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).
- No, we do not know where coronations took place at Kingston. There is no evidence for them happening in a church. 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. It’s possible ASK stands on the site of a Late Anglo-Saxon-period minster but, save perhaps for one chunk of probably late 10th-/11th-century cross-shaft, there’s no evidence for its existence, let alone it playing host to multiple coronations. For all we know, the ceremonies were open-air events.
- 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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