The Crown Jewels is a collection of precious royal treasures that are housed in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. The collection contains the Coronation regalia used to crown a new sovereign. The collection has been added to over the centuries, but just how old are the Crown Jewels?
Many of the pieces within the Crown Jewels date back to the coronation of King Charles II in 1661. The Coronation regalia needed replacing having been mostly destroyed during the interregnum. One of the oldest surviving items is the Coronation Spoon which dates back to the 12th century.
Seeing the Crown Jewels is one of the biggest attractions for visitors to the Tower of London. In this article, I shall explore the timeline of the collection and when some of the most famous pieces were made.
What Are the Crown Jewels?
The Crown Jewels are made up of over 100 items and over 23,000 gemstones. It is a priceless collection of royal treasures that are held in trust by the Crown for the nation.
The collection is passed on from monarch to monarch and is the most complete royal regalia still in existence.
The best-known elements of the Crown Jewels are the Coronation Regalia. This includes the crowns, scepters, and orb presented to a new monarch at the moment of their coronation.
They symbolize the responsibilities of the monarch.
However, the Crown Jewels is a collection that has been added to over the centuries. As well as the more obvious trappings of royalty such as crowns, the collection also contains precious jewels, robes, banqueting plate, christening fonts, state swords, and altar plate.
The Original Crown Jewels
The ceremonial aspect of crowning a new king or queen stretches way back into history.
However, it was Edward the Confessor who started to keep the royal treasures together as royal regalia in the 11th century. These could be seen as the original Crown Jewels.
The treasures were kept at Westminster Abbey before being relocated to the security of the Tower of London in the 14th century. The Tower was better placed to look after this precious and growing collection of royal crowns, jewels, and assorted treasures.
However, with one or two exceptions, the Crown Jewels guarded in the Tower in the 14th century are not the ones we see today. The first Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, saw to that.
Lost to History
The period of the interregnum after the English civil war was the low point in the history of the Crown Jewels. They’d had some shaky moments before then.
King John managed to lose some of the jewels while fleeing rebels in 1216. This happened as he tried to cross the Wash, a tidal estuary in East Anglia.
However, after the Royalist defeat in the civil war in the 17th century, the victorious Parliamentarians were on a mission to dispose of anything with royal connections. This included the Crown Jewels which were melted down or sold off.
Five hundred years of royal treasures were gone, including those made for Henry III to replace the jewels lost in the Wash by his father, King John.
It would take the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 before a new collection of Crown Jewels could begin.
The Coronation Spoon
However, one item sacred to the Coronation ceremony did survive Cromwell’s purge of the Crown Jewels. This is the Coronation Spoon, used in the ceremony to anoint the new sovereign with holy oil.
The spoon dates back to the 12th century and is one of the oldest surviving treasures in the royal collection. The first record of the spoon was in 1349 when it was listed in the regalia held at Westminster Abbey.
Even then it was recorded as an item of ‘antique form’ (source).
The reason the Coronation Spoon survived was it avoided the melting pot. The spoon was bought by Clement Kynnersley, who was a member of the royal wardrobe staff for Charles I before the king was deposed and executed.
It is Kynnersley who we must thank for saving this precious antique and returning it to Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy.
A New Set of Crown Jewels
The local goldsmiths and jewelers were put into overdrive to create a new set of Coronation regalia after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Robert Vyner was appointed the Royal Goldsmith and was in charge of overseeing the replacement of the lost Crown Jewels.
Much of the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London today date from this time.
The following are examples of important pieces made for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661 and still used today.
1. St Edward’s Crown
This crown is only ever worn at the moment a new sovereign is crowned. It is the centerpiece of the coronation ceremony.
The crown weighs a hefty 5lbs (source) and was built to replace the Medieval original melted down following the English civil war. Encrusted with jewels in a gold frame and with a velvet cap, the crown is an iconic representation of monarchy.
2. Sovereign’s Scepter With Cross
Also used at every coronation since 1661, the Scepter With Cross represents temporal power. The Scepter With Cross was given an upgrade in 1911 when the Cullinan I diamond was mounted into the cross.
The additional weight imposed by the 530.2-carat diamond required the scepter to be reinforced to cope.
3. Sovereign’s Orb
The orb is another key symbol at the Coronation. The simple design of the orb surmounted by a jewel-encrusted cross represents the Christian world and a Sovereign’s power derived from God.
The orb weighs 2.9 lbs and is placed in the sovereign’s right hand at the time of investiture.
4. The Ampulla
The Ampulla holds the oil used to anoint the sovereign. Its striking design in the shape of an eagle is based on a 14th-century legend of a similar vessel given to Saint Thomas Beckett by the Virgin Mary.
An opening in the beak of the eagle allows the oil to be poured onto the 12th-century Coronation spoon.
This video explains the anointment of a sovereign.
5. The Spurs
The gold Spurs provide more historical symbolism, representing knighthood.
Although made in 1661 under the watchful eye of Robert Vyner, they were altered in 1820 for the coronation of George IV.
This saw modern textiles and fabrics used to replace the straps and buckles on the spurs.
An Expanding Collection
Ever since Charles II replaced the Crown Jewels lost in the interregnum, succeeding monarchs have added to the collection. New crowns, jewels, plate, and robes would be commissioned for special occasions according to the taste of the monarch of the day.
Below is a table summarizing when significant pieces were made for Royal occasions before being added to the Crown Jewels collection. We shall then look at the dates in more detail.
|Crown Jewel Piece||Date Made||Royal Occasion|
|Mary of Modena’s diadem||1685||Coronation of James II|
|Mary II Orb||1689||Coronation of William III and Mary II|
|Sword of Offering||1820||Coronation of George IV|
|Queen Mary’s Crown||1911||Coronation of George V|
|Imperial Crown of India||1911||Imperial Durbar in India attended by George V|
|Imperial State Crown||1937||Coronation of George VI|
|Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s Crown||1937||Coronation of George VI|
|Queen Elizabth II armills||1953||Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II|
Early additions were made to the Crown Jewels during the 17th century.
Charles II was not married at the time of his Coronation. Therefore when James II came to the throne in 1685, new Coronation regalia was required for his wife, Mary of Modena. Some poor soul was given just six weeks to prepare Mary of Modena’s diadem in time for the coronation of her husband.
The stakes were raised higher after the Glorious Revolution in 1689 saw the departure of James II. The new joint monarchs were William III and Mary II. Therefore Mary was Queen in her own right and not a Queen Consort.
Her coronation regalia needed to be on par with her husband’s.
While she wore the state crown used by Mary of Modena, Mary II needed a new scepter and orb made for the occasion.
Swords have always played a role in the Coronation ceremony. Three swords survived destruction during the interregnum. The Sword of Offering was added to the Coronation regalia by George IV in 1820.
It forms part of the monarch’s investiture, presented after the anointment. Made by Rundell Bridge & Rundell, the sword is encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.
This year saw two notable additions to the Crown Jewels. This commemorated the coronation of George V. A crown was made for the new Queen Mary and featured 2,200 diamonds. She would also wear just the circlet of the crown for the coronation of her son, George VI, in 1937.
Not to be outdone, the King also had a new crown designed for his inauguration ceremony in India in December 1911. This confirmed the king as Emperor of India.
The Imperial Crown of India was made for the occasion and upped the diamond ante by incorporating over 6,000 into the frame of the crown.
The coronation of King George VI saw a replacement Imperial State Crown commissioned. This crown has a heavy workload compared to others.
As well as the crown worn when leaving Westminster Abbey at the end of a coronation, it is also worn for other ceremonies including the State Opening of Parliament.
Take a peek at the Imperial State Crown with Queen Elizabeth II.
Previous versions of the crown remain in the Crown Jewels collection. The 1937 model replaced the one made for Queen Victoria in 1838 and contains some of the most famous jewels in the world.
This includes the St Edward’s sapphire and the Black Prince’s Ruby.
The coronation of George VI also saw the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s crown added to the royal regalia. The crown made by the royal goldsmiths Garrard & Co is bejeweled with 2,800 diamonds.
It was worn again at the coronation of the Queen Mother’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1953.
Talking of which, this is the coronation where we see one of the most recent additions to the Crown Jewels. Armills have been a part of the Coronation ceremony for centuries.
These gold bracelets represent sincerity and wisdom. Queen Elizabeth was presented with new ones for her coronation as a gift from the Commonwealth.
The Gemstones of the Crown Jewels
A lot of focus on the Crown Jewels falls understandably on the crowns and the Coronation regalia. However, the royal collection contains important gemstones. Some of these are mounted on pieces used in royal ceremonies.
This huge diamond was found in South Africa in 1905. It was cut into 9 major diamonds and 96 smaller stones. The Cullinan I diamond is the second largest in the world and was set into the Sovereigns Scepter with Cross in 1910.
The smaller but no less impressive Cullinan II diamond was incorporated into the Imperial State Crown made in 1937.
St. Edward’s Sapphire
This jewel can also be found on the Imperial State Crown, positioned within the topmost cross. This could be the oldest gem in the collection, as legend has it that the sapphire was in a ring worn by Edward the Confessor.
The gemstone with its lovely blue hue was said to be buried alongside the 12th-century king, before being removed in the following century.
The Black Prince’s Ruby
The importance of the Imperial State Crown will be coming more apparent, as this ruby is also set into the crown. The Black Prince is one of England’s most famous knights and the son of King Edward III.
It is a spinel rather than a ruby, but before 1783, all red gemstones were identified as rubies. Henry V is said to have worn this gemstone in his helmet on his way to victory at Agincourt.
The Stuart Sapphire is another gemstone fitted into the Imperial State Crown. The 104-carat sapphire is found on the back band of the crown.
The sapphire is thought to belong to Charles II before venturing on quite the journey around Europe. James II fled the country along with the Stuart Sapphire. It was eventually brought back to England by George III in 1807.
The most controversial of the Crown Jewel gemstones. It was presented to Queen Victoria by the East India Trading Company after they nabbed it as part of the Treaty of Lahore.
It was last set into the 1937 designed Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s crown having previously featured on Queen Mary’s crown in 1911.