A riddle, posed as a series of questions and responses, serves as the centerpiece of this mystery, another from the early files of Sherlock Holmes, pre-Watson. And unlike the majority of the tales we’ve been given, this one is narrated by Holmes himself, relating the case to Watson as it unfolded for him.
The tale begins as Holmes recollects a visit from Reginald Musgrave, an acquaintance from his university days, wherein Musgrave tells of the disappearance of two of his staff. Rachel Howells, a maid, and Richard Brunton, the butler, vanished following Bruton’s dismissal at Musgrave’s hands for secretly reading a family document, the titular Musgrave Ritual. Musgrave found Brunton in the library at two in the morning, having taken the document out of a locked cabinet and, upon being caught, shoved a map into his pocket. Brunton begged not to be dismissed lest it besmirch his honor, asking for a month in which he could invent some plausible excuse for leaving (and for something else, which will be revealed). Musgrave gave him a week.
Within the week, Brunton disappeared, leaving behind most of his belongings. There was no sign of him, and Howells, Bruton’s former lover, became hysterical when asked. Another servant had to sit up with her all night, but after nodding off, Howells escaped through a window. Her footprints stopped at the edge of a lake. Dredging the lake turned up only a sack of rusty metal bits and some colored glass or stones. The maid was never heard from again.
Upon casual inspection, this would seem to be three mysteries, but Holmes put them together as a single mystery, with the two centuries old riddle at the center of it. He deduces that the riddle is a set of instructions to a specific location on family grounds. Holmes and Musgrave follow the instructions to a cellar of the old house, the floor cleared away, revealing a stone slab with a large iron ring fixed upon it. At this point, Holmes called the police, at which point they removed the slab. Beneath it they found an empty rotting chest and Brunton, dead for days with no marks on him. The verdict: he suffocated.
Holmes unravels the mystery for his host at this point. Brunton had deduced the ritual’s meaning, believing it to lead to some manner of treasure, and Holmes pointed out the clues he followed. Rachel Howells was pulled in to help move the slab, who by this point hated him. Holmes suggests that she may have purposefully kicked away the supports after Brunton climbed down, leaving him to die, or that the slab had simply fallen, causing her to panic.
The treasure in the bag, upon examination, reveals that the metal was gold and the stones were gems. Holmes believed it to be the gold crown of King Charles I, being kept for his son, Charles II. History intervened, as Charles II was crowned 11 years following the execution of his father. The ritual was all about securing the crown within the family. Sir Ralph Musgrave, an ancestor of Reginald’s was a king’s man. Holmes believed the originator of the ritual died before passing the secret to his own son, thus it became an odd bit of family custom for the next 200 years.
We’ve already seen how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has tipped his hat to the originator of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe. This tale shares points with two of Poe’s tales, “The Gold Bug” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” There is a couplet missing in the original riddle identifying the month, added to the Memoirs upon collected publication.
As an American (and as a kid at the time), I freely admit to being quite lost the first time I read this story, not understanding much (or anything at all, really) about the English Civil War or who Charles I was. All these years later, I have a far better handle on that, a point that certainly most Brits at the time of publication would or should have understood. It makes a world of difference to understand the culture of the intended audience. Even after I put the history together, I still had no idea until years after that the crown in question had been destroyed in 1649. Later on, as I developed my interest in the Medieval and Renaissance eras, that’s when I learned the crown was “The Tudor Crown,” commissioned either by Henry VII or Henry VIII (likely the latter given his need for extravagant declarative symbolism) first documented in an inventory of Henry VIII’s jewels as being far more elaborate than its Medieval counterparts, bearing the symbolism that would indicate Henry’s position as King of England and France, with later added embellishments of Christ, Mary, and St. George to underscore Henry’s leadership of the newly formed Church of England. Following the Tudor dynasty, both James I and Charles I wore it. Following Charles’ execution, it was broken apart and sold in pieces. There’s a kind of Imperialist romance in play that Conan Doyle would have the pieces of the crown placed in the safekeeping of a king’s man and his family that, oddly, doesn’t reflect upon Conan Doyle at all one way or the other. Somehow it stays self-contained to the Musgrave character’s history and nothing more. Suffice it to say, this is one of those stories that, due to the backstory in play, has aged well as I’ve grown older and better educated in British history.