One of the most symbolic – and among the most controversial – objects of the coronation ceremony concerns the exact place where the king will lay his buttocks: the throne. Because the centerpiece of this medieval throne does not belong to the English, but to the Scots.
Since the 14th century, English monarchs have sat on this uncomfortable seat to receive the crown that will seal their authority over the kingdom. But the oak wood armchair has lost its luster since medieval times. Its gilding has peeled off. Its colored glass inlays have disappeared. The royal throne is even covered… in graffiti.
But that’s not why the “Throne of St. Edward” is controversial. The object that is the subject of centuries-old disputes is located exactly under the monarch’s posterior.
Embedded in the base of the seat is a piece of pink sandstone that weighs 300 lbs. This stone does not shine brightly, but that does not prevent it from being very precious in the eyes of the British, and especially the Scots. This is the “Stone of Destiny”.
Biblical legend has it that it was the stone that was said to have served as the pillow of the Israelite patriarch Jacob, whose story is told in the book of Genesis. The stone would then have been transported to Egypt, Spain, and then to Ireland in 700 BC. J.-C.
Also according to legend, a king of Dál Riata – a kingdom that encompassed parts of Ireland and Scotland – then carried the stone across the sea. AD in the abbey village of Scone (north of Edinburgh), the new capital designated by the first Scottish king Kenneth 1st.
For centuries, the sacred stone is said to have enshrined the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs. Until that day in 1296, when the English King Edward I, victorious at the Battle of Dunbar, landed at Scone Abbey.
It is at this point that legend gives way to history: while scholars still debate the authenticity of the stone given to the English conqueror (one hypothesis is that Scottish monks hid the “real stone” before the arrival of the English…), Edward I goes back to London with what he announces to be the famous “Stone of Destiny” in his luggage.
He will keep it preciously in Westminster, under this golden throne that he had built on purpose to establish (literally!) his power over his kingdom. Much to the chagrin of the Scots, who have always considered the Stone of Destiny their own.
But did this stone on which King Charles III will sit in turn really travel from Jerusalem to London?
First, British geologists demonstrated in 1998 that the sandstone of the stone was the same as that found in the area where Scone Abbey is located. The patriarch Jacob and the kings of Ireland probably had their sacred stones too, but it was not the one brought back from Scone in 1296.
Furthermore, geologists have also confirmed that the stone of the English throne was indeed the one Edward I brought back from Scotland in 1296. In 1950, the “Stone of Destiny” was stolen from Westminster by four Scottish students before being handed over to the authorities three months later. Since that day, there has been some doubt about the authenticity of the stone on which Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952…
In 1996, in a gesture interpreted as an outstretched hand to nationalists, British Prime Minister John Major returned the Stone of Scone to the Scots. They now have custody of it at Edinburgh Castle, promising to “lend” it to Westminster at coronations.
And so it was that the Stone was transported to London on April 29, well protected in an oak box. At a ceremony in Westminster, the monarch’s representative in Scotland, Joseph Morrow, celebrated the return as “an act of unity and a symbol of friendship”.
An enthusiasm that some Scottish nationalists do not share. In March, former Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond suggested that the government oppose the return of the stone to England. “In a context where the legitimate demand of the Scottish people to have a [second] referendum on self-determination has been refused by the Westminster government,” he told The National newspaper, “I really don’t see why should a Scottish government obediently say ‘we are returning the property you stole from us 700 years ago…'”
Originally, the throne was covered with elaborate designs of birds, animals and golden leaves, with inlays of colored glass. On the back, the effigy of a king (one hesitates between Edward I or his predecessor, Edward the Confessor) represents the monarch with his feet resting on a lion.
If the throne is now protected behind a glass wall in Westminster Abbey, it was not always so. 18th and 19th century schoolchildren and tourists couldn’t help but carve their initials for posterity. One of them even boasted of having posed there… his posterior: on the seat, one can read that “P. Abbott slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800”.
For a long time, it was thought that these iron rings were installed to make it easier to transport the stone. But historians now believe they were installed to chain stone to the floor of Westminster. Around 1324, an abbot wanted to prevent King Edward II from using the Stone of Destiny as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Scots!
It’s not just the king who wears a crown. The queen consort is also entitled to hers. But which one to choose? The Royal Jewelery also has some controversial stones…
Since 1727, all queen consorts have been entitled to their own original crown. But that will not be the case for Camilla. For the sake of “sustainability and efficiency”, it has been decided that the new queen consort will reuse a crown dating from 1911: that of Queen Mary, wife of George V and great-grandmother of Charles III. “Queen Mary’s crown was created so that it could be worn by all queen consorts,” says Justin Vovk, a historian at McMaster University in Ontario. Except that when her husband died and her son George VI became king in 1937, Queen Mary kept her crown and another adornment was created for her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI and mother of Elizabeth. II. This is the first time the crown will be reused.
The frame of the crown is made of silver and gold, and is set with more than 2000 diamonds. Eight detachable arches allow the adornment to be adapted to suit the occasion – for example, Queen Mary only kept the base (the circlet) when she wore it at the coronation of her son, George VI, in 1937. Camilla will keep only four arches for the ceremony on May 6.
Controversial, the crown is especially so because of the large 106-carat diamond that adorned the facade when it was created. The Koh-i-Noor (the “mountain of light”) was first the pride of Indian emperors in the 16th century, before passing into the hands of the shahs of Persia, then the Afghan emirs, then back to the maharajas Indian Sikhs in the early 1800s. “When the British government moved to India in 1849, the 10-year-old Maharaja at the time signed a treaty with the United Kingdom,” says Justin Vovk. It’s unclear how much of this act was of his own volition, or if he was forced to do it, but he ceded much of India’s control to Britain. The young Maharaja reportedly gave the diamond to Queen Victoria as compensation for her help in ending the wars that were tearing the country apart. It has since been owned by the British government.
After being worn on Queen Victoria’s chest and on the heads of Queen Consorts Alexandra and Mary, the Koh-i-Noor was eventually made part of Queen Mother Elizabeth’s crown in 1937, where it remains today. But since the 1970s, several voices in India have called for its return. Was the Koh-i-Noor actually “given” to Queen Victoria? In 2016, the Indian government said the diamond “was neither stolen nor forcibly taken”, but nevertheless demanded that it be returned “in a friendly manner”. Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have also claimed ownership of the diamond. But so far Britain has not signaled any intention to return it. “This is a difficult question for the government. If the diamond is returned, it would be like admitting that it should never have belonged to him. And if you do it with an object, it opens the door to other complaints,” says Justin Vovk.
The royal family therefore preferred to leave the Koh-i-Noor at the Tower of London museum and adorn Camilla’s crown with three diamonds that Queen Elizabeth II loved: the Cullinan diamonds. Originally from South Africa, these diamonds were extracted in 1905 in the mine of the same name. “Unlike the Koh-i-Noor, they weren’t given as gifts, they were purchased by the British colonial government,” says Justin Vovk. This does not prevent South Africans from also demanding their return to the country. “There is a petition campaign in South Africa,” Mr. Vovk said. but since they were bought, it is more difficult to ask for a refund…”
Although Queen Mary’s crown was to be used by other queen consorts, her successor, Elizabeth (Elizabeth II’s mother), had a bespoke crown made instead, taller and with even more diamonds. . Why did you choose to create such an ostentatious crown at the time of her coronation in 1937? “We had to send a message of strength and stability,” recalls Justin Vovk. King George VI ascended the throne because his older brother had abdicated. And in 1937, it was at the dawn of the war in Europe. So the royal family thought they needed to display more grandeur and opulence to assert the power of the monarchy. »
Known for their environmentalist positions, the royal couple have reworked certain traditions to adapt them to their values.
This is one of the most sacred moments of the ceremony: when the new monarch, head of the Church of England, is anointed by the celebrants. Traditionally, the oil used came from sperm whale intestines and civet glands. This time, it will not contain any animal ingredients. The oil is extracted from olives that have been pressed near Bethlehem and flavored with essential oils of sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon and other botanicals. The potion was dedicated in a ceremony in Jerusalem in early March.
At the 1953 coronation, Elizabeth II and her guests were treated to “chicken Queen Elizabeth” (in French on the original menu, but known as coronation chicken), a dish of poached chicken coated in a sauce creamy curry. Her son and daughter-in-law preferred a much simpler dish: spinach, cheddar, broad bean and tarragon quiche. A dish that “easily adapts to different tastes and preferences”, wrote the royal family on Twitter, since it can be vegetarian, or prepared with bacon or ham. The royal family is inviting Britons to make this quiche the main course of neighborhood banquets planned across the country on May 6. “Eat hot or cold with a green salad and boiled new potatoes. »
But not all controversial objects can be replaced. Thus, Camilla will have in her hand a scepter made of elephant ivory, a material whose trade Great Britain has almost completely banned. Even Prince William campaigned against the illegal trade in animal parts… Topped with a sphere, a cross and a dove, the object was created for Queen Consort Mary of Modena in 1685 and has has since been given to all queen consorts.