Special: Anglo-Saxon Elements of the Coronation
Over all though, with the history of the English monarchy often presented as beginning with William the Conqueror's coronation on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey, it's easy to imagine Britain's deeper history is not represented in the ceremony. In fact, although less obvious than later medieval elements, there are significant parts of the coronation rite which reach back to, or attempt to reach out to (widest sense) Anglo-Saxon history.
The venue: Westminster Abbey
During the 8th century - when the kingdom of Mercia was at the height of its power, consecrations of monarchs may well have occurred within the hallowed chamber of the Repton baptisty / mausoleum, or in the chapel above it, although the unaccountably grand (some have argued 'Carolingian style') basilica at Brixworth may also have hosted similar occasions in the late 8th to early 9th centuries. At the same time, consecrations of West Saxon kings are likely to have taken place in the Old Minster in Winchester.
The coronations may have taken place in the Chapel of St Mary, but later tradition connects them to a large stone now displayed in the grounds of the guildhall.
Kingston was a carefully chosen place for these rites - sitting on the traditional border between the united kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, but very much on the south side respecting Wessex' supremacy. It was also placed close to, but not within the boundaries of the ancient city of London - the meeting-point of many kingdoms which had changed hands often, historically, and remained England's biggest population and trade hub.
Very unusually Cnut was crowned in London, but after his reign focus shifted back to the traditional 'capital' of Wessex; Winchester - and the Old Minster; then England's grandest cathedral.
The Old Minster (nothing of which now survives other than its footprint) was the venue for the coronation of King Edward the Confessor in 1043 just as it likely had been for the coronations of his distant predecessors in the 8-9th century.
It was King Edward the Confessor who, recognising the growing importance of London, began a new grand church or minster west of London, at a place which then became known as Westminster, intended for royal coronations and burials.
It features prominently on the Bayeux Tapestry and was subsequently (probably) used for the coronations of Harold II on the 6th of January 1066, and (more certainly) of William the Conqueror on Christmas day, 1066.
Thus, although little of the original building survives (entirely rebuilt during the reign of Henry III), Westminster Abbey was already established as the site for English coronations by the very end of the Anglo-Saxon Age.
The Crown and Sceptre
Later records of Westminster Abbey record that Edward the Confessor had left all his coronation regalia to the abbey to be reused in the coronations of future monarchs. An especially elaborate jewelled crown ("Saint Edward's Crown") decorated with filigree and cloisonne, first recorded being used for the coronation of Henry III, was claimed to be one of these relics, and continued to be used for coronations until its unfortunate destruction during the Civil War. It's even more elaborate replacement, still used for coronations, was made during the reign of Charles II and carries forward only the original's name.
The presentation of a sword was certainly also part of the Anglo-Saxon coronation or consecration rite for monarchs, though swords were symbols of warrior and aristocratic status and not exclusive to kings. Of particular note, the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury records that the young prince Æthelstan was presented with a 'royal cloak' and sword and 'golden scabbard' in a ceremony by his grandfather King Alfred which historians take to have been a pseudo-consecration for Alfred's preferred grandson to eventually carry on his legacy, possibly in defiance of the wishes of Alfred's son and heir (and Æthelstan's father) Edward the Elder who had chosen his younger son (by his second wife) to succeed.
The presentation of a sword at the modern coronation therefore evokes the image of a similar scene between two of Anglo-Saxon England's founding kings.
The Archbishop of Canterbury
The Archbishopric of Canterbury had held seniority over all others in lowland Britain since at least the mid 7th century. From the 10th century it thus typically fell to whomever held this office to preside over coronations.
Important exceptions are the coronations of Harold II and William the Conqueror, in Westminster Abbey in 1066, as the then Archbishop of Canterbury Stigant (d 1072) had been excommunicated by the pope for simultaneously holding the bishopric of Winchester.
If William of Malmesbury is correct, both of the first coronations to take place in Westminster Abbey were actually presided over by Ealdred, Archbishop of York. With the coronation of William II by Lanfranc in 1087 responsibility for crowning new monarchs returned to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and (with few exceptions) this has been the norm ever since.
The Cosmati Pavement
Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey (in contemporary Gothic style) and chose Edward the Confessor, builder of the original abbey as his patron saint, relocating his remains into a fabulously decorated new shrine with spiralling columns and intricate Cosmatesque decoration, looking out the spectacular Cosmati Pavement. This honouring of England's last truly great Anglo-Saxon king was part of a wider programme (including substantial works for charity, and an energetic programme of travel) which sought to reconcile the monarchy with the English people, and he appears to have looked to rare, surviving spaces associated with Anglo-Saxon saints, and kingship, as inspiration for his works at Westminster.
It thus appears that Henry III transplanted the design of an ancient building associated with Anglo-Saxon kingship and sainthood, in symbolic form, into the heart of Westminster Abbey, so that coronations on this floor would connect with the traditions of kingship in Britain's deeper history.
Stone of Scone & Throne of Saint Edward
In 1296 during the First Scottish War of Independence the stone was looted from its traditional home of Scone Abbey near Perth by the forces of King Edward I, and it was subsequently installed into a new Gothic style throne of oak, decorated with gilding and coloured glass. Kept at Westminster Abbey together with the relics of Edward the Confessor it became known as Saint Edward's Chair (though more accurately it is the later King Edward I's chair) and begun to be used for coronations during the 14th century.
The St Augustine Gospels
The Augustine Gospels are a miraculous survivor particularly of the turbulent years of the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries in which countless surviving Anglo-Saxon treasures were lost. Its survival can be attributed to Matthew Parker -- first protestant archbishop of Canterbury -- who as an early historian of Anglo-Saxon England sought to save as many manuscripts as he could, even at times when some were considered heretical. It was likely taken from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, and hidden at his repository -- of unknown location -- for safekeeping until after the turmoil had ended. This secret repository has been connected to the unusual, remote 'reliquary' Tudor home of his associate Rowland Hill - Soulton Hall in Shropshire.
These precious documents would go on to be donated to Corpus Christi, Cambridge forming the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon literature - the Parker Library.
This innovation, reportedly at the specific request of the new king is an important gesture of recognition of and respect for Anglo-Saxon heritage.
The Thegns of Mercia are dedicated to improving access and understanding of the (broadest sense) Anglo-Saxon cultural complex, as well as the impact of the period on the world of today. As a diverse and highly networked cultural complex, the involvement of Anglo-Saxon history and symbolism in important moments of our national life such as this is emblematic of diversity and inclusion as a founding principle of our national character. The Anglo-Saxons' impact on contemporary UK life stretches beyond traditional royal liturgy, so follow our blog and come along to our events to hear more about topics such as clothing, jewellery, books and literature, medicine, religion, the military, and much more. As you watch the coronation in Westminster Abbey, please comment below if you spot any other aspects of the service that you think have Anglo-Saxon period origins.