Westminster Abbey – site of Coronations since 1066. Photo @Association of English Cathedrals
A crucial part of coronations in Westminster Abbey is the moment the monarch is crowned with the Crown of St Edward and invested with the royal regalia while seated on what is now commonly known as the Coronation Chair although the correct name is St Edward’s Chair. This ancient Chair was named after Edward the Confessor and from the late 13th century until 1996 encompassed the Stone of Scone.
The Chair with the Stone of Scone intact
In 1296 when Edward I, aka Longshanks, returned from Scotland he brought with him the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, symbolic of Scotland’s sovereignty, which he had removed from Scone Abbey, giving it into the care of the Abbott of Westminster Abbey on the 18 June 1297. Edward, not for nothing known as the Hammer of the Scots, wished to hammer it home in no uncertain terms that from now on it would be English and not Scottish monarchs who would now be crowned whilst sitting on this stone – a large block of Lower Old Red Sandstone. He gave instructions that a chair should be constructed to house it and thus this wonderful chair was created. Master Walter of Durham (c.1230-1305) King’s Painter, whose extraordinary skills also included carpentry, was commissioned to build and decorate the chair for which he was duly paid 100 shillings.
Some of the exquisite original punch decorated gilding depicting birds, acorns and oak leaves still survives inside the left arm of the chair. Photo Westminster-Abbey.org.
The border was once decorated with coloured glass. How it must have shimmered in the glow of hundreds of candles…photo thanks to Stuff About London blog.
Since 1308 every royal derrière has sat on this glorious chair while being crowned except for Edward V, who disappeared before his coronation took place, Edward VIII whom abdicated and Mary II, whose coronation being a joint one, had a special chair built for her use. St Edward’s chair was made of oak which was gilded, inlaid with glass mosaics and decorated with images of birds, acorns, flowers and foliage some of which have survived up until today. Up until the 17th century the monarch would sit on the actual stone – with presumably a cushion for comfort? – until a wooden platform was added . The four gilt lions were made in 1727 to replace the originals, which themselves, were not added until the 16th century.
The Stone itself has in recent times undergone several adventures. It was stolen, or rescued, depending upon which way you look at it, by four Scottish students from the University of Glasgow on Christmas Day 1950 – in the process of which they managed to break it in half after it crashed to the floor although, to be fair, it may have been already been weakened/broken by a bomb placed on the chair by suffragettes in 1914. After various shenanigans and a tip off, the Stone, which in the interim had been repaired by a stonemason who thoughtfully left a message inside the Stone while doing so, was later discovered in April 1951 on the site of the High Altar at Arbroath Abbey. After being kept in a vault for a time it was eventually returned to Westminster Abbey and replaced in the chair in February 1952. This was not the end of the Stone’s peregrinations for in July 1996, Prime Minister John Major, announced that it was to be returned to Scotland. This was duly done and the stone now rests in Edinburgh Castle only to be returned to Westminster Abbey for coronations.
The chair as it is today minus the Stone of Scone. Note the grilles containing the now empty quatrefoils.
Originally the lower part of the chair had a grille on all four sides decorated with quatrefoils each of which had a painted heraldic shield at the centre. By 1820 all the shields were gone as well as the grille which held the quatrefoils at the front of the chair. Once these shields had been removed over time the stone itself would become damaged by the gouging out of fragments for souvenirs. The grille we see today is a replacement.
The Stone of Scone today. The damage caused by souvenir hunters gouging out scrapings of dust can clearly be seen. The areas of damage line up with where the missing heraldic shields once covered the Stone. Photo Historic Scotland.
A drawing c.1780 showing the grilles surrounding the stone containing the quatrefoils with their heraldic badges intact. Artist John Carter. Image Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.
This wonderful and irreplaceable chair has been also been disgracefully abused in comparatively recent times including numerous graffiti mostly carved in the 18th and 19th centuries by the pupils of Westminster School – it’s baffling why some sort of action was not taken by the Abbey authorities to put a stop to this long-term systematic abuse of the chair – one graffito could perhaps be forgiven but on such a large scale? Were they simply allowed to just carry on? – but I digress. The schoolboys were not alone in carving graffiti on the chair with one visitor carving “P. Abbott slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800” (1).
Examples of the 18th and early 19th century graffiti…
The schoolboys from Westminster School were not the only culprits to wreak vandalism on the chair. Some Bright Spark at the Office of Works thought it was a good idea for hideous dark brown varnish to be applied to the chair in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee which, quelle surprise, caused a public outcry. If this was not depressing enough further damage was caused to the gilding when the varnish was removed. As mentioned above the Suffragette bomb in 1914 damaged the left land pinnacle of the chair while also damaging the stone. Further damage occurred when the Scottish Nationals wrenched the stone from the chair in doing so they smashed the front rail and further weakened the frame (2). Despite all this wanton vandalisation the chair has still managed to survive intact in all its glory and I’m sure should the shades of our past kings and queens – as well as that of Master Walter – all who would have seen the chair in pristine condition – ever return to the Abbey, they would still be able to recognise it and recall the glorious day of their coronations.
Westminster Abbey North Front. Photographer unknown.
Should you wish to delve further into the chair everything you need to know can be found in this excellent article The Coronation Chair: anatomy of a medieval throne can be found here.
2. The Coronation Chair: anatomy of a medieval throne.
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2 thoughts on “The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone”