The coronation of King Charles III will see history play out in the modern age. From the venue of Westminster Abbey to the coronation oath, the symbolism is steeped in centuries of tradition. One symbol, the “Coronation stone” – also known as the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny – has its own particularly contentious history.
Beneath the gilded coronation chair will be an ancient, rectangular slab of sandstone weighing approximately 152kg. The stone is a symbol of medieval Scotland, traditionally used in the inauguration ceremonies of Scottish kings until its capture by King Edward I. Although the stone’s current home is with the Scottish crown jewels at Edinburgh Castle, it was held in London – under the throne at Westminster – from its capture in 1296 until it was returned in 1996.
The event of the coronation has allowed the stone itself to be studied again. A new 3D image created in order to aid in the moving of the stone to Westminster, revealing previously unrecorded markings that tell us more about its origins.
Yet, the use of the stone at Charles III’s coronation also reminds us about the importance of historical objects in modern politics because its return to Westminster has proven controversial.
This piece is part of our coverage of King Charles III’s coronation. The first coronation of a British monarch since 1953 comes at a time of reckoning for the monarchy, the royal family and the Commonwealth.
It should not surprise anyone that this ancient symbol of Scottish statehood was discussed in the recent leadership race for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Former SNP leader Alex Salmond said the stone should not be returned to London, and it was mentioned in a party hustings.
The Stone of Scone was a key part of the ceremony at which Scotland’s medieval kings were inaugurated at Scone Palace, near Perth.
At the time, Scottish kings did not receive a crown (hence inauguration rather than coronation). Other objects were needed to give the air of legitimacy that medieval politics demanded. The stone was where the kings sat during this ceremony, symbolising a solid base for the kingdom’s security and stability.
King Edward I seized the stone as a symbol of the end of Scottish sovereignty. This was retaliation for Scottish refusal to back his military campaigns in France and instead ally themselves with the French. Although English kings never cemented their conquest of Scotland, the stone remained in London for seven centuries.
The throne of the English king sitting atop the inauguration stone was a powerful visual metaphor for how medieval English monarchs perceived their position of authority (or overlordship) over Scotland.
The stone today
Two incidents in the 20th century show how the stone became an important symbol once again. On Christmas Day 1950, four Glasgow University students who supported Scottish home rule stole the stone from Westminster Abbey and returned it to Scotland. It was found at Arbroath Abbey a few months later.
The son of one of the students has contributed to the current debate, arguing that it should not be included in the coronation ceremony.
The stone was returned to Scotland permanently in 1996 (700 years after its first removal). This was a period in which Scottish identity had become a key issue in light of the campaign for devolution and the creation of a Scottish parliament.
Past and present collide
Medieval materials take on new lives in the modern world, although not always the ones intended. Their movement and use can quickly become a source of debate. Some items have been smuggled as part of a lucrative trade, or loaned between countries. The modern politics that arise out of these objects are often as contentious as the objects’ histories themselves.
Last year, UK authorities seized 86 metal objects dating from the 11th to 14th century, smuggled out of Ukraine. They are currently on display at the British Museum with plans to have them eventually returned to the National Museum of History of Ukraine in Kyiv.
In 2018, France agreed to loan Britain the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicted the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Initially hailed as an example of good Anglo-French relations, by 2021 experts raised concerns about its fragility and whether moving it would be practical.
Some commentators suggested that deterioration in diplomatic relations after Brexit may have influenced this too. This is, of course, only speculation – such loans must always be dependent on the condition of the artefact to prevent any damage. Yet it reminds us of how these objects, and the decisions around loaning, borrowing and returning them, are ultimately political.
Debates about medieval artefacts may seem arcane or irrelevant, but that would be to misunderstand the power of objects. Across Britain, and indeed much of Europe, current borders and nations can trace their origins in some way to the middle ages. Objects from that period are therefore inextricably linked to how nations identify themselves and their past. These objects matter not just because of what they tell us about past societies and their values, but also about what we think is important today.