Sometimes a really very extraordinary thing can look normal. Shabby, even.
Like this stone I saw.
It set me thinking about King Arthur: a Romano-British chief built almost entirely of smoke, mirrors and folklore. He is believed to have been in existence in the early sixth century, and the romance of the tales of he and his women and his knights endure. They are endlessly fascinating, linked as they are with a time when England was young and beautiful and we all believed in Camelot.
That shady character, Thomas Mallory, first printed the tales of this legendary King of England, which are closely allied to ancient French songs. At the very outset of the Arthurian chain of stories, when we stand at the threshold of Arthur’s life, Mallory takes us to London.
Because there is a sword stuck fast in a stone, and only a king can shift it.
“So in the greatest church of London,” he relates, “whether it were Paul’s or not, the French book maketh no mention….when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone.
“And in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—’Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.’ ”
I have a radical theory.
Hear me out.
So in the 900s, before William the Conqueror came along and moved business to the City of London, Kings were rooted at Kingston Upon Thames.
Seven Saxon Kings were crowned there.
They began with Alfred the Great’s son, Edward the Elder. Edwy’s coronation is the most infamous because he slipped away form his to meet women, and had to be dragged back. Here’s Ethelred’s:
“Two bishops with the Witan [council or parliament] shall lead him to the church. When the king arrives at the church he shall prostrate himself at the altar and the Te Deum shall be chaunted. When this is finished the king stall be raised from the ground and having been chosen by the bishops and the people shall,with a clear voice, before God and all the people, promise that he shall observe three rules.”
Somewhere at the heart of this ceremony lay the Coronation Stone: a piece of sarsen, or Greywether sandstone of the type used in the uprights of Stonehenge. Historians link it to mentions of the chair used by the Saxon kings during the ceremony. John Speed, in his England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (1627) writes of “At Kingston, likewise, stood the chair of majesty, whereon Aethelstan Edwin and Ethelred sate at their coronations and first received their sceptre of imperial power.”
No one can track it back to its inception, though. If we were fantasising, we could look further back to 838AD, when a Great Council was held at Kingston, to define the relationship between the Bishops and the Saxon Kings.
Was it there then?
And indeed, how far back might this stone’s relationship with this country’s kings go?
Is it possible that this stone is the one once fabled to hold a sword, the centre of so many fairy tales which have held men entranced for more than a thousand years?
Whatever its provenance – for it has had a chequered history since its glory days – it sits vaingloriously in front of the Kingston Guildhall, surrounded by traffic and local bureaucracy, incredulous at how the mighty can fall.
It is on the move again. Soon it will be carefully staged in a Lottery-funded revamp of Kingston’s ancient parish church of All Saints.
And once again, they will come from far and wide to gawp at the stone of the Saxon Kings.