Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the great, born between 893 and 895, he was the son of Edward the Elder who in turn was the first born son of Alfred. Not a lot is known about his mother Ecgwynn other than she did live at court. There is no record of a marriage between her and Edward and so came to be the question of Athelstan’s legitimacy and a pact that would see him unable to marry or sire an heir if he wanted to be King. It is thought that Athelstan was Alfred’s favourite grandson. At some point before the great king’s death he bestowed upon Athelstan a scarlet cloak, a belt set and a sword with gilded scabbard. Alfred clearly saw a greatness in his grandson and maybe a promise of things to come.
In 924 Edward the Elder died. Edward was himself a noteworthy king in that he himself had tried to unite the whole of England but never quite succeeded in this objective. He had, however, started a new trend in that his coronation took place in an ancient town known as Cyningestun (now Kingston-upon-Thames) which roughly translates at The Kings Farm or Estate. Kingston had first been mentioned in a document from around 838 relating to a meeting between King Egbert, his son Athelwolfe, 24 other Lords and none other than the archbishop of Canterbury. It was here that Egbert chose to hold his great council. The document refers to Kingston as a famous place so it was already of some importance and maybe this was what came in to play when Edward the Elder decided on Kingston as a coronation place.
It is also worth mentioning that Kingston would have been on the border between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. It may also have had shallow waters to cross the Thames or even the only other bridge other than that of London Bridge itself. For whatever the reason, Athelstan chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and be crowned in Kingston.
When Edward died in 925 Athelstan was declared King of the Mercians and his half-brother, Aelfweard, king of Wessex. However under tragic circumstances Aelfweard died just sixteen days after his father and so after a brief civil war Athelstan managed to gain the support of Wessex.
On the site where All Saints church stands now there was once an old Saxon chapel, that of St Mary. In front of this chapel, out in the market place a great platform was built. This was so all the people could come and see Athelstan being crowned. That in itself was another first as no other king before had had their head adorned with a crown. Previous kings would have had a helmet placed upon their heads but Athelstan wanted to show Majesty. He wanted to show his right to rule by God. Not only was the crown placed upon his head but he was also given a sword and a ring. These were to show an ‘alliance’ between the King and the church, in other words Gods approval…symbols used in centuries to come by monarchy and government.
We are all aware of the Stone of Scone (stone of destiny) but when Edward the Elder was King another stone was used and Athelstan sat upon it too as well as other Saxon kings after him. It is the Kingston Coronation Stone made of the same greyweather stone of the monoliths at Stonehenge and possibly from the same date. Today it sits behind the police station barely noticed by passers-by who are unaware of its significance in English history. When Athelstan sat upon the ancient stone he was already making plans to crush the Viking north and defeat paganism. He also gained the fealty and respect of the Welsh. His most famous battle was the battle of Brunanburgh which I hope to tell you more about in future posts.
So began with Athelstan the binding of his father’s tradition of a coronation at Kingston and the new tradition of crowning. By the end of Athelstan’s reign in 927 he had achieved more than any other King before him, that of a united England.