Malmesbury – the first capital of England?

Where was the first capital city of England? London? Westminster? Winchester? All would be decent guesses but, according to a BBC 4 documentary, they would be wrong. Could the accolade go to the decidedly less well known Malmesbury?

I was dozily watching the first programme in the BBC 4 documentary series ‘Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings’ late last night when the presenter, Dr Janina Ramirez, said something that grabbed my full attention:

“the place he treated as capital of his new kingdom [i.e. England] was near its centre – Malmsebury”.

Malmesbury market cross By Arpingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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 – all before London.

Winchester Cathedral West Front By Alan Stewart (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey

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 Salisbury.

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 Athelstan’s legacy.