Brief Summary: Holmes recollects one of his very first cases in conversation with Watson, one which contains a mysterious ritual and the disappearance of two of Musgrave's staff members.
In the story, Holmes recounts to Watson the events arising after a visit from a university acquaintance Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave visits Holmes after the disappearance of two of his domestic staff, Rachel Howells, a maid, and Richard Brunton, the longtime butler. The pair vanished after Musgrave had dismissed Brunton for secretly reading a family document, the Musgrave Ritual. The Ritual, which dates from the 17th century, reads:
'Whose was it?' 'His who is gone.' 'Who shall have it?' 'He who will come.' ('What was the month?' 'The sixth from the first.') 'Where was the sun?' 'Over the oak.' 'Where was the shadow?' 'Under the elm.' 'How was it stepped?' 'North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.' 'What shall we give for it?' 'All that is ours.' 'Why should we give it?' 'For the sake of the trust.'
Musgrave caught Brunton in the library at two o'clock one morning. Not only had he unlocked a cabinet and taken out the document in question, but he also had what looked like a chart or map, which he promptly stuffed into a pocket upon seeing his employer watching him. Brunton besought Musgrave not to dishonour him by dismissing him, and asked for a month's time to invent some reason for leaving, making it seem as though he was leaving of his own accord. Musgrave granted him a week. The reader learns later that Brunton wanted the time for something else.
A few days later, Brunton disappeared, leaving behind most of his belongings. His bed had not been slept in. No sign could be found of him. The maid, Rachel Howells, who was also Brunton's former lover, had an hysterical fit when asked about Brunton's whereabouts, repeating over and over that he was gone. She was in such a state that another servant was posted to sit up with her at night. Eventually, however, the guarding servant nodded off one night, and the hysterical Rachel Howells escaped through a window. Her footprints led to the edge of the mere, and ended there. Musgrave had the mere dragged, but only a sack containing some rusty mangled bits of metal, and some coloured stones or glass was found. Rachel Howells was never heard from again.
Holmes looked upon the case not as three mysteries, but as one. He considered the ritual. It was a meaningless, absurd tradition to Musgrave, and apparently to all his ancestors going back more than two centuries, but Holmes — and Brunton, too, Holmes suspected — saw it as something very different. He quickly realised that it was a set of instructions for finding something, and travels to the Musgrave home, Hurlstone, to test his theory. Ascertaining the height of the oak, which was still standing, and the position of the elm, which was now gone, Holmes performed a few calculations and paced out the route to whatever awaited him, with Musgrave now eagerly following him.
It was quite instructive to Holmes that Brunton had recently asked about the old elm tree's height as well, and that he was apparently quite intelligent.
The two men found themselves inside a doorway, momentarily disappointed, until they realised that there was the last instruction, "and so under". There was a cellar under where they were standing, as old as the house. Finding their way into it, they saw that the floor had been cleared to expose a stone slab with an iron ring on it. Holmes thought it wise to bring the police in at this point. He and a burly Sussex policeman manage to lift the slab off the little hole that it was covering, and inside, they found an empty, rotten chest, and Brunton, who had been dead for several days. There were no marks on him. He had likely suffocated.
Holmes then put everything together for his rather shocked client. Brunton had deduced the ritual's meaning, at least insofar as it led to something valuable. He had determined the elm tree's height by asking his master, had paced out the instructions — and Holmes had later even found a peg hole in the lawn made by Brunton — had found the hiding place in the old cellar, but then had found it impossible to lift the stone slab himself. So, he had been forced to draw someone else into his treasure hunt. He had unwisely chosen Rachel Howells, who hated him. The two of them could have lifted the slab up, but they would have needed to support it while Brunton climbed down to fetch the treasure. Did Rachel deliberately kick the support away, sealing Brunton in, thus murdering him - or did the slab fall by itself and she was only guilty of not getting help to her unfaithful lover? It explained a great deal about her subsequent behaviour.
As to the relics found in the bag, Holmes believed that it was no less than the crown of King Charles I of England, who had been overthrown and executed during the English Civil War. The crown had been hidden by the Royalists to keep it safe for his successor (who, as it turned out, was his son Charles II). The ritual had been a guide to retrieving this important symbol: Reginald confirms that one of his ancestors, Sir Ralph Musgrave, was a close supporter of the younger Charles. Holmes theorised that the original holder of the ritual had died before teaching his son about the ritual's significance. It had thus become nothing more than a quaint custom for more than 200 years. Following the case Musgrave is allowed, surprisingly, to keep the crown, but only after paying the government a significant sum of money.
- Musgrave claims that the entire house had been searched, yet he was surprised when Brunton's muffler is tied to the stone slab in the cellar.
- It is most unlikely that the hidden space could have been found as easily as claimed for three reasons. 1) the elevation of the sun over the oak depends on the time of year 2) the height of the elm would have changed in the time since the ritual was written 3) the length of person's a pace varies a lot according to their height. So not knowing the season the clues were written, the height of the tree at that time or the height of the person who paced it out you would be a long way from finding the treasure.
- "Le Trésor des Musgraves" ("Treasure of the Musgraves"), a 1912 French silent film. Possibly the first screen adaptation of the story.
- "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death", a 1943 feature film, produced by Universal Studios. Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. This was the sixth film of the long-running Rathbone-and-Bruce film series of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the Musgrave family is still involved and the basics of the plot are directly adapted, many of the individual elements of the story are loosely reworked. Like other films in the series, the story is also set in then-contemporary times, rather than the original story's 19th century.
- "The Musgrave Ritual", an episode of the 1960s BBC television adaptations, from the programme's second series. Shot in colour, first aired in November 1968. Starring Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock. Unfortunately, this is one of the second series' missing episodes.
- "The Musgrave Ritual", the 1986 episode of the ITV / Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke.
- BBC Radio 4 adapted the short story under the same name in 1992, as part of a long-term series of BBC radio adaptations of the whole Sherlock Holmes Canon, directed by playwright and radio drama director Bert Coules. The radio adaptation starred Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.
- The 2013 Russian Sherlock Holmes series' ninth and tenth episode adapt this story more loosely. Several of the individual elements receive major changes, such as the character of Brunton being the member of a family who pose as traditional rivals to the Musgraves. Starring Igor Petrenko and Andrei Panin.
- "The Final Problem", the third episode of the fourth series of the BBC series Sherlock, borrows elements from this story. The Musgrave estate in this adaptation belonged directly to the Holmes family. Along with an equivalent of the riddle-based coordinates from the original story, the estate's grounds are key to revealing tragic events from the childhood of Sherlock Holmes and the full truth about his lost sister.