6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Crown Jewels
With a coronation on the horizon, we reveal some lesser-known facts about the nation’s most precious treasures
The oldest item among the Crown Jewels is the Coronation Spoon
Even in 1349, the Coronation Spoon was thought to be of “ancient forme”. Probably made either for the first Plantagenet monarch, Henry II (r1154–89), or his successor, Richard the Lionheart (r1189–99), the silver gilt spoon measures 26.7cm in length, likely just a little longer than the spoon you use to serve spuds on a Sunday afternoon.
Viewed alongside some of the spectacular items that make up the Crown Jewels, it might easily be overlooked. However, it is of huge 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 once have been used for mixing wine and water, but its first recorded ceremonial use in a coronation came in 1603, after James VI of Scotland came south to take the throne of England and Ireland as James I (r1603–25).
On succeeding James, Charles I (r1625–49) proved unequal to holding the throne and England descended into civil war. When the English Commonwealth was created in 1649, the decision was taken to flog off or melt down the medieval and Tudor items that made up the original Crown Jewels. The spoon fetched 16 shillings when it was bought by a member of the royal household, Clement Kynnersley.
And so the spoon might 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 yeoman of the Removing Wardrobe, a job that involved looking after the royal furnishings that travelled from palace to palace.
The spoon, which at this point had four pearls added to its handle, recommenced its journey down the years as an object of near-mystical significance.
One of the gemstones adorned a saint’s finger
Edward the Confessor (r1042–66) is, tangentially, 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 (r1066–87) invading England.
In 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 laid to rest at Westminster Abbey. His coronation ring was buried with him, and the gemstone that would later come to be known as St Edward’s Sapphire is thought to have been set within it.
Which rather begs the question, how did Queen Victoria (r1837–1901) 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.
- Read more | Did Queen Victoria have an unhappy childhood? Lucy Worsley on the monarch's life under the 'Kensington System'
The answer dates back to 1163, two years after Pope Alexander III canonised Edward – a move that likely had more to do with politics and Henry II helping Alexander get the papal gig than with Edward being especially virtuous. On 13 October 1163, Edward’s body was moved to a shrine in Westminster Abbey.
His ring was taken from his finger and deposited with other relics held at the abbey. From here, the exact story of the sapphire’s journey down the years becomes rather vague, not helped by the abbey’s relics disappearing in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries (1536–41). It’s furthermore unclear what happened to the gem in the Interregnum, but it seems likely to have been 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 hugely symbolic link to the past.
Recreating the Crown Jewels cost as much as three warships
The breaking up 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 necessary regalia to convey the grandeur of his role?
The answer was to recreate the Crown Jewels based on records of the lost items. The cost was eye-watering. 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 into context, this could have bought the country three warships – potentially useful during a reign when the English and Dutch competed for naval superiority.
Rounding out the collection were the Coronation Spoon and three swords of state that had been returned to the Crown, plus jewels that had been pawned in Holland. Charles himself splashed out more than £10,000 on altar and banqueting plate.
In short, many of the most familiar items in the Crown Jewels trade on the past rather than reach as deeply back into the lineage of the British monarchy as you might imagine. Then again, perhaps that’s appropriate, because conventions around the use of different items sometimes turn out to have surprisingly recent roots.
More like this
Take St Edward’s Crown. It is, as its name suggests, based on Edward the Confessor’s medieval crown and is now thought of as the traditional headpiece for coronation days. But many monarchs down the years, including Queen Victoria, chose to don lighter crowns while St Edward’s Crown sat symbolically on the high altar. It was George V (r1910–36) who, in 1911, revived the idea of wearing it for the occasion.
One stone was cut from the world's largest gem-quality rough diamond
The Cullinan Diamond caused a sensation when it was found in southern Africa in 1905. Yet it wasn’t sold until 1907, when the Transvaal government bought the diamond and presented it to Edward VII (r1901–10).
- Read more | Becoming Queen: Elizabeth II’s coronation
According to one account, splitting the diamond – a task that fell to Dutchman Joseph Asscher – induced buttock-clenching levels of fear. It’s said that Asscher, who had taken the precaution of having a doctor to hand, fainted after first striking the diamond. Others think this story fanciful.
Whatever the truth, the 3,106.75-carat diamond produced nine major 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 in the head of the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, a staff that represents the monarch’s status as head of state.
The ownership of the Koh-i-Noor is still disputed
Currently set in the Crown of the Queen Mother, the 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond has a rich history. According to legend, it was mined in India during the Kakatiya dynasty era (1163–1323). In the 17th century it was set in the Peacock Throne, occupied by the emperors of the Mughal empire.
It came into the possession of Queen Victoria with the British annexation of the Punjab and was publicly displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Flawed and asymmetrical, it failed to impress viewers and Prince Albert ordered the stone to be recut. Subsequently, regarded as unlucky to male blue-bloods, it has been associated with female royals.
As with so many valuable items from the colonial era, its ownership is disputed. The British claim it was acquired legally under the 1849 Last Treaty of Lahore, but India continues to regard the jewel as stolen. At different points, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have also claimed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor.
King Charles III can’t just sell off the Crown Jewels
Kept at the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels are one of the most important parts of the Royal Collection. This is the world’s largest private art collection, which includes, to name just a few highlights, around 550 drawings by Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, a vast array of fine French furniture, and three Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs.
But King Charles III can’t cash in the Crown Jewels. That’s because, while there’s technically some legal wriggle room, the Royal Collection is passed from one monarch to the next in perpetuity. Effectively, 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.
- On the podcast | British royal family podcast episodes
As for the value of the Crown Jewels, estimates start north of £1bn, but in reality the 142 items that make up the collection are priceless.
That hasn’t stopped people coveting the Crown Jewels, of course, notably Colonel Thomas Blood (1618–80), who in 1671 attempted to steal them, flattening St Edward’s Crown with a mallet in the process so he could hide it.
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99