The Coronation Chair was made on the orders of King Edward I in 1300–1 to enclose the Stone of Scone (also called the Stone of Destiny), which he had brought from Scotland in l296 and placed in the care of the Abbot of Westminster. Until the removal of the Stone to Scotland in 1996 the Chair was the oldest piece of furniture in England still used for the purpose for which it was made.
Edward I commissioned Master Walter, a court painter, to decorate the chair with patterns of birds, foliage and animals on a gilt background. The figure of a king, either Edward the Confessor or Edward I, his feet resting on a lion, was painted on the back. Only traces of this original paintwork survive and the chair has been much damaged by graffiti, especially on the back, much of it the result of visitors and Westminster schoolboys carving their names in the l8th and l9th centuries. The Stone was originally totally enclosed under the seat but over the centuries the carved wooden panel at the front was torn away. In the early sixteenth century four gilt lions were added at the base of the chair; the present lions are replacements dating from 1727.
At coronations the chair is placed in the sacrarium where it stands facing the high altar. Since the coronation of Edward II in 1308 almost every monarch has been crowned in this chair. The exceptions are Edward V and Edward VIII, who were not crowned, and Mary II who was crowned as joint monarch alongside her husband William III in a replica chair (now in the Abbey’s museum) made for the occasion. The chair was taken out of the Abbey so that Oliver Cromwell’s could sit in it at his installation as Lord Protector in Westminster Hall, and it was used by Queen Victoria at her Jubilee service in the Abbey in 1887. During the Second World War the chair was taken to Gloucester Cathedral for safety and the Stone of Scone was secretly buried in the Abbey. The chair was kept in the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor for many centuries until that chapel was closed to general visitors in 1997. Since February 1998 it has stood on a modern pedestal in the ambulatory, near the tomb of Henry V.
Legend has traditionally identified the Stone of Scone with the stone on which Jacob rested his head at Bethel (Genesis, chapter 28, verse 18). It was then said to have passed to Ireland (via Egypt and Spain) where it was placed on the sacred Hill of Tara and was called ‘Lia-Fail’, the ‘fatal’ stone, or ‘stone of destiny’. When the Irish kings were seated on it at coronations it was said to groan aloud if the claimant was of royal race but remain silent if he was a pretender. According to legend the Stone was later taken to Scotland and was deposited at the monastery of Scone in Perthshire in 846. Setting aside the earlier myths it is certain that it had been for some centuries an object of veneration to the Scots whose kings, down to John Balliol in 1292, were inaugurated on it.
On 25 December l950 the Stone of Scone was stolen by Scottish Nationalists, who broke part of it while doing so. It was recovered in April 1951 and replaced in the Coronation Chair in February 1952, after additional precautions had been taken for its future safety. In November 1996 the Stone was returned to Scotland on the orders of the UK government and it is now on exhibition at Edinburgh Castle. It will be returned to Westminster Abbey for coronations.
Further enquiries about the Stone of Scone should be addressed to: Historic Scotland, 20 Brandon Street, Edinburgh, Scotland.