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Kingston: Town of kings

For more than a millennium Kingston upon Thames has had royal connections. Norman Wright explores an ancient market town where Saxon kings were crowned

Old Father Thames, muddy-grey and rolling through at top speed today, is certainly the key to the tale of our oldest royal borough – a story of the crowning of ancient kings, medieval markets and Tudor hunting parties, through to pioneering warplanes.

Kingston upon Thames has exactly the sort of history that Kipling’s poem imagines. Its bridge, however, can tell a few tales of its own. For hundreds of year it was one of the most important crossing points – the first upstream of London Bridge from Saxon times until Putney Bridge was opened in 1729.

Before the first wooden structure was built in the 13th century, a ford at Kingston was exploited by the Romans. It was a far cry from today when the current elegant Victorian structure, built near the original site, carries 50,000 vehicles a day between Surrey and Middlesex.

Kingston has always had strong royal connections. In fact, its name derives from Kinges Tun, meaning King’s estate or farm. The first reference to the town was made in AD838, when King Egbert of Wessex, grandfather of Alfred the Great, held his Great Council in Kingston. It was described in contemporary records as “that famous place called Kingston in Surrey”. This royal connection dates back more than 1000 years and as many as seven Saxon kings are said to have been crowned in the borough.

Over the centuries, royal charters were granted to Kingston, which gave the town rights to operate a market. King John granted the first charter in 1208. However, Charles I granted the most influential charter in 1628, with the unique right to a monopoly over markets within a seven-mile radius of the town.

With Hampton Court Palace just upriver, the Tudors hunted around the growing town. Henry VII’s valet William Shale owned the Rose Tavern on the site of number 6 to 8 Church Street. A magnificent gilded statue of Queen Anne stands rather like a figurehead atop the Market House overlooking the ancient Market Square. It was made by sculptor Francis Bird in 1706 and was mounted on the original timber structure that dated from 1505. When the current Market House replaced that in 1840, the statue was transferred. The building was used as a town hall until 1935 when the current red-brick Guildhall was opened. Its balcony was used to read royal proclamations. Now the Market House acts as the tourist information centre as well as a gallery to showcase the work of local artists.

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