The Intriguing History of the Stone of Scone
“You can’t steal something that’s been stolen,” Robert Crawley says in Downton Abbey ason 4, episode 9). I’m not sure if that’s an accurate statement but, in context, he meant if you take back something that was stolen from you, you are not stealing. Now, that statement is true. Perhaps that’s what the four college students who stole the Stone of Scone on Christmas Day, 1950, believed. And it wasn’t the only time in its history the stone had been stolen. Just what is the Stone of Scone and why would anyone want to steal it? Read on.
Purpose and Origin
It is a block of sandstone. It’s rather boring to look at. But the Stone of Scone (also called the Stone of Destiny) long was a symbol of the Scottish monarchy. For centuries, each new Scottish king would place his foot upon the stone as a part of his coronation ritual. Then, from the late 13th century until the latter part of the twentieth century, it sat under the coronation throne of English monarchs. Now it has been returned to Scotland. Sort of.
How the stone came to Scotland and became a part of the crowning of kings is up for debate. Legends about the stone’s origin abound. The two most frequently told stories are that it was brought to Scotland by the biblical Jacob or by the Tuatha de Daanan of Irish mythology. The two stories may not be mutually exclusive. Here’s why.
According to the Jacob story, the biblical figure rested his head on the stone at the time that he had his famous vision of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. He later took the stone with him as he traveled from the Middle East to Egypt, Spain, Ireland, and finally, Scotland.
The Tuatha de Daanan story concerns the mythical settlers of Ireland, a magical race who are now associated with the faeries. According to this story, the stone was magical and, when the rightful king put his foot on it, the stone cried out in acknowledgment. Some say this ancient race brought the stone with them when they fled Ireland and took refuge in Scotland. This does not fit with Irish mythology which says the Tuatha de Daanan still reside in Ireland, but they’ve gone underground.
One legend claims that an Irish king, Fergus Mor, brought it to Scotland in the 6th century A.D. Whether he did or not, most scholars agree that Scotland was originally inhabited by people migrating from the island now called Ireland, so they may have brought the stone with them. There are two problems with that theory. One is that some scholars say the Stone of Scone is most likely of Scottish origin, hewn from sandstone rocks in Perthshire. The other fact that casts doubt on the story is that the Irish Stone of Destiny, the stone that was used in the coronation of Irish kings, still remains in Ireland on the famous hill of Tara.
From Scotland to England
No matter where the stone originated, it became a part of the coronation ritual for Scottish kings. Although the stone seems to have moved around Scotland initially, in the 9th century King Kenneth Alpine is said to have brought the stone to the town of Scone in the county of Perthshire for his coronation. There it stayed until the end of the 13th century.
In 1292, John Balliol was the last Scottish ruler to use the Stone of Scone as part of his coronation ceremony. Four years later, English king Edward I fought against and defeated Balliol at the Battle of Dunbar. Having, from his point of view, conquered Scotland, Edward took the Stone of Destiny back with him to England and placed it under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. The stone remained there and became a part of the coronation of English (later British) monarchs from Edward all the way to present-day Queen Elizabeth II.
World War II and Christmas, 1950
During the centuries after Edward put the stone in Westminster, it has only been removed twice. German carpet-bombing raids of London during World War II caused concern for the stone’s safety. It, therefore, was moved to Gloucester Cathedral in the southwest portion of England. Still, there was a concern, as well, that the Nazis might try to steal the stone, so it was hidden. Archaeologist and preservationist, Sir Charles Peers was one of the few people who knew its location.
According to Wikipedia, when the Office of Works wrote to him, suggesting the stone be sent to Scotland, he balked. Via letter, he replied that the Scots had “been attempting by fair means or foul, to get possession of the Stone” ever since Edward brought it to England. He went on to say that “during my time at Westminster we have received warnings from the Police that Scottish emissaries were loose in London, intending to steal the Stone,” and that it should be locked away where they couldn’t get their hands on it.
But the Scots did. At least temporarily. While the Nazis never got their hands on it and the stone survived the war without a scratch, on Christmas Day, 1950, four Scottish college students managed to steal the stone from Westminster Abbey. The students brought it back to Scotland and hid it. Next, they sent a letter to King George VI with the promise to disclose the location of the stone if he would grant their petition to allow the stone to remain in Scotland. The king refused. After a short while, the students were apprehended, and the stone was brought back to England. Because there was strong, passionate support for the students among the Scottish people, the students were not prosecuted.
For the next forty-plus years, the Stone of Scone again sat under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. But, in 1996, the British Parliament took the surprising step of returning the stone to Scotland. Since then, it has been housed in Edinburgh Castle with the caveat that it be brought back to Westminster Abbey for future coronations. In 2020, the Scottish government announced that the stone was to be relocated to the Perth City Hall.
Two rumors about that stone’s authenticity persist. One is that the students did not give the actual Stone of Scone to the British authorities. Instead, they handed over a replica and the true stone remains hidden. Another rumor is that the stone Edward I took back to England was the fake. According to this story, the monks of Scone Abbey hid the real Stone of Destiny from Edward I and have been safeguarding it ever since.
What Do You Think?
So, did Edward I actually steal the Stone of Scone? If it was the authentic stone, didn’t he have a right to use it for his coronation since he had become the new ruler of Scotland? Are the Scottish students guilty of stealing? Didn’t they just return the Stone of Destiny to its rightful owner? Do you still wonder why people have sought to possess this slab of sandstone? Might it actually have magical or mystical properties? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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Slan go foil!