People and Places Important to King Egbert

The People and Places Important to King Egbert

The Places

The Crowning Stone at Kingston-on-Thames

Kingston was an important town even in Roman days. The ford there provided the first opportunity for the traveler to cross the River Thames. This ford was replaced by a wooden bridge that was the first bridge over the river above London Bridge. By Saxon times Kingston had two palaces - one built by the Kings of Wessex in the Bittoms and the other by the Bishops of Winchester between the church and the river. By 838 A.D, when King Egbert held his witan in Kingston, the town was described as "that famous place called Kingston in Surrey."

The witan in Kingston was attended by the king and his noblemen and by Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury and twenty-four bishops, and they made a compact of mutual support and co-operation between church and state. The bishops were given the right to rank in the state as "spiritual lords," a right which they hold to this day and which gives them their seats in the House of Lords.

It is thought that the witan was held in a church because part of it was done before an altar. King Egbert, who had long planned the alliance between church and state and who had seen the great stone church built at Aachen for the coronation of Charlemagne, may have built a new stone church in Kingston, dedicated to All Hallows, to house his Great Council. At the east end of the church there is a fragment of stone with Saxon carving on it. It has been suggested that this may once have formed part of a stone cross which Egbert may have erected to commemorate his witan, or Great Council, at Kingston.

The coronation stone is now outside the Guildhall. It is not known exactly where the stone stood in Saxon days, but it is known that part of the coronation ceremony, the prostration of the king before the altar and probably the anointing as well, took place in a church, and it is not unreasonable to assume that this was Egbert's church of All Hallows.

After Edward the Elder, six Saxon kings were crowned in Kingston; the last was Ethelred II (the "Unready") in 978 A.D. His reign ended as the Danes intensified their attacks on his kingdom. In 1009 the Danes came up the Thames as far as Staines, burning towns and churches on both sides of the river; it seems impossible that the church in Kingston could have escaped destruction then, if it had not been destroyed earlier. 

About 1120-30 the sheriff of Surrey, Gilbert the Norman, built a large church in Kingston. This was shaped in the form of a cross, with its tower at the centre, and the nave was probably without aisles. East of the tower was the chancel and to the north and south of it were two transepts.

Dr. Finny, the Parish Church's historian, wrote: “If when Gilbert the Norman built his church in Kingston he did as every Norman builder did who built a cruciform church in Surrey, he rebuilt and re-roofed what remained of the walls of the nave of the Saxon All Hallows' church and he built his tower on arches on the site of the previous Saxon chancel”. When the altar was moved (during a more recent renovation) to its present central position under the tower, it was probably placed on or near the site of the old Saxon altar. The space between the choir stalls may be the spot where King Egbert and Archbishop Ceolnoth made their compact at the Great Council of 838, and where seven Saxon kings prostrated themselves at their coronation.

Little or nothing now remains of Gilbert the Norman's church. Some of the stones in the pillars under the tower may be Norman, and there are some Norman stones (shaped with an axe) where the end nave pillar on the south joins the west wall; these are thought to have formed part of the wall of the old Norman nave. When the Victorians were building the present west porch they uncovered a large Norman doorway cased up in an eighteenth century classical entrance; they photographed it and then unfortunately destroyed it.

King Egbert’s achievements in territory unification, and in establishing his descendants as future kings, were the main reasons for the symbolic importance and location of the Crowning Stone at Kingston-on-Thames. Egbert called his son “Aethelwulf,” which is not an especially West Saxon name; but Aethelwulf, who was king of Kent under his father, called his sons by the names of Aethelstan, Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred, and Alfred–and even the latter may be a variant of ‘Aethelfrith.’ Of these names, Aethelbert is unmistakably Kentish, and is a reminiscence not only of the great Aethelbert who received Augustine and his companions, but of the other King Aethelbert who died in 760. The whole West Saxon family after Ealhmund felt themselves to be, in part at least, Kentish. Aethelwulf showed signs of having felt himself more a Kentish than a West Saxon king he was content to retain Kent while giving up Wessex to Aethelbald.

 ‘Aethelstan’ is a very curious name. ‘Aethel’ implies origin from a privileged caste: ‘adel,’ high born, ‘gentel,’ noble. ‘Aethelbald,’‘Aethelbert,’ and ‘Aethelred’ we can understand, and “Aethelfrith” too: for the courage, or the glory, or the counsel, or the peace of the high-born are conceivable ideas, but what is an ‘Aethel Stan’–a stone of the high-born? The answer is it was the Stone at Kingston.

The Thames valley beyond Kingston formed a kind of bottleneck between Kent and the west, which was easily defended. The original boundary between the kingdom of Kent and the kingdom of Wessex must have fallen at Kingston; for when, in 568, Ceawlin notified King Aethelbert of Kent to keep his claws off Wessex, the battle took place at Wibbandune, or Wimbledon. If Wimbledon was the place where a battle would take place between Kentish men and West Saxons, then Kingston might well be the border town. A holy and permanent boundary stone stood at Kingston. The name “Aethelstan” commemorated the union of Wessex and Kent–the person who, like the stone, faced and touched both kingdoms.

Some importance, not immediately clear, attached to the first Aethelstan. Though dead, he was not forgotten. Alfred came to the throne in the midst of a war–and he had the memory of his stay at Rome. His son Edward, was crowned on that noble stone at Kingston in 899, and Edward called his son–Alfred’s favorite grandchild–Aethelstan. Edward the Elder, King Egbert’s great-grandson, was the first English king to be crowned at Kingston-on-Thames. And until Edward the Confessor, in 1042, all the English kings, except for Edgar, were crowned at Kingston.

There is no other reason why they should have been crowned at Kingston. The acquisition of Kent was the corner-stone of West Saxon supremacy, and the means by which Egbert of Wessex made sure of his command of England. The ceremony of crowning on the stone at Kingston symbolized the achievement of victory.

Winchester, the cathedral and seat of government for King Egbert

Winchester was the ancient capital city of Wessex, the predominant kingdom of the West Saxons, one of the original seven kingdoms (the Heptarchy) that struggled for dominance in Anglo-Saxon England. Not only was Winchester the seat of government of King Egbert, and all the other rulers of his line, it was a cathedral city, the seat of religious authority.

Christianity was not known in Winchester until AD 635 when Cynegils, king of the West Saxons was baptized by St Birinus. Birinus was sent by Pope Honorius to bring the Roman-Christian message to those in Britain not reached by St Augustine's earlier mission.  Cynegils established a cathedral church at Dorchester on Thames, but soon after Cynegils' death in 643, his son, Cenwalh, built a minster church in Winchester, nearer the center of his kingdom (about 648). In the 670 Bishop Haeddi transferred his throne from Dorchester to Winchester making this cathedral the ecclesiastical and royal center of Wessex. This, coupled with the fame of Saint Swithin (Bishop of Winchester 852-862) assisted the growth of the importance of the See of Winchester.

 In 802 at Winchester Egbert was crowned king of the West Saxons. Soon after his accession he held a witan at Winchester, in which he ordered that the name of his kingdom should be changed from Britain to England. Egbert’s charters record a few personal incidents, such as his presence at the ware of 825, and his grants, not many in number, to churches, and especially to Winchester.

We do know that in the late ninth century, possibly in Winchester, monks began to compile a yearly record in English, starting with the birth of Christ. They drew on earlier sources such as the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and copies were added to and expanded at other monasteries. There are actually four main chronicles, three manuscripts derived from them, and two fragments. The unknown clerics who set down the annals which together are called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles began their work when England was still a land of many kingdoms, including a Danish territory; when judgment could be decided by the local baron; and Latin was the preference of scholars and clerks. When the last entry was inscribed, England was united; the Normans had built on Anglo-Saxon laws to secure an effective administration that would serve the entire country; and the Chroniclers themselves had helped to develop the use of English in prose and poetry, laying the foundations of the rich and varied language we speak today.

Many of the kings of Wessex, and later of all England, were buried at Winchester. Their bones lie in Mortuary Chests within the present Cathedral. Some of the oldest royal bones in the country lie in six small wooden chests. They rest high up on top of a screen in each side of the area between the choir stalls and the altar. Among the contents of these boxes is the remains of King Cynegils of Wessex, who died in 643, and who founded Winchester’s Saxon cathedral.  King Egbert is in the chest with the Latin inscription “Hic Rex Egbertus Pausat cum Rege Kenulpho” (Here rests King Egbert with King Cenwalh). The church that Cenwalh founded was added to over the years was called the “Old Minster,” and by 1000 was one of the largest churches in England. It was demolished in 1079 to make way for the present Winchester Cathedral.

King Egbert’s wife, Queen Redburga’s burial site is not known, but it is likely that she was buried in the old Saxon cathedral.  Among other early kings whose bones are contained in these boxes are King Aethelwulf, Edmund I, a son of King Alfred the Great, King Canute and his wife Queen Emma, and also King William II, usually called William Rufus. Identification is impossible, however, because parliamentarian soldiers smashed the boxes open in 1642 and scattered the contents. One of the boxes states that the jumbled kingly remains were “promiscuously” put back into their containers in 1661.

The Crosses at Sandbach, Cheshire

The reason why the crosses at Sandbach, Cheshire, were erected, and what they stood for, has been a mystery, and have been studied by people from generation to generation to try to explain them. Mr. P. Timmis Smith made an extensive study of the crosses and in his book, The Glory of the Saxon Crosses at Sandbach Cheshire, he shows that the crosses were erected as a monument to King Egbert.

When the crosses were re-erected in 1816 a plaque was attached to them that read: “These Crosses / supposed to have been erected / on the introduction of Christianity into this Island / …” This guess of the reason for their erection was wrong. The mistaken idea was that the crosses were first made to commemorate the conversion of King Peada of Mercia in AD 653, to Christianity, and its consequent acceptance throughout all Mercia. George Ormerod, the Cheshire historian, reproduced the wording of the plaque, in his “History of Cheshire.” Like most printed historical mistakes, which seem to have a very long life and are often repeated, this mistake has been no exception.

Within half a century of the death of King Egbert, some prince of the Church or member of the royal family was inspired by the good work done during the long reign of Egbert to have a suitable sepulchral monument erected to him. It was designed to show to the Mercians, in picture language, that King Egbert had been a full member of the Church of Rome, and that the royal family was all Christians. The picture language showed the main events in Christ’s life, from the time of His birth to His death on the cross. Two crosses were used since it could not all be shown on one cross. The larger cross shows the life of Christ, and the lesser mainly of the royal household, which are shown surrounded by a true-lovers-knot, the symbol of interwoven affection attached to the Royal household.

The Biblical knowledge would be known by the monks from the monastery there in Sandbach. Picture language was used to express the meaning of the Bible to the illiterate people of the time. In this way they would know the stories of the Bible. When the crosses were erected they were put up with their main faces pointing to the east, which was commonly done with church building of the time also. The crosses had an obelisk design, pillars of stone capped with a small cross and the features were done in relief.

On the print of the plans of the cross, as shown in Earwalker’s The History of the Ancient Parish of Sandbach (1890) there were letters that appear towards the top of the cross, under the apex cross. As they were of small size they were better seen through a good magnifying glass in brilliant light. In order to make these letters stand out they were enlarged. The letters were well formed and quite clear in the plates in Earwalker’s book, but have been eroded away from the cross. These letters as shown in detail on the plate, translated, are “King Egbert Departed This Life.” P.Timmis Smith gives conclusive proof to the meaning of the letters and words.

On the lesser cross, eastern side, a type of cross having the character of the letter “X” appears as a symbol superimposed over the figures of the king and queen shown within a diamond-shaped frame. The letter “X,” says St. Jerome, “in shape, denotes the cross.” This points to the symbol having stood for the Royal house of Egbert at that time, and it shows the symbol affixed to the boy heir above it. The appearance on the crosses of the king wearing his crown with the queen, stamps the authority on them to be monuments of singular royal significance.

The cross, “+,” as a cross flory, constitutes the only device within the heraldic shield of arms of King Egbert, as shown by Sir George Bellew, Garter King of Arms, in his book, The Kings and Queens of Britain. Heraldry was not introduced until the twelfth century so the arms of all kings before Richard I would be either traditional or analytical.

In the eighth or ninth century Sandbach became an important ecclesiastical center. The monasteries had the complete monopoly of learning, and their abbots were in close association with the royal family. Therefore Sandbach must have been an established center of learning, and most likely also of official administration. It could have been that the House of Egbert, or a branch of the royal house, had a residence at Sandbach, since a monastic center with its learning and spiritual administration would be of importance to the royal household.

Chamber’s Encyclopedia says: “Standing crosses were set up in Britain from an early period, sometimes to mark boundaries of property, sometimes no doubt as marking places of the preaching of missionaries before churches were erected, but frequently as monuments recalling kings, bishops, and other persons of importance, and set over their graves.” If in Britain there were large engraved standing crosses before AD 735 no such crosses are mentioned, either by the writer Adaman of the seventh century or by Bede of the eighth.

John Sleigh says, in A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, “We are too apt to conclude a work to be Saxon from the mere existence of rope-tracery, but in early Norman times it might still be used.” This thought could be extended in general to all ancient buildings.  He also said, “The Danish crosses are, moreover, frequently inscribed in runes with the names of the deceased whom they were intended to commemorate, as well as with those of the individual whose pity or affection caused their erection.” It is known that King Egbert was buried in Winchester Cathedral, with his bones in the sepulcher box. Therefore, the crosses would have been erected as commemorative crosses for King Egbert, towards the close of the ninth century, probably in the reign of Alfred the Great (AD 871-901).

Egbert’s Stone

There is some debate about the location of Egbert’s Stone.  The first mention of the stone was as a place where Egbert, before being driven out of Wessex, was anointed and swore a great oath to return to claim his kingship. It is also thought that stone markers were used to signify borders for shires as King Egbert established the shire system.

At the Battle of Chippenham, Alfred was defeated by the Danes but escaped. With only his royal bodyguard, a small army of thegns (the king's followers) and Aethelnoth earldorman of Somerset as his ally, Alfred withdrew to Egbert’s Stone on the east side of Selwood, in the Somerset tidal marshes in which he had probably hunted as a youth. It was during this time that Alfred, in his preoccupation with the defense of his kingdom, was asked by a woman to watch over some cakes she was baking on a stone. He allegedly burned the cakes and the incident became a legend. Alfred reassessed his strategy and summoning an army of men from Wiltshire, Somerset and part of Hampshire against the Danes, his army defeated the Danes at the battle of Ethandun.

There are several possible locations for Egbert’s Stone, where Alfred gathered his army, but clear evidence is very slight, and the conclusions drawn by historians are really only based on calculated guesswork. Wiltshire folklore indicates two sets of sarsen stones which are in the right general area and which might be Egbert’s Stone.

The first is the boundary stone, which was traditionally set up by Egbert at the side of the river Stour where the borders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset meet. Bourton is the most northerly parish in Dorset, with Wiltshire in the east and Somerset in the West. Beside the lake at the rear of Bourton Mill stands a large slab of greensand known as Egbert's Stone. King Egbert raised the Stone to mark the boundaries when he divided the land into shires. The place where three roads or boundaries meet is a powerful place in folklore, and this might indeed be a favored location for a meeting-place.

The other place is at Kingston Deverill, where some sarsen stones are propped together in an enclosure near the church. We are told in Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine that in 1877 “certain large stones were examined: they are called “Egbert’s Stones” and are spoken of by the Saxon Chroniclers; they were brought by a farmer from King’s Court Hill, where King Egbert is traditionally said to have held court…”. They were first used by the farmer for stepping stones for a barn and later would have been broken up for road mending materials but proved too hard.

There were originally three stones, two uprights and a capstone, possibly the inner structure of a barrow. Strong arguments have been advanced to prove that these stones on King's Court Hill were the meeting place of the West Saxons in 878. From the top of the hill there is the excellent visibility that a commander would need when assembling his forces and it is not that far to Edington, where most people now believe the battle took place.

Dore, Derbyshire (Northumbria)

The Limb Brook, River Sheaf, and Meers Brook marked the boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, and to travel between the two kingdoms was to go through this area. The importance of Dore was its position on the boundary between Mercia and Northumbria, the second most powerful kingdom. Northumbria was under pressure from Viking raids and unable to fight on two fronts. These conditions led to the acceptance of Egbert as overlord and made him effectively the first king of all England.

The event is commemorated on the Dore village green by a gritstone monolith, with a black granite plaque (added in 1968) in the shape of a Saxon shield, emblazoned by a wyvern rampant, possibly the war emblem of Wessex. Traditionally the meeting took place at Kings Croft next to the green.  The boundary between the two kingdoms, as marked by Limb Brook, retained its significance however as the dividing line between Yorkshire and Derbyshire until 1934 and as the boundary between the Sees of York and Canterbury.

The Crowning Stone outside the Guild Hall,
Kingston Upon Thames present day

a closer look

Along the Hogsmill River, near Kingston joins with the Thames

general map of Greater London today
Kingston is to the southwest along the Thames River

Winchester Cathedral today

Winchester Castle
the only parts remaining are the Great Hall and Sally Port

The Old Minster at Winchester Cathedral
for more information about Winchester see
The Official Winchester Cathedral site

Sandbach church and cemetery

Sandbach Crosses, Congleton, Cheshire
The crosses were thrown down and parts dispersed, later to be recovered and re-erected. The crosses rest on a 3-step base.

Lesser cross, east side
pertains to the royal court with
true-lover's-knot design surrounding the scenes.

possibly Egbert's Stone,  King's Court Hill

depiction of events at Egbert's Stone

Egbert's Boundary Stone at Dore
inscription plate added to commemorate events
photo taken in 2005
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References