Into the Unknown: The Irish Crown Jewels


We've been digging into some dark territory lately, and I thought we'd take a break from it for one month and talk about something, while not lighter, certainly less gruesome. 

On June 16, 1907, the Irish Crown Jewels were discovered missing from their home at Dublin Castle. Embarrassingly, they were stolen right from under the noses of those charged with protecting them, and could have been missing for weeks before their theft was discovered. They've never been found, and to this day no one knows who took them.


As this post deals with a property crime, there isn't any need for a sensitivity warning, but I can't be held responsible for the content of any websites found by following links within this post.

THE HISTORY: Ireland has a tumultuous history in almost every imaginable way. From its beginnings as a home for pagan Celts to becoming part of the English realm, to its independence 1921 and The Troubles in the 20th Century, it has been a land of war and turmoil from the start. It is also a land of great beauty, from the famed Cliffs of Moher, Giant's Causeway, and the Skellig Islands to ancient dolmens and medieval castles strewn across the land by her various peoples, it's a popular vacation destination, and a place that still holds a great deal of magic within its shores.

The Irish Crown Jewels are not a massive collection of jewelry pieces, or a mountain of precious stones. Those pieces involved in this case are just two crafted pieces of jewelry, the star and badge regalia of the Sovereign and Grand Master of The Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick. Established in 1783, this order of chivalry has been dormant ever since the last knight of the order, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1974. 

While the order is dormant, it does technically still exist, and is the lesser of three highest territorial orders of chivalry associated with the United Kingdom of Great Britain's principal nations: England (Most Noble Order of the Garter), Scotland (Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle), and Ireland. Under these orders, men are knighted and women are appointed a damehood or ladyship. This is complicated and gets into the politics of the UK, which I know next to nothing about and won't pretend to understand here. Besides, it's not important to the case I'm writing about. I just thought it was neat, so I included it.

The Republic of Ireland declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1921, but Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom. Reviving the Order of St. Patrick is still possible, and Winston Churchill himself discussed it in the 1940s to honor an Irish war hero, but it hasn't been seriously considered any more recently than the 1960s. 

THE STOLEN: The Irish Crown Jewels, as I mentioned, are two pieces of jewelry, encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones.

The star was just that, a eight point star laden with Brazilian diamonds said to be of the first water, which means they were of exceptional clarity and color. At its center was a red St. Patrick's cross made of rubies whose arms lay in between the leaves of a shamrock made of emeralds. Within the shamrock is a blue enamel circle, and the back of the star bore the words, "Quis Seperabit MDCCLXXXIII." This translates to the Order of St. Patrick motto, "Who will seperate (us)" and the year 1783 in Roman numerals. Those words and the Roman numeral year of the Order's founding were spelled out in rare pink diamonds. It's value at the time was estimated at £14,000. In today's money, that's nearly £1,500,000.

The badge is set in silver, and also contains a shamrock of emeralds on a ruby cross, and the same Latin inscription on the reverse of the badge, this time surrounded by a wreath of trefoils of emeralds. Inside that wreath is a circle of Brazilian diamonds. At the top of the badge is a crown containing a harp, all encrusted with diamonds, with a diamond studded loop at the very top. This was valued at £16,000, £1,660,000 in today's money.

Photographs of the missing jewels are available easily online.

Also missing from the vault were five collars of the Order of Knighthood. Typically, these collars were ornate chains worn draped across the shoulders of knights to show their fealty. Four of the men who these collars belonged to were still alive at the time, while one was not. These collars were not as valuable as the crown jewels, but were still valued at over £1,000, over £100,000 today. 

THE CRIME: The actual theft of the jewels was not discovered for some time, estimated to be days or even weeks after it occurred. They were kept in the custody of the Ulster King of Arms, a post created in 1587 by King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour to replace a previous post that had lapsed.

The jewels were last worn on St. Patrick's Day, March 17th, 1907, by the Lord Lieutenant John Hamilton Gordon, 7th Earl of Aberdeen (later 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair). The last date anyone could be sure they were in the safe was June 11th, and were not found to be missing until almost a month later on July 6th, days before King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were due to visit Ireland. The theft of any property associated with royalty is of course going to be upsetting, and King Edward VII was angered by the incident, and a planned ceremony was cancelled in light of the crime.

THE INVESTIGATION: Dublin Metropolitan Police investigated the theft, and quickly brought in an agent from Scotland Yard, John Kane. 

In 1903, they were supposed to be moved to a vault within Dublin Castle, inside a newly constructed strongroom near the Ulster King of Arms' office. The safe the jewels were to be kept in, however, was too large to fit through the new door, and acting King of Arms, Sir Arthur Vicars, decided to keep the safe within his office instead. Vicars was notorious for getting drunk at night while on duty and during one drunken incident, he discovered upon waking, that he was wearing the jewels. 

THE SUSPECTS: The first, and possibly most obvious, suspect is Sir Arthur Vicars. As I mentioned, he had a reputation as a drunkard who was derelict in his duty of protecting the jewels, along with other duties of his post as Ulster King of Arms. Getting drunk on the job is never a good idea, especially when the property of your royal family is at stake as you do so, and he's been suspected from day one.

John Kane's official report, which has never been publicly released, allegedly named him as prime suspect. Vicars refused to appear at a Viceregal Commission into the crime in January of 1908, and also refused to resign his post. A Viceregal Commission is a closed inquest into a crime, conducted by the Viceroy of a state, county, or country over which the viceroy is in charge. In fact, Vicars requested that a public Royal Commission be held instead. This would have been a public commission and would have meant that witnesses could be subpoenaed and forced to testify, which could be potentially damning to him if he were complicit in the crime. 

The other suspect is Francis Shackleton, second in command to Vicars and brother to famous English explorer Ernest Shackleton. Vicars himself accused Francis of the crime, alleging the Francis took advantage of his position to gain access to the jewels.

The Viceregal Commission exonerated Shackleton, and it appears at least publicly that the only evidence against him was Vicars' accusation. In the same report, Vicars was compelled to resign along with all of his personal staff. He was, unsurprisingly, found to have neglected his duties.

Other theories posited at the time were that Unionists committed the crime. Irish Unionists were (and to some degree still are) those who believed Ireland belonged in the United Kingdom and did not want the country to separate. This conflict would come to a head in the coming years, culminating in the Irish War of Independence beginning in 1919. I won't get into too much detail of the war here, as that's another subject I'm woefully uneducated in, but I will say if Unionists wanted to piss off Republicans and/or Nationalists, who believed Ireland should be independent, stealing the crown jewels would probably be a damn good start.

Some newspapers at the time accused Lord Lieutenant Gordon's own son, Lord Haddo George Gordon, was responsible for the theft, but there was evidence he was in England at the time.

THE AFTERMATH: Up until the theft of the jewels, Vicars' career was practically spotless despite his reputation for drinking on the job. Afterward, he was followed by rumors of his alleged involvement until his death on April 12, 1921. He was killed by the Irish Republican Army during Ireland's War of Independence.

Lord (later Earl) Haddo was almost certainly in England during the time the theft was committed, and it's possible rumor alone is the only evidence against him. 

Irish nationalist politician Laurence Ginnell suggested that the initial investigation had uncovered the person responsible for the theft, but that their report was ultimately suppressed to avoid scandal. THe suggestion inherent in his opinion was that there was some sort of homosexual sexual misconduct (homosexuality was still a crime in Ireland and Great Britain at large at the time), and in order to suppress public knowledge of such a thing, the conclusions of the investigation were covered up. Chief Secretary of Ireland Augustine Birrell denied any cover-up existed, and demanded that Ginnell hand over to police any evidence of wrongdoing he had found. 

Francis Shackleton's life, unlike that of his brother, is mostly quiet after the theft of the jewels. He was one of the men accused by Ginnell of homosexual activity while he was posted as second in command to Vicars. He was imprisoned in 1914 for passing a stolen check, and in a 1968 account by Irish Republican Bulmer Hobson suggested Shackleton committed the crime after getting Vicars drunk enough to pass out. This would have given him access to the keys on Vicars' person. Hobson alleged that Shackleton had an accomplice also mentioned in Ginnell's report, one Richard Gorges. Gorges was also a suspected homosexual, and according to Ginnell was also a "...reckless bully, a robber, a murderer, a bugger, and a sod." Please remember that the UK slang term 'bugger,' while used commonly as an blanket expression of many emotions, in this context it likely was meant to be offensive, meaning 'one who engages in sodomy.' Gorges was later imprisoned for manslaughter after shooting a policeman while heavily intoxicated. He served a sentence of 12 years after his conviction, then was sent to jail in 1941 for purchasing clothes with a bad check. He told the court he was waiting for money from brother Raymond, who had married into a massively wealthy American family. The court did not believe his excuse, but it was likely true. Raymond married Grace Dodge, whose family was one of the biggest copper producers in the world, and who had ties to the Rockefeller family, and another part of the Dodge family had made millions in the lumber industry as well. Gorges died in 1944 when he was hit or run over by a train. His death was ruled with an open verdict, which means the manner of death could not be determined. It's worth noting that despite Raymond's financial support, Richard's name no longer appears in the Gorges' family history, though we will likely never know the reason he was removed.

THE CONCLUSION: I firstly want to say I am not attempting to gloss over the horrible fact that men in this case were treated as criminals because of their sexuality. The criminilization of homosexuality is unconscionable, period. If the men named in these public accusations were in fact gay (and it's at least suggested that they were despite marriages to women in later life), they should have been allowed to live their lives without the insinuation that their sexuality made them deviant in any way. In a lot of these reports, the suspects' sexuality seems to be the only evidence toward their guilt even though they all may have had a motive to steal the jewels, and that's horrifying to me.


In all, I think the most likely culprits in this robbery are the men who were supposed to guard the jewels, Vicars and Shackleton, but they were never formally charged with the crime, and neither was anyone else. Evidence against all accused seems shaky at best, and none of the men ever seemed to come into a large amount of money as you might expect them to if they stole and sold the jewels.

What's worse is the jewels have never been located, and remain missing to this day. It's possible that the pieces were taken apart and sold piecemeal after the theft, which would explain why there's been no trace of them since 1907.

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