No queen would be complete without her royal posse, her glam squad, and most importantly of all – her jewels. Nothing sets the royal woman apart from the mere mortals (and wannabes) more than the rare jewels that she uses to adorn herself. But more than just being some shiny rocks, the regalia, or the official crowns, robes, and props used in the coronation ceremony, are steeped in tradition and history. They have evolved over hundreds of years and become increasingly more elaborate and ostentatious as coronation ceremonies became more elaborate and ostentatious.
The safety of the jewels has always been a great concern to the Monarchy (can you blame them?) Originally the Crown Jewels were kept in Westminster Abbey, since it was the site of most coronations. However, after a theft in 1303, most of the collection was moved to the Tower of London for safer keeping. But even the Tower wasn’t immune to security breaches. In 1671, Captain Thomas Blood, his son and two friends paid the entrance fee to see the jewels, attacked the Jewel Housekeeper and almost made off with the orb, scepter, and State Crown, but were caught by the Yeoman Guards. Strangely, King Charles II let Captain Blood off the hook and even gave him land in Ireland. You can guess what his motives were, but most historians draw the conclusion that the King was trying to steal his own jewels to pay off his debt unnoticed.
One of the great travesties of the history of the Crown Jewels for both princess lovers and historians alike, is that all the original crown jewels were melted down or destroyed during the English Civil War in 1649. After the angry Commonwealth army decapitated King Charles I, they destroyed the symbols of idolatry and superstition surrounding the idea of the monarchy, which included the Crown Jewels. Therefore the Crown Jewels you can see today at at the Tower of London were made after 1661. The history-lover in me weeps, the modern princess inside of me can still acknowledge that a crown that is a few hundred years old is still a very old and historic crown!
Over the centuries, since the monarchs had to start from scratch, they have made new crowns for themselves, changed the old ones, or taken stones to reuse. There is no rule that says monarchs have to use the same hereditary crown and some have broken tradition. King George IV had lavish taste and had a new coronation crown made with 12,000 diamonds to dazzle the crowd. King Henry VIII insisted that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had to use St Edward the Confessor’s crown for her coronation, even though it was only supposed to be for reigning monarchs and not queen consorts. It was part of his plan to legitimise her as the replacement to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.
The official set of coronation regalia delivered to a reigning queen, like Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, are all symbolic of the duties and meaning of being the sovereign of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The St Edward the Confessor’s Crown is used for the crowning part of the ceremony but it is not worn out of Westminster Abbey. Since 1937, the Imperial State Crown has been the crown worn out of the ceremony. Before it was made, monarchs usually had their own made. On the front is the Black Prince’s Ruby that actually turned out to be only a semi-precious stone, but its legend dates back to the Spanish defeat of the Moors.
They say “Diamonds are a girls best friend” and if that’s the case, the queen consorts of England have had some top quality friends throughout their reigns. There has never been one hereditary crown for queen consorts, meaning they were either gifted a crown by the King (practiced more in the Middle Ages), or they could commission and approve their own. The English monarchy doesn’t have unlimited bling, so most queen consorts recycled the best jewels into their own new crowns or had to return them after the ceremony. You can see some empty shell crowns in the Martin Tower at the Tower of London.
As the first queen consort of Britain crowned after the Restoration, Queen Mary of Modena ordered 3 brand new pieces of royal regalia for herself: her Coronation Crown, her Diadem, and her State Crown. Both her diadem and state crown were made with hired diamonds and pearls and are now fitted with rock crystals and cultured pearls. It must have been some small comfort that she could mark her new queenship with brand new jewels!
Mary’s crowns were used by the next two queen consorts: Wilhemina Caroline and Charlotte, and possibly also Queen Adelaide. In the 1830s, the coronation crown was sent for repairs to the royal goldsmiths shop and “mysteriously disappeared”. Even more intriguing, the crown showed up over 100 years later in 1956 and was bought by the Museum of London, where it still is.
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond
The legend of this fabulous diamond comes from India, where it belonged to Indian sultans until it became the prize of the Persian ruler, Nadir Shah after his victory. He exclaimed that it was like a “mountain of light” and the name stuck. He was later assassinated, and the diamond disappeared into Afghanistan until it later made its way back to India. The last Maharaja of the Punjab had to give it to Queen Victoria after his defeat in 1849. The legend of the Koh-i-Noor links is that it brings bad (assassinations, wars, and defeats) to any male that possesses the diamond. Whether the English believed the legend or not, coincidently only queens have chosen to wear it since.
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to own the Koh-i-Noor and had it made into the ultimate mix and match piece. Through various clips and contraptions, Victoria wore it in a variety of different ways. If you’re going to have one of the largest (and infamous) diamonds in the world, might as well make sure that you can wear it as much as possible! Victoria’s daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra wore it in her new coronation crown in 1902.
Queen Mary followed and in 1911, she had the Koh-i-Noor put in her crown along with 2 pieces of the Cullinan diamond (the largest diamond ever found) and she too had all 3 diamonds made detachable so she could mix and match for every season. In 1937 it was set in the Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother’s) crown, where it remains today with the other crown jewels in the Tower of London.
When Prince William is crowned one day, as the Sovereign he will be crowned with the gold Coronation Crown and wear the Imperial State Crown out of Westminster Abbey just like his grandmother. Kate will have her pick of antique Queen Consort crown frames to fill again with stones, or she can have a new one made just for her! And history lives on and on and on…
Come and visit the Crown Jewels with me at the Tower of London on Saturday 9th May by booking your ticket here.