Rock goes to a hard place

July 19, 1996

Christopher Wilson reflects on the fortunes of the soon-to-be-repatriated Stone of Destiny

In consenting to the removal of "her" Coronation Stone from Westminster Abbey the Queen seems also to have mislaid her marbles. She and her advisers must realise that it does not belong to her because it has never formed part of the regalia, which are assuredly hers. Its true owners are the dean and chapter of Westminster, who find themselves in a cleft stick, too loyal to the crown to do other than acquiesce yet furious that they were not consulted before John Major's announcement, earlier this month, that the stone was to be returned to Scotland. They are probably still reeling from the shock of discovering that the integrity of the single most important historic site in Britain has been sacrificed to the most futile political ploy imaginable, namely boosting the Government's credibility in Scotland.

What would be lost if the stone were to leave Westminster, which is, after all, not its original setting? For one thing, it would cease to be part of an ensemble which conveys vividly what monarchical mystique is all about. Within a few feet of the stone are the tomb of Edward I and the shrine of his name-saint and dynastic patron Edward the Confessor, to whom he presented the stone in 1300 as a memorial to his efforts to conquer the kingdom of Scotland, and no doubt also as an inducement to the saint to help him finish the job. There were once comparable assemblages of rulers' tombs and rule-legitimating relics in other European state churches, but over time these have all been dismantled or obliterated together with the monarchies they served. The chair made in 1299-1300 to contain the stone was conceived as a reliquary and if it were to be shorn of its relic the emotional charge it has now would be completely lost. It would still be the oldest dated piece of wooden furniture in the British Isles but it would cease to be something that more British people are likely to be able to relate to, namely a poignant memorial to the first step - false as it turned out - on the road towards a United Kingdom. The fact that hardly a voice has so far been raised against the prising of the stone from its 700-year-old setting is only one manifestation of the collective amnesia that afflicts the English in relation to their pre-second world war history. And no one seems to have been struck by the irony that it is the Tories - the party of traditional values - who are exploiting the vacuum left by the recent decline in enthusiasm for the monarchy and its history.

But what might the Scots get out of the homecoming of the stone? Hardly a reinstatement of anything tangible, since their medieval religious culture was enthusiastically trashed in the mid- 16th century by Calvinist cohorts of exceptional efficiency - hence the non-existence of Scone Abbey where the Stone was kept for around 450 years. To a few tartan tendency types who have gleaned their history from Braveheart it will become a fetish of prodigious power, a permanent mote in the eyes of the English and balm for innumerable wrongs. But the best way for many Scots to assimilate this potentially unpalatable relic of popery will be by scoffing the shortbread miniatures of the Stone whose production, according to the Scottish Office, is already regenerating whole regions of the country. As yet these delicacies have no name, but leading Scottish culinary historians are predicting that they will displace altogether the much better known dough-based dainties which, the latest research has shown, were introduced into Scotland c.1822 in a so-far successful bid to quell appetites for the repatriation of their prototype.

Christopher Wilson is a lecturer in the history of art at University College London.

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