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Chair, Stone, and Crown

by
04 October 2013

Pamela Tudor-Craig is enthralled by a 'relic' and 'reliquary'

DAVID LAMBERT © DEAN AND CHAPTER OF WESTMINSTER

Chequered history: the Coronation Chair with the new front grille in place, after conservation, 2012; from the book under review

Chequered history: the Coronation Chair with the new front grille in place, after conservation, 2012; from the book under review

The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, archaeology and conservation
Warwick Rodwell
Oxbow Books £28
(978-1-78297-152-8)
Church Times Bookshop £25.20  (Use code CT213 )

THIS remarkable study is a high point in a wave of books about Westminster Abbey and the part that it plays as the scene of coronation, first enacted in the Confessor's Abbey on 6 January 1066 (nine days after its consecration and the day after King Edward the Confessor's death) for King Harold.

Although the creation of a fitting throne for his rebuilt Abbey was in King Henry III's mind from the 1230s, he never achieved it. Nor did King Edward I, until, in 1296, he defeated the Scots, abducted their king-making Stone of Scone, and set about creating a context for it in England in 1297-1300.

The roll-call of recent scholarship taking forward our understanding of the Abbey opened with Paul Binski's Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets in 1995, plus his Westminster Retable (2009). Roy Strong's magisterial Coronation was published in 2005, and Warwick Rodwell's Chapter House in 2010.

And now the Chair. Nor is this the end. Only the second BAA Conference to give its summer meeting and subsequent volume to the Abbey and Palace (the first was in 1902) was held during the summer, and will lead to another Rodwell volume. A fitting tribute, indeed, to 60 regal years.

Yet what a tragic story this book unfolds. Both the Retable volume and this one record in microscopic detail and scrupulous scientific analysis the manufacture of these unique multi-media objects, and the horrifying litany of neglect and abuse to which they have been subjected. In the case of the Retable, much mischief was due to anti-Catholic scorn, but not even the second Cromwell was able to quench finally our native loyalty to the Crown. Some of the blame for the blatant and sustained vandalism suffered by the Chair, the most significant and eloquent piece of English medieval furniture to survive, lies at the door of inattentive clergy, and generations of vergers who, until the early 20th century, earned fat tips beguiling wealthy visitors with tales about tombs in nave and transepts, while havoc was wreaked further east, not all by schoolboys.

Should you seek traces of the light-hearted, entirely charming gilt punchwork with inlaid glass paterae with which the oak Coronation Chair was originally adorned - a seated king, feet on a resentful lion, upon the inside back, foliage, and birds down the arms, the "cage" of quatrefoils with superimposed shields that enclosed the Stone - Marie Louise Sauerberg guides us through the full and beautifully photographed rescue operation of every surviving or recorded crumb, while Rodwell takes us through the carpentry, the copies, and the astonishing history of both what he aptly calls the "reliquary" and what is now the most mutilated of relics: the Stone itself.

If its custodians had been content to leave a chair that could stand over the Stone, and be moved separately on occasion, all would have been well and good. But no: after the Reformation, the Stone, weighing more than three hundredweight, was lodged within the base of the Chair, and dragged out and put back in again (that's four operations every time) for each of at least 28 coronations to date. Hence cutting back the stone to make it easier to get it out and in, boring it to fit iron rings to move it, breaking it when stolen. . . Would that the Scots had stolen it successfully in the 14th century. There has been no point in doing so since 1603, when the legitimate King of Scotland became King of England, and there is even less reason now, unless the Scots plan to seek a monarch again. Meanwhile, no two ancient objects could have done one another more harm.

Rodwell is justifiably severe about the legends associating the Stone with Jacob's pillow. This is a boulder of the red sandstone found near Scone. But there is something behind these sacred stones, revered equally in classical mythology and Jewish history. We are well provided with them in this country, with the King's Stone at Kingston, site of Saxon Coronations, the London Stone, and lesser stones like the one at Leighton Bromswold, the centre of administration for its hundred, which is much the shape and size of the Stone of Scone before it was cut about.

An alternative biblical passage from Joshua, which, like the Pentateuch, has claims going back to oral tradition of the ninth century BC, opens up a different perspective on the ancient tradition of sacred stones. In Joshua 24, looking back at his leadership under God's guidance of the people of Israel into the Promised Land, he gathered them together (24-27): "and the people said unto Joshua 'The Lord our God will we serve, and his voice will we obey.' So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Sechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said unto all the people, 'Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us, for it hath heard all the words of the Lord, which he spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God. . .'"

According to the fourth recension of the mid-14th century, the coronation ritual requires two thrones: one in the sanctuary for the anointing, the crowning, and the monarch's oath-taking; and the other under the crossing, where the Lords Temporal offer allegiance to the sovereign. The Coronation Chair used to be in the sanctuary. Since the Reformation it has been placed more often under the crossing. Either way, the Stone has heard it all.

A warning: this book is very difficult to put down. Skulduggery at dead of night, political contortions, a suffragette attack, scratched initials, the ghost of a plundered loveliness rightly termed "Decorated" - a deeply scholarly and beautifully illustrated whodunnit.

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