place he treated as capital of his new kingdom [i.e. England] was near its
centre – Malmsebury”.
Malmsebury? Whatthenow? I had never even heard of
Malmsebury, let alone of its central position in English history. I blame the
Anglo-Saxons – I have never really delved much before 1066 in history. It is
all graphemes and dipthongs, Æthelwulfs, Æthelberhts and Æthelreds. It isn’t
until the Normans that we get kings with ‘normal’ names.
Putting my Anglo-Saxon prejudices aside, I had to
look up Malmesbury and
see what claim it had to be considered not only the capital of England, but
also the nation’s first capital.
I knew London had not always been England’s capital
city. I have visited Winchester and seen the towering statue of Alfred the
Great and knew of its former primacy. I knew it had been the centre of the
kingdom of Wessex and ultimately of a united England.
Winchester has a good claim and strongly
believes it was the country’s first capital. Hampshire County Council even
commissioned the Hampshire
Jubilee Sculpture to emphasise this august history. Various other bodies
also promote this line, from train
companies to national
parks. It certainly was England’s capital for much of the pre-Norman
period, with important royal palaces, mints and ecclesiastic foundations.
So where does Malmsebury fit in? And is there any
truth in the claim that it was England’s first capital? Malmsebury’s claim
rests on its special relationship with King Athelstan (or Æthelstan). Some
historians record that Athelstan made Malmsebury his capital in 925 AD. The
date is important, because Athelstan would become the king of a unified England
from 927 AD. If Malmsebury was his capital, then surely Malmsebury was capital
of this new kingdom and therefore England’s first capital?
Malmsebury certainly thinks so – and places great
store in this claim for its modern tourist
appeal. But others claim that although Athelstan bestowed great privileges
on the town, he had not gone so far as to remove the capital from Winchester.
Winchester still retained some of the vital bureaucratic functions, buildings
and offices of state.
So who is right? As ever with early English history,
there is a decent argument for either interpretation. The notion of a single,
fixed capital city had not yet really emerged, especially in a country that had
only recently been forged from the instability of the Heptarchy. Both places undoubtedly
played key roles during Athelstan’s reign, along with Westminster and
And so, with no clear answer I am left with just a
little more knowledge and the desire to visit what looks like a very pretty and
interesting Cotswold town. Perhaps there is power to the tourist pull of