On 18 May, following a lengthy lockdown closure, Arundel Castle in West Sussex reopened to visitors. Exploring historic homes, from magnificent fortresses to country houses, and admiring their treasures is a popular pastime among people with an interest in elite lifestyles. It’s not unusual for Arundel, with its breathtaking heraldic interiors and fine art and antiques, to welcome over 150,000 visitors annually.
However, just three days after its grand reopening, the ancestral home of England’s Premier Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, was plunged into turmoil. On the night of 21 May, one of Arundel’s burglar alarms sounded: the first indication that something was wrong. Sussex Police arrived within minutes and discovered that one of England’s most significant buildings had become the scene of an audacious crime. A window in the dining room had been forced open by one or more burglars. A display cabinet lining the route taken by visitors had been broken into. A host of precious items were nowhere to be found.
Mary’s Historic Rosary is ‘Irreplaceable’
Chief among the stolen artefacts are the gold rosary beads that belonged to 16th century monarch Mary, Queen of Scots. The fact that Mary was clutching them at her execution in 1587, having been embroiled in Catholic plots against her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, grants the beads tremendous historical significance.
Items owned by Mary are incredibly rare. As the historian Professor Kate Williams told BBC News, most of the monarch’s possessions were destroyed ‘because people were concerned she would turn into a Catholic martyr’. The rosary was a ‘tiny memorial of Mary, Queen of Scots – and now it has gone’.
After Mary’s execution, her rosary was given to members of the Howards, a prominent Catholic family and ancestors of the current Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard.
The Howards were remarkable: they practiced Catholicism even after Henry VIII broke ties with the Pope, while remaining influential figures at court. The 3rd Duke was uncle to two of Henry VIII’s wives: Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth I’s mother) and Catherine Howard. The 4th Duke was less successful: he wished to marry Mary and plotted to overthrow Elizabeth I so that his would-be wife could take her place – an act that cost him his life.
The Mary, Queen of Scots, rosary is a tangible link between one of Britain’s foremost noble families and the country’s fascinating, turbulent past. In the words of Sussex Police, ‘as [a] piece of the Howard family history and the nation’s heritage it is irreplaceable’.
The Earl Marshal’s Missing Baton
Also stolen were items that highlight the crucial role members of the family have played in state ceremonies for hundreds of years. Each Duke of Norfolk performs the role of Earl Marshal, which involves organising major royal events. Seven gold and silver-gilt coronation cups, as well as the Earl Marshal’s gold baton, are missing, along with a second baton and miscellaneous silver-gilt pieces. As reported by high-society magazine Tatler, Arundel’s stolen treasures have a total value in excess of £1 million.
The question on everyone’s lips is who stole Mary, Queen of Scots’, rosary and the other artefacts? Precious objects are sometimes ‘stolen to order’ on behalf of unscrupulous collectors, as BBC News points out. Sussex Police is appealing for anyone who noticed suspicious activity or hears of the items being offered for sale to come forward. Arundel’s insurers are offering a ‘substantial’ reward for their safe recovery.
The Arundel Castle burglary is a powerful reminder of how vulnerable aristocratic residences can be to thieves. The Daily Mail calls it ‘the latest targeted theft from stately homes across the UK in recent years’. At the time of writing, neither Mary’s rosary nor the other stolen treasures have been located. We hope they’ll be returned to the Duke of Norfolk as soon as possible.
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