History

What are the British Crown Jewels?

The Crown Jewels are a collection of treasures, including coronation regalia, crowns, orbs, medals, and insignias from English monarchs whose history dates back nearly a thousand years. Their total worth today is estimated between $3-6 billion dollars. Famous gemstones like the Koh-i-nûr and Cullinan diamonds help comprise the collection.

Much of the original collection was made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661. The Crown Jewels are still worn by the monarch during the Coronation Service and the State Opening of Parliament. For 600 years, they have been stored and protected at the Tower of London, where over 30 million people have caught a glimpse of them.

Today’s Crown Jewels are real, but those from before 1661 are not the originals. After the end of the British Civil Wars in 1649, Charles I was executed, and the winning side, the Parliamentarians, had them destroyed as a symbol of the end of a corrupt monarchy.

St. Edward’s Crown

Photo of St Edward's Crown on white background
Credit: Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941)/ Public Domain

At the heart of the Crown Jewels collection is St. Edward’s Crown. It is solid gold and was made for Charles II as part of his coronation, replacing the previous crown, which had been destroyed. Until 1991, the gems in the crown were rented and returned after the coronation ceremony. The coronation of George V had semi-precious gems set into this famous crown.

Jeweled Sword of Offering and Sovereign’s Orb

Depiction of Sovereign’s Orb
Credit: Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941)/ Public Domain

The coronation’s Investiture section includes the Jeweled Sword of Offering and Sovereign’s Orb. The sword is from 1820 and symbolizes the king’s nature of chivalry. Made of gilt steel and silver, a cruciform gold hilt is set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds and decorated with national emblems. It is presented as an ornament along with bracelets and spurs. In this part of the ceremony, the king promises to protect good and punish evil, upon which the sword is placed around the king’s waist. Queens are not adorned with this sword during coronation ceremonies.

The Sovereign’s Orb represents the monarch’s power over the Christian world. It is a gold globe with a cross on top adorned with rose-cut diamonds. Emeralds, rose-cut diamonds, rubies, pearls and sapphires separate it into three sections. During the medieval period, the three sections represented the three known continents at the time. The monarch takes the orb in his or her right hand during the coronation service. Just before the crowning, both the jeweled sword and the orb are put on the altar.

The Imperial State Crown

Image of the Imperial State Crown on white
Credit: Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941)/ Public Domain

The Imperial State Crown was added to the collection of Crown Jewels in 1937 and is decorated with renowned historic jewels. At the front is the Black Prince’s Ruby. The story goes that this semi-precious stone (not truly a ruby, but a spinel) belonged to Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile. In 1367, he bestowed it upon Edward, Prince of Wales to thank him for his help in a battle. Aside from the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Imperial State Crown includes over 2,000 diamonds, over 200 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and four actual rubies. The monarch wears this crown leaving the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey as well as during other formal occasions.

The Sovereign’s Scepter and Rod

Photo of royal jewels in a glass case
Credit: Andrew Bossi/ CC BY-SA 2.5

In the moments before the crowning, the monarch receives the Sovereign’s Scepter and Rod, one in each hand. Their significance has a history that dates back to 1066, when William the Conqueror declared that the scepter would control uprising, and the rod would rein in constituents who may stray.

There is more than one Sovereign’s Scepter. Usually, both are offered to the new monarch during coronation. The Cullinan I diamond was added for George V in 1910. This diamond weighs 530.2 carats, the largest of its kind and quality in the world. This scepter is a symbol of temporal power. The Sovereign’s Scepter with Dove is the second scepter. It includes an enamel dove on top, and his wings are spread as a symbol of the Holy Ghost to represent the spiritual role of the monarch.

The coronation ring

Before the scepters are presented to the monarch, the coronation ring is placed on his or her right hand. The ring’s place in the ceremony began in 1831, symbolizing dignity. In its center is an octagonal sapphire set in gold and overlaid with four rectangular rubies in the shape of a cross, all surrounded by 14 diamonds.

The Crown Jewels today

St Edward's Crown, the Crown of England, the gold Orb, the Sceptre with the Cross, Sceptre with the Dove, and the Ring
United Kingdom Government/ Public Domain

The Crown Jewels have never been stolen, though several attempts have been made. The most notorious was in 1671 by Colonel Thomas Blood. World War II saw the Crown Jewels hidden in a top-secret place that remains unknown to this day.