When King Charles III is crowned, he will sit on a throne containing a Scottish stone, but there’s another Coronation Stone he could have sat on — and it’s in southwest London.
What is today called the Coronation Stone is claimed to be where seven or eight of our Anglo-Saxon Kings were crowned, and is permanently on display in the appropriately named Kingston upon Thames in southwest London.
Despite many reports that Kingston is named after the Kings Stone, in fact, in Old English, tun, ton or don meant farmstead or settlement, so the name Kingston appears to mean farmstead of the kings.
Which isn’t as glamorous, hence the local legend that these Saxon coronations gave Kingston its name. I think the legend is more fun, if less accurate.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, two tenth-century kings were consecrated in Kingston: Æthelstan in 925, and Æthelred the Unready in 978.
There are other kings who are said to have been crowned there, but for whom the evidence is less substantial: Edward the Elder (902), Edmund I (939), Eadred (946), Eadwig (956), Edgar the Peaceful (circa 960) and Edward the Martyr (975) – and possibly King Aethelred the Unready in 978.
The location of coronations in the tumult that followed King Aethelred’s death is unclear, but likely to be wherever was possible at the time. The last King of the Anglo-Saxons, Harold II was possibly crowned at Westminster Abbey, but ever since he was deposed by William the Conqueror, coronations have always taken place in Westminster.
But is this the coronation stone from Kingston, or just a random stone?
One thing in its favour is that it’s not a local stone, but a block of sarsen stone, and although it’s quite widespread as a building material, its significance here is that it’s the same type of stone used to build Stonehenge.
There are records of a Coronation Stone being kept in the ancient church of St Mary, but it collapsed in 1730, and the earliest record doesn’t appear in print until after that happened. The story goes that from the rubble, they recovered a stone — but whether they picked the correct stone out of the rubble is unknown. The Coronation Stone we see today could well be a chunk of rubble from a pillar, or the kitchen, or the loo.
That it might be a random lump of stone is supported by the fact that it was initially used as a mounting block, which seems an odd use for such a historic stone.
However, in 1850 it was moved to a more dignified place in the market before finally being moved to its current location in the grounds of the Guildhall.
Now, call me a cynical old sod, but I suspect that a random bit of rubble was used in the market, and over the subsequent century, a local legend emerged that this was a very important stone.
Later, as Victorians were very romantic about Anglo-Saxon legends and the like, they would have loved the idea that a long-lost piece of royal history from ancient times is here, and would have wanted to make something of it. So, in 1850, a grand ceremony took place to show off a new home for the Coronation Stone, now surrounded by a metal fence and mounted on a plinth with the name of seven of the presumed Kings who were crowned while sitting on it.
The stone moved in 1935, as it sat in the middle of the main road, but when the modern Guildhall was built here in the 1930s, the road was narrowed and the stone moved to its current location. As it happens, the bus stop today is roughly where the Coronation Stone used to be.
Today it’s off to one side, rather less obvious a thing to visit.
The stone sits within the railings, restored last year to mark the Platinum Jubilee, and the plinth still shows the presumed Kings crowned on the stone. It’s said that a coin from each King’s reign was included in the plinth, but if the circles are the coins, then they’ve either rusted away or been nicked.
It might lack the allure of the Scottish stone of destiny and certainly lacks the political importance attached to that stone, but still, this is a Coronation Stone. Well, maybe it is.
It’s a modern form of religious relic, and probably as close to being an actual Coronation Stone as the thousands of shards of wood are from the Real Cross of Jesus Christ.
In a way though, it doesn’t really matter.
It’s more of a symbol now than anything else and gives us that romantic connection to the deep past that helps to define what England is as a nation-state. It’s a bit silly, but then again, most ancient legends are a bit silly, but they’re still a useful hook to hang our collective memories upon.
So, this weekend when the King of Scotland is crowned on a Scottish stone, just think how, had history turned ever so slightly differently, the whole shebang could be happening in Kingston instead.