The Crown Jewels

The Original Crown Jewels of England

Coronation regalia has always played a vital and, at times, dramatic role in England’s history. As recently as 1988, archaeologists have discovered crowns from the 2nd century BC. Similar finds have also been recorded from the Saxon era.

William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 culminated with his being crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. The Bayeux Tapestry shows both Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson wearing a gold crown, and according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle – that chronicles the history of Britain from around 60BC up until about 1154 – William was recorded as having worn a crown on no less than three occasions a year. There are few, if any, surviving records of what exactly the Crown jewels consisted of at that time. Around 15 October 1216, just four days before his death, King John’s entire baggage train was wiped out by a tide in The Wash as he prepared to cross into Norfolk. There is a good deal of uncertainty about what precisely was lost. At his coronation at Gloucester Cathedral on 28 October, John’s son, Henry III, was crowned with a plain hoop of gold, property of Henry’s mother. The usual crown was apparently missing, though whether this was because it had been among the valuables washed away on the east coast or because the circumstances of the war made it inaccessible remains unclear. In 1220, when Henry was crowned for a second time, the ceremony, attended by notably more prelates and barons than on the first occasion, was described in much more detail. Records of that event have identified the crown used as that of the Diadem of Edward the Confessor. That this was the same one as used by Edward himself and later William the Conqueror and his successors is quite probable. An inventory of the Crown jewels by a monk at Westminster in the mid-1400s makes further reference to ‘an excellent golden crown’, along with other items apparently used at Edward the Confessor’s coronation, including ‘a tunicle…golden comb and spoon’, and for his wife, Edith, a crown, two rods, a chalice comprised of onyx stone and a paten. The spoon, along with the golden ampulla first used at the coronation of Henry IV to pour holy oil over the king, are two of the few pieces from the set that have survived.

The Present Crown Jewels Of England

As discussed in some detail in my earlier thriller The Cromwell Deception, the history of the Crown Jewels of England is arguably every bit as colourful as the gems themselves. While the original crowns, plate and regalia are believed to have been smelted down and destroyed or sold off on the instructions of Oliver Cromwell following the execution of Charles I, a new collection was subsequently created, apparently using gold from the previous jewels, for Charles II’s coronation in 1661.

The present collection, which consists of approximately 140 different pieces, including 13 crowns (sovereign and consort), 66 items of plate and various other ceremonial objects and vestments, is predominantly kept on display in a purpose-built bank vault inside the Jewel House of the Tower of London – the exception being five of the older crowns, which make up the heart of the display in the Martin Tower. Descriptions of both the key locations and the pieces mentioned in the novel are based on primary and secondary research and I believe them to be accurate. According to the staff, the current collection is worth an estimated £20 billion and is genuine!

The Crown Jeweller is the role given to the person charged with the task of maintaining the jewels. The workshop beneath the Jewel House does exist. The tunnels beyond it, almost certainly, do not. Understandably, the exact security measures and technology in place isn’t widely broadcast. Though I did try asking one of the Beefeaters, all that was really achieved was a laugh at my expense!

Only once in its history has the collection been the subject of an attempted theft. While kept in a locked storeroom in the Martin Tower in 1671, the then custodian of the jewels often showed them to visitors for a small fee, only to be attacked on one fateful occasion by a hot-blooded Irish-born military officer by the name of Colonel Blood, who attempted to make off with the crown of St Edward, the orb and the sceptre. Though considerable damage was done to the crown and sceptre, fortunately everything was recovered.

In light of this narrow escape, an armed guard has looked after the jewels ever since.

The Crown Jewels Of Scotland

The oldest survivors of the UK regalia, the Honours of Scotland, were shaped in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and his son James V and first used collectively at Stirling Castle for the coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543. The crown, itself a remodelled version of the original, was first used by James V in 1540, four years after the remodelling of the sceptre that Pope Alexander VI had presented as a gift to James IV. The final item, the Sword of State, was also a gift of a pope, in this case Julius II in 1507, and the famous break is believed to have occurred when the honours were smuggled out of Dunnottar Castle in 1652.

Following the Acts of Union in 1707, the Honours were locked away inside the Crown Room in Edinburgh Castle for more than a century until it was reopened, apparently by a group that included the novelist Sir Walter Scott, with permission of the future George IV. They were used for the final time during the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651 and are currently on display inside the same room at Edinburgh Castle.

The Crown Jewels Of France

Last used to crown a king in 1825, what was once a vast collection of items dating back to 752 is no longer used for official purposes.

Today, very little remains of the original selection. Despite the recovery of most of the jewels following their theft in 1792 when rioters looted the Royal Treasury, at least two of the famous pieces, the Sancy Diamond and the French Blue Diamond, have never been located – interestingly, the latter is alleged to have been recut and is reputedly a bad luck charm.

Of the items that were returned, the establishment of the ‘Third Republic’ led to the controversial decision to sell off most of the jewels, predominantly to private collectors, around 1885. Most of those that survive are housed in the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon and are kept purely for their historical value. Like their English cousins in the Martin Tower, they no longer contain their original diamonds.