On 6 May 2023, Charles III will be crowned on the sacred Stone of Scone – an ancient symbol of Scottish sovereignty whose history is mired in controversy and legend.
Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world and one of London’s key tourist sites. Built by King Edward I (Edward the Confessor) in 1040, it has been the site of royal coronations since 1066. Anyone who watched the late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral will have seen its elegant gothic exterior and magnificent vaulted ceilings, while visitors will have walked by the graves and memorials of illustrious artists and writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters.
And this year, in the run up to the coronation of Britain’s latest king, Charles III, visitors are paying particular attention to the Coronation Chair, the seat on which English monarchs have been crowned since 1308.
“You can find it behind glass in St George’s Chapel, just near the Great West Doors of the Abbey beside a portrait of Richard II seated there,” said Sue King, a Blue Badge tourist guide for London and the Abbey. “What you see is an old brown wooden chair, but there are accounts of how it was painted with images of kings, foliage and birds, gilded and fitted with precious stones. It’s probably the oldest piece of furniture still in use in England.”
On 6 May 2023, Charles III will be crowned king of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at Westminster Abbey (Credit: Doug Armand/Getty Images)
Despite its age, the chair is only part of the coronation story. Underneath the seat, along with a few initials carved by naughty schoolboys from Westminster School, is a wooden platform. This was designed by Edward I to house the Coronation Stone, a sacred rock with mysterious origins that he brought from Scotland in 1296.
The platform is currently empty – but before the coronation on 6 May, the stone will be brought from Edinburgh Castle (where it’s housed alongside the Scottish Crown Jewels) to the Abbey when Charles III is crowned king of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Coronation Stone – also known as the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny – is an ancient symbol of Scottish sovereignty with links to Ireland and Spain, stolen by the English and even associated with biblical lore.
English monarchs have been crowned on the Coronation Chair since 1308 (Credit: mikroman6/Getty Images)
However, while it has a long (and controversial) history, it actually looks like a fairly unremarkable rock: a rectangular slab of pinkish sandstone the size of a small suitcase that weighs around 125kg. Its only decoration is a roughly incised cross. At each end, iron rings are fitted. No one is quite sure when they were attached or whether their purpose was to make the stone easier to move or to chain it in place. And that’s just one of many mysteries surrounding the stone.
How to say it
In the UK today, the small round bread/cake “scone” that forms part of the nation’s much celebrated cream tea has a hotly contested pronunciation. Some say it rhymes with “stone” while others say with “gone”. But the Stone of Scone rhymes with “spoon” and takes its name from Scone Palace – the historical crowning place of Scottish kings – in Scotland’s highland county of Perthshire.
According to legend, it was the same stone used by the biblical figure Jacob (the father of the Israelites) as a pillow in Bethel when he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven. From here, one of Jacob’s sons is said to have taken it to Egypt, from where it travelled to Spain and later to Ireland when the Spanish king’s son, Simon Brech, invaded the island in 700 BCE.
There it was placed on the sacred Hill of Tara near Skryne in County Meath and named the Lia Fail, or “speaking stone”, because it was said to groan aloud if the claimant was of royal blood but remained silent if he was a pretender.
“There are a number of Lia Fail in ancient Irish history,” said Dr David Hume, an Ulster Scots historian, journalist and broadcaster. “In 496 CE, a stone was in the possession of King Fergus Mór mac Eirc who ruled Dalriada, a kingdom that spanned the Irish Sea and incorporated parts of Western Scotland.”
According to Hume, the story goes that Fergus took the Lia Fail stone from Ireland to Scotland when he moved his royal seat to Dunnadd in Argyll in 498 CE. However, it’s uncertain just how much of the story is true. The main evidence for it is in the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 CE, signed by the Scottish nobles in an appeal to the Pope to recognise Scottish independence, which mentions an “honour” passing through the Mediterranean Sea and coming from Israel.
The Stone of Scone is usually housed at Edinburgh Castle alongside the Scottish Crown Jewels (Credit: Historic Environment Scotland)
Whatever the truth, we know that the stone was taken to Scone Abbey in Perthshire after Kenneth I – who united the Scots and Pictish kingdoms and is known as the first King of Scotland – moved his capital from Western Scotland to Scone in around 840 CE. This “Stone of Destiny” was used for centuries in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs.
But following his victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, England’s King Edward I marched north, seized the stone from Scone Abbey and had it fitted into the base of a specially crafted wooden Coronation Chair on which English – and later British – monarchs have been crowned inside London’s Westminster Abbey ever since.
However, even this history remains disputed.
There is a rumour that the monks at Scone Palace actually hid the real stone in the River Tay and tricked the English troops into taking a substitute. In addition, geologists have proven that the stone seized by Edward I was quarried in the vicinity of Scone rather than in biblical Judea. It’s likely that a more ancient stone was used to crown the kings of Ireland, and this was probably brought first to Antrim from Tara and then to Scotland by King Fergus, but sometime after that it was replaced by the present stone that was quarried close to Scone.
The ‘Stone of Destiny’ was used for centuries in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs (Credit: Historic Environment Scotland)
However, no one has ever found the hidden stone and, even though Scotland was not yet part of a United Kingdom, the stone that Edward took symbolically gave the future English kings dominion over Scotland. Because of this, the present stone’s physical representation of the seat of monarchy has, over the years, made it a target for political activists.
In 1914, suffragettes detonated a bomb under the chair. During World War Two, concerns about German bombing led to the stone being secretly buried under Westminster Abbey, while the Coronation Chair was moved to Gloucester Cathedral until the war was over.
But not long after they were returned, a group of Scottish Nationalist students broke into the Abbey on Christmas Eve 1950. They removed the stone, which broke in the process (probably due to damage caused by the suffragette bomb) and hid it until it had been repaired. Four months later it was placed on the high altar at the ruined Arbroath Abbey – a building long associated with Scottish independence.
It was a spectacular stunt, and although the stone was returned to Westminster, the students were never charged and calls for Scottish independence continued to grow. In 1996, then British prime minister, John Major, tried to silence these calls with a curious PR move, announcing the stone would be returned to Scotland on the proviso that it would be brought back to Westminster for use in further coronations.
Arbroath Abbey is famous for its association with the Declaration of Arbroath, in which Scotland’s nobles swore their independence from England (Credit: Ganet77/Getty Images)
Granting permission for this to happen was only half the battle. Removing the stone itself was an arduous task.
“When the Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996, the process of removing it from the chair required great care to ensure both were protected throughout,” explained Kathy Richmond, head of Collections & Applied Conservation at Historic Environment Scotland.
“A specially designed scaffold had to be carried into the Abbey and carefully erected over the Coronation Chair. Then a running pulley was mounted above and a block and tackle used to winch the Stone up and out of the Chair before it was lowered onto a specially built hand barrow. The whole operation took six hours.”
This same procedure will be repeated later this year in reverse, when the stone is brought to London for the crowning of King Charles. Once the stone is laid under the Coronation Chair, they will be moved from their place by the West Door to the Coronation Theatre, an area in the middle of Westminster Abbey at the centre of the lines of the cross on which the abbey is constructed. Historically this area was decorated with bright wall paintings. Today its most striking feature is a bold medieval mosaic floor known as the Cosmati pavement.
“Here the king will be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury,” said King. “For this private part of the ceremony, a canopy is placed over the chair by four Knights of the Garter. The then-king will be handed the Sword of Offering (which he hands back) and then the Sovereign Sceptre and Golden Orb before he is finally crowned with Edward’s Crown.”
The Crown Jewels are usually housed at the Tower of London, but will be used in Charles’ coronation ceremony (Credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images)
These items of coronation regalia are the heart of the Crown Jewels collection on display at the Tower of London. But current visitors to the Tower will not see quite as much as usual. The crown is being resized to fit King Charles III, and many other items will be borrowed to be worn by other members of the royal family.
The Abbey will also be closed to the public in the days leading up to 6 May – as will Edinburgh Castle when the Stone of Destiny is removed. Given the stone’s history and significance, the exact details of when and how it will be transported are a closely guarded secret.
But while these ancient buildings and artefacts are a magnet for tourists to the UK, the coronation will serve as a reminder of their history – a history that is entwined with that of the British Isles, and perhaps even the ancient father of the Israelites.
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