We hear a lot about the Great Train Robbery of 1963, but hardly anything about its more daring predecessor, which took place 700 years earlier – Great Royal Jewels Heist of 6 June, 1303, which saw most of the Crown’s treasures stolen from the supposedly impregnable Pyx Chamber off the east cloister of Westminster Abbey.
The robbery was obviously an inside job, so Edward I did what a king had to do. He arrested the Abbey’s abbot, its 48 monks and 32 servants, as they were the ones with access to the Pyx. All were imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The Chamber, which still exists, dates from about 1070. There, gold and silver were measured in little round containers called pyxes. With its 13-foot thick walls, it long been considered the most secure room in the whole of the kingdom. It had two heavy oak doors, one behind the other, each with three locks, meaning six keys were required to gain admittance.
And so it had been until the arrival of Richard de Podnecott, a “gentleman” from Oxfordshire, who is believed to have had a grudge against the king dating back a few years to when he was imprisoned in Flanders as a guarantor for the monarch’s spiralling debts.
Podnecott shadowed the Abbey for months while Edward (“Longshanks”) was at war with William Wallace (he of Braveheart fame) in West Lothian, Scotland. Then, almost certainly with the connivance of some monks, he entered the Chamber on the night of St Mark and stayed hidden there for most of the day before making off with the bounty.
He was later arrested with over £2,000 worth of booty on him, after some of the stolen property started turning up in nearby brothels and pawn shops. By that time, the monks had been released from the Tower, but Podnecott was hanged along with a few who were suspected of helping him.
The Pyx Chamber can be viewed by the public, and, unlike the main Abbey interior, there is no entrance charge. You can get to it via Dean’s Yard. One curious fact is that there clearly used to be an altar there, where mass would have been celebrated in Catholic times, but was not destroyed during the Reformation, probably because it was disguised by the royal treasures.
The theft from the Pyx was only the most serious in a series of robberies from Abbey during that period, and it is still puzzling that the king continued to use it and a crypt in the Chapter House next to it as main storehouses for his treasures when they were clearly so vulnerable.
Afterwards, the royal treasures were removed to the Tower, but only until the undercrofts at the Abbey had been reinforced. They were then brought back to their historic resting place. Maybe the thinking was that God would still be their best guardian.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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