How Students Stole Britain’s Coronation Stone, The Stone of Scone

Jun 13, 2023 0 comments

For more than seven hundred years, British monarchs have sat on a large block of rectangular sandstone during their coronations. This block of stone, called the Stone of Scone, or the Stone of Destiny, however, did not belong to them. It originally belonged to the Scottish people who used it during coronation of their own monarchs. In 1296, King Edward I of England invaded Scotland and stole the Stone of Scone, taking it away to Westminster Abbey, and had it fitted underneath the Coronation Chair “as a scornful symbol of Scotland's subservience to England.” Ever since then, the stone's theft has been a thorn in the side of Scottish nationalists, symbolizing England's arrogance and a deep embarrassment for Scotland at the loss of a sacred relic.

A replica of the Stone of Scone in front of the Scone Palace. Credit: PaulT/Wikimedia

In 1328 an attempt was made to get the Stone of Scone back with the Treaty of Northampton signed between Scotland and England, where the latter agreed to return the captured stone to Scotland. However, rioting crowds prevented the stone from being removed from Westminster Abbey. It remained in England for another six centuries until four University students stole the stone and took it back to Scotland in 1950.

The brainchild behind the audacious heist was Ian Hamilton, a brash and idealistic 25-year-old law student of the University of Glasgow. His partners in crime were fellow students Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart.

Hamilton’s original plan was to slip inside the abbey and hide in a dark corner just before it closed for the night and later open the door from the inside to let the others in. But he was discovered by the night watchman, who believed his story that he had been locked in, and let him go. The following night, they tried again, breaking into the abbey with the help of a jemmy. Hamilton, Vernon and Stuart got inside, while Kay waited in the car outside.

Having managed to break open the door, the group set about removing the stone from its cavity beneath the throne. They pushed and prised the stone out of the chair, but in the process splintered the 13th century wood the chair was made from, and for a moment, Hamilton was remorseful. “I felt sorry, for it did not belong to us,” he wrote.

The Coronation Chair with the Stone of Scone underneath it. Credit: Wikimedia

But the chair wasn’t the only thing the looters broke. The stone itself split into two. Thirty-six years previously, the suffragettes in Great Britain and Ireland orchestrated a bombing and arson campaign across the country targeting government buildings, churches and the general public. The Westminster Abbey was bombed in June 1914 when the church was full of visitors. The bomb exploded right next to the Coronation chair, damaging the chair and breaking the Stone in half. At that time, the damage was not discovered. When Hamilton and his friends pulled the Stone out of its place, the pieces separated.

Hamilton picked up the smaller piece, weighing about 50 kg, and ran outside to Kay's car. The other half was put on Hamilton's coat and dragged across the floor of the Abbey towards the door. Hamilton placed the smaller piece on the car’s back seat and threw a coat over it. No sooner the door was closed, a policeman emerged on the scene. A quick thinking Hamilton climbed into the passenger seat with Mathieson and took her in his arm to pretend they were a courting couple.

It was a strange situation in which we found ourselves, yet neither of us felt perturbed. Kay was as cool and calm, as though we were on our way home from a dance, and for a couple of minutes I was so immersed in the task at hand that I completely forgot the approach of the policeman. It was our third night without sleep, and I think we were both so drugged with tiredness that we would have accepted any situation as normal. Our minds were cold as ice, and we had thrashed our bodies so hard and worked for so long in the shadow of our ultimate aim that fear or panic played no part with us.

The policeman peered into the back seat and found the couple in a lovers’ clinch. He rebuked them for staying out so late (it was five in the morning), then proceeded to have a conversation with Hamilton and Mathieson, smoking a cigarette as he did so. Having shared some jokes, the policeman bid farewell and the duo drove off. A little distance later, Hamilton got out and walked back to the Abbey where the rest of the Stone was.

The Coronation Chair after the theft of the Stone of Scone. Credit: Getty Images

Upon reaching the Abbey, Hamilton discovered that Vernon and Stuart had fled believing that Hamilton and Mathieson had been caught. With enormous effort, Hamilton dragged the almost 100 kg-stone by himself, and put it in the boot of the second car.

Hamilton drove away from the Abbey with the stone and soon found Vernon and Stuart loitering near the Old Kent Road. With dawn breaking, the three friends decided that it would be unwise to attempt to smuggle the stone across the border. Then went to a wood near Rochester and buried the larger section of the stone. Mathieson went to Birmingham and hid the smaller section of the stone at her friend's house. She then took a train back to Scotland. The rest of the conspirators also returned back to Scotland.

The theft of the Stone of Scone caused an international sensation and the border between Scotland and England was closed off for the first time in 400 years. A team of detectives from Scotland Yard was sent north to investigate. Despite the restriction, Hamilton and his companions were able to retrieve the stone and bring it to Glasgow, where they handed the stone over to the Scottish Covenant Association, a movement that wanted Scotland to be independent from the UK. Later, a stonemason reunited the two sections of the broken stone.

Left to right: Alan Stuart, Kay Matheson, Ian Hamilton and Gavin Vernon.

The police eventually tracked the perpetrators down, but no charges were pressed. After a few months, the Scottish Covenant Association decided the stone should be returned. The heist had served its purpose of publicizing the cause of Scottish home rule. It was decided to leave the stone at the ruined abbey of Arbroath, where a famous statement of Scottish independence was made in 1320. The police was tipped off of its location, and the stone was found. In April 1951, the stone was taken back to London and returned to Westminster Abbey.

In 1996, to mark the 700th anniversary of the stone's original removal from Scotland, the Queen, along with Prime Minister John Major, agreed the stone should be returned to Scotland. It can now be seen at Edinburgh Castle.

Hamilton went on to have a successful career in criminal law. He remained politically active throughout his life, joining Labour before running for the SNP in the 1994 and 1999 elections. He died in 2022.

Kay Matheson returned to Inverasdale in the west Highlands, where she became a teacher in the local primary school. She died in 2013.

Gavin Vernon graduated in electrical engineering and emigrated to Canada in the 1960s. He died in March 2004.

Alan Stuart had a successful business career in Glasgow and died in 2019.

Removal of the Stone of Scone from the Abbey of Arbroath.

# Gavin Vernon Engineer who helped return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland, The Herald
# The students who stole the Stone of Destiny, BBC
# The Removal of the Stone of Scone, 1950, Scotland and the Scotts


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