Lost Masterpieces

The Scandalous Mystery of Who Stole The Irish Crown Jewels

Was it an inside job? Was the truth buried because of a royal sex scandal? The disappearance of the Irish Crown Jewels in 1907 remains unsolved.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

On the morning of July 6, 1907, the cleaning woman assigned to Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle arrived at work to find the door to the safe-room standing wide open. The inner security door was closed and bolted, but the keys, which also opened the nearby library, had been left dangling in the lock.

When Sir Arthur Vicars, the Ulster King of Arms charged with protecting the castle’s valuables including the Irish Crown Jewels, learned of this perplexing situation, he brushed it off—not entirely unusual given his generally lax treatment of security. (One legend has it that on a night of particularly enthusiastic drinking, the honorable Ulster King of Arms handed his keys over to his friends. After passing out, he woke up the next morning draped in the country’s most valuable ornaments.)

But that all changed later in the afternoon when Vicars dispatched a messenger to the library to drop some valuables off in the safe housed there. He swung the heavy door open to discover… nothing. The safe had been emptied of the Grandmaster Star and the badge that made up the precious Irish Crown Jewels.

It’s been over a century since these treasures vanished, but its easy to imagine the frantic scramble that resulted. The loss of the country’s most important gems was bad enough. But even worse was the thought of having to come clean to the visitor expected in just a matter of days—King Edward VII.

See, the crown jewels weren’t just a set of fancy and expensive baubles: They were a symbol of the connection between the empire and their closest colony. They had been a gift from King William IV in 1831—and they still technically belonged to the crown.

The two missing pieces were an incredible work of craftsmanship and symbolism. The Grandmaster Star was a large, glittering pendant that consisted of 400 Brazilian white diamonds arranged into an eight-pointed star. In the middle, a shamrock of emeralds sat atop a cross of rubies against a backdrop of blue enamel. The second piece was a large oval badge that was all 24-karat gold, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies with a similar pairing of a shamrock and cross.

The gems were kept in Dublin Castle, the most secure building in the colony, where they were guarded by not only the Ulster King of Arms and his staff, but also a 24-hour outdoor patrol of both policemen and soldiers. Only 100 yards down the street was the headquarters of the Dublin detectives.

The only chink in the armor of the crown jewels was one foolish mistake made four years earlier when a safe room was installed in the castle.

After the last nail was hammered into place, workers discovered that no one had bothered to check the measurements of the safe holding the valuables, the entire reason for building the room.

When they attempted to move the giant container from the library to the new room, they realized it was too large to fit through the door. Rather than making adjustments, Vicars decided to leave the safe and the Irish Crown Jewels permanently in the library.

But this misstep wouldn’t have made much of a difference on the night of July 6, when the Grandmaster Star and badge vanished under the cover of darkness with all locks easily unlocked and nary an alarm sounded. It was a truly puzzling turn of events… and the probable sign of an inside job.

“It was a stunning raid striking at the very heart of Britain’s colonial power base,” director Gerry Nelson says in his documentary The Strange Case of the Irish Crown Jewels. “The theft was a singular embarrassment for the empire and a stinging insult to the king himself.”

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The king was not happy. On his trip, he was supposed to invest Lord Castletown as the newest Knight of the Order of St. Patrick, a top honor granted to only the most loyal—and prestigious—of Irish subjects. The ceremony, which required the crown jewels, was canceled.

Despite the ire of the king, the jewels have never been found and no arrests have ever been made for the crime.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a colorful line-up of suspects. Or that they weren’t punished for their possible crimes. The saga took a Final Destination-style turn when most of the suspects met with unfortunate ends, dying in grim or mysterious circumstances.

First up was Sir Arthur Vicars himself. Given that the thief “broke in” to the safe using a set of keys, it’s natural to suspect the only man in possession of said keys.

Vicars remembered at least one occasion in which he thought someone could have taken them and made a copy, and no additional hard evidence ever linked him with the crime. He is generally thought to be innocent, and he denied his culpability to his dying day.

But that doesn’t mean he was entirely let off the hook. Vicars was fired from his position at the behest of King Edward and underwent a bureaucratic slog of inquiries questioning his proficiency in carrying out his duties as the Ulster King of Arms.

Fourteen years later, in 1921, members of the early Irish Republican Army cornered him in a farmhouse in County Kerry and killed him as a royal informer.

Vicars’s assistant, Pierce O’Mahony was also briefly fingered as a possible perpetrator, but most think he was innocent of all knowledge of the crime. Despite that, he didn’t escape the fate of the suspects. In 1914, O’Mahony was killed in an accidental shooting.

Next up is the man who most still believe was the true culprit. The great explorer Ernest Shackleton had a not-so-reputable brother, Francis.

The younger, more nefarious Shackleton was Vicars’s second-in-command at Dublin Castle and he was accused by several people, including his boss.

A 1968 article in The Irish Times proposed that Shackleton, working in conjunction with Captain Richard Gorges, stole Vicars’s keys one night after the head honcho had consumed a bit too much hooch. They removed the jewels, put everything back in its place (minus actually locking a few doors), and returned the keys as if nothing had happened.

Shackleton was never formerly accused of the crime, but the law did eventually catch up with him. In 1913, he was thrown in jail after being convicted of banking fraud. After he was released several years later, he changed his name and disappeared without a trace, just like the Irish Crown Jewels over a decade earlier.

The final suspect came to light many years after the crime. Francis Bennett Goldney was an upstanding Englishman who turned out to be not quite the pillar of society that everyone thought.

Several months before the fateful day, Goldney was appointed Athlone Pursuivant at the Dublin Castle, something of a junior position to the Ulster King of Arms. His opportunity to commit the crime was there, but many thought his motive was lacking. Unlike the known black sheep Shackleton, Goldney was a gentleman.

Until his untimely death that is. In 1918, Goldney met his early demise in a car accident in France. As his affairs were being put into order, it was discovered that he had a trove of ill-begotten goods at his home. The gentleman was secretly a cunning thief.

But apart from his nefarious pastime and his auspicious placement in Dublin at the time of the crime, no evidence ever came to light that connected him directly to the theft in question.

While this story has quite enough intrigue to merit a few turns on the big screen, there is one last twist that has existed only in whispers.

Many have questioned why the investigation seemed to be unceremoniously dropped several years after it started.

While a commission pursued the discrediting of Vicars, there seemed to be a less aggressive interest in finding the actual culprit. Many believe that this points to a deeper scandal, one that was uncovered and then hastily covered back up, possibly at the behest of King Edward VII himself.

Some say the investigation found that a ring of debauchery was at work in Dublin Castle, one that included wild, drunken parties and homosexual affairs.

These rumors hold that when Edward VII heard about this turn of events, he shut the inquiry down, fearing the public revelations would have deeper ramifications for his reign and realm. The people implicated, including prime suspect Frank Shackleton, were, after all, well connected to other upstanding members of the aristocracy.

Upon hearing these accusations, The Independent reports that the king allegedly exclaimed, “I will not have a scandal. I will not have mud stirred up and thrown about—the matter must be dropped.”

But that doesn’t mean the hunt for the Irish Crown Jewels has been abandoned altogether.

Over a century later, and many decades since Ireland has shaken off its monarchical shackles, the pieces of the Goldmaster Star and badge have most likely been broken apart, sold to a rich collector, or stashed away somewhere that’s long been forgotten.

But tips continue to come in, and, when they do, the Irish government deploys their top teams to investigate, even if that means combing the mountains with a metal detector. For now, these vestiges of Ireland’s royal past remain well and truly hidden.