The Crown Jewels

The Original Crown Jewels of England


Coronation regalia has always played a vital and, at times, dramatic role in England’s history. As recently as 1988, archaeologists have discovered crowns from the 2nd century BC. Similar finds have also been recorded from the Saxon era.

William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 culminated with his being crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. The Bayeux Tapestry shows both Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson wearing a gold crown, and according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle – that chronicles the history of Britain from around 60BC up until about 1154 – William was recorded as having worn a crown on no less than three occasions a year. There are few, if any, surviving records of what exactly the Crown jewels consisted of at that time. Around 15 October 1216, just four days before his death, King John’s entire baggage train was wiped out by a tide in The Wash as he prepared to cross into Norfolk. There is a good deal of uncertainty about what precisely was lost. At his coronation at Gloucester Cathedral on 28 October, John’s son, Henry III, was crowned with a plain hoop of gold, property of Henry’s mother. The usual crown was apparently missing, though whether this was because it had been among the valuables washed away on the east coast or because the circumstances of the war made it inaccessible remains unclear. In 1220, when Henry was crowned for a second time, the ceremony, attended by notably more prelates and barons than on the first occasion, was described in much more detail. Records of that event have identified the crown used as that of the Diadem of Edward the Confessor. That this was the same one as used by Edward himself and later William the Conqueror and his successors is quite probable. An inventory of the Crown jewels by a monk at Westminster in the mid-1400s makes further reference to ‘an excellent golden crown’, along with other items apparently used at Edward the Confessor’s coronation, including ‘a tunicle…golden comb and spoon’, and for his wife, Edith, a crown, two rods, a chalice comprised of onyx stone and a paten. The spoon, along with the golden ampulla first used at the coronation of Henry IV to pour holy oil over the king, are two of the few pieces from the set that have survived.

The Jewel Tower at Westminster
The Jewel Tower at Westminster

Precise references to the diadem’s existence can be found from Henry III’s coronation right up to the reign of Charles I. To confuse matters, there has been some suggestion that the Diadem of Edward the Confessor was renamed King Alfred’s Crown at some point following the dissolution of the monasteries. Prior to that point another crown, referred to commonly as Alfred the Great’s state crown, is also recorded as having existed. Descriptions are vague, but appear different enough to confirm the existence of two crowns. An early description of King Alfred’s state crown referred to it being ‘set with slight stones and two little bells’, while a parliamentarian named Sir Henry Spelman writing during the civil war referred to Alfred’s crown as ‘of very ancient work, with flowers adorned with stones of somewhat plain setting’. One of the few surviving accounts of the diadem states it was a ‘gold crown decorated with diverse stones’. Cromwell’s agents are recorded as having found at least three crowns in Westminster Abbey, Whitehall Palace and the 14th century Jewel Tower, whilst an inventory into the property of Edward II referred to ten crowns in existence.

Among those might have been a series of rare finds from the reign of Edward I. In 1282, in preparation for his war against Edward I, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd deposited many of his jewels with the monks of Cymer Abbey. In 1284, with the war over, the jewels were handed over to Edward, including the ‘coronet Arthur’, a crown that supposedly belonged to the legendary king.

Later in Edward’s reign, the Stone of Destiny was brought from Scotland and kept in the Tower following his success against William Wallace in 1296. The stone was added to the coronation chair, but the appearance of the stone that now resides at Westminster Abbey does not fit with the original description.

By the reign of Henry VII another crown, commonly referred to as the Tudor State Crown, had been added to the collection. Descriptions of this have survived in greater numbers, and it has also been shown in a number of portraits. The frame of this crown was also gold and embedded with pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds and decorated by a figure of the Virgin Mary, at least three crosses and as many as four fleurs-de-lis. The Tudor Crown was independently valued as the most precious of the original jewels at approximately £1,100, worth just under £2m in the present day.

Of the original items only the ampulla, the spoon, the coronation chair and possibly some of the swords have survived. Gold from the Diadem of St Edward is believed to have been used in the construction of the new St Edward’s Crown – the official coronation crown that has been used at most coronations since that of Charles II, including Elizabeth II. According to the official receipts, the remainder of the jewels were destroyed. During the civil war, a story told that one of the original crowns, possibly the diadem, had been salvaged by a band of Cavalier soldiers, its whereabouts never divulged.

At present the story cannot be proven or disproven.