The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom is probably the most famous assemblage of valuable things in the world. It was started so long ago – by mediaeval kings wanting a cache of easily-pawnable things to get some quick warrin’/feastin’/castle-buildin’ money – that although it’s agreed they’re property of the nebulous legal entity that is the Crown of the United Kingdom, nobody agrees who, exactly, the jewels’ fate is ultimately controlled by. It could the Queen, or the government, or Parliament, or the people, or maybe even God Himself.
Nobody seems to have any idea what their cash value is, either; they HAVE been valued for insurance purposes, but the numbers are kept top secret. The biggest gem in the batch, the Cullinan I Diamond (a.k.a. the Great Star of Africa) in the Sceptre with the Cross, is believed to be worth £400 million, and most estimates for the whole set range from 3 to 5 billion pounds.
Until the 14th century the Crown Jewels were kept in Westminster Abbey. After a number of theft attempts they were moved to the Tower of London in 1303 and placed in the care of the janitor until 1677, when someone mugged the janitor and stole the jewels. They were then shown to the public in a room with armed guards. Visitors could actually handle the jewels until a crazy person broke a crown in 1815, and after that they instituted a no-touching policy.
Bear in mind that there is only a narrow set of items that constitutes the Crown Jewels, mostly coronation-themed bric-a-brac. Most of the fancy tiaras and brooches and earrings and whatnot that the Queen’s always seen wearing to dinners or churches are her personal property, mostly family heirlooms from Queens Victoria, Alexandra and Mary.
This is a pretty complete listing of the stuff that consists of the British Crown Jewels. Most of it only dates back to the 1660s because Oliver Cromwell had the old collection smashed up and sold off. The most valuable piece of the old Crown Jewels, the Tudor State Crown, fetched £1100 in 1649, or about £1,740,000 in today’s money.
The Crowns: Regnant
There have been various crowns throughout British history, since most kings had new ones made, melted down, made for their queens, etc.
The last English crown before the Protectorate was the Tudor Crown, which was commissioned (possibly) by Henry VII and worn (definitely) by Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I and St. Charles I. It was used as the principal stylistic model for symbols of the legal Crown for Britain, the Commonwealth and the Empire from Edward VII to George VI. The emblem was changed to an icon of St. Edward’s Crown by Elizabeth II.
St. Edward’s Crown is the oldest existing and most famous English crown. It was commissioned by Charles II for his coronation in 1661 and built of solid gold. The design was based on the crown its namesake, St. Edward the Confessor, wore at Christmas of 1065 and used to coronate William I as King of England on Christmas of 1066. A man named Thomas Blood stole it in 1671 and flattened it with a mallet to hide it better. (Thomas Blood had a happy ending: Charles II pardoned him and gave him a pension worth £500 per year.) William III hand the opening bent into a skull-like oval shape in 1689; before that it had been a perfect circle. William III was also the last king to be crowned with it for 222 years, until George V. Until 1911 it was undecorated most of the time, and whenever it was needed for a coronation someone went out and rented some jewels to put on it. The jewels were bought and set on permanently by George V. It was used for the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth II, and is kept in the Tower of London.
The crown that the Queen wears to the state openings of Parliament is the Imperial State Crown, which was made for George VI in 1937 off a pattern from a crown made in 1838 for Queen Victoria’s coronation and later used for the coronation of Edward VII (the bare frame of this 1838 crown is still kept in the Tower of London). It has a lot of very old and valuable gems, including sapphires belonging to St. Edward the Confessor and Alexander II of Scotland, a ruby from Edward the Black Prince, pearls from Elizabeth I and the Cullinan II diamond.
The crown that the Queen is usually shown wearing on coins and on the iconic series of British stamps designed by Arnold Machin is the George IV State Diadem, made in 1820 for George IV to wear as he entered Westminster Abbey during his needlessly elaborate coronation ceremony. Ever since, it’s been usually worn as a “travelling” crown: Victoria and Elizabeth II wore the Diadem while leaving the Abbey, and the Queen wears it on the processions leading to the State Opening of Parliament.
That tiny crown that was so often worn by the old Queen Victoria is officially named “the Small Diamond Crown of Queen Victoria“. She had it made of silver and over 1100 diamonds in 1870 to fit better over the top of her widow’s veils, and first wore it to the state opening of Parliament in 1871. It was the crown put on her coffin at her funeral, and she left it in her will to the Crown Jewels. It was worn by Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, but by no-one else since.
George I had a new crown (the State Crown of George I) made for ordinary kingly use in 1714 to replace that of Charles II, and had it decorated with coloured glass instead of gems. The glass was replaced with rented diamonds for the coronation of George II in 1727, and was later used for the coronation of George III in 1761 and of William IV in 1831. In 1815 a madwoman came to see it at the Tower of London and damaged it severely, after which visitors were no longer able to handle the Crown Jewels. It was worn by Victoria to the state opening of Parliament in 1837; she sold its empty frame to the crown jewellers in 1838. They gave it back in 1995 and is now in the Tower of London.
The extravagant and opulent King George IV had a new gold and silver crown made for his George IV Coronation Crown in 1820, of his own design. He had wanted to eliminate the traditional French fleurs-de-lis on British crowns and replace them with roses, thistles and shamrocks, but was vetoed by the College of Heralds. (George IV fought for symbols of British unity: he was the first king to wear a kilt since the 2nd Jacobite Rebellion and the first to visit Ireland since the Battle of the Boyne.) The crown was slathered with over 12,000 diamonds, which the king was unable to convince Parliament to buy outright and were returned in 1823, leaving the crown empty (and later sold to the crown jewellers in 1838) until it was reset with diamonds on loan from De Beers in 1996, after its return to the Crown Jewels the previous year.
The last crown made for a King was the Imperial Crown of India, which is not actually part of the Crown Jewels as a legal entity, since the Crown Jewels can’t leave Britain. It was made in 1911 for £60,000 (about £5.2 million in 2013) for George V to wear to the Delhi Durbar, where he received his subjects as Emperor of India. It weighed more than two pounds and hasn’t been worn since the Durbar; it is kept at the Tower of London.
The Crowns: Consort
Most of the crowns in the Crown Jewels were made for queen consorts. The oldest of these is the State Crown of Mary of Modena, wife of James II (and VII) made in 1685. It was occasionally worn by Mary II and Anne, and was the coronation crown of the consorts of King Georges I, II and III, but as George IV’s wife was not crowned and a new crown was made for the wife of William IV, the crown fell out of use. The Diadem of Mary of Modena was made concurrently for the coronation procession, and was worn in the coronation processions of Mary II, Anne, and possibly the wife of George II (accounts are vague), but has not been used since.
The Crown of Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, was made in 1831 for her coronation, emptied of its jewels soon thereafter, sold to the crown jewellers and not worn since. (The jewellers returned it to Elizabeth II in 1995, at the same time as the crowns of George I and George IV.)
The Crown of Queen Alexandra was made in 1902 for the wife of Edward VII in the first crowning of a queen consort in 71 years. It was squatter than most British crowns and had four arches instead of the usual two, making it much more like the crowns of Continental kingdoms. The Koh-i-Noor diamond was set into it at the coronation, and the crown set the precedent of having detachable arches so the crown could also be worn as a circlet. It was set with paste gems (gems made of flint glass) and is on display at the Tower of London.
The Crown of Queen Mary, four-arched like its predecessor, was made for the wife of George V in 1911 and set with the Koh-i-Noor diamond, along with the Cullinan III and Cullinan IV diamonds, on Coronation Day, all replaced with crystal models in 1914. It has not been worn since Queen Mary died in 1953.
The Crown of Queen Elizabeth was made for the Queen Mother for the coronation of George VI in 1937. It is the only British crown made of platinum, and returned to the traditional two-arch pattern for British crowns. Since it was made it has been the place of rest for the Koh-i-Noor diamond. (The diamond was stolen from the Sikh Empire by the British East India Company in 1850 and given to Queen Victoria in 1877 after being proclaimed Empress of India. It is said to curse any man who wears it, but not any woman, which is why it is worn by consorts.) It is now with the other crowns in the Tower of London.
Most of the coronets in the Tower of London are not really for the Sovereign, or Britain, or part of the Crown Jewels: they’re for the Prince of Wales, and are the centrepieces of the Honours of the Principality of Wales. Unlike crowns, the coronets only have one arch that goes across the head sideways.
The oldest of the coronets of Wales is the Coronet of Frederick, Prince of Wales, made in 1728 for the son of George II, who was the father of George III. Frederick died in 1751 before he inherited the throne, and the coronet was worn by the Princes of Wales that became George III, George IV and Edward VII.
In 1902 the old coronet had gotten fragile and so the Coronet of George, Prince of Wales was made for the future George V. When he took his seat in the House of Lords it was borne before him on a cushion, a practice subsequently used by his son Edward, the future Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor. After abdicating in 1936 Edward took the coronet with him to France (a possibly illegal action that was never prosecuted) and wasn’t returned to the Jewel Collection until his death in 1972. It’s now at the Tower with the Coronet of Frederick.
Since the Coronet of George was not available for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales of Prince Charles in 1969, a new one, the Coronet of Charles, Prince of Wales, was made instead. It had a crazy futuristic design by the artist Louis Osman and is now on loan to the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff. It’s generally believed that future princes will revert to the George coronet.
Outside of those for Wales, two more little coronets were made for George VI’s daughters at his coronation in 1937. The Coronets of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are not on display and believed to be in a vault somewhere in Buckingham Palace.
There are five swords in the collection of the Crown Jewels.
The Great Sword of State was made in 1678 for Charles II. Its hilt is shaped like a lion and a unicorn, and has a red velvet scabbard. The Earl Marshal carries the Great Sword beside the Queen at state openings of Parliament. The sword weighs 5 1/4 pounds, or 7 lbs 5 oz with the scabbard.
While all five swords are carried in the coronation procession, the only sword presented to the new monarch by the Archbishop of Canterbury to symbolize his or her power taken from man and God alike is the Jewelled Sword of Offering. It was made for George IV’s coronation in 1821. The hilt and the scabbard are solid gold and encrusted with gems, and the blade is finely engraved Damascus steel. (Damascus steel was the H-bomb of the Crusades. It was actually made in Persia from wootz steel made in India, and forged in such a way that it created carbon nanotubes in the steel 2500 years before anyone knew what nanotubes were.) It is probably the most valuable edged weapon on Earth, and likely costs as much as a Predator drone.
The Sword of Spiritual Justice, the Sword of Temporal Justice, and the Sword of Mercy became part of the coronation rigamarole for Charles I in 1626, and the current artefacts are from Charles II. The Sword of Mercy, or Edward the Confessor’s Sword, has a squared-off end, to symbolize mercy tempering the sharpness of justice; the sword’s design comes from the old French legend of Ogier the Dane, whose sword, Curtana, could only be drawn in mercy and not in vengeance. The three swords are plain steel with simple gold hilts, rather Arthurian-looking. The Sword of Mercy is 3’2″ long; the other two are 3’10” and 3’9″ respectively.
There are two sceptres of the Crown of the UK, and right as the crown is placed on the monarch’s head at the coronation, he or she has one in each hand.
The Sceptre with the Cross, alias the Royal Sceptre, alias the Sovereign’s Sceptre, alias St. Edward’s Sceptre, was made in 1661 for Charles II and represents the Crown’s temporal authority. In 1905 the tip of it was redesigned to fit the Great Star of Africa, alias the Cullinan I diamond, which weighs a quarter of a pound and costs about five times the annual operating revenue of the New York Times.
The Sceptre with the Dove, alias the Rod with the Dove, alias the Rod of Equity and Mercy, was made at the same time as the other one and represents spiritual authority. The dove at the tip represents the Holy Ghost.
The Queen’s Sceptre with the Cross and the Queen’s Sceptre with the Dove were made for Mary of Modena in 1685. The Queen’s Sceptre with the Dove is the only major part of the regalia made of ivory, and is sometimes called “The Queen’s Ivory Rod”.
The Sovereign’s Orb is an artefact known as a globus cruciger, and it symbolizes Jesus, the king of the world, and the monarch’s position as Defender of the Faith, It’s hollow and made of gold with a jewelled band and cross on top, and was made in 1661.
When Mary II was crowned as sovereign jointly with her husband William III in 1689, the Small Orb was made for her. The two orbs were both set on the coffin of Queen Victoria at her funeral in 1901.
The Ampulla and Spoon
The Ampulla and the Anointing Spoon are the most ancient parts of the regalia, having survived Cromwell. During the Coronation, holy oil is poured out of the ampulla into the spoon, and the Archbishop of Canterbury uses the spoonful of oil to anoint the monarch as a holy person. The ceremony, which was taken from the coronation ceremonies of the French kings, is hidden from everyone else by means of some sheets on poles held up around the sovereign and Archbishop as a sort of makeshift tent. It’s tradition to mix a little bit of the oil used in the last coronation into the new oil for each coronation; the original oil, or so the Church would have us believe, was given to St. Thomas Becket by a vision of the Virgin Mary sometime in the 12th century.
The Spoon, the oldest single thing in the Crown Jewels, is gold-plated silver with pearls on the handle and a bowl with a ridge through the middle. It is known to date back to at least 1349 and is believed to have been made for the coronation of either Henry II in 1154 or Richard I in 1189. It was sold for 16 shillings in 1649 to the head of the Removing Wardrobe, the royal office in charge of keeping track of all the king’s stuff as he moves from palace to palace throughout the year. He gave it back in 1661, at which time it was given a re-gilting.
The Ampulla is a gold vessel in the shape of an eagle. The head screws off to put the oil in, and the oil pours out of its beak. It is believed by some that this ampulla is the same one that was made for the coronation of Henry IV in 1399, but by others to be yet another piece made by Charles II in 1661. The herald Francis Sandford wrote in 1687 that the eagle had definitely survived into the Restoration; there is also incontrovertible proof that the Crown Jeweller, Sir Robert Viner, Bt., was paid £102/5/— for a new ampulla in 1661. There’s only one fancy eagle oil cruet in the Tower of London, though, so nobody knows which one it is.
The Sovereign’s Ring has a big sapphire with a St. George’s cross on it in rubies, encircled with diamonds. At one point every new king got a new ring, symbolizing his “marriage” to his country, and it was his to keep. William IV left his ring to his widow, Queen Adelaide, who had also been given the Queen Consort’s Ring (a ruby circled with diamonds) at their coronation in 1831. She left both rings to Queen Victoria, whose fingers were too small to fit William’s ring and so had made a smaller copy (Queen Victoria’s Coronation Ring) for her use in 1838. Victoria willed all three to the Crown, and every monarch since Edward VII has used William’s ring.
The Spurs represent chivalry. They’re solid gold versions of your basic cowboy-type horse-jabbing spurs, the kind with a solid spike instead of the little sharp wheels. The spurs date back to 1661, except for the red velvet straps, which were added by George IV in 1821. In the case of reigning queens, the spurs aren’t put on; they’re just presented to her.
Armills are hinged gold cuff-like bracelets lined with crushed red velvet, which represent the sovereign being bound to serve the country. The older of the two sets is the King’s Armills, made in 1661 and decorated with enamelled pictures of roses, thistles, harps and fleurs-de-lis.
In 1953, the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) chipped in for a coronation gift to our Queen and commissioned Queen Elizabeth II’s Armills, a simple, elegant pair of gold armills with understated engraving and an invisible hinge with spring catch.
The Coronation Robes are based off priestly vestments and are put on over whatever it is that they came in wearing.
The first layer is the Colobium Sindonis, or “shroud tunic”, a simple white gown (It symbolizes being naked before the Lord, but doing that properly would be wildly inappropriate for the middle of Westminster Abbey.) They make a new one every time.
Next comes the Dalmatic, or Supertunica, which is a richly embroidered gold silk robe with red silk lining. Its worn with a matching Girdle (belt), and the current ones were made for George V in 1911.
Over that goes the Stole, a gold silk scarf embroidered with symbols of the Church, Britain and the Commonwealth, worn draped over the shoulders like a priest or fat Elvis. A new one was made in 1953 by the Worshipful Company of Girdlers for Elizabeth II.
Over the top of that goes the Imperial Mantle, or Cloth-of-Gold, an ankle-length gold silk cape with a fringed hem and embroidered thistles, roses and shamrocks. It was made for George IV in 1821. The monarch wears these vestments until they’re crowned and takes them off before they leave the Abbey.
As the Queen or King leaves, poses for photos afterward, etc., he or she wears the Royal Robe of State, or “Royal Pall”, or “fancy king cape”. A new one is made each time, of crushed purple velvet and ermine trim, a gold braid clasp and the sovereign’s cipher embroidered in gold at the bottom. The lining for Elizabeth II’s robe was made of oyster silk, because it’s lighter and her coronation was in June. For most other caped occasions, like the state opening of Parliament, the monarch wears his or her Robes of Parliament, which is red, shorter, and unembroidered.
The Other Stuff
Charles II not only had made a whole set of regalia in 1661, he had a whole gold altar set made for Westminster Abbey, plus an enormous solid gold dinnerware set for the coronation banquet. The altar set included a gold chalice (cup) and paten (plate) for the Holy Communion, plus a baptismal font that was used for the christening of every royal baby for 180 years. In 1840 Queen Victoria commissioned the silver-gilt Lily Font for her first child, Princess Victoria (later the Empress of Germany), which has been used ever since.
The pièce de résistance of the banquet set is the Salt of State, or Exeter Salt (after the city that gifted it to the King), a big, ornately decorated gold salt cellar in the shape of a castle. For much of history, a coronation ended in a lavish banquet punctuated by the arrival of the King’s Champion, a tradition in which a man came charging into the banquet hall on a horse and challenged any of the new king’s opponents to a duel.
The last coronation banquet was held for George IV in 1821, in which the hall got so hot that the candles in the chandeliers melted and rained hot wax down on the guests. William IV and Victoria cancelled their banquets as a cost-cutting sop; Edward VII was planning to reinstate the tradition, but fell sick with appendicitis and so the plans were shelved. (The doctor who treated King Edward’s appendix and saved his life was none other than Sir Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic medicine. As a reward, he was made Lord Lister.)
That’s all the Crown Jewels… or, at least, the English crown jewels. Tune in next time, when we take a look at the fascinating stories behind the crown jewels of Scotland, Ireland and Wales: Crown Jewels 2: Celtic Riches.