Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Stone of Scone—Wayward Adventures of a Coronation Stone

The Stone of Scone a/k/a The Stone of Destiny--or is it?-- on display at Edinburgh Castle with the Scottish Crown Jewels.

Back in 1996 the Conservative Government  of the United Kingdom led by John Major—Maggie Thatcher lite in trousers—was getting a little nervous about how long Her Majesty’s Kingdom might be united.  Suffering through the tail end of a steep recession and continuing Tory attacks on the “power” of the Trade Union movement, social services, and the dole had helped to revive long simmering resentment in Scotland.  Specifically Major was edgy about growing cries for increased Scottish autonomy, a small but growing nationalist movement, and the intimidating glower of Sean Connery.

Major, a master of the empty gesture, decided to placate the Scots by announcing on July 3, 1996 that the legendary Stone of Scone would be returned to Scotland for safe keeping—at least until it was needed for the coronation of the next monarch. 

The Stone’s origins traced back to mythic prehistory.  On it the Kings of Scotland had been enthroned for hundreds of years until Edward I of England made off with the heavy object as a spoil of war in 1296.  Edward hauled it to London and Westminster Abbey, where he had it fitted into a wooden chair, known as King Edward’s Chair, on which most subsequent English sovereigns have been crowned.  It was a humiliating thumb of the nose to the Scots and a symbolic claim to be Lord Paramount of Scotland and the superior to any Scottish monarch.

Prince Andrew, right, presided over the ceremony turning over custody of the Coronation Stone to the Scots. Queen Elizabeth II and her presumptive heir Prince Charles, Duke of Wales were notable for their absence.

The 336 pound Stone, about the size and shape of a suitcase, was removed from Edward’s Chair with great care and ceremony and was transported with honor to the Scottish border for a transfer ceremony between representatives of the Home Office and of the Scottish Office on November 15, 1996.  It was taken from there to Edinburgh Castle, arriving on St. Andrew’s Day November 30.  At a ceremony in which Queen Elizabeth II was represented by Prince Andrew it was formally turned over to Scottish custody—with the proviso that the Scotts would kindly send it back to London for the next coronation.  The fact that the next likely person to require the Stone’s use—Prince Charles—was not on hand may be a clue that the English were not entirely sure they would ever get it back.  At any rate the Stone of Scone remains at the Castle and is on display to the public along with the long unused Crown Jewels of Scotland.

Some, however, believe the Stone was not the Stone at all—that the Monks of Monastery of Scone, a few miles north of Perth—had secreted the real stone, possibly at King Macbeth’s old castle at Dunsinane, and let Edward make off with a counterfeit.  To untangle the tale, it is best to start at the beginning—if we can find it.

Legend has it that the Stone a/k/a the Stone of Destiny, The Coronation Stone, Jacob’s Pillow Stone, the Tanist Stone, and in Scottish Gaelic clach-na-cinneamhain—it has more aliases than ten fugitives from justice—originated in Ireland. One tale credits the Dál Riata Gaels who established a kingdom spanning parts of what is now Ulster and Argyle carved out of the Pict Kingdom around the 4th or 5th Century.  This is dismissed by most scholars. 

More enduring is the story that the first King of the Scots, Fergus Son of Erc, brought the stone from Ireland and was crowned on it having defeated and overwhelmed the Picts before the year 500.  The stone was said to have been part of the Lia Fáil, the coronation stone of the High Kings of Tara.  The Picts were another group of related Celtic tribes who held sway over the eastern and northern parts of what is now Scotland, You may remember that were called the Caledonii by the Romans in Britain and gave them such fits that Hadrian built his great wall to keep them out. 

This is the foundation myth of Scotland.  But the Picts were never really conquered by the waves of Irish known as the Scotts.  Over a period of two or three hundred years the kingdoms of the Dál Riata and the Picts danced around various relationships before merging into the Kingdom of Alba—Scotland—before 900.  If the Dál Riata or Scottish kings were crowned the Stone, it was probably not until King Donald II, that the Stone would have been used for the coronation of a somewhat united nation.  Donald was the first to be styled rí AlbanKing of Alba.

The Stone was said to be an important symbol in the struggle to bring the various Celtic peoples into full conformity with the Catholic Church.  The Church propagated an entirely new myth, that it was the stone used as a pillow by the Israelite patriarch Jacob at Bet-El when he had a vision from God and was brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah and from there to Scotland.

Originally said to be held in lost city of Evonium in Ayershire, the Stone was kept at the Monastery of Scone and thus in the hands of the Church from around 1,000.  Claimants to the throne had to journey to the Abby for coronation thus placing themselves under the blessing and protection of the Church.

There the stone sat and was sat on through the sometimes tempestuous successions of Scottish kings through the time of the Norman Conquest of Britain.  At first the Scotts were quasi-allies of the Normans, raiding the English coast with impunity as William the Conqueror ravaged the kingdom of the Angles and Saxons.  The Royal houses intermarried somewhat and the Scottish Court began to ape French styles and customs.  But a clash was inevitable.

When Alexander II died in an unfortunate fall from his horse in 1286 he left no direct heirs essentially ending the Dunkeld Dynasty that had ruled since Malcolm III in 1068.  He named his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway as his heir, but she was quickly deposed.  In fact, she never sat on the Stone and was never crowned or even set foot in Scotland. 

John Balliol, the last King of Scotland enthroned on the Stone of Scone, offers homage to Edward I of England, fat lot of good it did him.

Several claimants, none very closely connected to the royal house were put forward.  But in 1291 John  Balliol, who traced a relation to David I King of the Scots from 1124–1153 through his mother won the crown after a judgment of a panel of arbiters while England’s Edward I held the realm in supposed stewardship over his main rival Robert Bruce whose claim was slightly more distant yet.  Both Balliol and Bruce, however, were essentially Anglo-Norman noblemen.  Balliol was dutifully enthroned at Scone but did not hold power long.

 Edward compelled Balliol to appear before the English Parliament on essentially trumped up charges and held for ransom in exchange for the Scotts levying taxes and raising arms for his wars in France.  Balloil was forced to admit fealty to the English king. He was stripped of the authority to govern by the Council Sterling.  The Council concluded an alliance with the French in retaliation and Edward invaded.  Despite all of this as Balliol took to the field as the Scottish king but was forced to abdicate after the Scotts were defeated at Dunbar Castle on April 27 on 1296.

                        Edward I steeling the Stone.

To assert his primacy over Scotland and any future Scottish kings, Edward took the Stone of Scone from the Abby and took it with him to London where he incorporated it into the chair for the coronation of English kings.

That meant that the unfortunate John Balliol was the last King of Scotland crowned upon the historic stone.

After an interim without a monarch and rebellions against the English led by William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, grandson of John Balliol’s old rival, was able to claim the Crown after murdering his chief rival.  Robert led a series of wars against the English and against his rivals in Scotland and with a firm ally in the French was finally able to have Scotland recognized as a completely independent Kingdom and in no way a vassal state of the English king.  This makes The Bruce the great national hero of the Scotts.

But alas, neither the heroic Bruce nor any of his successors including the Stewart and Stuart dynasties that originated with the Bruce’s grandson Robert II 1371 enjoyed the symbolic legitimacy of having been crowned on the Stone.

Under the Treaty of Northampton 1328 between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, England agreed to return the captured Stone to Scotland. However, riotous crowds prevented it from being removed from Westminster Abbey.  Those rioters may, or may not have been encouraged by the Crown to circumvent the treaty it had just signed. 

When James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scotts came to the English throne as James I of England, first of the Stuart Dynasty he did so on the Coronation Chair containing the Stone.  This united the two crowns while each nation remained, theoretically anyway, independent.  From that time onward—interrupted by the Cromwell’s Commonwealth—until the  reign of Queen Anne united England and Scotland as a single sovereign state, the Kingdom of Great Britain 1707, monarchs of Scotland were again crowned on the Stone, but only because the simultaneously were enthroned as English Kings or Queens.

                        The Stone in the English Coronation Chair.

Since the ascent of the German House of Hanover with George I in 1714 British monarchs have been elevated on the Stone.  That includes the most recent and current occupant, Elizabeth II of the re-named House of Windsor in 1953.

In later years geologists examined the Stone that Edward captured and discovered that it was made of a variety of red sandstone quarried not far from Scone.  That meant one of two things—that the whole legend of Irish origin which gave it legitimacy was a fraud or that Edward had been fooled and a counterfeit stone was pawned off on him while the real stone was hidden by the Monks of Scone somewhere for safekeeping.

A firm belief by many Scotts in the second alternative has, over the centuries played out in very interesting ways.  A new legend arose in which when the Stone was found again, a new and legitimate king would be enthroned who would inaugurate not just the restoration of Scotland, but a grand pan-Gaelic empire uniting Ireland, Scotland, and Celtic regions on the English Border but perhaps Wales and even Britany in France.  It was sort of a Scottish version of the English return-of-the-king prophesies arising from the Arthurian legend.

Some believe that the real Stone of Scone is hidden beneath the ruins of Macbeth's castle at Dunsinane.

Rumors of the Stone’s hiding place set off many a fruitless quest.  Many of those rumors centered on Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. 

For instance in 1818 The Chronicle in London printed this curious account:

On the 19th of November, as the servants belonging to the West Mains of Dunsinane-house, were employed in carrying away stones from the excavation made among the ruins that point out the site of Macbeth’s castle here, part of the ground they stood on suddenly gave way, and sank down about six feet, discovering a regularly built vault, about six feet long and four wide. None of the men being injured, curiosity induced them to clear out the subterranean recess, when they discovered among the ruins a large stone, weighing about 500 lb. which is pronounced to be of the meteoric or semi-metallic kind. This stone must have lain here during the long series of ages since Macbeth’s reign. Besides it were also found two round tablets, of a composition resembling bronze. On one of these two lines are engraved, which a gentleman has thus deciphered.— “The sconce (or shadow) of kingdom come, until Sylphs in air carry me again to Bethel.” These plates exhibit the figures of targets for the arms. From time immemorial it has been believed among us here, that unseen hands brought Jacob’s pillow from Bethel and dropped it on the site where the palace of Scoon now stands. A strong belief is also entertained by many in this part of the country that it was only a representation of this Jacob’s pillow that Edward sent to Westminster, the sacred stone not having been found by him. The curious here, aware of such traditions, and who have viewed these venerable remains of antiquity, agree that Macbeth may, or rather must, have deposited the stone in question at the bottom of his Castle, on the hill of Dunsinane (from the trouble of the times), where it has been found by the workmen.

This curious stone has been shipped for London for the inspection of the scientific amateur, in order to discover its real quality.

If such a stone was shipped to London, it has never been found.  But, trust me, someone is at this moment rummaging through basements and sewers searching for it.  Perhaps, even, it is the next quest of that eminent symbologist Robert Langdon. 

As a symbol of the Crown, the Coronation Chair and Stone has also been the target of political violence.  On June 11, 1914, a lady’s handbag, containing a bomb, was hung on the back of the Chair in Westminster Abby. Exploding shortly after public viewing hours closed at around 5:50 p.m. it blew off part of the carved work at the back of the chair. Although no individual was charged with carrying out the attack, Suffragettes were blamed because they were angry over the passage of the recent Cat and Mouse Act. That Act of Parliament officially known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 which ordered Suffragettes in prison and staging hunger strikes to be released upon falling ill, but subject to re-arrest and imprisonment as soon as they recoveredPolice reports indicated that the damage to the Chair was minor, but made no mention of damage to the Stone. 

Three of the young Scotts who stole the Stone in 1950--Gavin Vernon,  Kay Matheson,  and Ian Hamilton.

In 1950 the Stone became the center of a plot by romantic young Scottish nationalists which would make a hell of a good caper movie, perhaps with comic overtones.  On Christmas Day four students, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart somehow took the Stone from Westminster Abbey for return to Scotland and in the process managed to drop the heavy object breaking it into two pieces.  The largest piece was, I kid you not, buried at a Gypsy camp site in Kent.  The exact hiding place of the second half has not been determined.  The four plotters returned to Scotland where at the University of Glasgow they recruited the assistance of a sympathetic English student, John Josselyn, ironically a lineal decedent of Edward I, to smuggle it across the border. 

A few days later the smaller piece was retrieved, but at a stop at Leeds, the young folks could not resist a little celebration—and libation taking the Stone to nearby Ilkley Moor, a wild and beautiful place fraught legendary significance where they serenaded it with the traditional Yorkshire folk song On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at (On Ilkley Moor without your hat.)  This lighthearted bit of business disposed of, the small fragment was reunited with the other. The fragments were passed to a senior Glasgow politician who arranged for it to be professionally repaired by stonemason Robert Graytaken.

Despite a frantic hunt and the amateur status of the plotters, the British authorities were not able to find the Stone, although they must have known it was in Scotland somewhere.  On April 11, 1951 the stone was placed on the altar in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey where they believed the Church of Scotland would take protective care of it and not allow its return.  Of course as soon as authorities got wind of it, they swooped in and seized the stone, returning it to London in plenty of time for Queen Elizabeth’s investiture two years later.

Of course some claim the students only left a replica, fooling the English once again, and that the stone from Edward’s chair, which if you remember itself may have been a phony, lays securely in hiding.  

The whole thing resembles a giant historical shell gamestone, stone, who’s got the stone.

As for the students, their identity was veiled but when reveled were not prosecuted.  It seems that the Crown could not prove that it was the legal owner of the stone and did not want to risk a ruling to that effect in court.  Some of the culprits went on to distinguished careers.  Ian Hamilton became a lawyer and a leader of the Scottish National Party.  He authored an account of the caper in a bestselling book, The Taking of the Stone of Destiny on which a 2008 movie Stone of Destiny was indeed made and in which Hamilton appeared in a cameo.

Meanwhile Scottish restlessness has continued, even risen, even after the establishment of a Scottish National Parliament in 1998.  On September 18, 2014 Scotts voted in a referendum on independence.  The question will be simply put—“Should Scotland be an independent country?”  It was a close fought issue but the electorate narrowly opted to remain in the United Kingdom.  Given the closeness of that vote, the narrow victory for another referendum on leaving the European Union—most Scotts opposed Brexit and favor continued—and the draconian austerity measures of the Tory Government under Prime Minister Theresa May there is was a rising clamor for a new vote on independence.  

Scottish Nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon lead a minority government—by just two seats—in the Scottish Parliament and are now the third largest party in the United Kingdom with 59 seats in the House of Commons where they are a major burr under the saddle of Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Franz, Duke of Bavaria, is the current Stuart pretender and according to Jacobites the rightful King Francis II.  The chances of him being crowned King of Scotland on the Stone are slim and none.  The 97 year old made news last month when he became not only the first Stuart heir, but the first European royal claimant to publicly acknowledge a long time Gay partner.  His slightly younger brother Max is next in line.

Although the National Party is fervently republican and social democratic there are still some monarchists who still support a Stuart restoration.  The current Stuart Pretender is Franz, Duke of Bavaria, a lineal descendent through his grandmother of Charles I and styled Francis II by unreconstructed Jacobites.  It is hard to imagine a scenario where he would be crowned King of the Scotts on Stone of Scone let alone King of the United Kingdom.

But it is an open question if Prince Charles may ever sit over the Stone and assume either a united crown, or an English one. 

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