The Crown Jewels: History & Surprising Facts
The oldest item among the crown jewels is the coronation spoon
As early as 1349, the coronation spoon was considered “ancient”. Probably made for either the first Plantagenet monarch Henry II (r. 1154-89) or his successor Richard the Lionheart (r. 1189-99), the gilt silver spoon measures 26.7 cm in length, probably only slightly longer than that Spoon you use to serve potatoes on a Sunday afternoon.
Viewed alongside some of the spectacular items that make up the Crown Jewels, it could easily be overlooked. However, it is of great ceremonial importance. The bowl of the spoon is divided in half by a ridge. During the coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury dips two fingers into either side of the bowl before anointing the new monarch as supreme governor of the Church of England.
Further back, the spoon may have once been used for mixing wine and water, but its first recorded ceremonial use at a coronation was in 1603, after James VI. From Scotland south came to the throne of England and Ireland as James I (r1603–25).
Successor to James, Charles I (r. 1625–1649) proved unable to hold the throne and England fell into civil war. When the English Commonwealth was formed in 1649, the decision was made to flog or melt down the medieval and Tudor items that made up the original crown jewels. The spoon fetched 16 shillings when bought by a member of the royal household, Clement Kynnersley.
And so the spoon may have passed into private hands forever, except that after the interregnum Kynnersley presented the spoon to Charles II (r1660–85). With the Restoration, Kynnersley became the new monarch’s first privateer of the parade wardrobe, a job that involved looking after the royal furniture that traveled from palace to palace.
The spoon, which at this point had four pearls added to its handle, resumed its journey through the years as an object of almost mystical significance.
One of the gems adorned a saint’s finger
Edward the Confessor (r1042–66) is incidentally a key figure in the history of the Crown Jewels. Reigning for more than two decades, he was the last English monarch of the House of Wessex, and disputes over who should succeed him culminated in William the Conqueror (r. 1066–1087) invading England.
The same year that Edward’s brother-in-law Harold II (r1066) took the fateful gamble of marching his army south to face William at the Battle of Hastings, the late King was buried in Westminster Abbey. His coronation ring was buried with him, and the gemstone that later became known as St Edward’s Sapphire is said to have been set within.
Rather, begging the question, how did Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) come to request that this octagonal rose-cut sapphire be added to the Imperial State Crown? This is a crown that has existed in various iterations since the Restoration and signifies the sovereignty of the monarch.
The answer dates back to 1163, two years after Pope Alexander III. Edward had been canonized – a move that probably had more to do with politics and Henry II helping Alexander get the papal commission than with Edward being particularly virtuous. On October 13, 1163, Edward’s body was taken to a shrine in Westminster Abbey.
His ring was removed from his finger and deposited with other relics kept at the abbey. From here the exact story of the sapphire’s journey through the years becomes rather vague, unsupported by the abbey’s relics, which disappeared in the wake of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41). Also, it is unclear what happened to the gem during the interregnum, but it seems likely that it was cut into its present form for the coronation of Charles II.
But whatever happened to St. Edward’s Sapphire, its presence in the top cross of the Imperial State Crown represents a highly symbolic link to the past.
Restoring the Crown Jewels cost as much as three warships
The dissolution of the Crown Jewels under Oliver Cromwell, who served as Lord Protector between 1653 and 1658, left Charles II with a problem. How could he have a coronation without a crown and the other insignia necessary to convey the greatness of his role?
The answer was to recreate the Crown Jewels based on records of the lost items. The cost was staggering. Banker and royal goldsmith Robert Vyner supplied many of the items, including St Edward’s Crown, for the sum of £12,184 7s 6d. To put that in context, this could have bought the country three warships – possibly useful during a reign when the English and Dutch were fighting for naval supremacy.
The collection was rounded off by the coronation spoon and three swords of state that had been returned to the crown, as well as jewels that had been pledged in Holland. Charles himself has spent more than £10,000 on the altar and banquet plates.
In short, many of the most well-known items in the Crown Jewels are about the past rather than as deep in the lineage of the British monarchy as you might imagine. On the other hand, perhaps that’s appropriate because conventions around the use of various items turns out to have surprisingly recent roots at times.
More like that
Take St Edward’s Crown. It is based, as the name suggests, on the medieval crown of Edward the Confessor and is now considered a traditional headdress for coronation days. But many monarchs over the years, including Queen Victoria, chose to don lighter crowns, with St Edward’s Crown sitting symbolically on the high altar. It was George V (r1910–36) who revived the idea of wearing it for the occasion in 1911.
A stone has been cut from the world’s largest gem-quality rough diamond
The Cullinan diamond caused a stir when it was found in southern Africa in 1905. However, it was not sold until 1907 when the Transvaal government bought the diamond and gave it to Edward VII (r. 1901–10).
According to one report, sharing the diamond – a task that fell to Dutchman Joseph Asscher – triggered buttock clenching anxiety. It is said that Asscher, having a doctor on hand as a precaution, passed out after first striking the diamond. Others find this story imaginative.
Whatever the truth, the 3,106.75-carat diamond spawned nine large stones. The two largest, the Great Star of Africa and the Second Star of Africa, are part of the Crown Jewels. The Great Star sits at the head of the Crossed Sovereign’s Scepter, a staff that represents the monarch’s status as head of state.
Ownership of the Koh-i-Noor is still a matter of debate
The 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown has a rich history. According to legend, it was mined during the Kakatiya Dynasty (1163–1323) era in India. In the 17th century, it was built on the peacock throne occupied by the Mughal emperors.
It came into the possession of Queen Victoria with the British annexation of Punjab and was on public display at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Flawed and asymmetrical, it failed to impress onlookers and Prince Albert ordered the stone recut. It has subsequently been seen as bad luck for blue-blooded males and associated with female royals.
As with so many valuable items from the colonial era, ownership is disputed. The British claim it was legally acquired under the last Treaty of Lahore in 1849, but India continues to consider the jewel stolen. At various points, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have also laid claim to the Koh-i-Noor.
King Charles III can’t just sell the crown jewels
The Crown Jewels kept in the Tower of London are one of the most important parts of the royal collection. This is the world’s largest private art collection, which includes around 550 drawings by Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, a wide range of fine French furniture and three Imperial Fabergé Easter eggs, to name just a few highlights.
But King Charles III. cannot redeem the crown jewels. That’s because, while there is technically some legal leeway, the royal collection passes from one monarch to the next forever. In fact, the King is the fifth member of the House of Windsor to hold the Crown Jewels in trust for his successors and also for the nation.
As for the value of the crown jewels, estimates start at over £1bn, but in reality the 142 items that make up the collection are priceless.
Of course, that didn’t stop people from coveting the Crown Jewels, particularly Colonel Thomas Blood (1618–80), who attempted to steal them in 1671, using St.
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC story revealed