The fascinating history of the crown jewels

The fascinating history of the crown jewels
Have you found yourself wondering where the crown jewels and coronation traditions come from? Andrew Warde shares this fascinating talk on the backstory
The crown jewels are a powerful symbol of our monarchy. This talk reveals how they have been used over the years in coronation ceremonies at the dedication of new sovereigns at Westminster Abbey, and become a source of British pride.

The early history of the crown jewels 

English monarchs since William I in 1066 have all been crowned in Westminster Abbey (with the exception of the uncrowned King Edward V and King Edward VIII). Crowns feature in the Bayeux tapestry, where King Edward and King Harold are both shown wearing golden circlets, the pattern used for crowns at that time.
Below is the oldest surviving crown with English provenance. It was made in 1370 and it demonstrates the richness that jewels can add to a piece. This crown originally belonged to Queen Anne of Bohemia and it was later worn at her wedding by Blanche of Lancaster, sister of King Henry IV.
A crown belonging to Queen Anne of Bohemia. Image © MatthiasKabel via Wikimedia Commons
It is just over 7 inches in diameter and has 12 hexagonal rosettes on the base, each supporting a gold stem topped with a lily. The stems alternate in height and the details are highlighted by enamel, sapphire, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls.

Henry VIII

In 2012, Historic Royal Palaces commissioned Harry Collins (the Crown’s jeweller) to create the below replica of King Henry VIII’s crown for display at Hampton Court Palace. Principal sources for the reconstruction came from portraits of Henry that were owned by the barber-surgeons, and a portrait of King Charles I.
This magnificent crown is a re-creation of a Tudor crown that was melted down in 1649. The original was worn by Henry VIII at #HamptonCourtPalace, particularly on the feast of #Epiphany on 6 Jan when Henry would process to the Chapel Royal in full regalia. https://t.co/rOTb5ypaKX pic.twitter.com/Zwwmxzr7mB — Historic Royal Palaces (@HRP_palaces) January 6, 2020
The upper part of each fleur-de-lys was made into a niche and set with miniature sculptures of royal saints, such as St George, St Edmund the King, St Edward the Confessor and King Henry VI. These replaced figures of Christ to emphasise the authority of Henry VIII over the church in England after his break with Rome in 1524.

England's only joint-reigning monarchs

King James II reigned for just under 4 years, starting his reign with the goodwill of his subjects, who he rapidly alienated with extraordinary skill. His opponents soon begged his eldest daughter Mary to take the crown, although she refused unless she reigned jointly with her husband William of Orange.
"The coronation oath of 1688 has been used in coronations ever since"
They were crowned as joint monarchs in 1689, the only time there have been joint-reigning English monarchs. The coronation oath of 1688 was authorised by Parliament to make sure the solemn undertakings they both gave were clearly made to maintain protestant religion. This oath has been used in coronations ever since.

St Edward's crown

In medieval times, St Edward’s crown was regarded as a holy relic of Edward the Confessor and was always kept at Westminster Abbey, only to be used at coronations. The original St Edward’s crown was destroyed on the orders of Parliament after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, but a replacement was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II at the cost of £12,185. This is 12 inches tall and it weighs 4.6 pounds, prompting Queen Elizabeth II’s comment on seeing it: “Is it still as heavy? It weighs a ton.”
The crown is made of solid 22-carat gold, set with 444 precious and semi-precious stones. In 1671, Colonel Blood attempted to steal this from the Tower of London by flattening it with a mallet to hide it, so it has been repaired since then. It was made to be worn only at the very moment of coronation. After the coronation of King William III in 1689, it stopped being actively used in coronations until 1911, although always present on the altar.
"The St Edward's crown is 12 inches tall and it weighs 4.6 pounds"
It began to be used again at King George V’s coronation. The front of the crown is identical to the back so a thread was used as a discreet mark to tell the difference. At the coronation in 1937 of King George VI, the thread went missing and the ceremony momentarily stalled, which the King was not pleased about.

The mystique of the monarchy

Even for a monarch, a crown has never been an item for everyday wear, but jewels have always helped to highlight the mystique of the monarchy. In this painting of Queen Elizabeth I in 1585, her dress is studded with jewels and she wears an enormous rope of pearls. She holds an olive branch in one hand, to represent her peaceful reign, and on her other arm is an ermine, which symbolises purity.
Queen Elizabeth I
On her bodice is a magnificent jewel named "the Three Brothers". This has three very large rectangular table-cut red balas rubies matched in colour, saturation and dimension and set in a triangle. Three large white pearls alternate with the rubies and a tear-shaped fourth pearl dangles freely at the bottom. In the centre of the triangle is a flawless pyramid-cut diamond of 30 carats which is "the heart" of the Three Brothers and was, at the time, the largest diamond in Europe.
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