When four students in two Fords stole the Stone of Destiny
Among the ceremonial objects involved in the coronation of King Charles III, few have a longer tradition of use than the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny.
You may know that the late Queen Elizabeth II sat upon this stone during her own coronation on June 3, 1953, as has every British monarch dating back to the early 1300s. You may not know that, three years earlier, on Christmas Eve, a Ford Anglia idled outside Westminster Abbey. Four shadowy figures carrying a heavy load moved hastily through the night, one badly injured. The morning of Christmas Day, England awoke to find that its Stone of Destiny had been stolen, and that the thieves had got clean away.
The heist transfixed the public for months. Reactions varied: The English were scandalized, but more than a few cheery faces were seen among the Scots. The thieves that stole the Stone of Scone weren’t looking for fame or fortune; they were stealing back a symbol of national pride.
The stone is an unremarkable rectangular block of reddish sandstone, weighing roughly 335 pounds. It has none of the flash or sparkle of the Crown Jewels, but it is equally steeped in history.
Even before December 24, 1950, it was stolen property.
You may already be familiar with King Edward I, as played by actor Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart. In the film, he’s portrayed as one of the most devious and cunning villains this side of Darth Vader. It’s not an entirely inaccurate portrait, as the real Edward “Longshanks” was uncompromising and ruthless. Then again, few medieval Kings could afford mercy.
Edward I’s other nickname was “The Hammer of the Scots,” which says pretty much everything you need to know about his suppression of the Scottish rebellion. In 1296, having defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar, Edward I looted the Stone of Scone, transporting it to Westminster Abbey as a spoil of war. He instructed a wooden chair be built to house the stone and serve as a throne.
The symbolism is as obvious as that of the fictional Iron Throne made of melted-down swords. (If a bit less spectacular.) The Stone of Scone had been used in the coronations of Scottish kings for hundreds of years before Edward I took it, and various legends suggest it dates to the fifth century. It was, and remains, a symbol of Scottish nationalism.
In 1950, Scottish nationalism had ebbed. Having worked together to defeat the enemy in WWII, the U.K. was a fairly united place. The blue and white of the Scottish flag was part of the Union Jack, and that was that. But in the universities and colleges of Scotland, young people were still interested in their heritage. Four friends at the University of Glasgow met as a result of their shared membership in the Scottish Covenant Association, a political organization created to promote the idea of Scottish home rule. One of them shared a daring idea.
The four were Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon, and Alan Stuart. Hamilton was a nationalist, but none were true radicals. They were just young. As Hamilton later put it: “I’ve defended a lot of daft people during thirty years as a criminal lawyer, but I doubt very much if I’ve defended anyone who was as daft as we were then.”
Today, a modern car can travel from Glasgow to London in about six or seven hours. In 1950, cars demonstrated more leisurely pace, and there weren’t many motorways, just country roads. A few days before Christmas, the four piled into a couple of Ford Anglias, armed with little more than youthful enthusiasm and a fistful of money from Scottish Covenant Association leader John MacCormick.
A Ford Anglia does not make much of a getaway car. The nameplate gained some unlikely global recognition with the appearance of a fourth-generation model as the flying car in the Harry Potter series, but the cars used in the theft of the Stone were very early models. Their exact model years and configurations are lost to time, but, given a student’s budget, each was likely to a bare-bones saloon, fitted with a three-speed manual and a 933cc engine making scarcely 8 hp.
Add the propensity of the Anglia’s wipers to stop working above 40 mph, and the drive to Westminster Abbey would have provided ample time for second thoughts. Evidently, there were none, or the daring voices prevailed: The four arrived a few days before Christmas and began to scout the location.
It was an amateur job with multiple errors. While skulking about after closing hours, Hamilton was discovered by a security guard. Suspicions were not aroused; the guard assumed Hamilton was down on his luck and gave him some money. On the day of the theft, Stuart and Vernon were discovered in the cloister by the church’s Archdeacon. No one seems to have have been bothered—who would steal a 300-pound rock, no matter how significant?
Because the Abbey had been damaged by bombing in WWII, one of its solid oak doors had been replaced in soft pine. Armed with a prybar, three of the thieves broke in, then set about freeing the stone from its wooden chair. Matheson, the getaway driver, sat outside.
The trio worked feverishly—their mission toed the line of treason. The wood frame splintered. The stone came loose, but its weight surprised them. It crashed to the ground, splitting in two. In the commotion, someone dropped the keys to the other Anglia. Hamilton wrestled the smaller piece—about 90 pounds—out to Matheson in the Anglia and was about to return when a policeman emerged. The pair quickly embraced, pretending to be a couple out on a romantic excursion. The bobby, in a cheery pre-Christmas mood, failed to notice the lump of stone on the Ford’s backseat.
Matheson set off for Scotland. Stuart, Vernon, and Hamilton heaved the remaining section of the Abbey, at which point they discovered that the keys for the second Anglia were missing. Stuart and Vernon escaped on foot. Hamilton rushed inside, found the keys, and ran to the nearby car park. Somehow, he managed to lever the 250-pound stone into the Anglia’s trunk. The car rumbled off, rear springs sagging.
Reuniting with Stuart, Hamilton managed to get his chunk of the stone into a nearby field, where the two buried it. On Boxing Day, December 26, they headed for Scotland.
The public was outraged. Police response was immediate, and their investigation thorough. Witnesses provided a description of the car. Roadblocks surrounded London. The borders to Scotland and Wales closed. Matheson slipped through, a single woman traveling alone being, evidently, suspicion. The other three also escaped—and returned about a week later to recover the larger piece of stone from the field. Once back into Scotland, they baptized their prize with whiskey.
It took until April 11 of the following year before the Stone of Destiny was returned to England. By then, the police had a good idea of the culprits, since they’d pulled library records at Scottish universities. (Hamilton had done a suspicious amount of research on Westminster Abbey.) However, the stone remained hidden, and no one was talking.
Eventually, feeling the pressure, the students made contact with two sympathetic town councilors. The stone had been repaired by a local Scottish stonemason and sat at the ruined Abroath Abbey. Once the police arrived, they removed the stone. The officers immediately placed it in custody, locking it in a cell.
Many public figures called for severe prosecution, but England’s governments wavered. If convicted, the four thieves would be martyrs. If acquitted, they would be heroes. To the consternation of more conservative voices, the theft was framed as a student prank. No charges were laid.
Eventually, the Stone of Scone was returned to Scotland in 1996—sort of. The English contended that it remained Royal property; it was merely being housed in one of the kingdoms ruled over by Her Majesty.
In 2014, a referendum was held asking the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 2 million Scots said no. 1.6 million said yes.
Of the four students, only Hamilton survives. As of this writing, he is 96 years old. Hamilton became a noted criminal lawyer, and Stuart and Vernon, successful engineers and businessmen. Matheson was a teacher. All four mostly avoided the spotlight, but the Scottish nationalist movement considered them heroes.
There is one small, and likely apocryphal, footnote. The stonemason who repaired the Stone of Destiny was a known Scots nationalist named Robert Gray. He used three metal dowels to repair the stone, and there’s long been a rumor that a message was written on a slip of paper and inserted into one of these dowels.
True or no matters little: When King Charles III takes his seat, as so many have done before him, he will sit above a reminder that destiny is no certain thing.
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