Westminster Abbey to return sacred tablet to Ethiopia after consulting with King

Westminster Abbey, Henry VII lady chapel, tomb of Henry VII & Elizabeth of York, banner of the Knights of the Order of the Bath
The holy tablet has been set into an altar in Westminster Abbey's Lady Chapel, where it has remained despite repeated requests for its return to Ethiopia - JOHN MICHAELS/ALAMY/ALAMY

Westminster Abbey has agreed to return a holy tablet to Ethiopia following consultation with the Royal household.

The “tabot”, which is sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has been the subject of repeated calls for repatriation, including by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, but campaigns have made little headway until now.

David Hoyle, the Dean of Westminster, has now agreed “in principle” that the tabot should be returned to Ethiopia after a period of consultation with the Royal household.

The Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar” outside the control of the Church of England and technically under King Charles’s jurisdiction.

The decision follows lengthy talks with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a 2018 request by the country’s government for the tabot to be returned after being looted by British forces in 1868.

It marks a significant victory for repatriation campaigners.

King Charles III receives The St Edward's Crown by The Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Reverend Justin Welby during his and Queen Camilla's coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 2023
King Charles III being crowned during his coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Technically he has jurisdiction over the Abbey - WPA POOL/GETTY/GETTY

A tabot is a tablet, usually of wood, that represents the Ark of the Covenant which held the Tablets of Law on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. Each Ethiopian Orthodox church possesses one, and they are believed to sanctify and bring God’s presence to the spaces.

A spokeswoman for the Abbey said: “The Dean and Chapter has decided in principle that it would be appropriate to return the Ethiopian tabot to the Ethiopian Church.

“We are currently considering the best way to achieve this, and we are in ongoing discussions with representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is a complex matter, and it may take some time.”

They added: “The Dean of Westminster consults widely about these types of decisions and as a Royal Peculiar, a church under the jurisdiction of the monarch rather than a bishop, this includes discussions with the Royal household.”

Palace refused previous requests

Buckingham Palace had previously refused campaigners seeking to repatriate the remains of Alemayehu, a 19th-century Ethiopian prince, from another Royal Peculiar, St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, on the grounds that it would disturb other burials.

Alemayehu was prince of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, and was brought to England after British forces defeated his father in a 1868 campaign.  The prince grew up with the support and keen interest of Queen Victoria, and was accorded a burial at Windsor.

Sacred tabots were looted from the mountain fortress of Maqdala during the same Abyssinian campaign in which Prince Alemayehu was captured.

Nine of the objects made their way to the British Museum, which has repeatedly been asked to repatriate them to Ethiopia, and one was donated to Westminster Abbey by Captain George Arbuthnot of the Royal Artillery.

It was later incorporated into an altar in the Lady Chapel by architect George Gilbert Scott, where it has remained despite repeated requests for its return.

The tabots representing the 10 Commandments are used to consecrate Ethiopian churches and are considered so sacred that they cannot be viewed by lay people.

Their spiritual significance has prompted Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to become involved in the row over their repatriation. He has previously called for the artefacts to be returned “as a matter of faith”.

Compelled in law

He told The Telegraph in 2022 that is was “shameful and distressing that the British Museum so far has been resistant to the appeal for the return of the tabots”.

While Westminster Abbey has the freedom, with the assent of the Royal household, to return artefacts, the British Museum is compelled in law to retain the objects in its collection.

Given their sacred status, the tabots are not on display at the museum and are never viewed or studied by staff.

The decision of a major British institution such as Westminster Abbey to embrace repatriation marks a significant victory for campaigners. However, the removal of the tabot from the Abbey may prove difficult.

It is set into an altar and an expert on the historic fabric of the building will make the final call on whether it can be removed.

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