On Saturday, 6th May, King Charles III will be crowned at what will be the first coronation for a British monarch since Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2nd June, 1953. Among the many wonderful, historical, traditional features of the ceremony will be the inclusion of what is called The Coronation Chair. This is an incredibly old, wooden chair, also known as King Edward’s Chair, or St Edward’s Chair. This seat of wooden oak is a purpose-built piece of furniture where the monarch sits while being crowned. Over seven centuries old, the Coronation Chair is considered a historical treasure in its own right. But it was actually constructed to enshrine a far more magnificent treasure which sits at its base: The Scottish Stone of Destiny.
The Stone of Destiny – or the Stone of Scone — is one of those historical artefacts that has captured the public imagination. Over the centuries, it has been imbued with magical, mystical properties; and wrapped in layers of legend. Taken from its home at the Abbey of Scone during the first Scottish War of Independence in 1296, its story before its removal to England is shrouded behind the murky veil of early medieval, Scottish history. But that is just part of its mystique.
By tradition, the Stone of Destiny is said to have been used as the seat upon which Scottish Kings had been inaugurated since Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century. By implication, it has witnessed some of the most monumental occasions in Scottish history. And certainly, for this reason, it was – and still is – emblematic of Scottish identity.
Many legends have attached themselves to the Stone of Destiny over the centuries. By far the most famous is the story that the Stone of Destiny is Jacob’s pillar – the stone used to establish Bethel in Genesis 28. The Stone of Destiny has also been equated with Lia Fáil, the Irish Stone of Destiny located on the Hill of Tara and used for the inauguration of Irish Kings. As beautiful and romantic as these legends may be, they have been discounted by modern archaeologists and scientists who have studied the stone and its provenance.
The true petrology of the Stone of Destiny is far less romantic than legend would suggest. The stone that is currently housed in St Giles Cathedral, and that will once again lie in the cavity made for it at the base of the Coronation Chair when future monarchs are crowned, is a block of red sandstone ‘wholly compatible with that of the Lower Old Red Sandstone beds exposed in the vicinity of Perth and Dundee’.
Yet if science has destroyed the legends surrounding the Stone of Destiny, history nevertheless imbues it with a far greater story: That of Scotland’s historical relationship with England.
In 1296, the Stone of Destiny was seized by Edward 1 as a spoil of war during the first Scottish War of Independence. In 1297, it was resized to fit the Coronation Chair. Throughout the years, as part of the Coronation Chair, it has formed an integral part of the inauguration ceremonies of all the English and British monarchs subsequent to its relocation to Westminster Abbey, with the exception of Edward V (one of the princes in the tower, whose reign was short and whose death remains a mystery), Mary II (who was crowned with her husband, William III, and for whom a new chair was made, one which is now used for the Queen Consort) and Edward VIII (who abdicated before he could be crowned), but including James 1 – whose coronation marked the reunion of a Scottish monarch with the stone. In 1884, the Stone of Destiny was the target of an Irish plot to steal it. In 1914, it survived a bomb attack on the Coronation Chair. During World War II, it separated from the Coronation Chair and while the Coronation Chair was kept safely in Gloucester Cathedral, it remained in a burial vault in Westminster Abbey. In 1950, it was stolen by a group of Scottish Nationalists, during which time it cracked into two pieces, and – following a quick repair job by a stonemason, and significant angst on the part of the authorities – was eventually returned to Westminster Abbey. In 1996, seven hundred years after it’s removal, it was returned to Scotland.
The verifiable history of The Stone of Destiny – from its initial position as inaugural stone of Scotland, to its removal to England, to its central role in the coronation of English and British kings and queens, to its return to Scotland – is, in my mind, far more amazing than any of the legends attached to it. I look forward to seeing it briefly reunited with the Coronation Chair during the coronation of King Charles III.
 The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation (Westminster Abbey Occasional Papers Book 2), by Warwick Rodwell.