The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, 1907

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Volume 9

‘Crown jewels’ generally refer to royal ornaments used in the ceremony of consecration, and the formal ensigns of monarchy worn or carried on occasions of state. The term may also be used to describe those collections of rich personal jewellery brought together by various European sovereigns as valuable assets not of their individual estates but of the offices they filled and the royal houses to which they belonged. Yet ‘the crown jewels of Ireland’, were not connected with any coronation ceremony and included no crown. Rather, they comprised a jewelled star of the Order of St Patrick and a diamond brooch and five gold collars of that order, all Crown property.

The (most illustrious) Order of St Patrick

The (most illustrious) Order of St Patrick was founded in 1783, to reward those in high office in Ireland and Irish peers (referred to as Knights’ companions) on whose support the government of the day depended. It therefore served as the national Order of Ireland, as the garter was for England and the Thistle for Scotland. The Order lapsed in 1974 with the death of the last surviving recipient, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Originally, the number of Knights of St. Patrick was fifteen, increased to twenty-two in 1833. The Knights wore mantles of sky-blue satin, and the star of the order was embroidered in silver on the right breast. The order’s most famous insignia were the badge and star used by the lords lieutenant; these were made available for the serving lord lieutenant’s use in 1830 by William IV, the monarch who tried to dispense with his own coronation ceremony. Lord Lieutenant George Grenville Nugent Temple, later Marquis of Buckingham was the first Grand Master and the Dean of St Patrick’s was the registrar. St Patrick’s Cathedral was the chapel of the order and the Great Hall in Dublin Castle, now known as St Patrick’s Hall, was the chancery where knights were normally installed. Each Knight was expected to send to the cathedral his banner, a symbolic sword, a symbolic helmet and crest and to arrange with the king of arms to have a hatchment made of his arms. These were to be placed on or above an allotted stall in the cathedral. The order of St Patrick effectively went into abeyance with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
The insignia were made from 394 stones taken in part from some of Queen Charlotte’s jewellery and from one of the Order of the Bath Badges which had belonged to her husband George III. In 1765 the Mogul Emperor, Shah Alam, transmitted through Lord Clive to George III a present of this jewellery valued at several lakhs (100,000) of rupees. These precious stones also possibly included the magnificent sixty-three gram rose diamond given by the Grand Seigneur (Sultan of Turkey) to George III. Messrs. Rundell, Bridge and Company had been appointed jewellers and silversmiths to the Crown by George III and they were commissioned to create the Irish regalia, which were valued at £50,000 before the theft. The large eight-pointed star of the Order was composed mostly of Brazilian diamonds. Portraits of the various lords lieutenant which hang in Dublin Castle clearly show the badge with a trefoil of emeralds at its centre within a ruby cross upon a background of blue enamel. The motto of the Order was spelt out in rose diamonds —quis separabit? (who can separate us?). The badge also with a trefoil of emeralds within a ruby cross backed by a blue enamel band and bearing the same inscription, was further enclosed within an oval of large Brazilian diamonds. The only two monarchs to avail themselves of the jewels were Queen Victoria and Edward VII during their visits to Ireland.

Custody

Custody of the Irish Crown Jewels was clearly defined by the statutes of the Order. They, and other jewelled insignia of the Grand Master, together with the collars and badges of the Knights’ companions, as well as the seals and archives, were to be safeguarded by the Ulster King of Arms. But statute 20 expressly ordered that all the Crown Jewels ‘shall be deposited for safekeeping in a steel safe in the Chancery of the order in the Office of Arms of Ireland’. This office had been moved in 1903 from Dublin Castle’s Bermingham Tower to the upper Castle yard. During a 1903 visit by King Edward VII, Sir Arthur Vicars was invested as Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. He had been appointed Ulster King of Arms (principal herald) in 1893. Pursuant to the above provisions, a new strong room had to be constructed in the upper Castle yard to house the safe from the Bermingham Tower. However, when this strong room was built, Sir George Holmes, chairman of the Board of Works, and Vicars discovered to their dismay that ‘the safe could not go in by the door’ nor in any other way. Holmes offered to come up with a solution to the problem, but Vicars declared himself content to let the safe remain outside the strongroom in the library. It was planned to replace the safe at some stage, but this never actually happened.
The library itself contained sundry locked cabinets in which various nondescript papers were held. However, the strong room contained articles of great value, including three gold collars and badges of the Knights’ Companions of St Patrick, a crown, two state maces, the sword of state, a jewelled sceptre, and two massive silver spurs. These treasures of state were displayed in a glass case which was double-locked. Another gold collar and record books were also held in the room. So the requirements of the statutes were never fully complied with, and the crown jewels stayed in the library—until 1907. While seven latch keys to the door of the Office of Arms were held by its staff, the only two keys which would open the safe were in Vicar’s possession. One was carried by him constantly, the other was kept in a locked drawer in a desk at his home. In May 1907 Vicars had mistakenly left the first key attached to a key ring with his other office keys, but a maid had found them and sent them to the Chief Herald’s office by way of a male servant.
Other, largely honorary, office-holders in the Office of Arms were Francis Shackleton (Dublin Herald), Pierce Gun Mahony (Herald), Mr. Horlock (clerk and Cork Herald), and Francis Bennett-Goldney (Mayor of Canterbury and Athlone Pursuivant). Francis Shackleton, brother of Sir Ernest, the famous Irish-born Antarctic explorer, was a close friend of Vicars and lived with him for nearly two and a half years in Dublin. Shackleton was a charismatic figure who ingratiated himself into the higher echelons of society. The king’s brother-in-law, John Campbell, ninth Duke of Argyll, was a close associate. A practising homosexual, Shackleton’s friends were not of the type ‘to inspire confidence among the police or the public’. Mahony was a favoured nephew of Vicars (son of his half-brother). Apart from Vicars himself, nobody did much or accomplished anything, none attended in an orderly way to definite duties, with the exception of the cleaning lady Mrs Farrell who cleaned the offices in the mornings.

Theft

The last confirmed sighting of the jewels was on 11 June 1907, when Vicars showed the regalia to John Hodgson, the librarian of the Duke of Northumberland. On the morning of 3 July Mrs Farrell found the entrance door unlocked, but no explanation was demanded or forthcoming from Vicars. On the morning of Saturday 6 July the door of the strongroom was found open, again no action was taken. When at 2.15 pm on the same day, Vicars asked William Stivey, the messenger, to deposit the collar of a deceased knight in the safe, it was found that the safe was in fact already open and the jewels were nowhere to be seen. Also missing, was the personal jewellery of Vicar’s mother, which had been held in the safe for security. No one could be quite sure when exactly the theft had taken place
Already, on Thursday 6 June 1907 the Dublin Daily Express had published a communication from the viceregal lodge ‘officially authorising the announcement that His Majesty the King, accompanied by Queen Alexandra, will make a private visit to Ireland on 10 July, arriving at Kingstown in the royal yacht’. The Express indicated that the king and queen, as well as attending special race meetings at Leopardstown and a number of official functions, would elevate two Irishmen to the peerage.

Vicars blamed

Ironically, both the DMP and its detective staff had their headquarters at Dublin Castle. The king was outraged when he was finally informed of the theft, several weeks after the event. The police investigation concluded that the safe had not been forced, nor in the opinion of locksmiths, could a duplicate key have been used. The Lord Lieutenant, John Gordon Campbell (1847-1934), seventh Earl of Aberdeen, ordered a commission of inquiry on 6 January 1908. The warrant deemed it ‘expedient that a commission should issue forthwith to investigate the circumstances of the loss of the regalia of the Order of St Patrick, and to inquire whether Sir Arthur Vicars exercised due vigilance and proper care as the custodian thereof’. The commission held its first meeting in the Office of Arms on Friday 10 January 1908 and reported only two weeks later: the Ulster King of Arms, Sir Arthur Vicars, did not show proper care in his handling of the safe keys and he should have kept them ‘in a strong-room at his bankers’.
Oddly, the commission did not investigate the theft itself, but concentrated on whether Vicars had taken proper care of the jewels. The report was scathing in its criticism of him, while largely exonerating Shackleton of any wrong-doing. Detective Inspector Kane stated emphatically that Shackleton was not guilty; not a shred of evidence had been found against him. Neither could anyone prove that Shackleton was in Dublin at the time of the theft. The report alleged that there was ‘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’. O’Mahony became the most prominent figure in a campaign for a public inquiry which it was hoped would vindicate Vicars.
However, the king was having none of it. The entire staff of the Chief Herald’s office were compelled to resign. On 30 January 1908 Vicars was dismissed as Ulster King of Arms and replaced by Captain Neville Rodwell Wilkinson. On 28 July 1908, the private library of Vicars, consisting of books and manuscripts, was sold at public auction at Sotheby’s in London for £621. 16s. 6d., to Vicar’s disgust. Lieutenant Richard Alexander Lyonal Keith was appointed Cork Herald on 8 December, replacing Mr. Horlock. Goldney’s request to withdraw his resignation was refused in January 1908. As late as November 1910, the Chief Crown Solicitor, on behalf of the Attorney General, complained that the ‘badge of gold provided for the service of the Registrar of the Order of St Patrick is now in the possession of Sir Arthur Vicars, and is the property of the king, and an order is asked for its delivery to the king, or in default damages’. Vicars did not take such accusations lying down; in 1913 he was awarded significant damages of £5,000 in a libel case against the London Daily Mail after it published an article alleging his complicity in the ‘wretched affair’. In the same year, Shackleton met a very different fate, he was tried and sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment for fraud involving thousands of pounds. The rest of Shackleton’s life remains a mystery.
The theft had all the appearances of an inside job and the king himself condemned the Dublin police for their apparent inability to solve the crime. However, the super sleuths at Scotland Yard failed to unearth any trace of evidence of even the fact of a theft. Magnus writing in the 1960s refers to the ‘worse scandal’ which was avoided. Many have speculated as to Edward VII’s role in any cover-up and whether or not he knew the culprits. Edward VII was no stranger to controversy. His dalliance with an actress while serving with an army unit in the summer of 1861 caused Victoria to hold him partly responsible for the death of Albert, prince consort. Subsequently, Victoria excluded her heir from any real initiation into affairs of state. Not until he was more than fifty years old was he informed of cabinet proceedings. His social activities involved him in several scandals. However, his short reign (1902-10) did much to restore lustre to a monarchy that had shone somewhat dimly during Victoria’s long seclusion as a widow.

Orgies in the Castle

There is strong circumstantial evidence to link the four heralds to scandalous parties which were said to have taken place at Dublin Castle. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the theft in 1982, the Irish Times printed an article alleging that Lord Haddo, the son of the viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, made many visits to the Castle, and may well have participated in the heralds’ ‘orgies’. He allegedly ‘stole’ the jewels on one particular occasion as a practical joke when Vicars was intoxicated, but subsequently returned them in the post! When interviewed by Detective Kerr, Vicars remarked, ‘I would not be a bit surprised if they [the jewels] would be returned to my house by parcel post to-morrow morning’, adding that Aberdeen had said the same thing amidst the splendours of the viceregal lodge. The strange goings in at the Castle were recounted in the Irish-American nationalist newspaper, the Gaelic American, by IRB member Bulmer Hobson in the summer of 1908, the sordid episode providing nationalists with proof of the corruption at the heart of the British establishment.
While attending a luncheon party on 4 July 1907 Shackleton remarked that he would not be in the least surprised to learn that the jewels would one day be stolen. The Irish Times article implicated Shackleton with Captain Richard H. Gorges, an old army comrade with whom he served in South Africa. It is said that the jewels were purchased by a Dutch pawnbroker for £5,000. Shackleton’s finances were precarious to say the least in 1907. Vicars had ‘guaranteed two bills’ for him. Shackleton thought ‘the matter was £600’. It was actually over £750. The bills were with a number of London moneylenders. Goldney had endorsed another note for Shackleton for £1,500. It was speculated that Shackleton’s close connections to those in power prevented him or Gorges from being prosecuted. Bulmer Hobson later interviewed Gorges in 1912, and he strongly hinted at his own involvement in the crime and Shackleton’s. A letter from Vicars to Shackleton, written on 25 August 1907, and read into the vice-regal inquiry, made it clear that both Vicars and Goldney suspected that Shackleton knew more than he was admitting to. When interviewed by Detective Kerr on 20 September 1907, Vicars said that they ‘were taken by a man you know well. He was a guest in my house, and he treacherously took impressions of my keys when I was in my bath. He often came to this office on Sundays, and he used my latch key to get in. He is in Paris at this moment’. Vicars was clearly trying his best to implicate Shackleton. Vicars was well aware that he was being made the scapegoat for the whole affair. His own carelessness may well have made him a target for blackmail by Shackleton or someone connected to the Office of Arms. Vicars was to profess his innocence right up until the time of his death.
The heralds all met with very unfortunate ends. Goldney was killed in a car accident in 1918. O’Mahony was killed in a ‘shooting accident’ in 1914. Shackleton’s fate after his release from prison in 1915 remains a mystery. Vicars outlived most of his colleagues only to be shot dead at Kilmorna House, County Kerry by a local IRA unit on 14 July 1921. Gorges was convicted of manslaughter in 1915 after killing a policeman. He claimed to have further information on the fate of the jewels but his claims were largely dismissed. He died in the 1950s. Rumours as to the final resting place of the Irish Crown Jewels have abounded over the years. Stories of the theft being perpetrated by the IRB and the smuggling of the jewels out of Ireland to America seem to be without real foundation. In 1983, the Irish Times ran another story about a renewed Gárda search for the regalia following an anonymous tip-off. Despite a huge search in the Dublin mountains using sniffer dogs and metal detectors nothing was ever discovered. The precise location of the search was never revealed. Not a single trace has ever been found of the any of the jewels stolen in 1907. A government memorandum dated 1927 and only opened to the public in the mid-1970s recorded that ‘the President [W.T. Cosgrave] would not like them [crown 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 memo is signed by Michael McDunphy, Assistant Secretary of the Executive Council. There is no record of any subsequent action being taken. The recovery of the jewels, was not it seems, a matter of great importance to the government of the fledgling Irish Free State.

Causo finita est

An article in the Kerryman in 1998 claimed that Michael Murphy, a nephew of Michael Murphy, valet of Sir Arthur Vicars, had discovered the hiding place of the Irish Crown Jewels at Kilmorna House. Murphy, who had pursued the jewels for decades, told the Kerryman that the jewels had in fact been recovered by a person or persons unknown. On the morning of Friday 14 August 1998, Murphy was instructed by an informant to go to the old garden of the house where he discovered a stone behind a brick wall with a Latin inscription. Murphy believed that the jewels were removed from a box attached to the stone. A portion of an old map and other documents stolen from Kilmorna before it was burned, indicated to Murphy that someone had finally solved the mystery. The Latin inscription on the stone which bears two lions heads read: causo finita est (the cause if finished). However, the hope expressed in the article that the finder would make the jewels available for public inspection was optimistic to say the least. The Munster Express ran a similar story about the same time valuing the jewels at £5 million. The claim that Vicars knew where the jewels were buried and that he took this secret with him to the grave seems rather implausible. Such a scenario would be more at home in an Agathie Christie novel or worthy of the attention of Sherlock Holmes himself.
King George V wanted to continue the search for the missing jewels but the dictum his father had imposed upon the government ensured that the case was a good as closed in the eyes of government officials. The vice-regal commission into the theft proved absolutely worthless, coming as it did nearly six months after the event and only authorising a perfunctory investigation. That the commission sat ‘at the dictation of the government’, was the well considered opinion of Vicar’s counsel. Shackleton still seems to be the most likely mastermind. He certainly had the audacity to carry out such a crime. It was Vicar’s own misfortune that he became tangled up with such a figure, but it is unlikely that he deliberately played a willing part in the crime. The jewels themselves were probably broken up within a short period of their theft and incorporated into other smaller pieces of jewellery. It seems highly improbable that such conspicuous pieces could remain in private hands to date without being discovered. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the theft, it is almost certain that they would have met a crueler fate than Captain Thomas Blood who attempted to steal the English Crown Jewels in 1671. The extraordinary sequel to this daring attempt was that instead of ordering his immediate execution, King Charles II was so intrigued with the audacity and effrontery of the whole affair that the offenders were released and Blood himself was given a pension of £500 a year and a place with the king’s bodyguard. The perpetrators of the 1907 theft could well have been faced the gallows if they had been apprehended.

Tomás O’Riordan tutors in history at University College Cork.

Further reading:

J. Christian Bay, The Mystery of the Irish Crown Jewels (Cedar Rapids 1944).

F. Bamford & V. Bankes, Vicious Circle: the case of the missing Irish Crown Jewels (London 1965).

‘The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels’,
Irish Times, 10 July 1982.

A. Batemen, The Magpie Tendency (place? 1999).

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