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Westminster Abbey – The Coronation Chair

Friday, November 4th, 2011

Our London walks will soon be featuring tours inside Westminster Abbey, the Coronation Church, built originally by King Edward the Confessor and later rebuilt by King Henry 111, the builder King.

Encased behind a glass screen in the St George’s Chapel of Westminster Abbey -  just before you exit -  is the coronation chair, which is probably the oldest piece of furniture in Britain to still be used for its original purpose. The chair itself is currently undergoing a restoration paid for by in part by the Abbey who will be contributing £50,000 towards the project, and a grant of £150,000 awarded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The Coronation Chair, which is also known as King Edward’s Chair, was first used at the Coronation of King Edward 11 in 1308, and since then it has been used for the coronation of all but three of our Kings and Queens. However, its origins go back to the reign of Edward 1st, one of this country’s great warrior king’s who reigned from 1272 to 1307. Edward 1st is buried in Westminster Abbey and his tomb boasts the inscription “Hammer of the Scots.”  During his reign Edward was determined to bring the Crown of Scotland under English control and, to that end, he fought a long and constant battle to subjugate the Scots.  In 1296  Edward managed to take possession of the Scottish Crown’s regalia. To show his superiority he broke the Great Seal of the King’s of  Scotland, observing as he did so “a man does good business when he rids himself of a turd.” He also captured and brought to England the Scottish Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, over which Scotland’s Kings had been crowned for many centuries.

To accommodate the Stone of Scone he commissioned the Coronation chair in the early 1300′s and decreed from henceforth English Monarch’s would be crowned in the chair sitting over the sacred Scottish coronation artifact. Symbolically, this would mean  that when an English Sovereign was crowned over the stone they would, in the eyes of God and all things sacred, become Sovereigns of Scotland as well.

Once the chair was complete, Walter, the Court Painter, was commissioned to decorate it with gilding and images of birds, foliage and the image of a King all painted in vivid and dazzling colours. Vague traces of this original paintwork can still be seen on the chair.

However, over succeeding centuries, the chair was subjected to an awful lot of misuse when not being occupied by a new monarch’s posterior.

Cloth was often nailed onto it at various coronations and, in the process, the woodwork was damaged time and again. Looking at the body of the chair, you can make out initials, fates and other graffiti that have been carved into it. Much of this defacing was done when the chair was stored in a side room at the Abbey and the schoolboys from the neighbouring  Westminster School decided it would be a wizard wheeze to carve their names onto it. One visible inscription reads ‘P Abbott slept in this chair 5,6 July 1800′.

The chair was further damaged when it was taken away to be “restored” for Queen Victoria to sit in it on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 1887.  When it was unveiled people were horrified to find that it had been coated with a thick, dark covering of varnish. Even Parliament demanded to know why this had been done to it.  Even more damage was done to the chair when the varnish was eventually stripped off.

In 1914 a militant wing of the suffragette movement succeeded in hanging a bomb packed into a hand bag on one of the pinnacles of the chair. Although the bomb went off, the damage wasn’t significant.

On Christmas Day 1950 a group of Scottish nationalist students succeeded in stealing the Stone of Scone from under the chair and managed to smuggle it back to Scotland. It was eventually recovered and returned to the base of the Coronation Chair where it remained until 1996 when John Major’s Conservative Government agreed to its being  officially returned to Scotland where it now resides at Edinburgh Castle, although it will be brought back to the Abbey and re-installed for all future Coronations.

As for the Coronation Chair itself, it has only ever left the Abbey on three occasions. In 1657 it was moved to Westminster Hall for the investiture of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. In the 1880′s it was removed for the aforementioned restoration for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. And, during the Second World War in the 1940′s it was moved to Gloucester Cathedral for safe keeping.

But now it sits in St George’s Chapel where it is being lovingly restored and let’s hope that the finished article will be more pleasing to the eye and cause less uproar than that which greeted the previous restoration during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Our Westminster Abbey London walk will be launching in 2012.