A star, decorated with flawless Brazilian diamonds, and with an emerald trefoil and ruby cross set against blue enamel. A diamond badge, and five gold jewel-encrusted collars. These were the stunning pieces that made up the Irish Crown Jewels, and on July 6, 1907, the gems were discovered to be missing.
Most of the 394 jewels came from Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and Queen of Great Britain (and later the United Kingdom) from 1761 until 1818. Their value, for the stones alone, has been estimated at many millions of dollars, but for the history they encompass they are priceless.
And nobody knows where they are.
The timing of the theft was particularly significant: the jewels were taken just before the visit of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom in the summer of 1907. As part of this occasion, the jewels were supposed to be used to swear in Lord Castletown as a new knight of the Order of St Patrick.
Just four years earlier, in 1903, security around the jewels had been beefed up. The Ulster King of Arms office in Dublin Castle, who had responsibility for the jewels, had moved from the Bermingham Tower to the Bedford or Clock Tower.
The jewels were moved to a new safe, which would be kept in the newly built strongroom set up specifically for that purpose. But the new safe was too enormous to fit through the entryway to the strongroom, so the Ulster King of Arms, Sir Arthur Vicars, had it housed in his library instead.
Vicars and his employees owned seven latch keys to the Office of Arms’s entrance, as well as two keys to the safe containing the jewels. With so many locks protecting the safe and the priceless artifacts within, they were considered completely safe from theft/
However, one should never discount the human element in such security measures, and here we have our first suspect: Vicars himself. Somehow, he had access to the jewels and could retrieve them on his own, a clear vulnerability in the system.
Furthermore, during the long night hours spend on duty guarding the jewels, Vicars was known to drink. On one occasion, he awoke from a drunken stupor to discover he was wearing the jewels around his neck.
Was this the actions of a drunkard who didn’t take his job seriously? Had someone placed the jewels around his neck while he was passed out to mock him, as a cruel joke at his expense exposing his incompetence?
Or could this be a trial run for the theft itself?
Who Stole the Irish Crown Jewels?
One of the key problems with solving this almost inconceivable crime is that it is not known when exactly the jewels were taken. There was no system in place to regularly inspect the jewels, and they were kept locked in the safe out of sight. It was only with the imminent arrival of Edward VII that the jewels, somewhat embarrassingly, were found to be missing.
The jewels had last been seen in the safe on 11 June 1907, and so were stolen at some point between then and 6 July when, four days before the King’s arrival, their theft was noticed. The King still came to Ireland, but Lord Castleton, without the jewels, was not invested as a knight.
Francis Shackleton, the brother of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and Vicars’s second-in-command, was the leading suspect. Shackleton, despite his renown, was in financial trouble, and furthermore had the opportunity to obtain the key and duplicate it.
At the time of the theft, Shackleton was found to be out of the country. But this did not completely exonerate him, as the lack of forcible entry has led to speculation that it must have been an inside job.
Another hypothesis holds that Shackleton planned the heist and had his associate Captain Richard Howard Gorges carry it out. Both men were homosexual at a time when this was illegal, and the theory was that Gorges had given Vicars whiskey until he had fallen asleep.
The King and Viceroy of Ireland would have been keen to avoid a scandal, given that following this line of inquiry would have exposed the pair as homosexual. Given the friends and associations of Shackleton at the highest levels of society. Shackleton was exonerated, possibly to suppress this information.
If Not Shackleton, Who?
The Dublin Metropolitan Police conducted a police inquiry, distributing posters depicting and describing the lost diamonds. On the 12th of July, Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector John Kane arrived from the United Kingdom to assist.
His report, which was never made public, is alleged to have identified the perpetrator but was suppressed by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Vicars declined to resign from his job, and also refused to appear before the commission investigating the theft.
Instead, Vicars called for a public Royal Commission with the power to summon witnesses and publicly accused Shackleton of the theft. Shackleton refused to participate.
As mentioned above, the commission found Shackleton not guilty, and also concluded that Vicars had not exercised adequate vigilance or proper care as the custodian of the regalia. Vicars was then forced to resign, as were all of the others who worked under him.
Other suspects were suggested. One immediate rumor was that the gems had been taken by political activists affiliated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Pat O’Brien, Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom accused “loyal and patriotic Unionist criminals” of having committed the crime.
Some tabloids claimed that Lord Haddo, son of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was involved in the robbery. Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, declared in the Commons that Haddo had been in Great Britain when the crime occurred and that the speculation was baseless.
Laurence Ginnell claimed in 1912 and 1913 that the police investigation had established the identity of the thief, that his report had been suppressed to avoid scandal. He also claimed that the jewels could be easily retrieved, however in fact they never were.
The Mystery Still Unsolved
The lack of a clear solution to the mystery has invited much speculation down the years. According to a 2002 book, the jewels were stolen as part of a Unionist scheme to disgrace the Liberal government and then restored to the Royal Family in secret.
Another theory put forward by the Genealogical Office of the Republic of Ireland was that the jewels were never removed from the Clock Tower, but merely hidden. Donal Begley, the Chief Herald of Ireland, supervised the dismantling of walls and floorboards during repair work to the Clock Tower in 1983, in case the jewels would be discovered, but they were not.
There have also been a lot of false alarms over the years. James Weldon, a jeweler, received a letter containing unusually detailed information on their movements, recognized the person who delivered it as Shackleton.
He received another letter twenty years later, which he brought to the attention of W T Cosgrave, first President of the executive of the Irish Free State. However, the diamonds were never found,
And to this day, their location is unknown. What happened to them, and where they are now, remain a mystery. However, there is still hope that one day, the diamonds will be recovered for Ireland.
Top Image: Notice of the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels Source: Dublin Police / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
Duffy, J, 2022. The theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. Available at: https://www.dublincastle.ie/the-theft-of-the-irish-crown-jewels/
Wikipedia, 2022. Irish Crown Jewels. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Crown_Jewels