Robbery of Edward I’s Treasures from Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has had a long history of royal ceremony and patronage, ever since its rebuilding between 1042 and 1052 by Edward the Confessor. The Westminster Abbey that we know of today was again rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th Century, and it was this rebuilding that made it a place of safety for the crown jewels. A vaulted chamber known as the Pyx Chamber was used to house the royal treasures, including the crown jewels, alongside others belonging to the monks who called the abbey home. This chamber was considered the best place to house the treasury as it was a medieval equivalent of a high security bank vault.[1] With the monks in charge of these precious items, along with many keys to the strong vault doors, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen.

Chamber of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey, London (2012), Wikimedia Commons

However, in 1303, the unthinkable happened; the treasury was robbed and in a most miraculous and somewhat laughable way. The man responsible was Richard Podlicote or Pudlicote. He was a merchant who had previously been working in Flanders before returning to England. He clearly had motive as he had previously been arrested and forced to pay £14 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) towards King Edward I’s debts in Bruges.[2] Whilst this may sound harsh to us, it was a common right of medieval kings to force Englishmen living abroad to help pay debts.

In his confession, Pudlicote revealed how he had managed to do the robbery. It took him 98 days (roughly 3 months), between Christmas and just after Easter, to dig a tunnel under the abbey grounds.[3] He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels.[4] After getting through to the chamber, he spent a whole day deciding what he wanted to take. The items were more than he could carry and so, on his way out under the cover of darkness, he left some of it under a nearby bush, which he came back for the following night.[5]

With the passage of time, we’re not entirely sure just how many things Pudlicote stole, but we do know some of the higher status items he did and did not steal. The crown jewels themselves were left alone, probably because they were too high profile.[6] One item which was possibly stolen as it was reported missing and was never seen again is a crown taken from the dead body of the Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after his death at the Battle of Builth in 1282.[7 After being taken by the English, claims began to circulate that this crown had once belonged to King Arthur, who the Welsh royals claimed as their ancestor.[8]

Contemporary image of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wearing his crown during a ceremony of him paying tribute to Henry III (1267), Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery.[9] Perhaps it wouldn’t have been discovered for a lot longer if it hadn’t had been for the pawnshops and brothels the treasures ended up in. The pawnshops in their desperation to be rid of the stolen goods, offered them to nobles and others of high standing. These men were among those who knew about what these goods were and where they had come from.[10] The truth of what had happened in Westminster Abbey began to unravel and it led to Pudlicot, who was found with between £2,000-£2,200 (around £1.5 million pounds in today’s money) worth of stolen goods on him.

Despite being a previous offender, and how long it took him to dig, as well as being in or around the scene of the crime, Pudlicote claimed the monks were not involved and didn’t know of his endeavours.[11] I’m not sure that really adds up, especially as 48 monks were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief stay, but they were never formally punished, instead they were released on Edward I’s orders.[12] It seems to be a large coincidence, so there must have been some insider help. Whatever the truth, Pudlicote was sentenced to death in November 1303.

Painting in Westminster Abbey thought to be Edward I (2019), Wikimedia Commons

The theft changed how the crown jewels were kept, something which can be seen right up until the present day. The remaining treasure was briefly placed in the Tower of London whilst the Pyx Chamber was reinforced.[13] In the later 1300s, a new and more permanent home was built in the Tower of London specifically built to house the jewels. Whilst that building is not the building currently used for that purpose, as that has long been lost, it started the tradition of the Tower being the residence of the crown jewels.

The debts of Edward I, which were a major motive for the crime, were enormous. On his death in 1307, they amounted to £200,000, nearly £142 million in today’s money. The amount is so phenomenal amount it’s virtually unthinkable. Considering this, it’s no doubt that the majority of these debts were still unpaid by the time of Edward II, the son of Edward I, 20 years after.


[1] Ross, D., ‘Westminster Abbey Chapter House and Pyx Chamber’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4723; ‘Pyx Chamber’, Westminster Abbey,  https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/pyx-chamber

[2] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur (Stroud: The History Press, 2016), p. 101.

[3] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[4] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[5] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[6] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[7] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[8] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[9] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[10] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[11] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[12] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101; Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

[13] Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

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