A world-famous, unique collection of sacred and ceremonial objects
Kings and queens of England have stored crowns, robes, and other items of their ceremonial regalia at the Tower of London for over 600 years. Since the 1600s, the coronation regalia itself, commonly known as the 'Crown Jewels' have been protected at the Tower.
Over 30 million people have seen them in their present setting at the Tower. They are possibly the most visited objects in Britain, perhaps the world.
But most remarkable of all is that this a unique working collection. The Imperial State Crown is usually worn by the monarch for the State Opening of Parliament. When the next coronation comes around, key items will be taken to Westminster in readiness for the ceremony.
The question most visitors ask about the Crown Jewels is, ‘are they real?’ Yes, they are!
At the heart of the collection is the Coronation Regalia itself, a group of precious and highly symbolic objects used since 1661 to crown sovereigns of England.
The image shows the objects, made after the restoration of the monarchy, for the coronation of Charles II in 1661. Many were used for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.
Image: Charles II Coronation Regalia, Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2017
St Edward’s Crown is the most important and sacred of all the crowns. It is only used at the moment of crowning itself. This solid gold crown was made for the coronation of Charles II to replace the medieval crown melted down in 1649. This original crown was thought to date back to the 11th-century saint-king Edward the Confessor.
From 1661 to the early 20th century, this crown was only ever adorned with hired gems, which were returned after the coronation.
In 1911, St Edward’s Crown was permanently set with semi-precious stones for the coronation of George V.
Image: St Edward’s Crown, 1661. The magnificent solid gold frame makes it a very heavy and tiring crown to wear, even briefly, as it weighs 2.23kg (nearly 5lbs). © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2001/Prudence Cuming Associates
The Sovereign’s Orb (pictured) and the Jewelled Sword of Offering (main image, top of page) feature in the Investiture section of the coronation ceremony.
The Sword (1820) is presented to the new monarch as part of a collection of 'ornaments', including armills (bracelets) and ceremonial spurs, which represent the chivalric nature of kingship. The monarch is charged with protecting good and punishing evil. The Sword is then fastened around the king’s waist (queens don’t wear it) before it is offered up at the altar.
The gold Sovereign’s Orb (1661), containing many original gemstones, symbolises the Christian world with its cross mounted on a globe. It is placed in the monarch’s right hand before being placed on the altar.
Images: The Sovereign's Orb, part of The Crown Jewels, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2001/Prudence Cuming Associates
The Sceptre and rod are received in each hand by the monarch in the last part of the Investiture, before crowning.
Their significance was described at the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066: ‘by the sceptre uprising in the kingdom are controlled, and the rod gathers and confines those men who stray.’ The rod also symbolises the monarch’s pastoral care for his or her people.
The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross has been used at every coronation since Charles II’s in 1661. It was transformed in 1910 for George V by the addition of the spectacular Cullinan I diamond. This remains the largest top quality cut white diamond in the world, weighting in at 530.2 carats.
The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove (1661), also offered to the new monarch, is topped by an enamel dove with open wings perched on a cross to symbolise the Holy Ghost.
Image: The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Although this is one of the newer items in the regalia, the Imperial State Crown (1937) contains some of the most historic jewels in the collection, which have attracted many legends.
For example, the ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’, set into the cross at the front of the crown is actually a balas or spinel, a semi-precious stone said to be the same stone owned by Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, before he gave it to Edward, Prince of Wales (known as the Black Prince) in 1367 as a reward for helping him defeat a rival in battle.
The Imperial State Crown is the crown that the monarch wears as they leave Westminster Abbey after the coronation. It is also used on formal occasions, most notably the State Opening of Parliament.
The Imperial State Crown contains 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 269 pearls and 4 rubies!
Image: © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2001/Prudence Cuming Associates
While the Crown Jewels are real, they are not the 11th-century originals.
The Civil Wars that began in 1642 effectively ended with the execution of Charles I in 1649. After his death, the victorious Parliamentarians ordered the destruction of the Crown Jewels, intent on removing all sacred symbols of monarchy.
‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown…’ These were among the last words uttered by Charles I before his execution in 1649.
He is depicted here in 1631 with the Imperial Crown, which was probably made for Henry VII after his victory at the Battle of Bosworth, and then destroyed by the vengeful Cromwell.
Image: King Charles I by Daniel Mytens, © National Portrait Gallery, London
The Tower has always been a secure place to keep the nation’s valuables. However in 1649, after the Civil War and Charles I’s execution, the Coronation Regalia were brought to the Tower to be destroyed by order of Parliament, which ordered that the highly symbolic Coronation Regalia, be ‘totallie Broken and defaced’.
Officials at the Tower’s Jewel House put up a fight. The Jewel House clerk, Carew Mildmay was a royalist sympathiser, and made things as difficult as possible, even refusing to hand over the keys to the Parliamentarians. Finally he was arrested, and imprisoned, and the doors of the Jewel House strong room broken down.
Precious stones were prised out of the crowns and sold, while the gold frames were sent to the Tower Mint to be melted down and turned into coins stamped ‘Commonwealth of England'.
Image: Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, © National Portrait Gallery, London
On 25 May 1660, after 14 years of exile, Charles II landed on the Kent coast to wild scenes of rejoicing. On Oliver Cromwell’s death the Republican regime had dissolved into chaos, and the King was welcomed with open arms.
Charles made it clear he wanted a medieval style coronation, not wishing to miss the opportunity to reaffirm all the glory of the English monarchy.
Charles II personally directed discussions about the remaking of the regalia.
To keep continuity with the past, it was decided that there should again be a coronation crown and a state crown, an orb, sceptre, swords, spurs, ring and bracelets.
The cost of creating these 11 principle pieces of regalia alone was estimated at some £13,000 – as much as three fully-equipped warships!
Image: Portrait of Charles II, c1670s, by John Michael Wright displayed at Queen's Presence Chamber, Hampton Court Palace. The King is depicted with the new regalia: the state crown, the Orb and the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
A few items survived Oliver Cromwell’s terrible meltdown. Three 17th-century swords escaped destruction, along with an 11th-century coronation spoon used in the anointing of the monarch with holy oil.
This exquisite spoon was returned to Charles II by the man who bought it in the sell-off, who wished to get back into the new king’s good books. Thanks to him, this medieval spoon survives, alone among the sacred regalia.
Image: The ‘new’ (1661) eagle-shaped Ampulla , which contains the fragrant holy oil used to anoint the new monarch, and the ancient Coronation Spoon. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
The Crown Jewels contain some of the world’s most exceptional diamonds, shown here with the blue Stuart Sapphire.
This sapphire was reputedly smuggled out of the country by James II when he fled in 1688. It now adorns the back of the Imperial State Crown (1937).
The magnificent Cullinan I (top left, 530.2 carats) is the world’s largest top quality white cut diamond. The huge uncut stone was discovered in South Africa in 1905, and was cut to create nine major stones and 96 smaller brilliants in all. Cullinan II (bottom right, 317.4 carats), the second largest stone, is now set into the front band of the Imperial State Crown.
The history of the Koh-i-Nûr (or ‘Mountain of Light’) diamond is steeped in myth and anecdote. Discovered in 15th-century India, it was passed from ill-fated male hand to hand, until it earned a reputation of bringing bad luck to men. It was presented to Queen Victoria in 1849. It now adorns the front of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Crown (1837)
Image: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
In 1910 George V was crowned king in Great Britain, and soon made his desire known to be personally inaugurated as Emperor of India. The Imperial State Crown could not be taken out of Britain, so a splendid new crown was commissioned for the King to wear at the great ceremonial court known as the ‘Delhi Durbar’
In November 1911, George V and Queen Mary endured three hours in the sweltering Indian sun, wearing their English robes of state, with the King getting gradually wearier under the weight of the specially made Imperial Crown of India. It has never been worn since.
Image: King George V and Queen Mary, Coronation Durbar, Delhi 1911, © REX/Shutterstock
Despite all efforts to keep the Crown Jewels safe after 1661, there have been a couple of near calamities, including the time the precious collection was nearly stolen.
In 1671 the mysterious ‘Colonel’ Blood and two accomplices tricked the Jewel House Keeper, Talbot Edwards into letting them handle the jewels. They attacked the poor Keeper, badly injuring him, and attempted to make off with the Orb, the Imperial State Crown and Sovereign’s Sceptre.
The plan was foiled when Edward’s son returned and raised the alarm. The thieves were caught, although Blood was later pardoned. The jewels were never on open display again.
On the night of 31 October 1841, the Grand Storehouse directly adjacent to the Jewel House went up in flames. The jewels were saved in the nick of time.
The Crown Jewels are so significant because they symbolise the passing of authority from one monarch to another during the coronation ceremony.
The earliest detailed account of a coronation in England comes from 973 when the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar was crowned in a lavish ceremony in Bath. The coronation rituals have altered little in their essentials in over a thousand years.
Image: Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation day. The Queen is wearing the Imperial State Crown, and she carries the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and the Sovereign’s Orb. Photography by Cecil Beaton © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The Oath: The coronation begins with the Recognition, as the congregation (representing the people) shout their acceptance of the monarch. In response he or she pledges an oath before God to rule fairly and to protect the church.
The Anointing: The Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the service, pours an aromatic holy oil from the Ampulla into the Coronation Spoon, and anoints the monarch on the hands, breast and head.
The Investiture: This begins with the monarch being dressed in the Coronation Robes, and then he or she receives a series of ornaments that symbolise the chivalric nature of kingship. These ornaments include spurs and armills (bracelets).
The monarch is presented with the Jewelled Sword of Offering and the Sovereign’s Orb before both are placed on the altar. The final part of the Investiture involves placing a ring on the sovereign’s fourth finger of the right hand, and the receiving of the Sceptre and the Rod.
The Crowning: The moment the Archbishop places the St Edward’s Crown on the monarch’s head is the climax of the ceremony. Trumpets sound in the Abbey, bells ring out and a 62-gun salute booms from the Tower of London.
The Enthroning and Homage: In the final act of the coronation the monarch is guided from the ancient St Edward’s Chair to a raised throne. Here, he or she receives the oath of allegiance from the clergy and then the nobles in the Act of Homage. The new monarch exchanges the coronation crown for the Imperial State Crown, and processes from the Abbey.
Despite the coronation ceremony being an ancient and sacred ritual, there have been some moments when proceeding went off script!
Queen Victoria was not amused when her Imperial State Crown was badly damaged at the State Opening of Parliament. It fell from a cushion being carried by the elderly Duke of Argyll and hit the ground with a ‘great crash’. The Queen later described it as ‘all crushed and squashed, looking like a pudding that had sat down.'
Image: Detail of Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria), c1833
At James II’s coronation banquet in 1685, the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross was badly damaged (possibly having rolled off a table during the celebrations) and two jewelled pieces were later found on the floor of Westminster Hall!
Image: King James II when Duke of York, 1697
The Crown Jewels have been kept in their present top security vault on the ground floor of the Waterloo Barracks since 1994.
Besides the breathtaking coronation regalia there are many other marvels to see, including the Coronation Robes (1953), last worn by Queen Elizabeth II, huge maces, trumpets, and many golden treasures, including the Grand Punch Bowl, or Giant Wine Cistern, which can hold the contents of 144 bottles of wine!
Want to take a peek into the wardrobes of the kings and queens of the past?
With exclusive access to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, this free online course from Historic Royal Palaces & the University of Glasgow explores clothing from the Tudors to the Windsors.
Sign up on FutureLearn