Are there any accessories more decadent than the British Crown Jewels? Today, these world-famous treasures are held at the Tower of London, where they’re guarded with extreme diligence. People come from all over to gaze upon these remarkable items, but they’re not just nice to look at. No, these are items with a fascinating yet controversial history. And as King Charles’s coronation fast approaches, people are all the more eager to discover the truth about the Crown Jewels.
A big collection
The Crown Jewels comprise a whole range of over-the-top objects. There are crowns in the collection, obviously, but also scepters, orbs, plates, and even cutlery.
In total, it’s said 140 items make up the assortment, but that only tells part of the story. These pieces are adorned with all sorts of embellishments, meaning the collection boasts more than 23,500 gemstones.
The Crown Jewels we can see today mostly date back to the time of Charles II, who was crowned King in 1661. That’s not to say the monarchy didn’t possess plenty of jewels before that time, but these older items were mostly sold or disassembled.
Things were complicated for British royals in the 17th century.
Not in the best shape
The 1620s in particular were rough for Charles I. His finances weren’t in the best shape, so he had to take the step of selling a lot of his Crown Jewels.
He held onto the main items in the collection, but things were about to get even messier. Civil war gripped England in 1642 and Charles’ enemies got their hands on the collection.
Melting down and selling the jewels
Charles was executed in 1649 and his regalia was next to go. As symbols of royalty, it was quite a statement for the newly established republican government to sell and melt down items from the collection.
But there was also a practical reason for doing it, too: the Crown Jewels were really valuable, and the government needed the money!
A short-lived experiment
England’s experiment with republicanism was short-lived, of course, and the monarchy was soon restored. Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, was crowned King in 1661.
For that occasion, he needed a whole new range of Crown Jewels to wear. So, a goldsmith named Robert Vyner got to work.
St. Edward’s Crown
One of Vyner’s creations was the St. Edward’s Crown, which was to be worn during Charles II’s coronation.
The original crown worn on such occasions — which had likely been created during the 11th century — had been reduced to puddles of metal and precious stones in 1649. Now the St. Edward’s Crown would be used for the coronation of every subsequent English and later British monarch.
Based on the original
Vyner’s design of the St. Edward’s Crown harked back to the original.
It wasn’t exactly the same, but the two crowns shared several features, including its arches and certain shapes and patterns. The new one was fashioned from solid gold and adorned with gemstones including rubies and sapphires.
A neck-breaking weight
St. Edward’s Crown — which is estimated to be worth about $57 million — was used in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, which took place in 1953.
It’s said she only wore it on her head for a very brief moment, given how heavy it was. She actually once spoke about it to the Smithsonian Channel, noting, “You can’t look down to read the speech — you have to take the speech up. Because if you did, your neck would break and [the crown] would fall off.”
St. Edward’s Crown is an eye-catching part of the Crown Jewels collection, but there are other items you might not necessarily think of straight away.
For example, objects associated with banquets and feasts were made for Charles II’s coronation, as feasts were once a vital part of royal life. They helped to show off the monarch’s affluence and power.
Excess to the max
It should come as no surprise to hear that the plates and utensils in the Crown Jewels collection are among the finest examples of their kind. We’re talking elaborate creations here, made from the highest-quality metals such as gold and silver.
These objects take excess to the absolute max.
In Colonel Blood’s sights
Shortly after the Crown Jewels were reconstituted for Charles II, they became a target for enemies of the monarchy. Thomas Blood, an Irishman who became better known by the moniker Colonel Blood, decided he wanted to steal them.
And in 1671 he hatched a plan to do just that.
A big schemer
Blood had experience in concocting elaborate schemes like this. He’d fought on the Parliamentarians side during the civil war, and he’d later tried to take over Dublin Castle in his native Ireland.
His scheme failed that time, but he wasn’t ever captured for his leading part in it. Daring by nature, a plan to get his hands on the Crown Jewels clearly suited a man of his ambition.
The big day
Blood set his new plot in motion on May 9, 1671. He dressed up as a priest and somehow convinced guards around the Crown Jewels to give him their weapons.
Then, three of his collaborators jumped out and they all powered their way through to where the jewels were being held. When they got there, though, they were foiled.
Caught in the act
One of Blood’s accomplices tried to escape with the Royal Orb held in his pants. Blood, meanwhile, smashed the crown using a mallet, in the hope of making it flat and easier to handle.
Neither he nor the guy with the orb down his pants were successful. They were all captured, and Blood was brought before Charles II. You might have presumed the King would have called for Blood’s execution, but he didn’t. Impressed by his sheer gall, he instead rewarded Blood with land!
Mary of Modena’s crowns and scepters
The attempt to steal the Crown Jewels had failed, and the collection only grew from there. Additions have been made since Charles II’s time, including a couple of crowns and scepters for Mary of Modena.
She was the wife of James II, who became King in 1685.
Another coronation was on the cards just four years later, with the crowning of William III and Mary II. This would be the first time a King and Queen were crowned together as equals; the Crown Jewels each was bestowed needed to reflect that.
So, a new orb was fashioned.
Sophisticated or garish?
An especially elaborate addition to the Crown Jewels collection came in 1911 with the creation of the Imperial Crown of India for George V. This thing has a frame made of silver, is overlaid with gold, and features 6,100 diamonds.
And that’s to say nothing of all the rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Some might say it’s sophisticated, others might say it’s garish. Make your own mind up.
George V wore this crown when he was anointed Emperor of India. As well as that, he also wore all the required ceremonial robes.
This was in Delhi, of course, so you can imagine the heat! He wrote about the experience in his diary, noting, “Rather tired after wearing the crown for three-and-half hours, it hurt my head, as it is pretty heavy.”
Imperial State Crown
Another crown that’s been added to the collection over the last century or so is the Imperial State Crown, which is meant to be on a new monarch’s head as they leave their coronation. It’s also worn during other formal events.
It was created for George VI in 1937 but remains in use today. It was actually placed on Elizabeth’s coffin in 2022 as a mark of respect following her death.
The biggest diamond
A remarkable number of gems cover this crown, some of which hold very special significance. There are 2,868 diamonds attached to the crown, with one being especially noteworthy.
This is known as Cullinan II, which was cut from the larger Cullinan Diamond. This is the biggest example of the precious stone that’s ever been found.
The Cullinan Diamond is a source of major controversy nowadays. The immense gemstone — said to have been about the size of a person’s heart — was extracted in South Africa back in 1905.
It was offered to Edward VII a couple of years later, before being dispatched to Amsterdam in 1908 to be cut.
Rejecting the story
The story the British monarchy would like to project about the Cullinan Diamond is that the South African Transvaal government of the time gifted it to Edward VII. Of course, that government answered to British rule, so plenty of people reject the notion that British royalty has any rights to the gemstone at all.
One such person is Everisto Benyera, an African politics expert from the University of South Africa.
A blood diamond
Speaking to CNN, Benyera said, “Our narrative is that the whole Transvaal and Union of South Africa governments and the concomitant mining syndicates were illegal... Receiving a stolen diamond does not exonerate the receiver.
The Great Star is a blood diamond... The private (mining) company, the Transvaal government, and the British Empire were part of a larger network of coloniality.”
Starting a conversation
Following Elizabeth’s death, there was a wave of mourning around the world. At the same time, lots of people began to ask questions about Britain’s history of colonialism.
The Cullinan Diamond was a part of that conversation, not to mention all the other disputed gemstones in the royal collection.
Demanding the return
Speaking to South African media around that time, one activist named Thanduxolo Sabelo issued a demand to the British monarchy. “The Cullinan Diamond must be returned to South Africa with immediate effect,” Sabelo said.
“The minerals of our country and other countries continue to benefit Britain at the expense of our people.”
Another controversial diamond in the collection is found on a crown created for the Queen Mother in 1937. This crown boasts 2,800 diamonds, most of which were taken from a circlet that once belonged to Queen Victoria.
But the Koh-i-Noor diamond has a different history entirely: one that has sparked some big questions.
A long history
The Koh-i-Noor diamond was originally extracted in India, and it’s among the biggest on Earth. Records show this gemstone traces back to at least the 17th century, when it was in the possession of the leader of the Mughal Empire.
It was later looted by the Persians, who stormed into Delhi in 1739.
In different hands
The Koh-i-Noor diamond came into the possession of a number of different leaders across Central Asia over the following decades, but it eventually ended up with a Sikh ruler named Ranjit Singh. He brought it back to India, where he passed away in 1839.
The British Empire was in control of the territory at this time, and the diamond caught its leaders’ attention.
The Brits wanted the Koh-i-Noor diamond, but that was easier said than done. They eventually got their hands on it in 1849; Ranjit Singh had left behind a wife and a son, whom the Brits captured and started intimidating.
According to William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, the authors of the book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, they compelled Singh’s son to sign away his rights to the diamond.
Cherished by queens
That, the authors argue, is how Queen Victoria came to own the Koh-i-Noor diamond. It was exhibited in 1851 before being cut and set into various royals’ adornments.
Victoria used the diamond as a brooch, while Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary both wore it in their respective crowns, as did, finally, the Queen Mother.
Estimates about how much the Koh-i-Noor diamond is actually worth vary quite considerably, but we can safely say it’s a lot. We’re talking about a figure sitting anywhere between $140 million and $400 million.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Indian government has insisted on its return on multiple occasions over the decades.
We’ve seen how the Crown Jewels collection has grown since Charles II’s time, as new items are created for incoming monarchs on their coronation day. This happened back in 1953, too, when Elizabeth was crowned.
This time, a set of armills — which are basically fancy bracelets — were made for the Queen. These were said to be “a gift from the Commonwealth.”
Of course, the Queen had access to her own personal stash of jewelry, too. Beyond the Crown Jewels themselves, she owned a vast collection all to herself.
Speaking to Reader’s Digest following the long-serving monarch’s death, historian Lauren Kiehna said of this assortment, “Nearly every piece of jewelry in the Queen’s collection has significance, including sentimental gifts from family members, diplomatic presents from foreign leaders and anniversary tributes from organizations and individuals.”
Impressive as that collection is, it doesn’t quite compare with the actual Crown Jewels. And maybe a look at how much the latter assortment is worth can help to explain why.
Again, estimates vary, but taken as a whole, the Crown Jewels are said to be worth somewhere in the region of $1.2 billion and $5.8 billion. And yes, that’s a “b” for “billion.”
Grappling with the past
The Crown Jewels are spectacular to behold, but it’s impossible to separate them from their dark past. This is an idea British journalist Clive Myrie grappled with throughout the making of a documentary about them in 2022.
As he reflected in an interview with newspaper The i, “It was at the height of Britain’s military naval power in the 19th century that the vast majority of the diamonds and the rubies and all the beautiful bits that came to make up the Crown Jewels became part of Britain’s collection.”
“Hang on a second”
Myrie went on, “Because of that strength and power that Britain had across the globe, the country could get diamonds, gold and sapphires from everywhere… It’s good we’re talking more about this history, because now, those members of the Commonwealth, those members of colonial U.K., are now able to think of their descendants and say, ‘well, hang on a second, let’s just look at the provenance of this beautiful object.’”.
Conferred from the heavens
While acknowledging the grim history associated with these jewels, Myrie also spoke about their almost otherworldly quality. He noted how effective they were in conveying the authority of the monarch, which historically was seen as having been issued by God.
As he put it, “You can see in these gems how that power is conferred from the heavens.”
Above all that
Because of this idea, it’s actually forbidden for people to look down upon the crowns in the collection. Myrie explained, “Only God can look down on our monarch, only God is above the monarch, so while our politicians, from any party, are human, fallible, and prone to weaknesses, there’s inbuilt into the crown jewels the idea that the royal family is above all that, and somehow they are not prone to that.”.
“Bright and dazzling”
Myrie thinks it’s important to know about the bleak history of the regalia, but he still seems enamored with them. He said, “When it comes to our Crown Jewels and what they say about our history, there are certainly problems.
But at the end of it all, they’re also beautiful objects which are stunning to look at. They are meant to represent power and prestige, so they should be glittering and bright and dazzling — and that’s exactly what they are.”