The Stone of Scone: Coronating Medieval Scottish Monarchs


A replica of the Stone of Scone (aka Stone of Destiny) at Scone, Perthshire, Scotland. The stone was used in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish medieval kings before its transferral to Westminster Abbey in 1297 CE. The original stone was returned in 1996 CE and is today in Edinburgh Castle. / Photo by Bubobubo2, Wikimedia Commons

By Mark Cartwright
Historian


Introduction

The Stone of Scone (Gaelic: Lia Fail), also known as the Stone of Destiny or Coronation Stone, is a block of sandstone associated with the coronation ceremonies of the medieval monarchs of Scotland. These ceremonies were held at Scone, a prehistoric site in Perthshire. The Stone of Scone was removed from Scotland by Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307 CE) who made it a part of the English Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. The stone was finally returned to Scotland in 1996 CE and now resides in Edinburgh Castle.

Characteristics

The Stone of Scone is a rectangular slab of yellow sandstone which most likely is Scottish in origin, perhaps from the Lower Old Red Sandstone rocks in the region of Perthshire. It measures approximately 66 cm x 28 cm (26 x 11 in) and weighs around 152 kg (336 pounds). The stone is plain with the exception of a single carved Latin cross. Today it resides in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle alongside other items of the Scottish regalia.  

Myths and Legends 

For a rather nondescript slab of sandstone, the Stone of Destiny comes with a remarkable baggage of myth and folklore. According to the legend, the stone was the very one which Jacob – the ancestor of the people of Israel – used as a pillow when he was in Bethel (a city north of Jerusalem) and experienced a vision of angels ascending and descending a celestial ladder to heaven. 

The stone then enjoyed an extraordinary Mediterranean tour which saw it move from the Middle East to Egypt, Sicily, and Spain. Finally, the stone arrived in Ireland around 700 BCE where it was set up at the Hill of Tara, the Neolithic site in County Meath where tradition has it the ancient kings of Ireland were acclaimed. In some sources, it was then the legendary Irish ruler Fergus Mor who brought the stone to Scotland around 500 CE. In another version of the legend, the stone was brought from Ireland to Scotland by Princess Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. There is also some confusion as to whether the present Stone of Destiny is the same stone as the one related to these legends because some early medieval chroniclers describe it as a carved stone throne. Alternatively, the present stone may once have been a part of this more elaborate throne.

The Great Seal of Scone Abbey, Scotland. It shows the inauguration of a medieval Scottish king. / Wikimedia Commons

The stone’s new home in Scotland was either Dunstaffnage Castle on the western coast or, more likely given its history, the nearby island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides group. Iona was an ancient holy site for the Christian ascetics known as the Culdees, and it became the traditional burial ground for Scottish monarchs. Indeed, the site has a very long history with its prehistoric barrows and monuments. The stone remained at Iona for the next 350 years, and a legend grew that only where the Stone of Destiny was located would Scottish kings rule. The author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832 CE) claimed that a piece of metal was once attached to the stone which carried the following engraved verse:

Unless the fates be faulty grown

And prophet’s voice be vain

Where’er is found this sacred stone

The Scottish race shall reign. 

Relocation by Kenneth MacAlpin

The Celtic king Kenneth MacAlpin (also spelt Cinaed mac Ailpin or mac Ailpein, r. c. 842-858 CE) ruled the Kingdom of the Scots or Alba as it is sometimes known. Kenneth is credited with taking the Stone of Destiny to Scone in Perthshire around 843 CE, perhaps as a symbol of his subjugation of the Picts who may have used the stone for their own coronation ceremonies. It was used in the ceremonies held at Scone to inaugurate Scottish kings thereafter. Lords and bishops gathered at Scone, and later at Scone Abbey, to witness their king being acclaimed and to swear oaths of loyalty. The king’s long genealogy was also proclaimed to the gathered dignitaries. Scottish kings were, as yet, not crowned or anointed with holy oil – this form of coronation ceremony would only take place from the 14th century CE onwards. The king did not perhaps sit on the stone either but, rather, it was used as an altar during the ceremony and set upon the small artificial mound known as Moot Hill or the ‘Hill of Belief’. Alternatively, the stone may have been used in different ways over the centuries as, in a detailed description of the ceremony of Alexander III of Scotland (r. 1249-1286 CE), it is stated by John of Fordun that Alexander did sit on the stone.

If the king was married,  then the queen received her inauguration service after her husband. By the 12th century CE, Scottish kings were given familiar symbols of power such as a sword, sceptre, rod, and orb. In addition, the ancient sacred site of Scone was given its own monastery c. 1115 CE by Alexander I of Scotland (r. 1107-1124 CE). The monastery, first a priory and then, later, a full abbey, was founded by Augustinian canons from Nostel Abbey in Yorkshire.  

Removal by Edward I

The Stone of Scone’s destiny was about to be changed by an Englishman, one of Scotland’s greatest ever enemies. Edward I of England adjudicated over who became the successor of Alexander III of Scotland, an event often termed as the Great Cause. Top candidates were the powerful nobleman John Balliol and Robert Bruce (b. 1210 CE and grandfather of his more famous namesake). In 1292 CE, Edward plumbed for Balliol, perhaps because he was the weaker of the two and so could be more easily manipulated. John was to be the last medieval Scottish king to be crowned on or near the Stone of Scone on 30 November 1292 CE. As it turned out, the Scots themselves grew tired of Balliol’s ineffective responses to Edward’s domination, and open rebellion was in the air. In 1295 CE Scotland formally allied itself with France – the first move in what became known as the ‘Auld Alliance’ – a step too far for the English king.

A portrait of King Edward I of England (r. 1272 – 1307 CE) from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Made by an unknown artist c. 1597 – 1618 CE. / National Portrait Gallery, London

Edward I then invaded Scotland, personally leading an army of 25,000-30,000 men. The king thus earned his nickname as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’, and he was intent on total conquest. Balliol surrendered after the Battle of Dunbar in 1296 CE, and three English barons were nominated to rule Scotland. Always with an eye for dramatic gestures regarding enemy cultures, Edward stole the Scottish monarchy’s regalia and the Stone of Scone, relocating it to Westminster Abbey in 1297 CE. There it was placed under the seat of the purpose-built English Coronation Chair, often called St. Edward’s Chair because Edward I dedicated his prize to the English king and saint, Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066 CE). In this act of removal, Edward I was effectively declaring that Scotland was no longer a kingdom but a mere province of England. 

There was a legend that the wily Scots had given Edward a substitute stone and kept the real one safe on the Isle of Sky, but the truth of that is unlikely ever to be substantiated, and there is no evidence that Edward did not get his hands on the original. In any case, Scotland was never quite subdued, and more rebellions followed, notably the 1300 CE uprising led by William Wallace (c. 1270-1305 CE). Edward II of England may have been prepared to return the stone (r. 1307-1327 CE) as part of a peace treaty with Scotland agreed in 1328 CE. However, it seems that the Abbot of Westminster Abbey refused to give it up. Consequently, the Stone of Scone remained in England for the next seven centuries. On 25 March 1306 CE, Robert the Bruce (r. 1306-1329 CE) was the first Scottish king to be crowned without the stone, although the ceremony was held as usual in Scone Abbey.

Later History and Return to Scotland

The Coronation Chair of Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307 CE). The throne was made to accommodate under the seat the Stone of Scone, the traditional coronation stone of Scottish monarchs which Edward had taken from Scotland in 1296 CE. The stone was returned to Scotland in 1996 CE. / Photo by Kjetil Bjørnsrud, Wikimedia Commons

As fate would have it, a Scottish king did eventually get to be crowned while sitting on the Stone of Scone. This was James VI of Scotland (r. 1567-1625 CE) who also became James I of England CE (r. 1603-1625 CE) when he was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1603 CE. This happened because his predecessor Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603 CE) had died without children, and James, Elizabeth’s closest relative, was invited by the nobles of England to take the throne. James was of the Stuart line, and that house would rule England until 1714 CE, all of its monarchs taking their place above the Stone of Scone in their coronation. The Scots had finally turned the tables on the English after Edward I’s theft 300 years earlier, and the legend of the stone had proved correct: a Scottish king now ruled where the stone resided.  

From the 19th century CE, the Stone of Scone became a potent national symbol for the Scots, and there were repeated calls for the stone’s return. In 1950 CE a group of Scottish nationalists managed to break into Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of all days. They grabbed the stone and took it back to Scotland, but it was recovered by the authorities and returned to Westminster four months later. The stone was finally and this time officially returned to the people of Scotland in 1996 CE, appropriately enough, on 30 November, Saint Andrew’s Day, which honours the patron saint of Scotland. There was one catch which illustrates the continuing power of the stone in the imaginations of the peoples on both sides of the border: the stone must be returned to Westminster Abbey on the occasion of a coronation ceremony of a British monarch.

Bibliography


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 12.01.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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