highlights, in the US, a ‘large number of members and supporters of the Soldiers of Odin clearly identify as Norse pagans’, at least via their Facebook profiles (page 7; note it also highlights Odinism as a ‘racist or white supremacist’ variant of Ásatrú, or heathenry). Let me be clear; membership of/adherence to the Odinic Rite does not make you tantamount to a Soldier of Odin. Moreover, so far as I can glean from its website, members the Guardians of the White Horse Stone don’t espouse virulent racist and xenophobic sentiments. But, in this time of the rise of the Far Right and ultra-nationalism in this country, the repetition of the belief that the White Horse Stone was the “birthplace” of England/the English is problematic and, at the very least, a more unequivocally-worded statement debunking the idea of would not have gone amiss.

My hope is a similar approach will also be taken with any future explanatory panel/pamphlet texts for the Coronation Stone once it makes its move to the new community centre site (to anyone at ASK reading this; I’d be glad to help with this F.O.C.). It is clear from the coins left by people on and around the stone, as well as its prominence in contemporary popular digests of the town’s history, that it is seen as more than an odd lump of rock leftover from the days of (very) early Kingston. Uncritical perpetuation of the myth of the Coronation Stone being just that could create a physical focal point for any individual or group who wishes to misappropriate Kingston’s early royal role in the name of English/British nationalism. Perhaps I am being overcautious, but just as it’s not so hard to reach for a reference book (or reach out to an expert) in order to get your facts straight, so it’s not that hard to make clear what is and is not credible about the history of a monument like the Coronation Stone or the White Horse Stone. This isn’t about not trusting people to reach their own conclusions; it’s about giving them the accurate information with which to do so.

Conclusions

I’ll start wrapping up this post by highlighting something I’ve just remembered from my first visit to Kingston in the Spring of 2017. In All Saints’ Church is a display about the history of Kingston that includes a panel with the subheading “Where England Began”. Also on display at the time was a poster advertising a forthcoming lecture by a prominent figure with something to say about Kingston and its history. And who was that person? Tom Holland, of course.

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Excerpt from the permanent town and church history display in All Saints’, Kingston. Note the further inflation of the potential number of kings crowned there to EIGHT!

England did not begin at Kingston, nor at the White Horse Stone, and Britain was not born at Blickling Mead. As if the rationale behind such emphatic statements to the contrary wasn’t clear enough already, Mr Holland has done us the service of spelling out that history and archaeology are being (mis)used to sell a cause, by appealing to people’s subjective emotions in order to gather signatures to a petition or a few quid in donations. Everyone will have an opinion on the level and nature of real harm that this represents, but at best it all feels pretty grubby.

Maybe sticking to my principles and expecting the facts to be allowed to speak for themselves means that I’m missing the first rule of advertising, and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the brand or campaign. But, to my mind, if your campaign can only survive off the back of deploying and repeating demonstrable falsehoods, perhaps it’s time to a closer look not so much at whether you’re selling something for the right reasons, but whether you’re selling the right thing in the first place.

REFERENCES

Brooks, N. P., and S. E. Kelly, eds., Charters of Christ Church Canterbury, Part 1, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 17 (Oxford: University Press, 2013)

Butters, Shaan, ‘That famous place’: a history of Kingston upon Thames (Kingston upon Thames: Kingston University Press, 2013)

Cubitt, Catherine, Anglo-Saxon Church Councils, c. 650-c. 850 (Leicester: University Press, 1995)

Dumville, David N., ‘Origins of the Kingdom of the English’ in Writing, Kingship and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Rory Naismith and David A. Woodman (Cambridge: University Press, 2018), 71-121

Keynes, Simon, ‘The Old English coronation oath’, in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, ed. by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London: British Library, 2018), 300-301 

St Lawrence Finny, W. E., ‘The church of the Saxon coronations at Kingston’, SyAC, 48 1943), 1-7

Wakeford, Joan, ‘The Royal Portraits formerly at Kingston upon Thames’, SyAC, 76 (1985), 109-113

 

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Charters, Church, Folklore, History, Politics, Soapbox | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kingston upon Thames, the Coronation Stone, and digging a bit deeper to get past the nonsense

Not for the first time, what started as a modest but interesting idea that popped into my head and that I thought could be fleshed out a little through a “quick blog” has ballooned into something much, much larger. So, this is the first of two “twin” posts discussing offshoots from and perspectives on my recent research into Kingston upon Thames, and how it commemorates its early medieval past. It serves as something of a scene-setter, but also a lot more than that; the second is a shorter and more polemical piece. Make yourself comfortable and begin!

I started thinking about the subject of this post when I was in Switzerland, on the first weekend of August, and an unexpectedly relaxing long weekend away (due in no small measure to it being far too hot to do anything active other than swimming). I took myself down something of a necessary wormhole of some of the more extreme medieval-tinged content available online, from the dubious outputs of a self-described historian and film-maker (apparently a sometime-Surrey resident) with a weird penchant for how great things supposedly were back in the early Anglo-Saxon period, to an interminable egotist-authored, school newspaper-quality “profile” of what’s been going on in medieval studies in recent years, one I’m glad to say has since sunk without trace (much like its author’s financial security).

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A stupendously warm evening in Zurich, early August 2018

Four months later and I’m finishing writing with the British Library’s much-hyped Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition in full flow. Billed as a “once in a generation” show, I find its concurrence with the chaotic machinations of Brexit fascinating but also unsettling. It’s still not clear from all that I’ve read and heard about it what its narrative is regarding the formation of England, and of the English as a people. Are they told using the findings of current research, or (as per so much to do with the early medieval period) in a way that plays to its audience’s existing understanding of the subject matter, however basic and outmoded that may be? I’m going to say more about this issue in my next post, and I’m hoping to go to the exhibition in the next few weeks, so expect (or rather, don’t not expect – hell I wish I had more time to dedicate to this site) something about that in due course.

Although this post has evolved considerably in its breadth as I’ve written it intermittently over the past few months, at its heart has always been a desire to explore why, at times, people choose to believe demonstrable fiction over demonstrable fact. When it comes to manifestations of this in relation to the Middle Ages, all too often this arises out of a profound misconception of what we actually know (or can know) about whichever bit of the middles ages is under discussion, and a tendency to cleave to old ideas and cite only those people that propound and reinforce them. There’s so much wrong with medieval studies as currently configured that it’s easy to pick a target, highlight its shortcomings, and demand things should cease to be done in the current way with immediate effect. However, it’s one thing to demand that something outmoded is consigned to the dustbin, and quite another another to do so in concert with suggesting a replacement to institute in its place. The former is something you see more often and, while understandable and not without merit, does leave me feeling a little dissatisfied.

What I want to do here, while adhering to the latter approach, is nothing very earth-shattering. Simply, I wish to make the case for a new reading of the so-called Coronation Stone in Kingston upon Thames, one that is a good deal less lustred than the traditional interpretation I shall reject in the process, but that is more firmly rooted in an objective reassessment of the evidence so far as it exists or otherwise is recorded.

Introducing the Kingston Coronation Stone

You can find the Coronation Stone sandwiched in a corner of the grounds of Kingston’s Town Hall (formerly Guildhall) between the High Street and the Hogsmill River. It’s set on a heptagonal granite plinth, behind chunky sky blue iron railings in between pillars topped with spears. The plinth bears the names of the seven kings it was/is claimed were crowned at Kingston in the 10th century CE, each spelled out in metallic “Old English” capital letters. This ensemble was created in 1850, and has continued a longer tradition of the stone peregrinating around Kingston town centre for more than a century earlier than that date. A modern metal plaque (late 20th century, at a guess) gives a description of the ensemble and a potted history of the stone, including the statement that ‘this stone was used during the ceremony of coronation by seven Saxon kings of England, who were crowned at Kingston upon Thames’.

Somewhat innocuous location aside, the structures under and around the stone make it look a good deal more impressive than it actually is — a grey-coloured, large-but-not-massive boulder. Were it to rest on or significantly closer to the ground than it does right now, it would have a decidedly underwhelming physical presence. In other words, its 19th-century setting – even if it is now relegated to the corner of the grounds of a municipal building – goes a long way to physically and metaphorically elevate it up to a level to which it arguably does not belong.

Separating facts from conjectures

It might seem like this ostentatious steading means the Coronation Stone has been a feature of the settlement landscape of Kingston since time immemorial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thanks to a number of post-medieval antiquarian accounts, and analyses of them by recent historians, we know a few salient facts about the stone, but also some speculations that have been elided with them (Butters 2013, 42-44, is now my go-to overview, and the source of what follows). Perhaps the key indisputable fact is that it is absent from all of the works in which it would be expected to be mentioned until publications of the mid-1790s (more on these in a bit), when direct references were made to:

‘a large stone, on which, according to tradition, they [i.e. new kings] were placed during the ceremony.’

These sources place the stone on the north side of All Saints’ Church, reputedly in the vicinity of the site of the demolished medieval chapel of St Mary. However, the foundations of the chapel were found on the south side of the church in 1926. It is possible something is amiss with our earliest relevant sources, and that north and south were confused in print back in the 1790s, but there is no independent evidence for the presence of the stone to the south of the church. It is tempting to follow Shaan Butters in her assessment of the situation; ‘it is a reasonable assumption that the stone had something to do with the chapel’ (2013, 43). But this reading rests on no more than an assumption, one that has not been tested as much as it ought to have been. This post, among other things, will offer a deeper, more critical evaluation of the scanty evidence that underlies it.

St Mary’s Chapel is known to us not only in written accounts, but also reasonably accurate engravings made in 1726. This is especially fortunate as, a mere four years later, the chapel was no more – demolished in the wake of its collapse as the result of one too many graves being dug inside or immediately adjacent to its walls. For a long time, the chapel was held to be a pre-Norman Conquest edifice, but has since been reassessed as having a greater likelihood of being slightly later in date, perhaps of the late 11th century (see Hawkins 1998, 277). Thing is, it’s dawned on me that what we see depicted in 1726 represented at least three phases of construction, with the lancet windows and majority of the masonry having an appearance consistent with a late 12th- or early 13th-century date; only the blocked and truncated west doorway can be positively suggested to have been earlier fabric.

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The 1726 engravings: St Mary’s Chapel as it was at the time (the ‘Modern Porch’ was actually built in the Tudor period) and, more remarkably, a reconstruction of ‘the Ancient Form of the Building’. Taken from Hawkins 1998, 274 Figure 2.

Popular and unpopular opinions

I’ve long been aware of the Coronation Stone and its somewhat dubious pedigree, but had little cause to consider it at any great length until the past year or so, when Kingston became first an object of my research interest and then (separately) my place of work. I pass the Coronation Stone most weekdays now, rarely paying it much heed beyond a short glance in its direction, but ever so gradually the question “What was it?” has grown greater in my mind.

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A view of the top of the Coronation Stone showing what may have been fancied to be its seat-like top. Note the coins = offerings to the Anglo-Saxon kings?

It’s not hard to see why the stone has been claimed to be some kind of repurposed throne. The way it’s presented nowadays (and has been since the 1850s, it would appear) means that its uppermost face is akin to a dished “seat”, just right for a royal posterior… Nevertheless, it doesn’t look much like a frith-stool, such as the Anglo-Saxon-period examples that survive at Hexham Abbey and Beverley Minster (nor, for what it’s worth, like the later example from Sprotborough in South Yorkshire). Likewise, you’d have a hard time squaring its modern form with any of the depictions of royal thrones found in manuscripts or embroidery of the tenth and eleventh centuries. But the coronations + stone = Coronation Stone formula has proven remarkably tenacious.

On the welcome page of Where England Began (set up to support ongoing fundraising efforts for All Saints’ Church, Kingston) is an embedded YouTube video featuring no less than Prof Sarah Foot stating categorically that Æthelstan was crowned upon the Coronation Stone (a little over 1 minute 40 seconds in). Which is a bit strange, since Foot has previously looked at Kingston and the Coronation Stone in her celebrated biography of Æthelstan. In that book, Foot offers, well, a historian’s take on matters; so, for example, the hypothesis of the stone being the last survivor of a stone circle gets a fairly positive citation despite the complete absence of any credible correlates in the region (Foot 2011, 245). Crucially, however, she doesn’t go so far as to claim in print that the Coronation Stone represents the ceremonial focus of the tenth-century coronation ceremonies at Kingston.

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Screen grabbing from YouTube is a nightmare – watch the actual video for the full effect

There’s a marked divergence between how the Coronation Stone is understood by, on the one hand, the public at large, and how it is viewed by historians and archaeologists on the other. It’s recognised by many who fall into the latter bracket that the Coronation Stone is unlikely to be, well, an Anglo-Saxon-period “coronation stone”. That this is not the line of interpretation found on the ASK website, for example, speaks volumes about how wild and sometimes ridiculous ideas have been allowed to go unchecked until the last 20 years or so. Since then, critical review of the historiography of the Coronation Stone has been done, and done very well, more than once.

The first detailed consideration of the evidence that I encountered was published by Duncan Hawkins in 1998. He provides a useful overview of the antiquarian accounts pertaining to the coronations at Kingston, and in doing highlights the comparatively late entry of what would become known as the Coronation Stone into the picture. His analysis is particularly useful for its reading of the passage in the 1793 edition of The Ambulator that comprises the first direct reference to the stone, which proves the tradition linking it to the coronations of the 10th century went back into the 18th century, but maybe not before 1730 and the collapse of St Mary’s Chapel at Kingston. He ends with the following conclusion:

‘Presumably the ‘kings stone’ was in fact nothing more than part of the fabric of St Mary’s Chapel.’ (Hawkins 1998, 275)

This interpretation has been taken up in an even more thorough analysis proffered by Shaan Butters in her extraordinary book ‘That famous place’: A history of Kingston upon Thames, published in 2013. As local history books go, it’s awesome – like a Framing the Middle Ages for a small corner of south-west London – so much so that I snapped up a copy for the purposes of writing this and future bits of research.

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Butters does not simply rehash or paraphrase the previous objective analyses by the likes of Hawkins, but expands the scope to evaluate the possibilities for what the Coronation Stone originally was, and what it became (Butters 2013, 42-44). Especially useful is her dismissal of John Speed’s 1627 reference to ‘the chaire of Majestie, wherein Athelstan, Edwin and Ethelred sate at their coronation’ as having anything to do with the stone (Butters 2013, 44). This contradicts a lot of 19th- and earlier 20th-century writings, not to mention what is asserted on the metal plaque attached to the plinth beneath the stone, but is a clear-eyed reading of Speed’s words, and surely the correct one.

In view of this, I am happy to accept the conclusion Butters draws from it (and John Leland’s earlier Reformation-era reference), namely that there is not a shred of evidence for the Coronation Stone being of any significance whatsoever in Kingston in the 16th or 17th centuries. Contrast this with the bountiful records of the London Stone, stretching all the way back to the start of the 12th century (as charted by Clark 2010, 39-41). We must consider it highly likely, therefore, that the Coronation Stone was not a prominent feature of the urban topography of Kingston during the Middle Ages and in the centuries that followed.

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A bizarrely dramatic view of the Coronation Stone (photographer and date unknown), featured in a permanent display at Kingston Museum

Butters, like Hawkins, sees the reported spatial association between the stone and St Mary’s Chapel as a meaningful one. Amongst the more credible explanations she entertains is that the stone ‘could have been imported as Saxo-Norman building stone’ –although she immediately caveats this by opining that ‘such an ancient, massive stone’ surely had less prosaic, and perhaps instead numinous, qualities (Butters 2013, 44). This is very probably influenced by an early (and in places horribly racist) article by William Bell, based on a paper he gave in 1854, that was published in the very first volume of the Surrey Archaeological Collections, placing it in time shortly after the “elevation” of the Coronation Stone to its present ornate steading.

In amongst all the Victorian verbosity (oh boy does Bell go on and on…) and spurious numerological conjecture, the idea is proffered that the stone is, or rather came from, a ‘Morasteen’ equivalent to a now-lost stone circle with later recorded Swedish royal associations near Uppsala in Sweden (Bell 1858, 33-35). In short, Bell posited that ‘our Kingstone stone would be only one of a smaller circle of thirteen, surrounded by a larger outer girth of somewhat indefinite but frequent multiple of four’, and moreover – on the basis of an incorrect place-name etymology – that it came to Kingston from Runnymede (Bell, 1858, 40, 45). It’s such a horrendous article that I’ll leave it for anyone who is interested to read through it for themselves. For the rest, the important thing to keep in mind is the possibility that the stone was of prehistoric significance (cf. Johnson and Wright 1903, 63 and 116, for the interpretation that it was ‘a broken menhir’).

To be more specific

Shaan Butters gives what is in effect a state-of-the-art summation of present scholarly understanding of the Coronation Stone when observing the following:

‘It does, on balance, seem likely that the coronation stone had been used as building material in St Mary’s Chapel […] But this still leaves us with questions about the stone’s significance, and how it came to be in Kingston in the first place’ (Butters 2013, 44)

What I want to do here is take the discussion one step further, to develop Butters’ last postulation by proposing a specific origin for the Coronation Stone. To cut to the chase, my hypothesis is that the stone formed part of the foundations of St Mary’s Chapel, which would place it within a surprisingly large group of medieval churches and chapels marked out by this characteristic.

I first encountered such a stone at Stonor Park chapel in the Chilterns. The Stonor Park website claims ‘the original Chapel of the Holy Trinity was built in the late 13th Century on the site of a prehistoric Stone Circle’, a conclusion founded on how the south-east corner of the chapel ‘rests upon one of these mystical stones – a symbol of Christianity adopting the ancient site as its own’. If I’m not mistaken, the “mystical stone” in question is a sarsen boulder, one that projects externally in a very conspicuous fashion. Interestingly, the website also pedals a line about how Stonor is one of just three British (medieval) chapels that ‘have always been’ of Catholic denomination; in other words, another suspiciously “remarkable” story for which the supporting evidence is lacking.

The idea of making the link between a sarsen “foundation stone” (for want of a better term) and the Coronation Stone popped into my head upon contemplating the very similar dating of Old St Andrew’s, Kingsbury, not so many miles distant from Kingston in north-west London. When I visited a year or so ago, I noticed a big stone, perhaps a mite smaller in size than the Coronation Stone, lying beneath the south-west corner of the building. Somehow it escaped my notice that there is an even bigger slab-like stone beneath the church’s north-west corner! To those more observant than I, the two stones (which may or may not be sarsens) are basically every bit as visible externally as their cognate at Stonor. A word of caution though; what look to be recently-created or renovated brick gutters surround the feet of the walls externally, and have respected the stones in such a way that it is conceivable they may have served to uncover more of the stones than was ever visible previously.

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Boulder (looking more like ironstone than sarsen?) at the south-west corner of Old St Andrew’s, Kingsbury

My scouting around for other published London-area analogues has failed to find much thus far. Downriver from Kingston at Barnes, archaeological investigations in the wake of a major fire at St Mary’s church in 1978 identified multiple phases of growth from an original earlier 12th-century single-celled masonry structure. Among the remains of this first phase were two ‘large stones’, tentatively posited to have formed part of the church’s east wall (Cowie and McCracken 2011, 12; cf. 6 Fig. 5). These stones are of unspecified type, and of a smaller size than the Coronation Stone, so their relevance to this study is uncertain. Dan Secker, in a brand new article (albeit one that’s been on the internet in an earlier incarnation for a while now), draws attention to a squared-cornered ironstone ‘block’ in the foundation of the north-east corner of the late 12th-century tower of St Mary’s, Harrow. At less than 60cm in its east-west dimension, again it appears to be a little on the small side in comparison to the Coronation Stone (Secker 2017, 84-85 including Fig. 12). So, church archaeology from the London area, at least work of which I am aware, doesn’t add much.

In starting to look for possible explanations, it is true that Kingston and Kingsbury share the same first name-element, namely Cyninges, the genitive singular inflections of OE cyning ‘king’ (Mills 2010, 138, 139; note Cyngesbyrig 1003×1004 in S 1488, often cited as the earliest attestation of Kingsbury, is all but certain to pertain to land in St Albans and environs). Maybe there is a recurrent pattern to be observed here, a connection between sarsen stones, places associated with “Anglo-Saxon” royalty and church buildings, but I don’t buy it. I only know of and hence have instanced Kingsbury because I happened to walk past it last year. There could be (indeed, probably are) other instances in the Greater London area. Moreover, even if they are the only two, this is hardly a statistically-significant sample upon which to argue for a correlation.

Google sarsen stones and medieval churches, on the other hand, and you’ll find lots of examples from across southern and eastern England. There are seemingly very thorough local lists of sarsens (and more) in greater East Anglia and the city of Winchester, providing useful parallels to the Stonor Park chapel in the form of the stones poking out of the corners of churches such as St John’s Winchester (east end), Boxted in Essex (south-west corner), and Pakefield in Suffolk (?west tower). Then there are the blogs and websites that highlight other examples, like the sarsen boulders which can be viewed beneath the present floor surfaces of the churches at Alton Priors, Wiltshire, and Eversley in Hampshire. It is important to note that these last two examples are both situated within the footprints of the current church buildings, rather in their external wall foundations.

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Peek-a-boo: the sarsen boulder beneath floor level adjacent to the font towards the west end of St Mary’s, Eversley. Photo copyright of the British Earth and Aerial Mysteries Society/Ken Parsons, reproduced in good faith until such time as I make it to Eversley and take a snap of my own

I am also immensely grateful to Katy Whitaker for discussing the use of large sarsen stones in churches and sharing a snippet of her PhD dataset that hammers home just how many churches in Wiltshire and Hampshire contain or are otherwise closely associated with sarsens (including some very close to the Surrey border, like aforementioned Eversley and also Farnborough – where there’s even a suitably-named pub nearby). This is a subject that deserves MUCH more concerted study, and Katy’s current PhD research on the historical exploitation of sarsen should go some of the way towards achieving that (check out her artefactual blog for more sarsen stories). In the meantime, it is already abundantly clear that big sarsens (and boulders formed of other types of rock) are a not-uncommon feature of the foundations of medieval church and chapel buildings.

One thing that unites a lot of the sarsens in the areas mentioned above is their coincidence with tracts of chalk geology. This does not apply to Kingston, set on a gravel island in the middle of the Lower Thames Valley. Which invites the question; are sarsen stones capable of being found in a location like the Kingston ‘central island’ naturally, or did they have to be imported? As far as I can ascertain, the answer is – yes, probably. Sarsen is, according to, um, its Wikipedia entry, a kind of silicified sandstone formed in the last 23 million years by a multi-stage process involving the leaching of Lambeth Group sediments (a mix of gravels, sands, silts and clays that overlie the various formations of the Chalk group), followed by the cementing of the sandy elements, to form a dense, hard rock (a Cenozoic silcrete, to be precise) that formerly covered much of the area of southern England.

The Maultway sarsen

“The Kings Stone”, a hefty sarsen slab located beside The Maultway close to its junction with Red Road, Camberley, as seen on Google Streetview in September 2008

Sarsens are common on the sands of the Bagshot Beds, characteristic of north-west Surrey and adjacent areas. I’m not sure I’m permitted to divulge too many details of particular things I do as part of my job, but I think it’s okay to recount in general terms that not so long ago we received a report of the (re)discovery of the above sarsen boulder, said to be known locally as The Kings Stone, by a roadside near Camberley. According to the reporter, sarsens are frequently encountered in the course of roadworks in this part of Surrey, and a local blog has drawn attention to the nearby stones atop Curley Hill (alias High Curley) and on Brentmoor Heath. The lost Basing Stone, on record at least as far back as the mid-15th century (PNS, 153), may have been another example from the same area.

Several miles to the east, Wisley parish has been said to be the provenance of many sarsen ‘blocks’, including one used as the threshold of the porch protecting the main doorway into its 12th-century church (Ashington Bullen n.d., 4). Having no geological training, I don’t know if the formation process described above in concert with subsequent weathering and fluvial action could result in sarsen boulders at locations like Kingston further north and east in the Thames valley. Even if this is not the case, it has been demonstrated that there were sources of sarsen only a matter of miles away from Kingston. Moreover, it has also been shown that there is ample evidence both past and present for sarsen stones existing in locations without any need for their removal to a church, or the construction of one over them.

Taking a closer look at the archaeology of St Mary’s Chapel

Analogy is all well and good, but it can only get you so far. And in this case, that’s not very far at all. To really gauge the validity of my hypothesis, what is needed above all else is a much closer look at the archaeology of St Mary’s Chapel and how the results may or may not accommodate it being the provenance of the Kingston Coronation Stone. Understanding the archaeology of the chapel is not as straightforward as one might hope. Its site was relocated and “excavated” in October 1926 in a rather shonky bit of archaeology directed by W E St Lawrence Finny, a barrister by profession and in his day something of an all-round “Mr Kingston”. Be this as it may, his excavation report published the following year does provide a few pieces of credible information about the physical remains of the chapel building.

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Commemorative window in Kingston Museum, presented by W E St John Finny, in his capacity as Mayor AND Deputy High Steward of Kingston

Finny refers to uncovering wall foundations formed of ‘large flints somewhat loosely bonded together with lime mortar, not well mixed’ (1927, 217). This is born out by the 1726 illustrations of the chapel, which show rough, dark walling at the lowest levels. The much finer masonry above was identified by Finny as Reigate Stone; a plausible possibility, although it is not clear if this was based on excavated fragments or a deduction from the 1726 drawings (Finny 1927, 218). Nowhere does he mention sarsen being used as a building stone, although the relative brevity and vagueness of his reporting of the details of his excavations (even for the standards of his day – compare Lowther 1927) could account for this.

Finny provided some particularly interesting information about the corners of the chapel. Having reported that ‘the foundations of the four corners had fortunately escaped destruction’ (something not clear from the single plan accompanying the article text), he went on to state the following;

‘All the corner cut stones shown in Manning and Bray’s picture have disappeared, sold to a contractor at the destruction of the Chapel’ (Finny 1927, 218).

The results of the 1926 explorations, which seem to have entailed little more than “wall-chasing”, were not published to a sufficient level of detail to be certain that the Coronation Stone was not once located at one of the four corners of the chapel, and was separated from the cut quoin-stones at the time of its demolition. Furthermore, it is clear from the way the imposts of the blocked west doorway of the chapel are depicted in the old engraving that the ground level outside the chapel was considerably higher than when it was first built. Taking these points on board, it is still perhaps marginally better to err on the side of optimism and deduce that it was not in an analogous position to the stones at Kingsbury etc. Perhaps it was once secreted beneath the floor within the footprint of the chapel, as at Alton Priors and Eversley (much less likely in view of its dimensions is that it served as a doorway threshold such as at Wisley).

Finny 1927 Page 216

The ground plan of St Mary’s Chapel, Kingston, as reconstructed from the 1926 excavations, and published in Finny 1927, 216. Note that no indication is given of the sections of wall foundations uncovered in 1926, nor of the other locations investigated but that produced negative results.

Partly in the hope that it might appraise one or more liturgical text that helps to explain why large boulders were buried beneath the floors of churches, this autumn I read Helen Gittos’ superb Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England. It doesn’t, because no such text survives, but Gittos does cite certain things that are perhaps of some relevance here. In her discussion of rites for dedicating churches, she draws attention to the blessing of ‘the platform on which the church stood’, and extrapolates that this represented a sequential, symbolic “construction” from the foundations upwards. Certainly, the officiating bishop stood in the middle of the church to perform the blessing (Gittos 2013, 232). Could the stone have marked the middle of the chapel, and been associated with its dedication ceremony?

In material terms, Gittos (2013, 235-36) notes tiled pavements were important and sometimes hallowed features of late Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman-period churches. Finny uncovered a number of plain and originally glazed floor tiles that were subsequently identified as ‘identical with those found at Waltham Abbey, built by Harold, and very similar to the pre-Conquest floor tiles in St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate’ (1927, 217-18). Neither of these churches is among those mentioned by Gittos as being the provenance of late Anglo-Saxon-period polychrome relief tiles (2013, 235, also 237 Fig. 81), so it’s uncertain whether Finny’s tiles were of the same type. Even so, it could well be the case that the floor of St Mary’s Chapel was an important and meaningful feature of its first phase – and the same might the same be said of anything placed in the ground before the tiles were laid. Finny (1927, 217) was explicit that the earliest tiles he found ‘were laid upon a bed of lime mortar which rested on the virgin soil’, so if this was true of the entirety of the chapel’s internal floor area then it suggests the Coronation Stone served no structural purpose.

In the end, the limited extent of Finny’s investigations in turn limits what can be said with any degree of certainty about the hypothesis that the Coronation Stone once formed part of the foundations of St Mary’s Chapel.

A Prehistoric pre-history?

As has been touched upon already, the narrative of Christian succession of a “pagan” site is an exceptionally common one. All too often this is in spite of a lack of suitable evidence, but also in the context of no relevant archaeological work (in the broadest understanding of the term) having been undertaken that might discover such testimony. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence and all that… In Kingston’s case, as with so many of the sarsen-linked churches, a much greater time-depth going back millennia is often invoked, linking the stone with an otherwise completely destroyed prehistoric megalithic monument.

I don’t want to get into a chicken-or-egg discussion as to whether the Coronation Stone was brought to the site of St Mary’s Chapel, or whether the latter was built on top of it. The truth of this cannot be known. That it was a pre-existing feature of the so-called ‘central Kingston island’ is another matter; as Butters (2013, 56) posits, there exists the possibility that ‘the great sandstone boulder now known as the coronation stone was already on the island’ at the time of the chapel’s establishment, and thereby contributed to the numinous qualities of the location. Kingston was also the name of a Hundred, and it is likely that its meeting-place was in what later became the medieval town. It is noteworthy (though perhaps nothing more) that the Hundred immediately to the east was Brixton, OE Beorhtsiges-stān “Beorhtsige’s stone” > ((æt) brixges stane, (to) brixes stan in 1062: S 1036; Mills 2010, 33), implying a focal stone of unknown origin at its assembly site beside an old Roman road at Brixton Hill.

One way of looking at the situation is by comparing suburban Kingston and its surroundings with the much less built-up areas further south and west in Surrey. It has long been recognised that there are no indisputable prehistoric standing stones/megalithic monuments extant or on reliable record in Surrey, but several possibilities (in addition to the Kingston Coronation Stone) have been proposed all the same (as collated by Field and Cotton 1987, 81). Another instance, and a particularly intriguing one at that, is (to) þe stondinde stone ‘the standing stone’ mentioned in the bounds of Chobham probably composed in the mid/late 11th century and added to the much earlier text of S 1165; it may be recalled in the minor place-names Mainstone Hill and Bottom (Kelly 2015, 112, 114). Ultimately, however, none of these is especially convincing, including the instances north of the Downs once the sarsens of the Wisley and Camberley areas are invoked.

Shifting big rocks around would have been a hard job, but evidently it was one that was undertaken, and the reported presence of Reigate Stone as the main building material in the walls of St Mary’s Chapel (Finny 1927, 218) further underscores how stone was imported from considerable distances away when required – in this case from the southern foot of the North Downs ridge. And no matter many ecclesiastical buildings are held up as potential analogies to St Mary’s Chapel, it will always remain a possibility that the Coronation Stone had been introduced to the central Kingston island previously in connection with its function as a major early medieval assembly-place.

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A number of plaques and patches of reconstructed rubble foundations marking the extremities of St Mary’s Chapel as relocated by Finny and friends can be seen in the southern part of the churchyard of All Saints’, Kingston

To sum up, there are some “archaeological” signs that the Coronation Stone did not undergird one of the corners of St Mary’s Chapel prior to its partial collapse and consequent complete demolition, which may go some way towards bearing out the idea that it came from beneath the floor of the chapel (or may not, depending on personal opinion!). The fact that we have testimony for details of the interior of the chapel, but none whatsoever for the presence of the stone, would fit with it being an under-floor feature. If it was located centrally, this would naturally add to the interest of the stone and invite speculation as to the reason for its presence in that particular position; given what Finny says about what would appear to have been the original tiled floor resting on nothing more than a bed of lime mortar, it is hard to deduce a structural purpose for it being there, unless as the pad for a heavier feature above, such as an altar? That said, the deeply undistinguished history of the stone in the decades after its removal from the chapel site does suggest we should not feel too compelled to see a thread of continuity in the memory of exactly where the stone was discovered.

Conclusions

The more I looked at the subject of, well, let’s be honest, big old stones, the more I came to realise that the story attached to the Kingston Coronation Stone is not quite as remarkable as it might seem at first. Consider the so-called Soulbury Boot in Buckinghamshire. Depending on which source you trust, it’s lain on the same spot for either 11,000 or 450,000 years – quite a discrepancy, and it’s far from clear that either figure is based upon solid fact. This immense age nevertheless inspired incredible strength of opposition to the idea that it should be moved from its present, middle-of-the-road location to ease the passage of motor traffic (it ended up being “protected” by some painted white lines).

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The London Stone in its new home, December 2018

I mentioned the famous London Stone much earlier in this post. Considerable fanfare attended its temporary relocation to the Museum of London, and its very recent return to its previous (but not original) location has been equally prominent in various media. So, despite its much reduced size, arguably the London Stone has not been so much to the fore in the popular imagination since Jack Cade’s day (heck, it’s even on Twitter!) For all its credible documentary history, which stands in marked contrast to the Coronation Stone (and Soulbury Boot), it has also generated a body of fallacious legends and conjectures that are not easily distinguished from fact. Here again, we also find the lessons learnt from good scholarly work debunking some of the urban myths attached to the London Stone (as detailed in John Clark’s excellent 2010 article) not being applied more generally. It comes as little surprise, therefore, to find that recently an innocuous stone on a street corner in the City of London was put forward as a remnant of the demolished Ludgate.

Just as there’s a reflex in family history to find a compelling origin story, so there seems to be a desire for unexplained lumps of rock to be both explicable and “ancient”. To satisfy such desires requires the acceptance and amplification of the ahistorical, and hence the fabrication and perpetuation of myth. The end result is something that seems unimpeachably authentic because it defies easy and obvious explanation. From the examples I have collected and assessed above, this seems to be equally true for urban contexts as rural ones.

Let’s finish by returning to Kingston. It’s perhaps important not to get too excited by the prospect of what the Coronation Stone might represent. Sarsens and other sorts of very large stones occur in the foundations of too many medieval churches – and more to the point, churches without the same associations with elite assembly and power that Kingston has – for there to be a credible universal explanation of their presence, let alone any specific associations with “royal” places. Indeed, it is also important not to lose sight of the fact that there are far more large sarsen stones that exist entirely independently of any present or past connection with the fabric of a church building. (It is tempting to wager that the majority of medieval churches contain(ed) no large boulders in their foundations; however, without comprehensive fieldwork and intrusive archaeological evaluation this is pure speculation that may very well be untrue.)

It must be reaffirmed that there is no unequivocal historical or archaeological evidence for the Kingston Coronation Stone ever having formed part of the fabric of St Mary’s Chapel, be it as part of the foundations or an internal feature. Nonetheless, if the regional body of evidence for big stones, especially sarsens, in the lower levels of ecclesiastical buildings is accepted as being relevant here to the point of providing an explanation of from whence the stone came (i.e. the chapel’s foundations) then some tentative suggestions can be offered. If the reported results of the one poor-quality piece of archaeological evaluation of St Mary’s Chapel are to be trusted (and the more I think about this the less positively I view them), the stone does not seem to have been sited at one of the corners of the chapel. This being the case, it might be inferred that the stone once lay beneath the floor. If this postulation is correct, whatever the reason(s) for the stone being in such a location, they are unlikely to be structural. However, this does not compel the acceptance of a “Christianity triumphing over stone-worshipping paganism” narrative by way of an explanation.

We will never know precisely when and why the Coronation Stone first arrived on the central Kingston island, and what (if any) significance it held in the early middle ages. Nevertheless, it can be concluded to represent two things: just possibly a stone of prehistoric and undocumented early medieval significance, and, more certainly, an object to which completely speculative associations regarding Kingston’s early medieval status and limited recorded history have been and may continue to be attached.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked where available online)

Ashington Bullen, R (ed.), Some materials towards a history of Wisley and Pyrford parishes (Guildford: Frank Lasham, no date [post-1906?])

Bell, William, ‘The Kingston Morasteen’, Surrey Archaeological Collections [SyAC], 1 (1858), 27-56

Butters, S, ‘That famous place’: A history of Kingston upon Thames (Kingston upon Thames: Kingston University Press, 2013)

Clark, J, ‘London Stone: Stone of Brutus or Fetish Stone—Making the Myth’, Folklore, 121:1 (2010), 38-60

Cowie, R, and McCracken, S, ‘St Mary’s church, Barnes: archaeological investigations, 1978–83’, SyAC, 96 (2011), 1-47

Field, D, and Cotton, J, ‘Neolithic Surrey: a survey of the evidence’, in J Bird and D G Bird (eds.), The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540 (Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society, 1987), 71-96

Finny, W E St Lawrence, ‘The Saxon church at Kingston’, SyAC, 37 (1927), 211-19

Foot, Sarah, Æthelstan: the first king of England (Yale University Press, 2011)

Gittos, Helen, Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford: University Press, 2013)

Hawkins, Duncan, ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingston: a shifting pattern of settlement’, London Archaeologist, 8:10 (1998), 271-78

Johnson, W, and Wright, W, Neolithic man in North-East Surrey (London: Elliot Stock, 1903)

Kelly, S. E., ed., Charters of Chertsey Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 19 (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2015)

Lowther, A W G, ‘Excavations at Ashtead, Surrey’, SyAC, 37 (1927), 144-63

Mills, A D, A Dictionary of London Place Names, 2nd edition (Oxford: University Press, 2010)

Secker, Daniel, ‘St Mary, Harrow-on-the-Hill: Lanfranc’s church and its Saxon predecessor’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 68 (2017), 73-89

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Architecture, Folklore, History, Landscape, Place, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

New work: Kingston upon Thames revisited

Nowadays, you’ll find me in Kingston upon Thames maybe four times a week as it’s my main place of work. However, save for a driving lesson in 2003 when I passed through but didn’t actually set foot in the town, my first proper visit to Kingston was in June 2017, for a Surrey Archaeological Society Medieval Studies Forum day which focused on the later medieval town, and also to a lesser extent on its earlier medieval origins.

Kingston stands out so far as this blog is concerned because it is one of the few place in Surrey that can be said to have been of national (or equivalent) historical consequence in the early medieval period. (See also: Chertsey, Farnham if I’m being generous, possibly the great assembly and battle site of Acleah if the relevant records pertain to the same place and it was situated in Surrey.) Its prominence rests on it being the coronation place of three tenth-century kings: Athelstan, Eadred and Æthelred II (it has been claimed – and too often accepted – that four or maybe even five other Kings were crowned here despite the evidential basis for these assertions being extremely weak). Moreover, a number of extant charters were promulgated in the course of royal assemblies convened at Kingston in the same period. It also has an earlier documented history as the site of an important council meeting held in 838.

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A plaque with the names and coronation dates of the Anglo-Saxon kings crowned or reputedly crowned at Kingston, on the facade of a building at the north-west corner of the town’s Market Square

This substantial recorded history may point to Kingston being a prominent, distinctive place, but, thanks in the main to important work produced over the past 30 years by Dr Jill Bourne, we know it has a name that is indicative of royal associations of an altogether more run-of-the-mill kind. In a chapter in her recent monograph, Bourne set out to square the implications of Kingston upon Thames’ name and documented functions in the ninth to eleventh centuries CE. While the case she makes is admirably interdisciplinary in nature, in the end I don’t think she cracks it – in part due to some faulty readings of crucial pieces of evidence.

Having already half-read Bourne’s book at the time of my visit (but being very familiar with her previously-published research into Kingston-type place-names), I duly succumbed to writing up some thoughts both old and new about Kingston. To assist in this process, I amassed a far greater body of published relevant archaeological data than has been presented in previous studies – of which there have been a fair few in recent decades. As a result, while I don’t claim to have proved anything (other than some errors made by previous authors), I am happy that the end product, and above all new model of post-Roman settlement development in the Kingston area proffered within, makes the best use of the various types of evidence available at the present time, and can be tested against future archaeological discoveries made in Kingston town centre and its hinterland.

Read the entire essay by clicking here. Members of the Medieval Studies Forum received an earlier but more or less identical version of it with issue 14 of the Forum Newsletter in May 2018, edited by me. A quick word to the wise first; it is very long. I would have chopped it down to size but I kept on coming across new references and the whole thing was starting to take over my life, so I used editor’s privilege to say enough’s enough and issue it at a clearly-excessive 20+ pages. I suppose the good news is that there’s more in there now than in a shorter, sharper piece, and I’m happy for it to be mined as a compilation of data and references. I’m just glad it’s done and it’s decent.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Charters, Folklore, History, Landscape, Latin, Old English, Place-Names, Pottery, Ritual, Thames, Topography, Trade | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surrey Medieval, the rest of 2018 edition

Last week was by most metrics a horrendous week. Just as you thought it couldn’t get any worse, so it did. Day after bleeding day. I’m glad to report this week was a bit better, but didn’t undo any of the Trump- and Brexit-related horrors. So, for a bit of context:

  1. One way or another, given the current political situation and more, the UK is fucked right now.
  2. It was the end of the men’s football World Cup, England had been surpassing expectations and, yeah, I was kinda drunk for a lot of it.

A lot of the following was dreamt up on the way back from the pub. But at its heart is stuff that’s been months/years in the making. As I’ve intimated before, I have a stack of part-done posts waiting in the wings. One of the key motivations for Surrey Medieval has always been to share interesting stuff for free with the wider online world. Having MASSIVELY neglected the site over the past year, I could have just done the bare minimum to get each one up to scratch and hit the Publish button to send the world a series of missives from my mind as it was back in Spring/Summer 2017.

But certain circumstances have changed considerably, both personally and politically, and so simply bashing out “content” just to cross some things off a list ain’t going to cut it these days. For anyone with a conscience and at least a toehold in medieval studies, there’s been a lot of reflection and action (albeit not enough of the latter in some key quarters) about issues of race, politics and representation in the field. This piece by Mary Rambaran-Olm does a great job of summing up most of the issues and things that have gone on in recent years, with particular reference to Anglo-Saxon Studies, a sub-field in which a lot of what I have researched/am researching could be placed (although I purposely do not identify as an “Anglo-Saxonist”, for multiple reasons).

In the wake of the Trump shit-show departing Europe following that meeting in Helsinki, I’ve seen and read quite a lot about the philosophy/movement of Eurasianism and its main progenitor, Alexandr Dugin. The former is complete horseshit and the latter is a special kind of wacko. Special not only because his philosophy is repugnant but also because, to a greater or lesser extent, he has the ear of Vladimir Putin and considerable overlap with the Russian president’s ideas for the future of his country. Apparently, he also has the influence and quite possibly the cash with which to fund far-right groups in Europe and so disseminate his message far beyond Russia.

When I read Dugin’s exhortation that ‘We need to return […] to the New Middle Ages – and thus to the Empire, religion, and the institutions of traditional society (hierarchy, cult, domination of spirit over matter and so on)‘ it made me shudder, for two reasons. Firstly, for all my fascination with the period, that I can’t think of anything worse than living in the “Middle Ages” (other than living in Prehistory, but even that’s relative). Second, it’s predicated on a profoundly outmoded and distorted view of what the medieval period was like, rooted in heavily-nationalistic and more often than not racist 19th- and 20th-century scholarship.

We live in a world where it feel like there are no universally-accepted truths. That nothing means anything anymore, and anyone can say something one day and then, with nary an apology, say the precise opposite a day or two later, apparently with equal sincerity. And then further muddy the waters by appearing to row back on that recantation not long after. (Then again, it helps when you’re able to manipulate the facts and distort the truth in order to lessen the discrepancy between your contradictory statements). But – putting some necessary distance between the case in point I’ve been using in this paragraph and what follows – not saying anything at all is perhaps an even worse course of action. And if I don’t feel like I can talk about many things with any great degree of authority, I sure as hell do feel capable of pointing out some of the many reasons why a “New Middle Ages” is a really, really stupid and dangerous idea (and the same goes for the other medieval-touting ethno-nationalist ideas that have set root in some quarters).

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Sunset at Pre Rup, Cambodia: brick-built and known to have been dedicated in 961-62 CE. How many late Anglo-Saxon-period churches can we say equivalent things about?

Somehow, this site still gets a healthy number of daily visitors despite the obvious lack of new content. Clearly, people are finding it by searching for things online (I see the searches, at least so far as Google’s privacy restrictions allow) and so I think it’s important that good research is made readily available, either directly or in discussion, instead of being hidden behind a paywall or in the pages of a book available to buy from the Brill website for well in excess of 100 Euros. So, while continuing in the same vein, we’re going to do things a bit differently around here for the foreseeable. Turns things on their head. Stir things up. And post more regularly!

I can’t promise anything truly clever, like this bit of psycholinguistic excellence, and nothing I do will make any great difference of course – I’m a lowly local authority archaeologist (of sorts) who researches and writes stuff on the side. All I can offer is work that not only pushes understanding of medieval Surrey forward, but at the same time might chime with other, broader themes about how we understand the past in all its crazy, wonderful complexity. To this end, expect to see between now and the end of the calendar year most if not all of the following:

  • How my recent trip to Cambodia made me excited about studying the medieval period again, and how people the other side of the world were doing things (better) in comparison to people in Surrey/England in, say, the 10th or 12th centuries.
  • A first stab at a new reading of the archaeology of post-Roman Surrey that I hope will go some way towards skewering tired, trad conceptions of “Saxon Surrey”.
  • Why a lot of “popular” works published about British history, place-names and such like aren’t just embarrassing because they’re so bad – politically, they’re wilfully dangerous.
  • A look at why we’re still so far off where we should be in terms of a successful interface between the study of archaeology and place-names, but that some recently-published research has provided glimmers of hope for the future.
  • The joys of suburban history, with special reference to the queen of the south, the London Borough of Merton.

There’ll be some other stuff, too. I’m halfway through reading a David Dumville chapter that so far has been weirdly off-beam and I’d love to spend some time telling you why. Only I’ve dropped out of studying for a PhD, so expect instead my “quiterary” moment explaining that decision. Hell, I might even do that post on the early medieval topography of Sunningwell I’ve been bleating on about for over a year now. But its moment feels like it’s passed. We’re onto bigger and better things.

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Surrey Medieval is alive and well

I really didn’t mean to leave it so long.

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Panoramic pic of a snowy Farnham Castle taken on 16th March, during the SyAS Medieval Studies Forum study day in/about Farnham. If you hadn’t guessed from the snow, taking this while stood atop the remnants of the late 12th-century shell keep was unbelievably cold. Proof if proof were needed of my continued commitment to medieval studies!

Surrey Medieval has been going for several years now, and in that time I’ve seen numerous great (or could-have-been-great-if-only-their-authors-had-stuck-at-it) blogs come and go. I think this is the longest I’ve left it between posts; even if it’s not, a gap in excess of half a year is nothing to be proud of. So, to confirm a few things:

(1) Surrey Medieval is still a thing, it’s not dead – it’s just been sleeping while I did things like get a full-time job and learn how to manage my anxiety and depression.

(2) Actually, it’s not been completely dormant around these parts; I added a brief note under the Puttenham tab just before Christmas about a new history book covering Puttenham church and the three others churches in its united parish.

(3) I have a stack of half-finished draft posts waiting in the wings, covering some really interesting (and in one or two cases, pretty important) topics, so where would the sense be in jacking it all in?

(4) I still think Surrey Medieval serves a purpose for me as an outlet for my research and interests; the number of daily views hasn’t dipped much in the intervening months, which suggests the various posts and pages I’ve produced to date are proving useful to people somewhere…

Writing this post won’t be accompanied by promises to have something else done and published within X number of days or weeks. It’s fair to say I’ve learnt better than to do that. What I will do is break a promise I made last year – to write up the second, more general part of my take on the 2017 Leeds International Medieval Congress. Too much time has passed and too many significant discussions and developments have taken place since July for there to be any practical value in such an endeavour. However, if it’s any consolation, I’m still determined to make good on another suggestion for a future post, summarising the day’s fieldwork in and around Sunningwell in Oxfordshire that informed the case study culmination of my IMC paper. Much better photos to go with it, too.

Back again soon(ish)!

 

Posted in Being organised, Excuses, Farnham, News, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The past couple of months in medieval studies: a reading list pulled from my phone

Here’s a quick post gathering together some of the online outpouring of exciting pieces of writing that have catalysed, reported or critiqued the debates and changes currently afoot in the world of (academic) medieval studies. They focus on issues of race, racism, far-right extremism and the geographies of contemporary medieval studies. All have been published in recent weeks, although it almost goes without saying that they are among the latest in a much longer line of contributions (here’s a pivotal one allied to a pivotal event – please click through on all three things below the Contents subtitle). Don’t worry too much if you feel like you’re playing catch-up – in some of the pieces listed below you’ll find links to important earlier contributions to the debates.

Please be aware this is far from a comprehensive reading list; it’s merely an annotated list of the tabs I’ve kept open on Safari on my phone with a view to sharing eventually in one way or another. Some readers may be familiar with most (or maybe even all) of the following items already, but I’m doing this in particular for folks who don’t do social media – or at least don’t make a habit of checking things regularly – and are interested in medieval studies but perhaps aren’t keyed-in to its latest developments. I hope that the abiding impression is one of a field experiencing a challenging but thrilling and long-overdue period of self-reflection, inspiration from new disciplines, sometimes impassioned debate, and most of all the early stages of a shift towards genuine change for the better in many aspects.

EDIT: It was pretty remiss of me to publish this initially without any statement thanking the authors of the following works for the time and effort they put into writing them. I laboured enough with writing the opening and closing paragraphs of this post, so I really do applaud each and every one of the authors for the length and quality of their pieces. 

Medievalists of Colour, ‘On Race and Medieval Studies’ – Let’s begin with the most important piece; a collective statement ‘that advocates for a more inclusive, productive, and world-improving medieval studies’. Vital reading, and the roadmap to the future of the field.

Jeffrey J. Cohen, ‘On Pushback, Progress and Promise’ – A concise, encouraging contribution stressing that change has occurred and will continue to progress despite resistance from certain quarters.

J. Clara Chan, ‘Medievalists, Recoiling From White Supremacy, Try to Diversify the Field’ – A very important report distilling the main points of controversy arising from this year’s Leeds IMC, as well as more generally the major issues at stake.

Brandon Hawk, ‘Diversifying SASLC’ – a long read but a really decent pulling-together of a lot of the key issues, including a wealth of links to other relevant stuff online.

David M. Perry, ‘White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong’ – If one of the main reasons for why medieval studies has found itself in its present state of reflection and change (still) needs explaining to anyone, this article should do the trick.

Otávio Luiz Vieira Pinto, ‘Peripheries of the Middle Ages’ – A timely insight into the lives and work of medievalists in South America and other regions away from the geographical centres of contemporary medieval studies.

drdarkage, ‘a thread w/ research on medievalism & white supremacy’ – A phenomenal tweeted thread-cum-list linking a lot of essential reading (some of which may be among the pieces listed here, but with a host of ace additional items).

Daniel Remein, “ISAS should probably change its name” – A paper from this year’s K’zoo ICMS that gained renewed relevance in the run up to the biennial meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) held very recently in Honolulu, Hawai’i. I guess the subject matter of my research makes me an “Anglo-Saxonist”, but I have major problems with the label and consequently I strive to avoid using it at all costs, so a lot of this paper is music to my ears.

Adam Miyashiro, ‘Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu’ – A for the most part spot-on critique written and published in the run-up to ISAS 2017 in Honolulu, about its poor approach to issues of racism and colonialism in view of its Hawaiian location. Read the comments too.

Mateusz Fafinski, ‘The Obama Moment of Anglo-Saxon Studies’ – A ‘straight out of the oven take’ on the changes happening to ISAS agreed/announced at the end of its recent biennial meeting. Slightly hyperbolic, but understandable given the circumstances in which it was written.

Thomas Bredehoft, “Anglo-Saxonists” – Something of a counterpoint, written by an eminent Germanic philologist. Given the subject matter “Anglo-Saxonist/-ism” is a disciplinary umbrella term that encompasses much more than language, this blog mentions “Germanic purity” a little too often for my tastes; such a concept is acceptable from a philological perspective but is deeply problematic in terms of archaeology, for example. Indeed, one of the impressions I’m left with from reading this post and some of the stuff coming out of the ISAS conference is that the label “Anglo-Saxonist” isn’t being treated as applying to all those scholars who study the period, with archaeology/archaeologists in particular largely overlooked.

I could attempt to synthesise the implications of all of the above, but I’d rather each reader has their own look through the pieces and draw their own conclusions. (I’ll say a bit more of substance as to my own views in my next post.) Things continue to move apace, with new pieces taking things forward appearing frequently. I especially recommend checking in on the In The Middle site on a regular basis (there’s so much more to read than the couple of pieces I’ve linked). Also, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, make some time to read through the brilliant (and ongoing) series of essays in the ‘Race, Racism and the Middle Ages’ strand on The Public Medievalist website. Medieval studies as a whole (as hard as it is to group it together thus) is rarely at the vanguard of the latest shift changes in thinking/praxis/behaviours, so to have all this happening right now and in such an exciting and dynamic way is really something. Don’t bet against this being the first of a number of posts of this type I put together in the coming months.

PS. In the order in which I received them, thanks to Jonathan Hsy, Patrick Day, James Harland, and Dorothy Kim for the suggestions of corrections/improvements to earlier versions of the blog. If you spot anything else that needs amending or adding, let me know!

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Being organised, Conference, internet, News, Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments