Review – The Place-name Kingston and Royal Power in Middle Anglo-Saxon England

3 mins read
Jill Bourne
BAR Publishing, £44.00
ISBN 978-140731568
Review Duncan W Wright

In 925, Æthelstan – often styled as first ruler of all England – was consecrated in a ceremony where, for the first time, the king wore a crown rather than a helmet. The unprecedented service took place at a site recorded as Cinges tun(e), believed to be Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, and probably chosen as it lay on the border between Wessex and Mercia. The crowning of Æthelstan and the apparent coronation of four further leaders at Kingston in the 10th century have led many to presume that this was a highly significant place, a villa regalis or ‘royal vill’. Extrapolating this premise further, most archaeologists and historians have interpreted other Kingstons in the same light, as indicating important centres of royal power.

Jill Bourne thoroughly debunks this idea by undertaking a comprehensive analysis of the 70 English Kingston names for the first time. Most place-names are found in the Wessex heartland, but there are notable concentrations too in the kingdoms of the Hwicce and Magonsæte – territories that roughly equate to the dioceses of Worcester and Hereford. Bourne finds that Kingstons do not denote burhs, mother parishes, or important estate centres, but are compellingly associated with long-distance routeways, particularly Roman roads. Some of these are even spaced at regular intervals, seemingly forming organised networks. While Bourne’s work does not reveal the definite function of Kingstons, this distribution leads her to suggest they may have primarily acted as checkpoints.

As with all place-name studies, dating is problematic. Although cyninges tūn occur in law codes as early as the 6th century, most are not mentioned until far later. Bourne’s proposal that the Middle Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex may have been behind the development of Kingstons is intriguing nevertheless, providing yet more evidence that individuals and institutions were able to wield significant power long before the time of Alfred.

Nicely produced and illustrated, there is much in this volume for archaeologists to enjoy, and indeed much for archaeologists to do in the future if the character and purpose of Kingstons are to be better understood.

This review was published in CA 332.

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