It’s June 1296, and a war is raging between the kingdoms of England and Scotland.
Soldiers hurry behind Edward I, King of England, as he strides into Scone Abbey in eastern Scotland.
Three months ago, Edward’s forces defeated a Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar, forcing the King of Scotland to flee north and leaving Edward to claim the spoils of war. Today, Edward is here at one of the Scottish king’s royal residences to get his hands on one prize in particular: the Stone of Destiny.
Legend has it that the stone is a precious relic from the Holy Land. For centuries, Scottish kings have used it as a seat during their coronation ceremonies as a symbol of divine approval. By confiscating the Stone of Destiny, Edward is sending a message to the Scots: he is their ruler now.
Edward gestures to his soldiers, who step forward with weapons raised. A cowering clergyman directs them toward a chair near the altar. And inside the chair’s wooden framework is a large block of red sandstone.
Edward nods at his men, and the soldiers surround the chair, smashing it to pieces and exposing the Stone of Destiny inside. It might look like a weathered piece of old rock but Edward I, King of England, knows it has huge value to the defeated Scots.
After seizing the Stone of Destiny, Edward’s soldiers transport it to London, where craftsmen build a new throne to hold it. The stone will remain in Westminster Abbey for the next 700 years. Even after the English and Scottish kingdoms are merged in 1707, the Stone of Destiny remains in London, a symbol of England’s persisting dominance over Scotland.
But in time, Scottish nationalists will demand the return of the relic. When the English refuse to let it go, a team of Scottish students will take the matter into their own hands, launching a daring plan to steal the stone. Their plot will succeed and for months British authorities will have no idea where the Stone of Destiny is until it miraculously reappears within the ruins of a Scottish Abby on April 11th, 1951.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is April 11th, 1951: The Stone of Destiny Returns.
It’s 5 AM on December 25th, 1950 in London; 654 years after King Edward I confiscated the Stone of Destiny.
Inside Westminster Abbey, 25-year-old Ian Hamilton grunts with effort as he pulls pieces of wood from King Edward’s throne. He reaches under the seat and brushes his fingers against the smooth lump of sandstone he has come here to steal. Then, he nods at his two companions. It’s time to take back the Stone of Destiny.
The idea for the theft came to Ian a few weeks ago, after he read a novel in which the stone was stolen from Westminster Abbey. The tale was enough to push the Scottish university student to attempt the heist in real life. Ian has no love for the English. He wants Scots to have greater freedom to rule themselves. And he’s not alone. He was able to recruit three like-minded fellow students from Glasgow University, persuading them that stealing the Stone of Destiny would gain publicity for the Scottish nationalist movement.
And together, the conspirators have managed to break into Westminster Abbey in the early hours of Christmas morning, and are now only seconds away from getting their hands on the ancient relic.
As Ian pushes the Stone of Destiny out of the throne, it falls to the floor with a thump. The thieves hold their breath, listening for any indication the nightwatchman heard the stone drop. And after a moment’s silence, they exhale with relief. No one seems to be coming.
Ian’s fellow conspirators, Gavin Vernon, and Alan Stuart, get in position to push the stone along the ground, while Ian takes hold of an iron ring embedded in the stone centuries ago to help move it. On a count of three, the men heave. There’s an ominous cracking sound. The iron ring has pulled a quarter of the stone away. The three conspirators gasp in shock. The fabled Stone of Destiny has split into two.
Ian quickly picks up the smaller section of stone. It’s still heavy, but he can just manage to carry it. He whispers that he’ll go ahead with this part, and come back to help them with the second. Then he struggles to a side door of the Abbey and out to a car where the fourth member of the crew, Kay Matheson, waits, ready to make a quick getaway.
After dropping his fragment into the back seat, Ian turns to Kay and begins to explain that the stone broke, and they need to get the rest of it before she can drive off. But Kay hisses at him to get in the car. There’s a policeman walking their way.
Ian jumps in and covers the Stone of Destiny with a coat. As the policeman nears, Ian tells Kay to drive away and come back to collect the other two conspirators later. But Kay doesn’t drive. Instead, she pulls Ian into an intimate embrace.
A few seconds later, the kissing couple is interrupted by the policeman rapping his baton against the window. Ian and Kay jump back as though surprised. Kay winds down her window and the officer asks what they’re doing—but the smile on his face suggests he knows exactly what he disturbed. Ian feigns embarrassment. He and Kay improvise a story that they drove to London yesterday but arrived too late to find a hotel. So, they were forced to park and wait for morning.
The policeman informs them that they’re on private property and need to move to a parking lot down the road. His manner is sympathetic, and he also seems eager to kill time on his long night shift. He leans on the roof of the car and lights up a cigarette and begins chatting. While the officer is turned away from the Abbey, Ian sees Gavin emerge from the side door. Gavin freezes when he spots the policeman, before slowly retreating back inside the Abbey and quietly closing the door.
Ian forces a smile and continues distracting the officer until the policeman finally finishes his cigarette and Kay is able to start the car’s engine. As they drive down the street, Ian looks back at the Abbey where the other section of the stone, and their co-conspirators remain. As soon as they’re out of the policeman’s sight, he tells Kay to let him out. While Kay drives away with one part of the stolen stone, Ian returns to the Abbey to manage the larger piece with Gavin and Alan. The three men heave and sweat, but they are successful, able to make off with the entire Stone of Destiny.
The conspirators will lie low until the initial uproar of the stone’s robbery dies down. Then, they will finally return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland, after its 654 years away. When the stone arrives in its fragmented state, one of the country’s nationalist leaders will be called upon to repair the damage—and come up with a plan to ensure the most political gain from the students’ outrageous heist.
It’s early January 1951 in Glasgow, Scotland; two weeks after the Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey.
Inside his home, 55-year-old Robert Gray picks up his knife and fork just about to dig into dinner when the telephone rings. With a sigh, Robert gets up and answers the call. He’s used to mealtimes being interrupted. Robert is a member of the Glasgow City Council, and constituents often ring him to seek his advice. But he quickly realizes tonight’s phone call is not an ordinary appeal for help.
The first thing his caller asks is whether Robert’s telephone is tapped. Robert laughs and answers that it isn’t. He may be a leading figure in the Scottish nationalist movement, but Robert doesn’t think his political ideology has him on the radar of the secret police.
The caller follows up the unusual inquiry with a request that Robert is more used to. The man on the line explains that he has a special piece of stone for Robert to look at. This doesn’t strike Robert as odd, because aside from being a councilor, Robert is a stonemason. But the man’s tone leaves Robert in no doubt that this instance is exceptional, that the caller is talking about the Stone of Destiny.
For the past two weeks, newspapers and radio bulletins have been dominated by one story: the Stone’s theft from Westminster Abbey. The police are stumped. But they suspect that the stone has been taken by Scottish nationalists.
Robert’s heart beats a little faster at the possibility of finally finding out who was behind the heist. He quickly arranges to meet his anonymous caller in downtown Glasgow. He grabs his coat and calls to his wife that he has urgent business, and apologizes for having to leave when dinner is still on the table.
A few minutes later, Robert spots the car he’s been told to look for. Two young men exit the vehicle and introduce themselves as Ian Hamilton and Alan Stuart. But Robert recognizes them. They’re students from the university’s nationalist society. Robert has attended several of their meetings. He returns their greeting and then follows the young men to the back of their car. Ian lifts the trunk and moves a blanket aside, revealing the broken Stone of Destiny.
Robert inhales sharply in shock. The apologetic students explain that the damage was an accident and, with a pleading look, the young men ask whether it can be repaired. Robert examines the stone. The edges of the break are slightly worn. He suspects the stone has already been cracked for decades, even centuries.
Robert assures the students that he can fix it, but he can’t do it just yet. The police investigation is too intense. And as a leader of the nationalist movement, he knows he’ll be a suspect. He’s already expecting a visit from detectives. So Robert tells the students they need to get the stone into safekeeping in the meantime. And he happens to know just the place. Robert closes the trunk and gestures to the students to get in the car. He climbs in too and directs them 30 miles away where they leave the stone in the barn owned by one of Robert’s friends.
Over the next few days, as expected, Robert, Ian, and Alan are each questioned by detectives about the stone’s whereabouts. All deny any knowledge of the theft. And after two months, media coverage of the Stone’s robbery dies down. With no new information to report, journalists tire the story.
And once Robert is confident that police attention has also shifted elsewhere, he retrieves the Stone of Destiny from its hiding place and repairs it in his workshop. In between working on it, he telephones Ian and asks the young student what he plans to do with the stone next. Ian admits he didn't have a plan beyond stealing the stone. But Robert, a veteran politician, has already considered how to take advantage of the stunt.
He tells Ian the Stone of Destiny has little value if it’s kept in hiding, and suggests giving it back. Ian begins to protest, but Robert cuts him off explaining that handing back the stone will give the Scottish nationalist movement the moral high ground. It will also get the Stone of Destiny back in the newspapers again, giving the Scottish nationalist cause another boost of exposure.
Eventually, Ian agrees. Together, the two Scotsmen make a new plan. The Stone of Destiny will be surrendered by the Scottish nationalists who stole it. But they won’t just hand it over anywhere. Instead, they will travel to the site of a famous declaration of Scottish independence and ensure that the stone’s handover will happen on their terms.
It’s noon on April 11th, 1951 in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, Scotland; four months after the Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey.
Ian Hamilton glances around, wary of being spotted and recognized. He sees a few dog walkers in the distance, but nobody is close enough to identify him. So, Ian nods to his companions, his friend Bill Craig and, councilor and stonemason, Robert Gray. Each man takes hold of fabric straps wrapped around the Stone of Destiny. They set off at a shuffle, carefully carrying the precious relic across the manicured grass, toward the abbey’s ruins.
621 years ago, in this very location, King Robert I of Scotland—better known as Robert the Bruce—penned a letter to the Pope arguing the case for Scotland’s freedom from English rule. Ever since, the Declaration of Arbroath has been revered by Scots as a call to independence. Now, Ian is in this historic site of Scottish liberty to hand back the relic that represents centuries of English oppression.
Ian and his two compatriots stop near the grave of William the Lion, the longest-reigning King of Scots, and lower the stone to the grass. Robert pulls the straps from underneath and Ian covers the stone with the Scottish flag. Then, they quickly retreat to Robert’s car and drive away, stopping only at a public telephone to tip off the police that the Stone of Destiny can be found at Arbroath Abbey.
But their retreat was not as stealthy as the three men hoped. They were spotted leaving the relic at the Abbey. Initially, no one knew who they were. But eventually, police detectives identify them. But the government decides that prosecuting Ian, Robert and their co-conspirators is not in the public interest. The theft was celebrated by many Scots, and there would be an outcry if the thieves were jailed.
However, the government refuses to bend to public pressure and leave the Stone of Destiny in Scotland. It travels back to Westminster Abbey under armed guard and will remain there for more than 45 years until a new generation of ministers announces that the Stone of Destiny will be returned to Scotland. But the British government’s gesture will be too little, too late to halt a surge in Scottish nationalism. One year after the stone’s return, the Scottish people will vote in a referendum to create a devolved parliament, giving them greater control over their own affairs.
So it will take nearly 50 years for the Stone of Destiny conspirators to see their political aims achieved in some measure. But there’s little doubt that the cause of Scottish nationalism was given a huge boost by the theft and the eventual safe return of the Stone of Destiny on April 11th, 1951.
Next on History Daily. April 12th, 1862. During the American Civil War, a band of Union spies steals a train to sabotage the Western & Atlantic Railroad, a vital supply line at the heart of the Confederacy.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammed Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.