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Issue 53 - The Honours of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


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The Honours of Scotland

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of the nation's crown jewels.

T he chest seemed to return a hollow and empty sound to the strokes of the hammer... The joy was therefore extreme when, the ponderous lid of the chest being forced open, at the expense of some time and labour, the Regalia were discovered lying at the bottom covered with linen cloths, exactly as they had been left in the year 1707.” So wrote Walter Scott in 1818 describing the rediscovery of the Honours of Scotland - the crown, the sword of state and the sceptre - which had been walled up and forgotten in Edinburgh Castle for more than a century.

They had been locked away at the Act of Union. Following reports that they would join the rest of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London a special clause had been inserted in the Act to ensure that they remained in Scotland. For they had never before left the country. When Charles I asked for them to be sent to London for his coronation he was told that the law prevented them leaving the kingdom, so he had to come north to be crowned King of Scots. A great horseback parade of the dignitaries of Scotland bearing the Regalia processed down the High St to the Chapel Royal in the palace of Holyroodhouse where he was crowned by the Archbishop of St Andrews, the primate of all Scotland.

The first recorded Christian coronation in Western Europe was that of King Aidan of Dalriada on Iona by Columba in 568 AD. And there have been patchy accounts of royal regalia in Scotland ever since. Being extremely valuable and the prime pieces of national loot, most of the early pieces ended up in England, trophies in the Tower of London. They all disappeared in one of history’s spectacular acts, the cultural vandalism when the crown jewels of England were broken up and sold under Cromwell’s rule. The ancient crown of Scotland, taken off John Baliol by King Edward I in 1296, may have been lost then, along with Robert Bruce’s circlet of gold which was captured at the battle of Methven in 1306.

The oldest of the three items in the regalia today is the sword of state which was presented to James IV in 1507 by Pope Julius II. The sceptre was given by Pope Alexander IV in 1494 but James V had it almost entirely remade. The same is true of the crown. It dates from 1540 although it likely holds both jewels and gold from its predecessor. It is the earliest surviving crown in Britain.

For security, the regalia have always been kept in Edinburgh Castle and their importance in the nation’s affairs was always more than merely to add to the majesty of the king. They symbolised the monarchy itself and were used to signify royal assent to legislation, so when parliament was sitting the jewels were passed from the custody of the Lord Treasurer and the Governor of the Castle to the hereditary Earl Marischal who had the job of protecting both the king and the regalia at parliaments.

He then rode with them down to the High Street in procession. It was described in 1600. The representative of the burghs in parliament went first, followed by the barons, officers of state, clergy, peers.

Then Lord Lyon and his heralds, ‘the sword, the sceptour, and the croun immediatlie befoir his hienes [highness’s] persoun.’ But when the adherents of the James VI wished to hold a parliament in Stirling to forfeit the supporters of Queen Mary, Edinburgh Castle and the Honours were in their hands and, unsurprisingly, they refused to give them up. After having fashioned a temporary set in silver gilt for immediate use, the Regent Morton summoned an English force which bombarded the castle into submission and the real regalia retrieved.

Aside from the Honours, the crown jewels included other gems; many were given by Queen Mary as gifts or sold by her but her son James took the diamond, known as the Great Harry, south when he inherited the English crown and incorporated it into the brooch called the Mirror of Great Britain. He pawned it in 1625; it was last heard of in Rotterdam in 1650.

During the civil wars the Honours were captured by the enemies of the king and they used them in parliament up until the execution of Charles I. After being employed at the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651, the Earl Marischal removed the regalia to his castle at Dunottar where they were placed under care of its governor George Ogilvie of Barras. At the approach of Cromwell’s troops, the Scots Committee of Estates asked for them back for safety but Ogilvie refused to yield them. He had less than 40 in his garrison but he withstood a siege and bombardment of eight months before surrendering. Half way through the assault, the wife of the local minister obtained permission from the English commander to visit the governor’s wife. She left the castle with crown hidden in her clothing, the sword and sceptre concealed in bundles of flax, supposedly to be spun into linen. The treasures were buried beneath the aisle of her husband’s church at Kinneff. They were dug up in time for the sitting of the Scots Parliament in 1662, the Honours were processed down to the sitting as usual but they were given a special ceremonial salute when ‘at thair doun ciming fra the castell the connonnes dischargit’.

Bar being hidden during World War II for fear they would be captured by the enemy in the event of invasion, the Honours have been in the castle ever since.

The Stone of Scone joined them in the Crown Room in 1996. The crown still comes down the Royal Mile to Holyrood for the opening session of the Scots Parliament but the sword and the sceptre are now considered too fragile to be bounced down the cobbles of the High Street.