The Coronation Chair in St George’s Chapel is one of the most precious and famous pieces of furniture in the world. It has been the centrepiece of coronations for over 700 years when it is placed in the centre of the Abbey, in front of the High Altar.
The Coronation Chair in St George's Chapel
The Coronation Chair was made by order of King Edward I to enclose the famous Stone of Scone, which he brought from Scotland to the Abbey in 1296, where he placed it in the care of the Abbot of Westminster. The King had a magnificent oaken chair made to contain the Stone in 1300-1, painted by Master Walter and decorated with patterns of birds, foliage and animals on a gilt ground. The figure of a king, either Edward the Confessor or Edward I, his feet resting on a lion, was painted on the back. The four gilt lions below were made in 1727 to replace the originals, which were themselves not added to the Chair until the early 16th century. The Stone was originally totally enclosed under the seat but over the centuries the wooden decoration had been torn away from the front.
Coronation chair gilding
At coronations the Chair - height 2.05m (6 feet 9 inches) - with the Stone stands facing the High Altar. The Chair has been in use at the coronation ceremony since 1308 although opinion is divided as to when it was actually used for the crowning, but this was certainly the case from 1399 when Henry IV was crowned in the Chair.
There have been thirty eight coronation ceremonies for reigning monarchs held at the Abbey (William and Mary were crowned in one ceremony. Edward V, one of the "Princes in the Tower" and Edward VIII, who abdicated, were never crowned). Fourteen queen consorts also had separate coronation ceremonies.
At the joint coronation of William III and Mary II in 1689 a special chair was made for Mary, as William used the ancient chair. (Mary's chair will be on display in the new Jubilee galleries from mid 2018).
The ancient Chair was taken out of the Abbey when Oliver Cromwell was installed upon it as Lord Protector in Westminster Hall. It was used by Queen Victoria at the 1887 Golden Jubilee Services in the Abbey. During the Second World War the Chair was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral and the Stone was secretly buried in the Abbey.
Most of the graffiti on the back part of the Chair is the result of Westminster schoolboys and visitors carving their names in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the tourists carved "P. Abbott slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800" on the seat.
A bomb attack in 1914 thought to be organised by the Suffragettes even knocked a small corner off it.
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. In February 1998 the Chair was moved out to the ambulatory and raised on a modern pedestal near the tomb of Henry V.
In April 2010 it was moved to a specially-built enclosure within St George's Chapel at the west end of the Nave for essential conservation work. During conservation and cleaning, under the supervision of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a rare pigment called orpiment was discovered in the compartment which housed the Stone. Tiny traces of vivid colour were found on the Chair. New wooden tracery was put in at the front of the Chair (the original had been missing since the 18th century). It was discovered that originally there was no seat and a cushion on top of the Stone was probably used in earlier times.
Coronation chair following restoration in 2012
A new plinth and canopy display for the Chair in St George's chapel was designed by the Abbey's Surveyor Ptolemy Dean in 2013
Legends abound concerning the Stone of Scone. Tradition identifies it with the one upon which Jacob rested his head at Bethel - "And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it" (Genesis chapter 28, verse 18). The legend then says that Jacob's sons carried it to Egypt and from thence it passed to Spain with King Gathelus, son of Cecrops, the builder of Athens. About 700 BC it was said to be in Ireland, whither it was carried by the Spanish King's son Simon Brech, on his invasion of the island. There it was placed upon the sacred Hill of Tara, and called "Lia-Fail", the "fatal" stone, or "stone of destiny", for when the Irish kings were seated on it at coronations the Stone groaned aloud if the claimant was of royal race but remained silent if he was a pretender. Fergus Mor MacEirc (died 501?), the founder of the Scottish monarchy, and one of the Blood Royal of Ireland, received it in Scotland, and Kenneth MacAlpin (died 860) finally deposited it in the monastery of Scone in Perthshire (846).
Setting aside the earlier myths it is certain that it had been for centuries an object of veneration to the Scots. Upon this Stone their kings, down to John Balliol in 1292, were crowned, and it is said that the following words were once engraved on the Stone by Kenneth:
Ni fallat fatum, Scoti, quocunque locatum
Invenient lapidem, regnare tenentur ibidem
[If Fates go right, where'er this stone is found
The Scots shall monarchs of that realm be crowned]
The prophecy was fulfilled at the accession of James VI of Scotland and I of England in 1603. The Stone weighs 152 kg (336 pounds) and is composed of sandstone.
It was stolen by Scottish Nationalists on 25th December 1950. After its recovery in April 1951 it was kept in the vault in which it had been stored during the Second World War and was not replaced in the Chair until February 1952, after elaborate precautions had been taken for its future safety.
The Stone of Scone under the Coronation Chair
However, on July 3rd 1996 the Prime Minister (John Major) announced that the Stone of Scone would be returned to Scotland by the end of the year, returning to the Abbey for coronations. On the evening of 13th November 1996 the Stone was removed from the Chair by representatives of Historic Scotland and put in a specially made crate. It was transported by stretcher to stand in the Lantern of the Abbey overnight and was removed in silence to the waiting police escort early on the morning of 14th November to make the long journey to Scotland by road. It can now be seen in Edinburgh Castle.
So the Coronation Chair, once the oldest piece of furniture in England still used for the purpose for which it was originally built, now stands empty after 700 years.
For further information on the Stone see www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk
Guide to the Coronation Service (PDF, 18KB)
The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone. History, archaeology and conservation by Warwick Rodwell, 2013
The Georgianisation of the Coronation Chair by W.Rodwell in "The Georgian" Issue 1, 2013
The Coronation Chair and Stone of Destiny by James Wilkinson, 2006 (available from the Abbey Shop)
The Stone of Destiny – artefact and icon, edited by R.Welander & others, 2003
Scotland's Stone of Destiny by Nick Aitchison, 2000
The Coronation Chair. An historical and technical enquiry by W.Percival-Prescott, 1957
An in-situ treatment report 2004 and tree ring analysis report 2011 on the Chair are available for consultation at Westminster Abbey Library.
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.