Clerics and Kings: Public History and the Redevelopment of All Saints Church, Kingston

In September 2014 a service of thanksgiving took place at All Saints Church, Kingston. It marked the completion (or near-completion) of the redevelopment and restoration of Kingston’s only Grade I listed building.

On the site where All Saints now stands, Athelstan was crowned in the year 925, becoming the first king who could truly be called King of England. In the ninth century, monarchs and bishops had met at Kingston to affirm their constitutional relationship: Kingston, it can be said, is the place ‘where England began’.

All Saints Kingston (Jim Linwood, Flickr CC)

All Saints Kingston (Jim Linwood, Flickr CC)

Centrally located next to the market place All Saints is integral to the history of Kingston. There have been churches on the site for more than a thousand years, although few traces remain. The earliest identifiable portions of the present building date from the thirteenth century and the church began to take its present form about 250 years later. Most of the present fabric is of eighteenth and nineteenth century origin, when the church underwent extensive rebuilding.

A number of Saxon kings are reputed to have been crowned at Kingston. The town occupied an important and influential role in local, regional and national affairs. Kingston began to grow as a town in the twelfth century and then to prosper as a centre of business, trade and manufacturing. By that time, however, its direct connections with royalty and a ‘national’ church had all but ended. Nevertheless, monarchs in the twelfth and seventeenth centuries granted charters enabling the town to hold a market. In 1927 George V confirmed the right of the borough of Kingston upon Thames to be known as ‘royal’.

Over the course of the twentieth century the landscape of Kingston changed a great deal, although the outward appearance of the church changed only slightly. Still located in the town, the church began to seem less part of the town. Clergy, congregation and supporters decided that by redeveloping the church they might also change people’s awareness and perception of it: not just as a historically important building but also as a vital part of town and community life. They made a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, but even so, there was a great deal of other work – and a great deal more fundraising – still to do.

Being a member of the project’s Heritage Committee, I thought it would make an excellent public history case study. Two History students, Tim Hodgson and Matthew Lester, researched the project and interviewed the vicar, Rev. Jonathan Wilkes. Their research showed the necessity of close working relations between project committees and various other groups and institutions, technical and professional, financial and fundraising, community, business and political. Research also illuminated the importance of branding and communication, the uncertainty and perilousness of financial arrangements and the challenge of reconciling a ‘heritage’ project with the priorities and objectives of a local authority. As the redevelopment of the church neared completion, the town’s historic market square was also redeveloped.

So will ‘history’ or ‘heritage’ now become a more visible aspect of Kingston life? It is possible that the town’s coronation stone (currently located outside the Guildhall) may be moved to a more central location, near the church. In any case, All Saints is about to embark upon another ambitious project, further confirming its importance in the life as well as the history and heritage of Kingston: a community centre is to be built in the church grounds. Funds are still required.

The service of thanksgiving revealed how the interior of the church has been transformed. It is now a wonderful, well-lit series of spaces, with their many decorations and memorials now clearly visible. The most spectacular of these decorations are 18 carved angels, looking down from the ceiling.


1 of the 18 Angels (Jonathan Cardy, WikiCommons CC)

Many of the memorials testify to the centrality of the church in the life of the town. There is a new heritage interpretation room, for educational as well as church use. The north entrance, long closed-off, has been reopened. The restoration of the organ is nearing completion. A coffee shop is planned. The church will still continue to be a place of prayer and reflection, and also of concerts and recitals.

The ASK (All Saints Kingston) project campaign coined the phrase ‘Where England Began’ to encapsulate All Saints’ and Kingston’s importance in the history of England. The project also helps to demonstrate how ‘heritage’ can be closely linked with ‘community’. You can access the ASK website.

You can also read a report by Dr Helen Wickstead of Kingston University on an archaeological survey of the church.

John Stuart is Head of the Department of History, Kingston University

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