During the opening years of the seventeenth century, Europe was gripped by Reformation and Counter-Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants persecuted one another with equal fervour. England was ruled by a Protestant regime, and in 1605 a group of oppressed Catholic landowners hatched a plot to kill the king, James I, during the state opening of parliament on 5 November. The plan, conceived by the Midland Catholics Robert Catesby and Thomas Wyntour, was to blow up the Houses of Parliament with dozens of barrels of gunpowder. Known as the Gunpowder Plot, it was thwarted at the last moment when conspirator Guy Fawkes was discovered nervously waiting to light the fuse.
When Fawkes was tortured into revealing the names of the other plotters, the small band of conspirators fled to the Wyntour family home at Huddington Court in Worcestershire. Here they spent their last night, fleeing only a few miles the next day before being surrounded by the militia. But this was not the end of the affair. The king’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, had given strict instructions that Robert Catesby should be taken alive.
The reason being, that he possessed a sacred relic – a green, jade gemstone called the Meonia Stone. Tradition held that it had once been set in King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. Historically, it had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, the last legitimate Catholic heir to the English throne. Following her death in 1587, a legend had developed that the Catholic who would finally secure the English throne would need to possess the sacred stone.
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Fearing that the Meonia Stone would act as a rallying symbol for the English Catholics, Cecil was determined that it should be destroyed. He was furious, however, to discover that Robert Catesby had been shot dead and the knowledge of the stone’s whereabouts had died with him. Despite months of frantic searching and intense interrogation of the surviving conspirators, the stone was never found. Three centuries later, in 1979, Graham Phillip’s and fellow researcher Andrew Collins decided to go in search of the lost Meonia Stone. The Green Stone, co-authored by Martin Keatman, is the remarkable true story of this fascinating quest.
Following a trail of historical clues, Graham and Andrew finally discovered the identity of the person to whom the stone was given. During their interrogation, the surviving Gunpowder Plotters had stated that Robert Catesby still had the stone with him the night before his death. As he no longer had it when he died, it seemed that the only place he could have secured the relic’s safety was at Huddington Court. As the other plotters appear to have had no knowledge of its whereabouts, there seemed only one person to whom it could have been passed – Thomas Wyntour’s sister-in-law Lady Gertrude. The servants having been dismissed when the conspirators arrived, Gertrude was the only person to have spent that last fated night with the Gunpowder Plotters. Cecil himself had suspected that she may have been given the relic, but he had been unable to properly interrogate her because the king had forbidden the torture of titled women.
Instead, she was placed under house arrest for many years. The passage of time was to reveal something that Cecil could not have known. According to Lady Wyntour’s own secret writings made during her imprisonment, which still survive with her descendants, a few hours before her arrest she had received a visitor – one Humphrey Packington of nearby Harvington Hall. Although they found no reference anywhere to the Meonia Stone, Graham and Andrew could not help but wonder if Packington had been the one for whom the stone was intended.
Although he was never implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, Packington had been a devout Catholic. Moreover, he was distantly related to the late Mary Queen of Scots and his bloodline may have been considered fitting for a future Catholic monarchy. The Elizabethan manor house of Harvington Hall still survives and is open to the public. When they heard of Graham and Andrew’s suspicion that Packington may have hidden the Meonia Stone somewhere in the building, the property’s trustees where keen to assist. No stone had ever been found in the building, they said, but something very strange had. During renovations to the property in the 1950 s, the paneling had been removed from one of the upstairs corridors.
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Behind it, secretly sealed up for over 350 years, was an old painted mural, faded with age. After restoration, it was found to include an image of a young King Arthur wielding Excalibur, standing before a hill upon which his knights were rallied. Intriguingly, it dated from the very time of the Gunpowder Plot. It seemed that only Packington himself could have commissioned the mysterious picture. Graham and Andrew were excited by the discovery.
As the Meonia Stone was associated with Excalibur, it seemed very possible that this was a cryptic clue to its secret location. After searching the surrounding countryside, Graham and Andrew finally discovered a landmark that linked with the mural – a place called Knights Hill. In the painting, Arthur had been depicted standing before a hill on which his knights were gathered. The only structure in the area dating from Packington’s time was an Elizabethan bridge crossing a stream that fed a lake at the bottom of the hill. It was here that they made an astonishing find. Secreted behind its foundation stones was a short sword heavily encrusted with years of sediment.
When it was cleaned it was found to bear the coat of arms of Mary Queen of Scots, and a further coded message – three enigmatic words: ‘Meonia fore Marye’. In The Green Stone, Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman tell the full story of how the cryptic message on the mysterious sword leads eventually to the stone’s discovery. In a grassy mound on the banks of the River Avon, a few miles from the bridge, a buried brass casket is uncovered containing a small green stone. Half-egg shaped and some two centimetres long, it is fashioned from simple jade. The casket is taken for analysis to the Chester Museum where it is dated to the early seventeenth century – precisely the time of the Gunpowder Plot. But this is not the end of this remarkable story.
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Strange and inexplicable things begin to happen to those who now possess the Meonia Stone.