15.01.31, Rodwell, The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone

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Betsy L. Chunko

The Medieval Review 15.01.31

Rodwell, Warwick. The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. 320. ISBN: 9781782971528 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Betsy L. Chunko
Muhlenberg College

In 1296, King Edward I seized a block of sandstone at Scone following his victory over the Scots. For centuries, Scottish kings had been inaugurated on this symbolic "Stone of Scone." Between 1297 and 1300, Edward had a Coronation Chair constructed that incorporated the Stone. This Chair was presented by the king as a holy relic at the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, and most English monarchs since the fourteenth century have been crowned upon it, including HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. According to Warwick Rodwell, these objects, the Chair and Stone, may be said to constitute a single artifact--one which, moreover, ranks among the most treasured objects to survive from the English Middle Ages.

Rodwell and his colleagues have created a book of impressive comprehensiveness--the first of its kind, as no previous studies have treated the Stone and Chair together as an inclusive historic subject. The book is in many ways the result of conservation efforts carried out from 2010-12, at which time the first holistic study of the Chair and Stone was completed, much of it under the eye of Rodwell, who served as Consultant Archaeologist to Westminster Abbey. It includes numerous, excellent illustrations, virtually all of them high quality and in full color, as well as an ample bibliography.

In scope, the book deals with the archaeological evidence in terms of the ideas of power and authority the Chair and Stone recall. According to Rodwell, "Almost everything about the Stone, from its geological origin and its name, to its authenticity, has become confused by gradually accumulated myth, and distorted by willful modern fabrication" (22). The Stone has been physically reshaped and dramatically altered since its departure from Scone under Edward. The Chair has likewise been modified on several occasions; once highly ornate and embellished by gilding, painting, and colored glass, it is now battered by age and past antiquarian abuses. The Chair and Stone have suffered especially eventful twentieth-century histories, both together and separately, including a suffragette attack in 1914 and the theft of the Stone by a group that self-identified as Scottish nationalists in 1950. Since 1996, the Stone has been on loan to Edinburgh Castle, while the Chair remains at Westminster. To Rodwell, this is an unfortunate circumstance. He doggedly asserts their combined importance to the British monarchy and state, and holds their joint history as more crucial to dissect than their separate ideological trajectories for the English and Scottish people, respectively.

Rodwell's study includes a total of fifteen chapters. Given the large number, this summary will focus on those that might be deemed most central to the broader goals of the text. The early chapters blend close archaeological investigation with evidence from comparable manuscripts, seals, engravings, and textual descriptions. Specifically, he opens with an examination of the historiography of the Chair and the Stone before moving to an examination of the Stone's history leading up to and immediately following its transition from Scone to Westminster at the close of the thirteenth century. Chapter four comprises Edward I's commissioning of the Chair in 1297, and chapter five offers a detailed construction study. Chapter five also discusses the Chair in the context of the other surviving medieval furnishings at Westminster--namely, the Retable of Henry III and sedilia. Rodwell suggests that all three are linked not just constructionally, but also stylistically and decoratively (68-69). Chapter five further offers conclusions regarding the seat board. Rodwell explains that the Chair was designed and made without a permanent timber seat directly above the Stone, hence either the surface of the Stone itself served as the seat or it was overlaid by a cushion. Chapter five also solves the riddle of the Chair's assembly. He demonstrates that the Chair was constructed without the use of any metal fixings; all timber joints and decorative embellishments were secured by pegs, dowels, or glue. According to Rodwell, the plinth would have been placed on the floor of the chapel, the Stone positioned on top, and then the Chair lowered over it, like a cover. Chapter six offers a study on the polychrome of the Chair by Marie Louise Sauerberg. Chapter seven outlines important conclusions regarding the Stone, establishing that it was cut to fit the Chair specifically, and explaining the logistics of handling the Stone.

Chapter eight is notable for its description of the succession of vandalism from the later Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. This is followed by chapter nine, which discusses the seventeenth-century companion chair's construction for Queen Mary II, after which chapter ten details the vicissitudes the Coronation Chair experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of greatest note here perhaps is Rodwell's description and characterization of "Plunket's deception" (167-68). David Plunket, as Member of the House of Commons and First Commissioner of Works, supervised the Chair's overpainting in 1887 on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Working with the Office of Works, Plunket was among those who "unilaterally deemed it desirable to 'improve' the appearance of the Chair for the occasion." As Rodwell sums up, the result was "one of those unnecessary and highly damaging acts of interference with a historic treasure that was so typical of the era." The "catastrophic restoration" that ensued destroyed large areas of original painting. Specifically, the Office of Works applied brown varnish stain to large areas of the Chair with the goal of imparting tonal consistency. The public and Parliament were only made aware of these alterations after the fact, which led to the questioning of Plunket before Parliament.

Rodwell continues in the following chapter to detail ceremonies and incidents of the twentieth century involving the chair. Among the most notable issues recounted here is how the Chair and Stone were hidden in the course of WWII in the event of a successful German invasion, lest they be deemed a "prize of war" by the Nazis (185). The chapter culminates in a discussion of the 1950 theft of the Stone from Westminster; he describes the "thieves" as misguided Scottish nationalists detested by the nation. The tone of this description bleeds into chapter twelve, which details the circumstances surrounding the return of the Stone to Scotland at the end of the twentieth century.

In fact, chapter twelve fulfills one of Rodwell's larger goals for the book: asserting the Stone as a symbol of British pride. Many will note that this discussion is hardly objective. Indeed, Rodwell repeatedly refers to the Stone's return to Scotland as a "fait accompli" (212) despite the fact that the Queen herself agreed to its removal from Westminster. Though ostensibly a detailed account of the British government's decision to return the Stone of Scone to Scotland, chapter twelve is largely an argument for why the Stone should be permanently reunited with the Chair in Westminster. In this, Rodwell writes from his heartfelt perspective that the Chair and Stone are a single artifact, but his characterization of their value and meaning skirts over numerous matters of interpretation. For instance, where he argues that Edinburgh cannot provide a meaningful context for the Stone (215-16), many would beg to differ. He asserts: "In essence, it is an English artifact made of Scottish sandstone" (216). To some, this may be a downright offensive statement. Certainly it is a matter of opinion as the Stone existed and had a strong cultural value for the early Scots long before Edward I removed it and claimed it for England. Moreover, that it was used for English coronations well before the Act of Union makes it less a symbol of the joint history of Scotland and England than he would like to believe. Further, one could argue, contrary to Rodwell's view, that returning the Stone to Scotland was the "right" thing to do, if only because there have since been no further attempts to steal it or remove it from official control and it has for this reason received no further damage. In sum, Rodwell is an excellent archaeologist but a poor cultural historian at times here. Aspects of this chapter are troublesome due to their unbiased appeal to English nationalisms that do not always reflect the trajectory of the Stone's meaning. One should perhaps not overlook the fact that this book was written in the climate of the build-up to the Scottish referendum vote.

The study finally turns to detailed description of the various full-size replica chairs in Britain and Canada, along with a selection of the many models in metal and ceramic that have been made during the last two centuries. Marie Louise Sauerberg includes a chapter, somewhat superfluous at this point in the study, on the conservation of the Chair. This is followed by the fifteenth and final chapter, by Ptolemy Dean, on the 2013 redisplay of the restored Coronation Chair at Westminster.

Throughout, Rodwell and his colleagues demonstrate the extent to which history and archaeology convene in considering the Chair and Stone as objects in the modern world. Rodwell is a skillful lead author, writing with clarity, even when treating the more technical aspects of the discussion. Beyond all of this, the book is, quite frankly, a good read--part mythological study, part detective story, and part ideological discussion. Ultimately, he offers a thorough look at the history, context, popular cultural impressions, and political value of two precious survivals. Rodwell's scholarship is always sound, though his interpretations should provoke discussion. That his conclusions will inspire debate is perhaps but a further asset, though, as it points to the fact that this book, which actively asserts the continuing cultural relevance of the Stone and Chair, is both timely and consequential.

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Author Biography

Betsy L. Chunko

Muhlenberg College