by Emily Ward
Do you need a crown to be a king? The answer may seem obvious to those familiar with the concept of a coronation ceremony, like the recent one held in Spain, during which a crown is placed upon the head of the monarch-to-be as part of the recognition of their kingship or queenship. The image of the crown and its symbolic links to royalty are consistently promulgated in mediums from literature and artwork to films and even children’s dressing up costumes. But, when is a crown not a crown? …when it’s a stone.
Medieval kings of Scotland were “crowned” or, to use more linguistically-appropriate terminology, enthroned or inaugurated, as the king of the Scots simply by sitting upon a block of sandstone. Yet this was no common-garden stone. Although the stone’s origins are shrouded in myth and mystery to this day, what is clear is that the stone involved in the inauguration ceremony has a very long history. Some later commentators even tried to claim it was the same stone mentioned in the biblical book of Genesis which Jacob used to rest his head upon whilst he dreamt.
When Scone, a small village in the modern-day area of Perth and Kinross, became the seat of the inauguration of the kings of the Scots in the ninth century, the stone became known as the Stone of Scone. By the sixteenth century it had gathered a range of other names capturing the importance and significance bestowed upon the item, including the Fatal Stone or Stone of Fate and, popular from the mid-nineteenth century, the Stone of Destiny.
However, the importance of this royal stone is not to Scotland alone. Today it plays a role in the coronation of the monarch of the whole United Kingdom, most recently in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. In 1297 King Edward I commissioned the same coronation chair which remains in use today and is on display in Westminster Abbey. The chair was specifically designed to include a display place for the Stone of Destiny, which King Edward had captured during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Indeed the stone itself “provided the raison d’être for the construction of the Chair”. Without such a Scottish stone, it is clear that such a coronation chair would never have been built. The history of the English and Scottish inauguration rituals blended in the early fourteenth century and have been entwined ever since.
The stone’s medieval history is not its only claim to fame. Numerous attempts to steal or reclaim the Stone of Destiny, and even to physically attack it, have demonstrated its significance as a symbol of national identity. In 1914 the stone became entwined with the suffragette cause when a bomb, which had been hung on the coronation chair, went off. Although the suffragettes did not claim responsibility, the incident had coincided with an important debate about suffragette violence in the House of Commons. The attack was attributed to a woman when a feather boa and handbag were found nearby afterwards. However, although a pinnacle of the chair itself was damaged, the Stone of Scone went untouched. Conspiracies that the stone was a fake, or plots to switch it for a replica continued and, a few decades later in 1950, the stone was actually stolen from Westminster. The twentieth century stories are almost as tinged with myth as the origins and medieval history of the stone, and even this relatively “modern” history is full of dispute, emotions and nationalist feeling.
Today it is possible to view the Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle and, should the vote on 18 September 2014 be made in favour of Scottish independence, it remains to be seen whether the stone will play a role in the coronation of the next monarch of the British Isles.
- Aitchison, N., Scotland’s Stone of Destiny (2nd edn., Stroud, 2003)
- Rodwell, W., The Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone: History Archaeology and Conservation (Oxford & Westminster, 2013)
- The Stone of Destiny: Artefact and Icon, Richard Welander, David J. Breeze and Thomas Owen Clancy (eds.) (Edinburgh, 2003)
 Rodwell, W., The Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone: History Archaeology and Conservation (Oxford & Westminster, 2013), p.23
 Rodwell, W., The Coronation Chair and the Stone of Scone: History Archaeology and Conservation (Oxford & Westminster, 2013), p.1