Crown Jewels of England: The etiquette of what to wear

The Crown Jewels of England can be seen at the Jewel house at the Tower of London
The Crown Jewels can be seen at the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Credit: The Royal Collection Trust/Queen Elizabeth II

Royal crowns, robes and ceremonial regalia have been kept at the Tower of London for more than 600 years. Do you know what items of the Crown Jewels of England should be used when?

In 1671, a slippery rogue by the name of ‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood attempted one of the cheekiest heists in history at the Tower of London. Blood attempted to steal the Crown Jewels of England but his plan was rumbled.

It was a narrow squeak and the Crown Jewels were never again put on open display. Today you can bask in their beauty in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, where they are kept under armed guard.

Royal Jewels – what can you see?

Boasting 23,578 gemstones, the Crown Jewels is the most breathtaking and complete collection of royal regalia in the world. The ensemble is all the more awesome because it is a working collection. The Crown Jewels are used at coronations, royal weddings, baptisms and formal events such as the State Opening of Parliament.

Sparkling with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, the Crown Jewels are intrinsic to the enduring power of royal ritual.

Exhibits in the Jewel House explain the religious and cultural significance of royal regalia, and their role in coronation ceremonies. You can also view Her Majesty’s Coronation Robes, ceremonial maces, trumpets and diverse golden treasures.

History of the Crown Jewels

The concept of a coronation was firmly established in Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries. The earliest detailed account of such a ceremony in England, for the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar, dates from 973 in Bath. Since 1066 all coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey.

In 1216, disaster struck when King John misjudged the tides as he crossed The Wash and lost the Crown Jewels. His nine-year-old son, who became King Henry III later that year, was crowned with his mother’s torque, or bracelet.

Young Henry was crowned again in 1220, using a crown that once belonged to Edward the Confessor. This crown became the standard for future generations until Cromwell ordered the Coronation Regalia to be “totallie Broken and defaced”. This was part of Republican activities to eradicate the “detestable rule of Kings”.

Cromwell’s Destruction of the Crown Jewels

Only three 17th-century swords and a 12th-century silver-gilt Coronation Spoon, used to anoint the monarch with holy oil, survived.

When Charles II was restored to the throne he went all out to recreate the image of a glorious monarchy and personally oversaw the remaking of the regalia for his coronation in 1661. The regalia included a coronation crown and state crown (“the one named St Edwards Crowne, & the other an Imperiall Crowne”), an orb, sceptre, swords, spurs, ring and bracelets. These, which at the time cost the equivalent of three warships, became the core of the new Crown Jewels. They were to be passed to the king’s successors (though the ring remained with Charles). The Merry Monarch also amassed a fabulous array of banqueting and church plates for the Royal Collection.

Queen Elizabeth II wearing St Edward’s Crown, part of the Crown Jewels of England, at her coronation in 1953
Queen Elizabeth II in St Edward’s Crown at her coronation in 1953. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty

Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation

Fast-forward to 1953 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey followed rituals little altered in 1,000 years. Like many before her, HM The Queen swore an oath to rule fairly and protect the Church. She was anointed with holy oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury, using the intricately engraved 12th-century Coronation Spoon.

During the Investiture part of the ceremony, and symbolising the chivalric nature of kingship, Her Majesty was presented with medieval-style spurs, armills (bracelets) and the Sword of Offering (1820), encrusted with thousands of jewels.

While many individual ceremonial pieces have been updated over the centuries and notable jewels added, the gold Sovereign’s Orb – also presented to Her Majesty during the Investiture and symbolising the Christian world – retains many of its original gemstones from 1661 including most of the 365 rose-cut diamonds.

The Sovereign’s Ring and two Sovereign’s Sceptres (1661), denoting temporal power and pastoral care for the people, were presented to the Queen too. The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross is notable for its addition in 1910 of the glittering Cullinan I diamond, the world’s largest top-quality white cut diamond.

St Edward’s Crown

Coronations culminate with the most sacred of all crowns, the solid gold St Edward’s Crown (1661), being placed on the monarch’s head. Tiring to wear (it weighs 2.23kg or nearly 5lb), it is exchanged at the end of the ceremony for the Imperial State Crown (1937). The Imperial State Crown dazzles with 2,868 diamonds (including Cullinan II, the world’s second largest white cut diamond), 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 269 pearls and four rubies.

It is this crown that Her Majesty usually wears on occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament.

While the Coronation Regalia attract most attention, the Crown Jewels also include treasures ranging from 17th-century altar dishes to adornments for the banqueting table.

There’s the immense Grand Punch Bowl (1829) that can hold the contents of 144 bottles of
red wine. The bowl was used for mulled wine to warm guests when the future King Edward VII was christened in 1842.

Of particular interest is the silver-gilt Lily Font commissioned by Queen Victoria and used for royal baptisms since 1841.

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