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Newly Unearthed Anglo-Saxon Monastery May Have Hosted England’s First Coronation

In the millennia since Edgar the Peaceful’s 973 coronation, the content of the royal ceremony has remained largely the same

Researchers conducting excavations near Bath Abbey have uncovered the remains of an apse dated to between the late eighth and late tenth centuries. (Wessex Archaeology)
smithsonianmag.com

Don’t let the tranquility of his name fool you. Edgar the Peaceful is a fierce contender for one of the most disputed titles in British royal history: the first true king of England.

In 973, Edgar became the first Saxon monarch crowned as king of all the English in the eyes of God. (Several others technically ruled before him, but Edgar was the first to wield control of what were then England’s three most powerful kingdoms.) Held at a long-gone monastery, the ceremony—the first of its kind—set a crucial precedent for all who have followed in Edgar’s footsteps. In the millennia since, the content of British coronations has stayed essentially the same.

Now, researchers from Wessex Archaeology may have unearthed the remains of the very building that hosted this landmark ceremony, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. Located near Bath Abbey, the two semi-circular stone structures appear to have once been part of an Anglo-Saxon apse—the end of a church that often contains the altar—and date to sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries. That makes these ancient bits of architecture the oldest known Anglo-Saxon structures in Bath, a city first founded during the Roman Empire.

“No trace of the [ancient] building remains above ground today, so it’s amazing that we now have an actual record of it and can get a real sense of it as it was,” says Canon Guy Bridgewater, reverend at Bath Abbey, in a statement quoted by Live Science.

According to two statements released by Wessex Archaeology, the structures are sandwiched between a deeper layer containing older Roman remains and what used to be the cloisters of a 12th-century cathedral, located just south of the abbey church.

To further pinpoint the structures’ origins, the researchers extracted and radiocarbon-dated two bits of charcoal that yielded a rough date range of 680 to 970 A.D. Because the charcoal appears to be derived from oak, which is hard to radiocarbon date, the exact timing of the structure’s construction remains tentative, as does the true nature of the building that once contained them, per a statement. But previous excavations in the abbey’s vicinity have uncovered other fragments of Saxon stonework, as well as several eighth- and ninth-century bodies, hinting that some sort of monastic structure once stood on the grounds.

Though the researchers offer Edgar’s coronation as an event that might have occurred in the ancient building’s hallowed halls, they can’t guarantee that was the case. Little is known about the renovations the monastery underwent over the years, especially as the institution changed royal hands. Both King Offa of Mercia, who acquired the monastery in 781, and his successor, Ecgfrith, had a zeal for revamping local buildings.

The two structures may even belong to different construction phases that happened within several centuries of each other, notes the statement.

“We may not be able to refine the dating for either structure much beyond late 8th- to late 10th-century,” the researchers report, “but what is certain is that they constitute an incredibly rare and important discovery.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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