The British Crown Jewels are the most complete set of royal symbolism in the world. They are intrinsically linked with the monarchy’s power and connection with God; the Sovereigns who used these items believed they were anointed by God’s own hand – the Divine Right of Kings.
Most of the current Crown Jewels were made after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. He was crowned the following year after the monarchy had been restored. Oliver Cromwell, who had deposed Charles I, destroyed most of the earlier regalia items (except for the Ampulla and anointing spoon).
St. Edward’s Crown
Named for St. Edward the Confessor, it is used to crown the next British monarch. It’s not the original; this crown was created to replace the one destroyed by Cromwell. After Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored and King Charles II crowned with this very piece.
Fast fact: Neither Queen Victoria nor her successor, Edward VII, used this four-pound piece for their coronations due to its weight. Elizabeth II used St. Edward’s crown for her enthronement but switched to the lighter Imperial State Crown for her appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The Imperial State Crown
The crown is currently 12 inches tall and fit specifically for Her Late Majesty. The arches of the crown were lowered so that it would fit Elizabeth’s head and stature. Comparing photos of the Queen and her father, George VI, you can see the difference in how the crown sits much taller on the head of the king. It is currently being refitted for King Charles III.
Three spectacular large gems are mounted in this crown: the Stewart sapphire, the Cullinan II diamond, and The Black Prince’s Ruby. Its arches reach up and close at the top, joined by an orb.
The Black Prince’s Ruby is actually a spinel, a gem almost as hard as a diamond. It has a smooth cabochon polish, carved into an irregular diamond shape and set into a Maltese cross.
The “ruby” was given to Edward, Prince of Wales, after the Spanish Battle of Najera in 1367. King Don Pedro of Castile presented Edward with the gem as a thank you for his help in providing an army to defeat his brother, Count Henry of Trastámara.
The origin of Edward’s “Black Prince” nickname varies – it could be because of his black armor or his cutthroat prowess in battle; historians do not have one particular answer.
When I looked at the Imperial State Crown on the Royal Collection Trust website, I noted that the stone has a small addition attached with a bit of gold. Curious, I asked what it was. The very kind and knowledgeable folks at RCT told me that it was because the gem had once been drilled for use as a pendant. When it was set in the crown, the hole was covered with a tiny ruby (a real one) encircled in gold.
The Stuart Sapphire
This stunning 104-carat sapphire sits in the browband in the back of the crown. Like The Black Prince’s Ruby, the sapphire had been drilled for use as a pendant but the hole in the sapphire isn’t evident.
The story surrounding the gem begins with the Stuart king, James II, who smuggled it out of England when he was forced to flee in 1688. James passed it to his son Prince James Francis Edward (‘the Old Pretender’). It eventually ended up in the possession of his grandson Henry, Cardinal York. After Henry died, George IV sent an Italian dealer, Angioli Bonelli, to fetch any remaining Stuart-related papers from Henry’s residence in Italy. Bonelli returned with the news that he had bought a large sapphire from a local merchant. George was convinced that it was indeed the Stuart showpiece, and it was placed in the browband of the Imperial State crown.
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne, portraits of the petite monarch show her wearing the Imperial State Crown with the sapphire in front. When the enormous Cullinan diamond was discovered in 1909, it was cleaved into several chips and given to the royal family. The Stuart Sapphire was moved to the back of the Imperial State Crown to make way for the Cullinan II, or “Second Star of Africa”, to be displayed in the front (see the Cullinan, fully labeled, HERE).
Fast fact: During the carriage ride to the State Opening of Parliament, the Queen wears the George IV diadem. Just before entering the Parliamentary session to give her annual “Queen’s Speech”, Her Majesty changes from the diadem to the Imperial State Crown. There have only been a handful of occasions when she has not worn the Imperial crown: after “Brexit” in 2017 and in 2019 after the snap election. In 2021, when carrying out her first major ceremonial duty since Prince Philip’s death, it was once more a scaled-back State Opening out of respect for the late consort.
Anointing is an act of consecration, or declaring someone sacred. In the Christian tradition, oil rubbed onto the forehead indicates that someone is appointed by God to serve; in this case, as a king or queen. The word “anoint” comes from the Greek word chriÓ (pronounced khree’-o).
The Ampulla is a hollow vessel made of pure gold into which the anointing oil is poured. After the monarch takes their oath, the Archbishop of Canterbury then pours the oil from the ampulla through a hole in the beak into the silver-gilt anointing spoon and consecrates the monarch on the head, chest, and palms. This signifies the sign of the cross.
The anointing spoon is an original medieval piece (ca. 12th century), however the ampulla was recreated for the coronation of Charles II.
The globe shape of the orb is a representation of the Christian world, a cross mounted on top held by an amethyst. The gems running along the sides and around the circumference divide it into three parts. This doesn’t represent the trinity; rather, it symbolizes the three known continents during medieval times. The orb is hollow (thankfully) so that it can be carried easily.
At left, this is the scepter that Queen Elizabeth II carried as she walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey during her coronation. The Cullinan Diamond mounted in this scepter was discovered in 1905 and given to Edward VII as a gift from the then-Transvaal government (a former province in South Africa). However, there are two other, much older scepters:
The Sovereign’s Scepter with Cross
This scepter was created for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661 after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the end of the English Interregnum. It was also dubbed St. Edward’s Scepter, after Edward the Confessor, to show continuity of the monarchy.
The Sceptre symbolizes the earthly authority of the monarch under the ultimate authority of Christ. It is held in one hand while the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove is held in the other as the crown is placed on the new king or queen.
The Sovereign’s Scepter with Dove
The dove is the physical representation of the Holy Spirit, part of the triune Godhead in Christianity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
This scepter represents the sovereign’s spiritual role. During William I’s coronation in 1066, this spiritual aspect was underscored by a description of the time: ‘For by the scepter uprisings in the kingdom are controlled and the rod gathers and confines those men that stray’. The monarch is seen as a shepherd, in a sense.
Like the Scepter with Cross, this one is made of gold and adorned with several diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and spinels.
The Queen Mother’s Crown
This magnificent piece contains one of the most exquisite gems in the world – the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond.
Koh-i-noor, or “Mountain of Light”, is said to be a great source of fortune for its female owner, but brings bad luck to a man. Queen Elizabeth wore this for her coronation alongside her husband, King George VI. As the Queen Mother, she removed the arches of the crown and wore it as a diadem to the coronation of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
Fast fact: Its sister is the Daria-i-Noor, or “Sea of Light”, once a part of the Iranian crown jewels. It is a light pink, 182 carats of pure splendor. It is now held in the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran).