Solemn and imposing was the meeting of the Witenagemot, or “assembly of the wise.” It was divided into three estates. The first consisted of the only class who, as a rule, had any learning in those days—the clergy, represented by the bishop, abbot, and their principal officials: the second consisted of the vassal kings of Scotland, Cumbria, Wales, Mona, the Hebrides, and other dependent states, the great earls, as of Mercia or East Anglia, and other mighty magnates: the third, of the lesser thanes, who were the especial vassals of the king, or the great landholders, for the possession of land was an essential part of a title to nobility.
Amongst these sat Ella of Aescendune, who, in spite of his age, had come to the metropolis to testify his loyalty and fealty to the son of the murdered Edmund, his old friend and companion in arms, and to behold his own eldest son once more.
It was the morning of a beautiful day in early spring, one of those days of which the poet has written—
“Sweet day, so calm, so pure, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky”
—when winter seems to have loosed its stern hold upon the frozen earth, and the songs of countless birds welcome the bright sunlight, the harbinger of approaching summer.
The roads leading to Kingston-on-Thames were thronged with travellers of every degree—the ealdorman or earl with his numerous attendants, the bishop with rude ecclesiastical pomp, the peasant in his rough jerkin— all hastening to the approaching ceremony, which, as it had been definitely fixed, was to take place at that royal city.
There Athelstane had been crowned with great pomp and splendour, for it was peculiarly “Cynges tun” or the King’s Town, and after the coronation it was customary for the newly-crowned monarch to take formal possession of his kingdom by standing on a great stone in the churchyard.
The previous night, Archbishop Odo had arrived from Canterbury, and his bosom friend and brother, Dunstan, from Glastonbury, as also Cynesige, Bishop of Lichfield, a man in every way like-minded with them; while nearly all the other prelates, abbots, and nobles, arrived in the early morn of the eventful day.
The solemn service of the coronation mass was about to commence, and the people were assembling in the great church of St. Mary, filling every inch of available room. Every figure was bent forward in earnest gaze, and every heart seemed to beat more quickly, as the faint and distant sound of deep solemn music, the monastic choirs chanting the processional psalms, drew near.
Suddenly the jubilant strains filled the whole church, as the white-robed train entered the sacred building while they sang:
“Quoniam praevenisti eum in benedictionibus dulcedinis, posuisti in capiti ejus coronam de lapide pretioso.” [xii]
Incense ascended in clouds to the lofty roof; torches were uplifted, banners floated in the air, every eye was now strained to catch a glimpse of the youthful monarch.