Westminster Abbey, a Sliver of Destiny

In 1296, Edward the 1st of England, also known as Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, Pacifier of the Welsh, inventor of the dreaded yellow star and all round thoroughly bad egg, took the Stone of Destiny from the Scots to set it in the Coronation throne of England in Westminster Abbey. Seven hundred years later, on the 15th of November 1996, I gave it back.

This undertaking, carried out with Her Majesty’s (perhaps reluctant) consent, was intended to honour a growing independence in the regions and respect Scottish Nationalist feeling at a time when it was no longer seen as any serious threat to government. In fact a group of Scottish students had actually stolen the stone from the Abbey a few years before I was born by way of something of a prank. Of course, security had become quite a bit tighter by my day.

The Scots took the removal operation extremely seriously, with detailed plans, specially prepared equipment and a team of Police officers who all seemed to be about seven foot tall. In London news of the plan was greeted with less enthusiasm and my boss, after suggesting that there were plenty of quarries along the way where they could pick up a “bit of rock”, dumped the whole thing on my desk. Metaphorically speaking.

I’m not going to pretend that I remembered much about the history of the Stone of Scone (pronounced Scoon) although I was familiar with some of the exploits of the gloriously bonkers Plantagenet dynasty from the History plays of Shakespeare and that excellent play/film, the Lion in Winter. These violent, often quite mad, larger-than-life characters plotted and battled their way across the pages of English history in a way that is nowadays less appreciated by the modern school curriculum.

Such changes to the way history is taught in schools do not necessarily herald the end of civilisation as we know it. I yawned my way through the Wars of the Roses along with every one else but I couldn’t help noticing recently how much the runaway popularity of the American series of books, Game of Thrones, draws on the bold, unscrupulous achievements of our early medieval monarchs.

Many of them may actually be buried in Westminster Abbey but I am here to tell you that they do not walk abroad. For I spent the graveyard hours of that night alone with the stone determined not to earn my own place in the history books by being held responsible for its loss. I’m sure that the Tower of London has been comfortably refurbished in latter years but I didn’t particularly relish finding out for myself.

Many Scots remember with pride the parade that brought the Stone of Destiny back to Edinburgh Castle with all due pomp but few will know how it was only allowed to proceed after the formal hand-over on that fateful night of a special piece of the tablet. Well, all right, the Scottish officers also brought me a rather nice bottle of whiskey.

I returned to the Abbey just recently for some photographs to illustrate this story but was put off going inside by the exorbitant entry prices. I’ve had to “borrow” and use archive shots for the interior pictures. With one fairly obvious exception. The outside shots are all mine.


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