LONDON — There is a piece of furniture so famous and so important to British history that it sits in its own chapel at Westminster Abbey, behind an iron door so viewers can look at it but never touch it.
The object, the Coronation Chair, was commissioned by King Edward I of England to house the Stone of Scone, which was captured from the Scots in 1296. The chair was built in the early 1300s and the stone se located directly under his seat.
The abbey says the chair is the oldest piece of furniture in Europe still used for its original purpose, and that 26 monarchs have been crowned in it since the coronation of Edward II in 1308. Although scholars have questioned whether the The chair’s original purpose was for use in coronations, they agree it has been a centerpiece of such ceremonies for centuries.
Last month the Abbey announced that the chair, which was last used at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, would undergo conservation work ahead of the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday. The chair underwent a final restoration from 2010 to 2012.
According to the Abbey, conservation work will focus on cleaning the surface of the chair, which is oak and measures 6ft 9in. Sponges and cotton swabs will be used to remove dirt and stabilize the remaining layers of gilding on the chair and its base, which was built in the early 18th century.
Krista Blessley, Curator of Paintings at Westminster Abbey, is responsible for restoring the chair, also known as the St. Edward’s Chair. While Abbey declined to offer Ms Blessley an interview, citing her need to focus on her job, last autumn she told Channel 5, a British broadcasting company, that the chair was “very fragile” and that its golden layers were prone to chipping. Its seat is also covered in graffiti from visitors and students of Westminster in the 18th and 19th centuries, she said.
In an interview this spring with The Royal Family Channel, Ms Blessley said the chair originally had gold glass and would have appeared to be metallic. The chair is also decorated with awls – tiny dots used to create patterns and images – of birds, saints, kings and foliage.
The Stone of Scone, sometimes called the Stone of Destiny, weighs 336 pounds. Over the years it has been the subject of intense rivalry between Scotland and England. It was stolen by Scottish Nationalists on Christmas Day 1950 but recovered months later. The stone was returned to Edinburgh Castle in Scotland in 1996 and will be brought back to London for the coronation.
“It’s actually not a very remarkable thing,” David Torrance, a monarchy specialist at the House of Commons Library, said of the stone. “It was, ultimately, a kind of rough-cut sandstone rectangle” that was damaged and pinned, he said.
Because the chair has not been used for decades, it has deteriorated to some degree, Mr Torrance said. He added that the restoration should ensure that the chair can support both the weight of the stone and the weight of the king, neither of whom regularly sits on the chair.
Restoration costs were not disclosed, but Mr Torrance said he expected conservation efforts to continue until a few days before the ceremony this weekend.
Other ceremonial items, including an orb and scepter that will be held by King Charles, “symbolize power and authority in a monarchy,” said Anna Whitelock, professor of monarchy history at City, University. from London.
Charles will be crowned with St Edward’s Crown, which was removed from the Tower of London last year to allow for alterations, according to the official website of the British Royal Family. The King will also wear the Imperial State Crown during the ceremony.
Queen Camilla, who will also be crowned at the ceremony, will have a smaller seat, Prof Whitelock said.
“It won’t be the coronation chair, but it will be seated next to Charles,” she said. “She’s not the main event, but she’ll be there, both symbolically and sort of in every other way, in a supporting role.”
While the coronation chair has been an integral part of coronations for centuries, it may not always be so. Prof Whitelock said it was not an integral part of the ceremony. “A big part of the monarchy’s popularity — in a sense, its legitimacy today — is that it’s this centuries-old institution,” she said. “It’s always been done that way. Future monarchs could make changes as they pleased.
“I think a lot of people see things like the coronation chair and the history around it, which makes the coronation, and in fact the British monarchy, so special,” Prof Whitelock said. “If you start stripping those things away, you wonder what’s left and, indeed, whether what’s left justifies some of the other problems of having an unelected head of state.”
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