The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History,
archaeology and conservation
Oxbow Books £28
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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