The Crown Jewels: A History of Opulence | History Hit

The Crown Jewels: A History of Opulence

Celeste Neill

28 Apr 2023
The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.
Image Credit: RCT / CC

For centuries, the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom have been a symbol of opulence and power. The collection of extraordinary royal ceremonial objects are the most valuable treasures in the nation, including the sacred Coronation Regalia and vestments used for new monarchs. The collection is considered to be the most valuable in the world and has an estimated worth of over £3 billion.

The history of the crown jewels is not just a story of precious stones and metals, but also a story of power, politics, and conflict. From the days of William the Conqueror to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the crown jewels have been the subject of theft, confiscation, and destruction, as well as being used to consolidate and project the power of the monarchy.  From their humble beginnings as a few ceremonial objects to their current status as one of the most valuable collections of jewels in the world, the crown jewels have played a key role in British history.

What are the Crown Jewels?

The collection includes crowns, sceptres, orbs, swords, and other regalia that have been used by British monarchs for centuries. The Crown Jewels are held in the Tower of London and are one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. With over 23,000 gemstones and more than 100 objects, their cultural, historical, and symbolic significance is beyond measure.

The history of the crown jewels can be traced back to the 11th century, when William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in 1066. At this time, the crown jewels consisted of a crown, sceptre and a few other ceremonial objects.

However, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the crown jewels really began to take shape. During the reign of Henry II, a new crown was created, which included a number of precious gems and pearls.

Over several centuries, numerous ceremonial items were added to the Crown Jewels collection, including swords, orbs, and other regalia. Among these are the St Edward’s Crown, reserved for the coronation of a new monarch, and the Imperial State Crown, worn by the sovereign at important state events like the State Opening of Parliament.

On 9 May 1671, Thomas Blood led his co-conspirators in a daring bid to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. Through a combination of trickery, guile and violence he was able to make off with Charles II's crown and some of the most important treasures in the kingdom. To help tell this astonishing tale, Sebastian Edwards, Deputy chief curator at Tower of London joins the podcast to explain how Blood nearly got away with the greatest heist of the 17th century.
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Stolen and sold

One of the most notable moments in the history of the crown jewels came during the reign of King Charles I. In 1649, after years of political turmoil, Charles was executed by the parliamentarians. Following his death, the crown jewels were seized by the state and many of the precious stones were sold off to raise money for the government.

However, in 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II was crowned and the crown jewels were returned to the royal family. Since then, they have remained in the hands of the monarchy, and been passed down from one monarch to the next.

Another notable moment in the history of the crown jewels came in 1978, when a group of thieves broke into the Tower of London and stole a number of items from the collection. The robbery was a daring and audacious act, and it was some time before the thieves were caught and the stolen items recovered.

During World War Two, the crown jewels were hidden away in a secret location to protect them from being stolen by the Nazis. The location of the jewels was known only to a select few people, and they were not returned to their usual home in the Tower of London until after the war had ended.

Ancient to modern

The coronation spoon, an essential part of the Crown Jewels, is the oldest piece in the collection, dating back to the 12th century. During the coronation ceremony, the spoon is filled with holy oil that has been consecrated in Jerusalem, which is then used to anoint the monarch as part of the ritual.

The coronation spoon was not originally created for use in British coronations but was instead used in the anointing of French kings. The spoon was later acquired by the English monarchy and has been used in every coronation ceremony since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The spoon has survived several attempts at theft and destruction, including an incident in 1914 when a suffragette named Emily Davison tried to grab the spoon and throw it off a balcony in the Houses of Parliament.

In the 20th century, the crown jewels were used to great effect during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The crown jewels were a key part of the ceremony, with the queen wearing the Imperial State Crown, which is studded with over 2,800 diamonds, as well as other precious stones such as sapphires, emeralds and rubies.

On January 14th 1559 one of the most extraordinary royal parades made its way through London.
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Controversial diamond

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond, one of the most famous and valuable diamonds in the world, is a controversial part of the Crown Jewels collection. The diamond has a long and storied history, having been mined in India and passed down through the hands of several rulers before being acquired by the British East India Company in 1850.

Since then, the diamond has been held by the British monarchy and has been set into several pieces of regalia, including the Queen Mother’s Crown and the Crown of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

However, the diamond’s acquisition by the British has been a source of controversy and tension between India and the United Kingdom. Many Indians see the diamond as a symbol of colonialism and theft, as it was taken from India during the country’s colonisation by the British.

There have been calls for the diamond to be returned to India, but the British government and royal family continue to claim their legal ownership of the diamond.

Celeste Neill