The Survival of the Scottish Crown Jewels

The Scottish Crown Jewels, also known as the Honours of Scotland, are a regular feature for any visit to Edinburgh Castle. Within the last week, the Honours crown was placed on top of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin as she lay at rest in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. What is little known is the rather amazing survival story behind the jewels, a story I didn’t know myself until a I watched a programme during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations only a few months ago. For that reason, I found it only fitting to write about it in the lead up to the Queen’s funeral.

The Honours are used as a collective term to include a crown, sceptre and sword. The sword and sceptre were given to James IV of Scotland by two separate popes in 1494 and 1507, with the crown having an unknown date, but it was certainly in existence before 1540, when James V ordered alterations to it.[1] The first time all three items were used together was during the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary Queen of Scots in 1543.[2] Within a century, the jewels were placed in immense danger. Following the English Civil War, Charles I, the grandson of Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed in January 1649 by the Parliamentarians, and the country was made a Protectorate, with Oliver Cromwell in charge.

Replicas of the Honours of Scotland, © Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Scots, although they were against Charles I for his religious policy, were outraged at the murder of a king. On 1 January 1651, Charles II, son of the late king Charles, was crowned with the Honours. This angered Cromwell, who sent forces to Scotland as a punishment for their Royalist sympathies. The Honours were immediately at risk because Cromwell had already ordered the destruction of the English crown jewels, so the Scottish ones would be next if he could lay his hands on them. Following the coronation of Charles II, the Honours were unable to return to their home in Edinburgh as the city had already fallen to Cromwell’s troops, so another place of safety had to be chosen.

Dunnottar Castle, situated just under 20 miles from Aberdeen was chosen. It made sense to choose the castle as it was strategically placed on top of giant cliffs along a headland of coast. It was a good place to make a stand, but also to smuggle the jewels out from if necessary. The Honours arrived at Dunnottar not long after Charles II’s coronation by hiding them in sacks of wool. This in itself posed a threat as they had to be carried through territory occupied by Cromwell’s troops.[3] Whilst Dunnottar was a safe haven for a while, troops began to besiege the castle from September 1651, which would last for eight months in total.[4] A plan to smuggle the jewels out was now the only option. The question was how was it managed?

Dunnottar Castle, © Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There have been two theories placed forwards as to how the jewels actually were smuggled, the first was given my Christian Fletcher, the wife of the minister of nearby Kinneff Church, who played a major part in the planning. In her account of the event later spoken in front of the Privy Council, she claimed to have visited the castle on three separate occasions to undertake the task of smuggling. She was also helped by Mary Erskine, dowager countess of Marischal, who’s son was in control of the area, and Elizabeth Douglas, wife of the Castle Governor. The first attempt launched the rescue attempt, in which Christian left the castle with the King’s papers sewn into her belt.[5] She then returned in February 1652 to collect the crown and sceptre. She had arrived on horseback to collect them and left the castle by keeping close to the cliff in order to stay hidden.[6] The final attempt was in March 1652, when she came back with a servant to collect the sword. The servant took the sword away hidden in a sack of flax on her back, with the sword case later being taken away in a sack of pillows.[7]

Christian Fletcher’s account was seen as too boastful and later on a different set of events was released to explain the rescue attempt for the jewels. This account suggests that all of the items were taken in one go, with them being tied up and lowered down to the beach below, were a servant girl collected them and hid them inside a basket of seaweed.[8] Whichever account is accurate, the Honours were certainly successfully rescued. They were taken to nearby Kinnaff Church, where Christian’s husband served as a minister, and buried there. The Honours were dug up every three months to be checked for any damage, a process that would go on for nine years before they could be returned to Charles II, once had been restored as king.[9]

Tableau at Edinburgh Castle of the Saving of the Honours of Scotland, © Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

When the jewels were returned to the monarchy, arguments began to ensue over who had really had the largest part in the rescue attempt. Dowager Countess Marischal managed to convince people that her son had smuggled them to the continent, meaning that he received money and titles for his supposed efforts, Elizabeth Douglas claimed she was the person in charge of the operation and also received rewards. This meant that Christian Fletcher, her husband, and their servants, had their roles diminished.[10] It wasn’t until Fletcher told her side of the story that she was offered 2000 Scots merks, but it was never paid to her.[11]

Upon the return of the Honours, they were placed back inside Edinburgh Castle, where they stayed until the Scottish Parliament was dissolved in 1707, following the Act of Union, which officially merged England and Scotland.[12] They were then placed inside a large chest and their whereabouts forgotten for over a century. There were rumours that the jewels had been sent to England in secret, but the famous Scottish author, Walter Scot, still believed them to be in a chest in Edinburgh Castle. With this belief, he petitioned the Prince Regent, the future George IV, in 1818, to give permission for the chest to be opened. It was and the life of the jewels continued once more. They were put on public display on 26 May 1819 and have been ever since.[13]

The Burial of the Scottish Regalia, David Wilkie (1785–1841), The Fitzwilliam Museum via Art UK, under this Creative Commons Licence.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the crown was used to adorn Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin as it lay at rest in Edinburgh, so in some respects, it has once again been brought to the world’s attention, albeit in sad circumstances. Without the bravery and cunning of the women who helped save the Honours all those centuries ago, that would not have been possible. Whilst I know monarchy isn’t for everyone, as witnessed in the struggles between the Royalists and Parliamentarians at that time, there is no denying that the people who saved the jewels at that time risked everything to save the Honours.


[1] Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[2] Ellen Castelow, ‘The “Honours” of Scotland’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Honours-of-Scotland/

[3] ‘The women who smuggled Crown Jewels from Dunnottar Castle’, The Scotsman, 25 May 2017, https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/women-who-smuggled-crown-jewels-dunnottar-castle-855361

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid; Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[10] ‘The women who smuggled Crown Jewels from Dunnottar Castle’, The Scotsman, 25 May 2017, https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/women-who-smuggled-crown-jewels-dunnottar-castle-855361

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid; Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[13] Ellen Castelow, ‘The “Honours” of Scotland’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Honours-of-Scotland/

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