Who stole the crown jewels?
I came across this fascinating story from BBC News. It’s a real mystery. The sort of spicy plot you’d love to dream up for a debut novel that would be turned into blockbuster movies! There’s intrigue, theft, sexual indiscretion, shadowy figures, even a relative of a famous person.
I have to start off by saying I was unaware that there are Irish “Crown Jewels”. You normally associate the Crown Jewels with Queen Elizabeth II and the UK. The Irish Crown Jewels are not quite the glittering diamond tiaras and baubles of Her Majesty, but rather were the insignia of the Order of St Patrick (a chivalric order founded in 1783). The regalia had been created in the 1830s from jewels once belonging to Queen Charlotte and Queen Victoria used the Crown Jewels. They consisted of a star and a badge made from rubies, emeralds and Brazilian diamonds.
Our story begins in 1903 at Dublin Castle. A vault was built in the castle’s Bedford Hall to house a safe in which the crown jewels would be safely tucked away. But the safe turned out to be too wide to fit through the doorway to the vault and…this is the first part of the mystery….the safe was stored in the castle’s library. The Ulster King of Arms and guardian of the Crown Jewels, Sir Arthur Vicars, was in charge of the keys to the library.
All remained quiet until July 6, 1907, four days before the visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The Irish prepared to dust off the jewels but discovered they had vanished from the safe, along with jewellry belonging to Vicar’s mother. There was no evidence of a break-in as the safe had been opened with keys.
At this point, it sounds like a great Miss Marple mystery or a Sherlock Holmes thriller! Who dunnit? Sir Arthur Vicars? Another castle official who borrowed Vicar’s keys (he had two sets)? Irish nationalists (this was pre-independence Ireland)? Was it an inside job? Did the butler do it? The King was furious – presumably he wanted to deck himself out in the insignia.
The finger of blame was pointed at Vicars who came under great pressure to resign his office. After all, he had the two sets of keys in his possession. But he refused to buckle under the pressure. Rumours were spread about his ‘sexual orientation” as he was said to associate with a man of undesirable character (who was never named in the official report into the theft). Wild parties and orgies were said to occur at the castle. Were these rumours spread by the real culprit in an effort to force Vicars from office and pin the theft on him?
But Vicars was a feisty chap. He demanded a public royal inquiry and accused his second in command, Francis Shackleton. And this is where it gets REALLY interesting. The astute amongst us might recognise the surname – Shackleton. Francis was the brother of Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. But he seemed to be the opposite of his famous brother – a somewhat shady character and a known homosexual (homosexuality being a criminal offence at the time). Was Shackleton the culprit? Was he the man of undesirable character Vicars was said to associate with?
The inquiry exonerated Shackleton but left Vicars in disgrace, accused of negligence and failing to exercise due care. Sadly, Vicars was later murdered at the hands of the IRA in 1921. And what of Shackleton? Well, if we believe that a leopard never changes its spots – then perhaps he was the real culprit for he was found guilty of fraud six years later in 1913. He later changed his name to Frank Mellor, ran an antique shop and died in 1941.
Was the King himself involved? In early 1907, Ernest Shackleton was preparing for his expedition and the King and Queen had visited him before his departure. If Francis was the culprit, there’s a suggestion that Vicars became the scapegoat in order to protect a national hero.
Vicars’ will was closed to researchers until 1976 when the explosive allegations against Shackleton became known as Vicars accused both the Irish Government and King Edward VII for making him a scapegoat and specifically named Shackleton as the thief. Could be some truth to this – all the official papers relating to the scandal have been destroyed. Was an innocent man’s career destroyed?
A bit like the so-called Curse of Tutankhamen, others involved in the jewel scandal met a sinister fate. Captain Richard H Gorges, a disreputable friend of Shackleton’s, was said to be linked to the theft. He killed a policeman in 1915 and was convicted of manslaughter. Francis Bennett Goldney, an honorary office holder under Vicars, and said to dabble in theft, snuffed it in France in 1918 the victim of a motoring accident. Pierce Gun Mahony, another honorary office holder and Vicars’ nephew, was shot through the heart in 1914 in a hunting accident, although rumours of murder swirled. You can read a full account of this fascinating mystery at Irish Historical Mysteries.
For the ‘bling buffs” like me: what became of the Crown Jewels? Rumour has it that the jewels were broken up and sold to private collectors. Another rumour suggests that in 1927, the jewels were offered for sale to the Irish Free State for £5,000 and purchased on Prime Minister W.T Cosgrave’s orders. But then someone on their death bed in 1983 fessed up to the jewels being buried and this caused the Irish police to dig around the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.
One thing is clear: 100 years later, this is a still a great who dunnit mystery. Now I’m off to try and pen a similar tale of jewels, intrigue, drama and accusation. Actually….I’ll just write about many of the organisations I’ve worked in as they have all the elements of a ripping yarn, sans the jewels of course 🙂