Westminster Abbey place of Coronations since 1066. Photo @Association of English Cathedrals
When a king or queen is crowned in Westminster Abbey a crucial part of the ceremony is the crowning with the ancient St Edward’s crown and investiture with the royal regalia while sitting on the Coronation chair also known as St Edward’s chair, named after Edward the Confessor with the Stone of Scone enclosed beneath the seat.
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. Edward, not for nothing known as the Hammer of the Scots, and wishing 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 red Perthshire sandstone, instructed that a chair be constructed to house it and thus was this wonderful chair created. Master Walter of Durham, King’s Painter, whose skills also included carpentry, was commissioned to build and decorate the chair for which he was duly paid 100 shillings.
Some of the original gilding still remaining after the centuries. Photo Westminster-Abbey.org.
The Stone of Scone also known as the Stone of Destiny.
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 a special chair was built for her use. Made of oak, gilded and inlaid with glass mosaics, traces of which can still be found today, while faint images or birds, flowers and foliage still survive on the back. Up until the 17th century the monarch would sit on the actual stone with presumably a cushion for comfort until a wooden platform was then 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 it may have been originally weakened/broken by the Suffragette bomb in 1914. After various shenanigans and a tip off, the Stone, now repaired by a stonemason who had placed a message inside the Stone while he was repairing it, 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 travels 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
This wonderful and irreplaceable chair has been disgracefully abused in comparatively recent times including the numerous graffiti mostly carved in the 18th and 19th centuries by the pupils of Westminster School – its baffling how this systematic graffiti carving was allowed to carry on – 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). Hideous dark brown varnish was applied in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Suffragettes placed a bomb next to the chair in 1914 which caused a small corner of the chair to be blown off, damaging the stone, and of course further damage was caused when the Scottish Nationals wrenched the stone from the chair. However I’m sure should the shades of our past kings and queens who would have seen the chair in pristine condition, ever return to the Abbey, they would still be able to recognise it and remember the glorious day of their coronations.
Westminster Abbey North Front
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