Christmas morning 1950, four brash and idealistic Scottish college students sneaked into Westminster Abbey during the wee-hours and stole the ancient Stone of Scone. The ringleader of the heist, Ian Hamilton QC, now eighty-five, was a Scottish Nationalist and at twenty-five was studying law at Glasgow University.
Though perceived at the time as a student prank, Ian always tried to make clear that he did it with political motivations. The Stone, at 26 inches in length and weighing a hefty 336 pounds, was not the sort of thing to smuggle out under your coat! It took a great deal of plotting in Glasgow pubs over pints of beer and more than a little good luck to pull off the scheme.
Was it destiny to recover the Stone of Destiny?
The Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey
Ian Hamilton calmly acknowledges, the moment of no return. ''You sort of know that when you take a crowbar to a side door of Westminster Abbey and jemmy the lock that there isn't really any going back, don't you?'' he said philosophically in a 2008 interview. ''Not when you know that the next thing you are going to do is steal one of the ancient relics inside.''
Ian Hamilton, QC
An eminent Scottish lawyer, Ian Hamilton, who rose to be a Queen's Counsel, and who retired only five years ago, is a shrewd man. One who could easily be mistaken for a pillar of the establishment. But then, appearances can be deceptive. He urgently reminds listeners, ''that it was not stealing. It was a liberation. A returning of a venerable relic to its rightful ownership.''
In 1296 the troops of King Edward I of England, raided Scone Abbey in Perthshire, Scotland. They were searching for the Stone of Scone, a symbol of Scots’ sovereignty, the coronation seat of Scottish kings for centuries. Now that was stealing.
Edward took a personal interest in relics and symbols of nationhood. When he conquered Wales in 1282-3, Edward had the ‘crown of King Arthur’ and other Welsh treasures to be sent to Westminster in London.
Edward had a special chair built to house the Stone in Westminster Abbey. The Coronation Chair, also called St Edward's Chair or King Edward's Chair, was named for Edward the Confessor. A carpenter called ‘Master Walter’ carved the chair from fine English oak. He was paid 100 shillings.
For hundreds of years, kings and queens of England and later Britain have been crowned on the Coronation Chair, sitting above the Coronation Stone. From 1296 to 1950, the Scottish Stone was ensconced at Westminster Abbey.
The fumbles and follies of that fateful Christmas theft are portrayed in the 2008 movie Stone of Destiny in which Ian Hamilton had a cameo role. Amid the many problems and tense moments during the robbery, the Stone broke along an old crack.
We watched the film on Netflex last evening (while the Jazz were being tromped by the Lakers) and thoroughly enjoyed it (not the tromping but the flick).
Westminster Abbey ~ November 2008
The movie opened in October 2008, just two months before I visited Westminster Abbey for Evensong on November 2. At the time, I was unaware of the film or the significance of the Stone of Scone.
The rest of the story: After hiding the larger chunk of the stone in Kent, England for a few days, the conspirators risked the road blocks on the border (the first time in 400 years) and returned to Scotland with the piece, which they had hidden in the back of a borrowed car. The smaller piece was similarly brought north a little while later. Once in Glasgow, the Stone was then passed to a senior Glasgow politician who arranged for it to be professionally repaired by stonemason Robert Gray.
The return of the Stone to Scotland brought great national pride with celebrations throughout the country.
A major search was carried out by the British Government which proved unsuccessful. Finally in April 1951, the stone's custodians left it at on the altar at Arbroath Abbey for the safekeeping of the Church of Scotland. Of course, when the police learned of its whereabouts, they retrieved the Stone and returned it to London. The students were charged and stood trial for their crime, but never served time.
In 1996, in a symbolic response to growing dissatisfaction among Scots at the prevailing constitutional settlement, the British Conservative Government decided that the Stone should be kept in Scotland when not in use at coronations. On 3 July 1996 it was announced in the House of Commons that the Stone would be returned to Scotland, and on 15 November 1996, after a handover ceremony at the border between representatives of the Home Office and of the Scottish Office, it was transported to Edinburgh Castle where it remains today. (Hurray!)
When there is a future coronation (Charles? William?) provisions will be made to transport the stone to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony and then returned to its rightful home in Scotland.
Note sub title warning: If you watch the movie, you may want have the dialogue at the bottom of the screen, as some of the Scottish brogues are very thick.