23.02.2015 by Andrew Nixon
The Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey - A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture): No. 8
Continuing our series A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture), culture editor Andrew Nixon looks at the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most historically significant piece of furniture in Britain...
It isn’t cheap to visit Westminster Abbey these days, but if you can spare the £20 adult entry fee you’ll certainly get a lot of British history for your money.
As you shuffle with the tourist hordes around the aisles and chapels, gawping at the stained glass and carved stone and perhaps listening to the dulcet tones of Jeremy Irons on the free audio tour, you’ll see the tombs of all manner of Great Britons from Elizabeth I to Charles Darwin. By the time you’ve made it to Poet’s Corner and paid your respects to Charles Dickens (buried here against his wishes - see A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) - 6. The Empty Chair of Charles Dickens) you’ll be pretty worn out, but before you exit for the gift shop, take a moment to contemplate the last of the Abbey’s great treasures on show.
On your left, housed inside a specially-built enclosure in St George's Chapel at the west end of the Nave, is the Coronation Chair. It is surely the most historically significant item of furniture in the country.
King Edward I and the Stone of Scone
The Coronation Chair was originally built to house a very important lump of sandstone. The Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, had according to legend been used for hundreds of years to crown Scottish kings - and when Edward ‘Longshanks’ invaded Scotland in 1296 he confiscated it as ‘spoils of war’ and decided that it would be a neat idea to have English monarchs crowned on it instead.
To this end he commissioned a fabulously ornate oak chair to put it in, complete with gilded images of birds, animals and foliage, and a portrait of Edward the Confessor on the back.
The Stone of Scone was incorporated as the seat, so that successive kings and queens could carefully place their royal posteriors upon the historical rock as they were crowned. And, since Edward II in 1308, it has been used for the coronation ceremonies of every anointed monarch of England and then Great Britain, right up to Elizabeth II in 1953.
A chequered history
It has not all been plain sailing for the chair and the stone, however. Over the centuries one or other has been stolen, bombed by suffragettes, moved to Gloucester to escape Nazi bombardment and vandalised by generations of choirboys (see Seven Things You Probably Didn’t Know about the Coronation Chair below).
Then, in 1996 Prime Minister John Major agreed to return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland as a symbolic act of constitutional diplomacy. It can now be viewed at Edinburgh Castle, but will be temporarily returned to Westminster Abbey and its place inside the chair for future coronations.
However, the biggest threat to the Coronation Chair itself has been the various attempts to improve it. A wooden seat was added for James II’s ceremony and carved lions were added to the feet in the 16th Century only to be replaced with more lavish versions for George II’ coronation in 1727. The gothic pinnacles on the high back of the chair were temporarily replaced with new ones for George IV’s coronation in 1821, but when they were removed the chair was left in an even worse state than before.
As if all this tinkering wasn’t bad enough, for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 a hideous brown varnish was daubed all over the chair, wrecking what was left of the medieval gilded decoration.
Fortunately, Prince Charles is known to be of a conservative inclination when it comes to matters of design and architecture, so with any luck (and assuming that he’s the next person to be crowned on the famous chair), he’ll leave well alone and King Edward’s Chair can continue to be used for many coronations to come.
Seven Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Coronation Chair
1) Since 1308 every monarch of England and Great Britain has been crowned in it, except Edward V and Edward VIII, who were never crowned at all, and Mary II, who used a replica in her joint coronation with her husband William as king and queen regnant in 1689.
2) It is the oldest dated piece of English furniture made by a known artist. In 1297 a carpenter called Walter of Durham was paid 100 shillings to carve and paint the chair. It was also the oldest piece of furniture in England still used for the purpose for which it was originally built, until the Stone of Scone was removed and returned to Scotland in 1996.
3) It's absolutely covered in graffiti - hundreds of Westminster choirboys and other visitors have carved their initials in the chair, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries
4) Suffragettes attempted to blow it up - a bomb was attached to the chair in 1914 - fortunately no lasting damage was done.
5) A gang of students stole the Stone of Scone in 1950 - on Christmas Day in 1950 four Scottish students with nationalist sympathies removed the Stone from the chair, during which process they broke it into two pieces. They managed to get it to Arbroath before it was recovered, repaired and returned to the Abbey four months after the theft.
6) Not everyone was happy about the Stone of Scone being returned to Scotland in 1996 - the historian Warwick Rodwell, author of the definitive book about the chair The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone, compared the removal of the Stone with ‘cutting the face out of the Mona Lisa and sending that back to Italy while keeping the body in the Louvre.’
7) Not everyone even thought it was the real Stone of Destiny in the first place - there exists a school of historical thought called the Westminster Stone Theory which holds that the stone which traditionally rests under the Coronation Chair is not the true Stone of Destiny but a thirteenth century substitute. Another theory posits that a fake was used after the 1950 theft. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both of these theories are a load of nonsense.
A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) - 8. The Coronation Chair
What: Oak gothic-style high-backed chair
Why it’s culturally significant: A symbol of the long history of the British monarchy, and the relationship between England and Scotland
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The 'Kings and Queens of England and Great Britain' poster above is designed by William Joseph and sold exclusively by Supertogether.com