Every nation has its treasures, but the Irish Crown Jewels met a mysterious fate.
by Michael Nash
Almost every nation has its State treasures. They may be symbols of national pride, such as Crown Jewels, or documents that encapsulate national history, as with the American Declaration of Independence. Some of these treasures now reside in museums. Others, most especially crowns and other royal regalia, are regularly worn by heads of State. The regalia variously referred to as the Irish Crown Jewels or the State Jewels of Ireland, however, met a more unusual and mysterious fate.
Properly called the jewels belonging to the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, they were created to be presented to the National Order of Chivalry of Ireland, the Order of Saint Patrick, for use by the Viceroy or visiting Sovereigns. In 1830 the Crown Jewellers, Rundell & Bridge, created the regalia from jewels that had belonged to Queen Charlotte, the consort of George III. These diamonds, rubies, and other stones possibly included the rose diamond given to the Queen by the Sultan of Turkey and the jewels she received from Mogul Emperor Shah Alam.
The Honours of St. Patrick consisted of two principal pieces–the star and the badge. The eight-pointed star consisted mostly of Brazilian diamonds. In the centre, a shamrock (or trefoil) of emeralds shone from the heart of a ruby cross which lay upon a background of blue enamel. Encircling this central motif was the motto of the order, Quis Separabit? (who can separate us?) and the date MDCCLXXIII (1783) all in rose diamonds.
The badge was of similar splendour, with its trefoil of emeralds on a ruby cross surrounded by a blue enamel band bearing the motto and date in rose diamonds, which was itself enclosed in an outer circle of large Brazilian diamonds, the whole being surrounded by a harp and loop framed in diamonds.
These creations joined some more traditional Irish regalia–two silver maces and the Irish Sword of State–which were carried before the Viceroy on State occasions. All of these, with separate individual collars and badges of members of the Order, were kept in the strongroom of Dublin Castle under the custody of the Ulster King of Arms, the Principal Herald of Ireland, and his assistants.
British monarchs did not travel all that frequently to Ireland. After King John, Richard II took an interest in the Emerald Isle, visiting it twice. Then, apart from the battles of the great rivals, uncle and nephew James II and William III, the next State Visit was that of George IV in 1821. The first monarch to avail herself of the jewels created by Rundell & Bridge was Queen Victoria, who came with Prince Albert in 1849 and 1861. Thereafter, nearly 40 years passed before the next royal visit–again by Victoria in 1900.
The jewels were also used on the occasion of the investiture of the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII, in the Order of St. Patrick in 1868. The very next year the Church of Ireland was established, and the religious ceremonies associated with such investitures were thereafter curtailed. In 1903 King Edward and Queen Alexandra made a formal visit to Ireland, during which the jewels were used, and they returned again informally in April 1904. During the 1903 visit the Ulster King of Arms, Sir Arthur Vicars, was invested a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. He remained Ulster King of Arms (the principal Herald in Ireland) from 1893 until 1908.
The routine, if relatively infrequent, appearances of the Honours of St. Patrick came to an abrupt end, however, in 1907, during a visit by King Edward and Queen Alexandra. Prior to their arrival, for the purpose of investing Lord Castletown with the Order of St. Patrick, it was discovered that the jewels had been stolen. The King became apoplectic with rage when he found out that not only had they been stolen, but they had apparently been missing for at least a month.
The jewels themselves were estimated to be worth about £40,000 in 1907, but of course their symbolic value was much greater. The public amazement over the theft was nothing compared with the official consternation. Nothing quite like it had happened since Colonel Blood made off with the English Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. From the very beginning, the Vice-Regal Commission which investigated the theft suspected that that it was an inside job, because both the Irish police force and the detective staff had their headquarters in Dublin Castle. Arthur Vicars, who denied all complicity, was made the official scapegoat, and was compelled to resign in 1908.
The report stated that those concerned had showed “a strange want of a sense of responsibility and in fact deliberate carelessness not only for failing to ensure that the priceless crown jewels were kept in a suitably fitted strong room, but also because after the jewels had disappeared there was a strange delay in reporting their circumstances.” The use of the word “strange” in the report hardly seems adequate to describe the unusual circumstances surrounding the whole affair. Not only did it appear that the theft had been an inside job, but also that there was almost certainly an official cover-up regarding the real culprit and the fate of the jewels. State jewels had been stolen before, only to be recovered, so for some time there was hope, even expectation, that the Irish Crown Jewels would reappear and the thieves be identified. But this never happened, at least not formally. The unsolved mystery coloured the King’s personal attitude to Ireland for the brief remainder of his reign. Finally, he abandoned the investigation, disgusted, it is said, with the inept detective system of Dublin.
Philip Magnus, writing about the theft in 1964, noted that King Edward, though he remained profoundly dissatisfied, was also thankful that worse scandal had been avoided. What was this “worse scandal”? Did King Edward actually know the identity of the thief? There seems no doubt that the Official Report was tampered with, for it contains significant omissions.
Rumours persisted that the thief was a highly placed person. Vicars’ three assistants, all of whom resigned, were: Pierce Mahony (the son of Vicars’ half-brother and therefore his own nephew) whom he had made Cork Herald; Francis Bennett-Goldney, and Francis or Frank Shackleton.
The last of these seems the most likely culprit. Brother of the famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Shackleton was a charismatic personality who lived by his wits and his charm, ingratiating himself into the highest social circles. But his real friends were not of the type “to inspire confidence among the police or the public.” Frank Shackleton was a practising homosexual at a time when such behaviour almost frequently led to secrecy and blackmail. (There is strong circumstantial evidence that all four of the heralds indulged in “scandalous stag-parties.”) The consequent nervousness in royal circles was understandable–one of the associates and confidantes of Frank Shackleton was none other than the Duke of Argyll, who was the King’s own brother-in-law. Shackleton was also in severe financial difficulties.
While attending a luncheon party on 4th July, 1907, Shackleton remarked that he would not be at all surprised to learn that the Irish Crown Jewels would one day be stolen. Two days later, the theft was discovered.
Each of the heralds ultimately met with unpleasant, and, in most cases, highly suspicious ends. Pierce Mahony died in 1914, victim of what has been described as “a very peculiar shooting accident.” Francis Bennett-Goldney died as the result of a motor accident in 1918. Sir Arthur Vicars was assassinated in 1921.
The prime suspect, Frank Shackleton, met with a less dramatic, although no less disagreeable, fate. Just two days after the death of King Edward in 1910, Shackleton came to financial grief when one of the companies in which he was involved failed. Three years later, he was declared bankrupt and was imprisoned for fraud. After his release he lived under a pseudonym and died in obscurity in the inter-war years, exactly when and where, like the rest of his life, being shrouded in uncertainty.
No trace has ever been found of the Grand Master’s Diamond Star and Badge, the fine gold collars, or the Mahoney family diamonds which Vicars also had in his custody. In 1976, a file of the Irish government that was opened to the public for the first time contained the following intriguing memorandum, dated 1927:
‘The President would not like them [the jewels] to be used as a means of reviving the Order [of St. Patrick] or to pass into any hands other than those of the State . . . He understands that the Castle Jewels are for sale and that they could be got for £2,000 or £3,000. He would be prepared to recommend their purchase for the same reason.’
The memorandum is signed by the Assistant Secretary of the Executive Council, Michael McDunphy, and the President referred to is William Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council and Prime Minister of the Irish State from 1922 to 1932.
This revelation opens up the tantalizing prospect that the Irish Crown Jewels were still in existence in 1927 and may still exist today. Stories abound that the jewels have found their way into private collections in the United States–not unlikely in the light of transatlantic traffic in such objects, both legal and illegal.
Some have also suggested that the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the forerunners of the IRA, engineered the robbery as a political embarrassment to the English. But this is purely speculation, and it seems unlikely that, having successfully pulled off such a coup, the Brotherhood would have kept it a secret.
On 10th July, 1982, the Irish Times ran an article titled “The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels,” which added some interesting facts and speculation to the debate. The article mentions that Lord Haddo, the son of the Viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, was a frequent visitor to the Castle, and quite possibly took part in the heralds’ “nightly orgies.” He allegedly “stole” the jewels on a previous occasion as a practical joke against the easily intoxicated Vicars, although he later returned them. The incident, apparently, did nothing to persuade Vicars of the need for better security.
The Irish Times article says that after the theft, Shackleton and an accomplice, Captain Richard Gorges, with whom he had served in the army in South Africa, may have sold the jewels to a Dutch pawnbroker for £5,000. It is also possible that, given their association with people close to the throne, Shackleton and Gorges were allowed to enjoy the benefits of their crime as the price of their silence.
Interest in the theft continued. On 29th September, 1983, the Irish Times announced that the hunt for the jewels was being renewed. The report claimed that Irish detectives had been tipped off about the possible whereabouts of the regalia by a man who claimed that his family had been entrusted with this secret. A spokesman for the Garda Siochana, the Republican police force, said the man had provided detailed information and that his claims were being taken seriously. A huge search employing dogs and sophisticated metal detectors began in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, some miles outside the city. Its precise location was kept secret, as was the identity of the informant. Unfortunately, nothing came of the effort.
Should the jewels ever be found again, questions of ownership would inevitably arise. Possible claims of the British Government may have to be set against those of the National Museum of Ireland, to say nothing of the Ulster Museum. Who is the legal successor to the Government of Ireland in 1907, when the jewels were stolen and Edward VII was sovereign?
In name, at least, successive English kings remained Head of State in Ireland until 1937. King George V was the last sovereign to visit Dublin in state, which he did with Queen Mary in 1911. Interestingly, he himself wanted to continue the quest for the stolen jewels, but he found that his father, Edward VII, had issued a royal directive to Lord Aberdeen that Vicars and his heralds were to be dismissed from their offices, and a lid be placed on the whole affair of the missing Crown Jewels to prevent further scandal. Edward had since passed from the scene, but the dictum he had imposed upon the Government in Ireland continued to ensure that the authorities officially ignored the case of the missing jewels.