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The Theft of the Irish “Crown Jewels”


The year 1907 saw the opening of the Irish International Exhibition in Herbert Park, Dublin, on 4 May and the visit of members of the Royal Family to the Exhibition in July. The Exhibition was opened by H.E. the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, in May and visited by King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria on 10 July.

Between the two events, in the intervening two months, something had taken place which was to have disastrous and far-reaching consequences.

Present at the opening in May of the Irish International Exhibition has been Sir Arthur Vicars – the Ulster King of Arms – and his staff from the Office of Arms: the Athlone Pursuivant (Francis Bennett-Goldney), the Dublin Herald (Francis R. Shackleton) as well as four Knights of St Patrick. All were dressed in their most solemn regalia. The Lord Lieutenant (Lord Aberdeen) wore the insignia of the Grand Master of the Order of St Patrick. Unfortunately the Cork Herald (Peirce Gun Mahony) was unable to be present.

The Office of Arms had been established by King Edward VI in 1552. The King of Arms was granted “power … of inspecting, overseeing and correcting, and embodying the arms and ensigns of illustrious persons and of imposing and ordaining differences therein, according to the Laws of Arms: of granting Letters Patent of Arms to men of rank and fit persons; and of doing … all things which by right of custom were known to be incumbent of the office of a King of Arms.”

In 1907, the head of the Office of Arms, based in Dublin Castle, was Sir Arthur Vicars (the Ulster King of Arms) who had succeeded Sir Bernard Burke to that position in 1893. His other functions included being Registrar of, and Knight Attendant on, the Order of St Patrick, and he was assisted in these roles by the Secretary to the Office of Arms, George Dames Burtchaell.

The regalia of the Order of St Patrick – the so-called “Crown Jewels” were kept in the Office of Arms in the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle. The jewels consisted of the insignia of the Grand Master of the Order of St Patrick (the Lord Lieutenant) and the collars and badges of the Knights of St Patrick. The insignia of the Grand Master comprised a star and a badge. The jewels forming the star consisted of Brazilian diamonds with eight star-points with a central shamrock made of emeralds and a cross of rubies in the centre on a background of blue enamel. The badge also had emerald shamrocks and a ruby cross surrounded by blue enamel and rose diamonds and within Brazilian diamonds. The jewels been the property of Queen Charlotte, then of King George IV and finally of King William IV. This king thought that they would form fine ceremonial decorations for the Order of St Patrick and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to wear on ceremonial occasions and so he presented them to the Order in 1830. In 1907, these jewels were valued at £33,000.

With the move of the Office of Arms in 1903 from the Bermingham Tower (or Record Tower where the Office had been based since 1831) to the Bedford Tower (that is, from the Lower Castle Yard to the Upper Castle Yard), the question of a safe for the regalia became of great importance. Vicars, to provide extra security (as well as to suit himself), had hoped to be able to live in an apartment in the Bedford Tower, but this request was turned down. The Office of Public Works agreed that a strong room would be constructed on the ground floor of the Bedford Tower to house, amongst other items, the regalia of the Order of St Patrick and other objects of value in a secure safe.

Plans for the strong-room were prepared by the Office of Public Works but when the work was completed in 1903, it was found that the door of the strong-room was too low and too narrow to admit the safe. Despite the offer of the Office of Public Works to remedy this situation, Vicars declined the offer and the safe was placed in the Library. The Office of Arms in the Bedford Tower was located in one of the most secure locations in Dublin: there were police and soldiers on duty in its vicinity day and night and a police inspection of the premises every night.

In the safe in the Library were placed the insignia described above. In a glass case within the strong-room were held three collars and badges belonging to the Knights of St Patrick as well as two silver state maces, the Irish Sword of State, a jewelled sceptre and two massive silver spurs. Also here were the gilt crown, a gold and enamelled badge and a gilt collar which were worn on ceremonial occasions by the Ulster King of Arms. Elsewhere in a drawer in the strong-room were another collar and badge.

On 11 June 1907, Vicars showed the Crown Jewels to J.C. Hodgson, Librarian to the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, who was on a visit to Ireland. This was the last time that they were seen in public. On 28 June, Vicars found the latch-key of the front door to the Bedford Tower missing from his set of keys and had to be let into the building by a member of the police (the key re-appeared on Monday 8 July). On Wednesday 3 July, the cleaning woman found the front door of the Bedford Tower unlocked at 7.00 a.m. She reported this to the messenger when he arrived for work who in turn reported it to Vicars. The latter took little interest in the matter.

On Saturday 6 July, the cleaning woman found the door of the strong-room open when she arrived for work. Though the inner grille was locked, the key was in the lock and attached to it was the key of the bookcases and presses in the Library. The cleaning woman locked the strong-room door and left the keys for the messenger’s attention. Again the messenger reported the matter to Vicars. Again the latter took little interest in the matter.

On the same day, 6 July, a messenger arrived from Messrs West and Son, jewellers, bringing with him a gold and enamelled collar of the Order of St Patrick which had been worn by the recently deceased Lord de Ros. It was now to be used in the investiture of a new Knight. Mahony, the Cork Herald, took possession of the parcel, checked its contents and left them on Vicar’s desk. Later, Vicars asked the messenger to place the contents of the parcel in the safe and even gave him his own keys to open the safe door. The messenger found the safe unlocked and went to tell Vicars of this event. Vicars checked the safe door for himself.

The boxes containing the regalia of the Grand Master and of the Knights of the Order of St Patrick were found to be empty. The keys of all the boxes were kept in the safe. The messenger was sent for someone from the Commissioners of the Police and from the Detectives’ Department of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, both based in Dublin Castle. Those officials who subsequently went to the Bedford Tower to investigate matters were Superintendent John Lowe of the Detective Branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Detective Officer Owen Kerr, and Assistant Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police William. V. Harrel.

The theft had been orderly and tidy and had evidently taken some time. A piece of silk ribbon attached to the Star had been carefully detached and replaced in the box, an operation which would have taken about ten minutes. It transpired during investigations that while staff and members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had keys to the front door, the only keys – two in number – to the safe were held by Vicars. There were also four keys to the outer door of the strong-room and two keys to the inner grille. One key remained in the grille lock, to which was attached the key of the bookcases and presses in the Library.

The Dublin Metropolitan Police called in the assistance of Scotland Yard and details of the missing objects were circulated to police forces throughout the world. The manufacturers of the safe (a Radcliffe and Horner) were queried as to how the safe could have been opened and Dublin locksmiths were interrogated as to duplicate keys. The safe was found not to have been forced and no duplicate keys had been used. It was obvious that the theft had taken place sometime after the last public display of the jewels on 11 June and that though the thief had gone to some trouble to draw attention to the theft (leaving doors open etc), it had still not been discovered until Saturday 6 July.

In the absence of any proof as to how the robbery had been effected, the Bedford Tower was searched thoroughly, to no avail. By Monday evening, both the Lord Lieutenant and Vicars had convinced themselves that the theft had been an elaborate practical joke. Vicars waited for the regalia to be returned to him by parcel-post. It never arrived.

By 10 July, the date of the arrival of the royal party, it had been agreed that the investiture of the new Knight of St Patrick would have to be postponed. A reward of £1,000 was offered for information leading to the recovery of the jewels and the capture of the thief or thieves (the reward remains unclaimed!).

The Royal Irish Constabulary took up the investigation but without success and Detective Chief Inspector John Kane of Scotland Yard was called in to assist; he arrived in Dublin on 12 July. He was convinced that the jewels had been deliberately stolen in advance of the royal visit. He investigated and compiled a report in which he identified the likely thief. The Chief Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police refused to accept his identification. Kane returned to London. This very important report is no longer extant.

Vicars, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of an inside job, continued to voice his opinion that no member of staff of the Office of Arms could have committed the robbery. However, by the week of 15 July, it was suggested to him by a friend that the robbery might have been committed by Francis Shackleton who was then visiting friends in England, as he had been during the period of the robbery, only returning to Dublin on Tuesday 9 July and leaving again on Sunday 14 July. Vicars took hold of this idea, in spite of there being no evidence whatever to support it.

By late August, King Edward VII was becoming impatient at the lack of recovery of the jewels and is reported to have believed that someone in the Office of Arms had been negligent in their care; the King wished this individual to be reprimanded. By 17 September, it was reported that the King wished Vicars to be suspended from the Office of Arms. Although Lord Aberdeen was sympathetic to Vicars, he could not disobey a royal order.

On 12 October, the messenger in the Office of Arms was dismissed, although there was no evidence against him and on 23 October Vicars was informed that his services as Ulster King of Arms were no longer required. The same message was relayed to the Athlone Pursuivant (Francis Bennett-Goldney), the Cork Herald (Pierce Gun Mahony) and the Dublin Herald (Francis R. Shackleton). Vicars called for a full public investigation into the circumstances of the theft.

He was assisted in his efforts to clear his name by his step-brother Pierce O’Mahony, formerly a Nationalist MP. The latter now called upon John Redmond MP to raise the matter in the House of Commons. It was hoped that the Irish MPs in the House of Commons would support Vicars, but Redmond, who was close to Augustine Birrell, the Irish Chief Secretary, declined to assist. O’Mahony visited Birrell, who hinted at certain rumours about homosexual activities among the Office of Arms’ extended circle and the possibility of these rumours being substantiated by an enquiry. In December, the Knights of the Order of St Patrick petitioned the King that such an enquiry should be held. Attempts by O’Mahony to enlist the support of Arthur Griffith, amongst others, in support of Vicars failed. Vicars was offered a pension by the Lord Lieutenant if he agreed to resign but he spurned the offer. In fact he never resigned his post. Finally the King, advised by the Lord Lieutenant, agreed that a court of enquiry would have to be established.

On 6 January 1908, the Crown Jewels Commission (Ireland) was established. The terms of the Commission were to investigate the theft of the regalia of the Order of St Patrick and to enquire as to whether Vicars had exercised sufficient care of them. The Commission met for the first time on 10 January in the Library of the Office of Arms. However, when it was established that the Commission was to sit in private, could not compel witnesses to attend and could not take evidence under oath, Vicars and his counsel (including T.M. Healy MP) refused to co-operate. It was felt that Vicars would be offered no opportunity to vindicate himself nor to repudiate the allegations circulating about him. Vicars and his counsel walked out of the Commission. However, the Commission continued to meet; it had before it written and oral statements made by Vicars to the police and it also called witnesses including Chief Inspector Kane of Scotland Yard. Some staff of the Office of Arms refused to testify.

A further request to Vicars to appear before the Commission, either in a public or private hearing, was rejected. Evidence of financial liabilities incurred by Francis Shackleton in 1907 emerged in the course of the enquiry and the fact that Vicars had stated on 30 August to Chief Inspector Kane of Scotland Yard that he believed Shackleton to be guilty of the theft. Kane stated in his evidence that he had never found any evidence against Shackleton. (This means that, whoever he identified in his now missing report, it was not Francis Sheckleton.) The Commissioners reiterated this opinion.

The printed published report stated that Vicars had been found not to have exercised proper care as the custodian of the Regalia of the Order of St Patrick. On 30 January 1908, Vicars received a letter stating that his role as Ulster King of Arms was at an end and that a successor would be appointed. Never again did Vicars return to the Bedford Tower. The new (and last) Ulster King of Arms was Captain Nevile R. Wilkinson of the Coldstream Guards, a son-in-law of the Earl of Pembroke.

Vicars was now without a pension so he was forced to sell at auction his extensive library and collection of book-plates, many of which had been housed in the Library of the Office of Arms. In his enforced retirement he undertook genealogical research, and he considered establishing a genealogical and heraldic office in London.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a “version” of the story which appeared as The Bruce-Patrington Plans in 1908. Pierce Mahony and Francis Shackleton are only thinly disguised. In August 1910, Francis Shackleton was declared a bankrupt and served a period in prison. On his release from prison he assumed a pseudonym and was not heard of publicly again. Late in July 1913, Vicars petitioned Lord Aberdeen to petition King George V for the establishment of a new Commission of Enquiry into the robbery. The King suggested a full public enquiry but this was disallowed.

In 1917, aged 53, Vicars married Miss Gertrude Wright. In May 1920, Vicars was attacked in his home, Kilmorna House, near Listowel, county Kerry. Vicars showed great courage and the intruders left. On 14 April 1921, the house was again attacked, this time during daylight. One of the attackers stated that their only intent was to burn the house and that no lives would be lost. Shortly after 10.00 a.m. the house was set alight, and Vicars was murdered as he left the house. The house and its contents were completely destroyed. The Irish Republican Army issued a statement that the murder had not been carried out under its orders.

The final surviving document, in the exhibition, written by Vicars is his will, which is dated 14 May 1920, the same month as the first attack on Kilmorna House. The executors of the will were his wife, Lady Vicars, his brother, Major Vicars and his sister, Mrs de Janasz. The relevant Oaths of Executors were signed on 1 March 1922, but on 20 March, when the will was submitted for probate, the following note was attached to the Oaths of Executors:

By direction of the Rt Honble Mr Justice Dodd let the words beginning “I might have had” (line 36, p. 2) to the words “the next world” (line 8, p. 3) be excluded from probate.
E.H. Kenny, Regr, 20/3/22

The sealed envelope, in which the will was contained, bore the external notes:

This will to be shown to no one without permission of Regr.
Certified copy may be shown
20 March 1922

No copy of this will to be issued except from the Probate
D. Coffey
A.D.K. (Assistant Deputy Keeper)

The original will, in its original envelope, was sealed within another envelope which bore the external notes:

Not to be opened without the authority of the Principal Probate Officer or a judge of the High Court
Diarmid Coffey
Opened by order of the President of the High Court 22/9/1976 & made available for consultation
P. Connolly
Certified copies to be made of probate version only
Plain copies may be made of this document

After directions for his burial and the disposition of funds to various bequests, Vicars specifically noted that no bequest would be made to his half-brother Pierce Mahony (father of the sometime Cork Herald, Peirce Gun Mahony). With regard to his books and manuscripts he specified:

With regard to my personal effects – I give and bequeath all my Genealogical and heraldic MSS. other than family pedigrees to the British Museum. It is not my wish that any should go to the Office of Arms Ireland. The rest of my books on Heraldry Genealogy Archaeology & history I bequeath to my dear wife to do as she likes with – perhaps she may desire to give any of interest to my family or the British Museum or the National Library of Ireland.

Moveable possessions, including jewellery, were left to his wife. Then occurs the following:

I might have had more to dispose of had it not been for the outrageous way in which I was treated by the Irish Govt. over the loss of the Irish Crown Jewels in 1907 backed up by the late King Edward VII whom I had always loyally & faithfully served - when I was made a scapegoat to save other departments responsible and when they shielded the real culprit & thief Francis R. Shackleton (brother of the Explorer who didn’t reach the South Pole). My whole life & work was ruined by this cruel misfortune & by the wicked and blackguardly acts of the Irish Government. I had sunk my whole fortune in my profession & was left without any means but for the magnanimous conduct of my dear brother George Gun Mahony. I am unconscious of having done anyone wrong & my very misfortune arose from my being unsuspicious & trusting to a one time friend & official of my former office. I had hoped to leave a legacy to my dear little dog “Ronnie” had he not been taken from me this year – well we shall meet in the next world.

This paragraph was excluded from probate in 1922 and was not made available for public inspection until 1976. Sections of the will have the words “omit” written against them.

The original will, and all accompanying documents, were opened and released for public inspection in 1976, though a copy of the censored will was made available for public inspection in July 1947.

The final (non) appearance of the jewels occurred in a 1927 memo:

He (The President of the Executive Council, Mr W.T. Cosgrave) understands that the Castle Jewels are for sale and that they could be got for £2000 or £3000. He would be prepared to recommend their purchase for the same reason (i.e. he would not like them to be used either as a means of reviving the Order or to pass into any hands but that of the State).
M. McD.
1.6.27 D/T 3926


  • Francis Bamford & Viola Bankes, Vicious circle, the case of the missing Irish crown jewels (London, 1965)
  • Audrey Bateman, The magpie tendency (Whitstable, Kent, 1999)
  • J. Christian Bay, The mystery of the Irish crown jewels: a critical précis (privately published, 1929)
  • J. Christian Bay, The mystery of the Irish crown jewels (Cedar Rapids, 1944)
  • John B. Cafferky & Kevin Hannafin, Scandal & betrayal: Shackleton and the Irish crown jewels (Collins, 2002)
  • Myles Dungan, The Stealing of the Irish crown jewels - an unsolved crime (Dublin, 2003)
  • Aisling Foster, Safe in the kitchen (London, 1993)
  • Susan Hood, Royal Roots - republican inheritance: the survival of the Office of Arms (Woodfield Press, 2002)
  • Robert Perrin, Jewels (London, 1977)
  • Robert Brennan, 'The theft of the crown jewels: a Dublin Castle mystery retold' in the Irish Press, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16 October 1948
  • Philip Rooney, 'Famous Irish mysteries' in the Sunday Press, 8 September 1957
  • Judge Kenneth Deale, 'Memorable Irish trials' in the Sunday Independent, 28 February, 6, 13, 20 March 1960

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