This year we are celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of HM The Queen, which took place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June, 1953. In common with all coronations since the fourteenth century, the anointing and crowning took place with The Queen seated in the Coronation Chair. To mark the Diamond Jubilee, the Chair has undergone a much needed programme of cleaning and conservation during the past two years.
Despite being the most widely known artefact in British history, it has received remarkably little study hitherto, and has never before been the subject of a monograph. Constructed in 1297-1300, the Chair comprises two elements: a gilded oak frame, and a block of Scottish sandstone for the seat. The latter – the Stone of Scone – has been on display in Edinburgh Castle since 1996, while the Chair remains at Westminster.
The Stone itself has been the subject of several books, many articles and much controversy. Apart from the fact that the Stone was used as the inauguration seat for Scottish kings, down to 1292, it has no authentic early history. Consequently, medieval chroniclers, both Scottish and English, invented their own histories, which have been further embellished over the ensuing centuries. The volume of myth that has accrued is quite extraordinary, and of interest in its own right. However, it does not reflect the history of the Stone. The first detailed study and record of the Stone, as an artefact, took place in 1996, by Historic Scotland (published 2003); and the first scholarly analysis of both its authentic and mythical histories was published by Dr Nick Aitchison in 2000.
Until now, nobody has ever studied how the Chair and the Stone functioned as a united artefact, and a huge amount of fresh information has come to light. The popular assumption that the Stone was brought from Scone and simply placed in a compartment under the seat – where it remained untouched for 700 years – is false. Until the Tudor period, English monarchs sat on upper face of the Stone, just as the Scottish kings had: the wooden seat-board came later.
We do not know the original shape and size of the Stone, because the four vertical sides were all recut when the Chair was made, but the thickness of the block has remained unaltered. The iron links attached to the ends were not for lifting or carrying it, as is often supposed, but were added in 1324-7 for chaining it to the floor of the Shrine Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Structural alterations to the Chair in the 16th and 18th centuries necessitated reducing the length of the Stone, and so its ends were cut back twice more. The front edge of the block exhibits three shallow circular depressions which have puzzled commentators in the past: some wondered whether they were of Pictish or even prehistoric origin. But we now know that they were made by visitors who used their pocket-knives to scrape samples of dust from the Stone, through the three openings in the wooden grille. One German visitor in 1710 describes how he lost his nerve: ‘I should have much liked to scrape off a little with my knife, which would have done little harm to this highly prized stone, but I dared not . . .’
Professor Warwick Rodwell is Consultant Archaeologist to Westminster Abbey but also has a long-standing interest in Scottish archaeology, and has been a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for 45 years. he is the author of ‘The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation’, published June 2nd. Pre-order now at the Special price of £21 (RRP: 29.95) from www.oxbowbooks.com (Customers in the USA order here).
Article originally published on www.celebrate-scotland.co.uk, reposted with kind permission. Read about the medieval pageantry of Scotland’s monarchs in the Middle Ages in the November/December issue of History Scotland magazine, available from their website now.