A Short History of the Imperial State Crown

16 March 2013 - 06:09pm
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Guest Posts on Royal Central

On most of these sites, and on these posts, I like to use an avatar pic showing the Imperial State Crown, one of the things that first got me interested in the British Monarchy, and in my opinion one of the wonders of the world. So I thought it would be interesting to start my contributions to Royal Central talking about this majestic symbol, its history and its jewels.

Of all the Crown Jewels kept in the Tower of London, there is something special about the Imperial State Crown. Not for nothing it is usually the last item you see on the Coronation Regalia trail, as if it were the culmination of British history and symbolism, the physical melding of monarchy and nation. A lot of its symbolic power comes from the gems it incorporates which are a roll call of royal associations, however I will talk about gems individually in the next posts. This time, I will sketch a brief history of the Crown itself.

First of all, it is important to understand what an Imperial State Crown is. Throughout English history there have always been two types of crowns used by the Monarchy: a coronation crown and a state crown. The original and most famous coronation crown was the one used by King Edward the Confessor (r.1042-1066), which from the reign of Henry III (r.1216-1272) was used to crown English monarchs during the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. However, because it was considered a holy relic (Edward was made a saint in 1161) and because it would never leave the Abbey, English kings began wearing other crowns for other important public ceremonies, like parliaments, ‘wearing-ins’, celebrations, etc. These crowns were usually personal possessions of each monarch which varied in type and number. Edward II (r.1306-1326), for example, was said to own ten crowns which he used for different official occasions. From the end of the 15th century however monarchs began to use one single crown for state occasions, which assumed the name of Imperial State Crown.

Why Imperial? Contrary to popular assumptions the Imperial State Crown has nothing to do with the British Empire. England has had an Imperial Crown since at least the reign of Henry V (r.1413-1422). The name has to do with the crown’s design and what that design represents. Until about the year 1400 royal crowns in England had been open circlets, but the Lancastrians kings added intersecting arches over the top to make them closed crowns. It was a trend that was spreading throughout Europe and that was particularly pronounced in England. A closed crown signified imperial status, that the king wearing it was supreme emperor within his own domains. That was significant compared to what had been the belief until then: throughout the Middle Ages European kings had been subordinate to either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, but an imperial monarch was subordinate to no one and only answered to God. The refashioning of the English State Crown as Imperial was therefore an early assertion of English independence from the rest of Europe (a belief that has never been reversed and is still a topical issue).

The independence of the English monarchy was made even more pronounced at the Reformation when Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) broke from Rome and made himself head of the English church, therefore making the Imperial State Crown both royal and divine. These were the most glorious days for the crown. The actual crown had been replaced and refashioned a few times already because of wear and tear from frequent use, and the final Tudor Imperial State Crown was said to be spectacular. It was said to be encrusted with pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, and to carry cameos on the fleurs-de-lys representing Christ, the Virgin and Child, and English Saints.


Mytens_Charles I

Charles I stands next to the old Tudor Imperial State Crown, destroyed during the Commonwealth.

When the Imperial State Crown passed to the Stuarts it assumed even more magnificence. The crown of Charles I (r.1625-1649) was said to be as heavy as a newborn baby and to contain 28 diamonds, 19 sapphires, 37 rubies and 168 pearls—this at a time when the only known sources in the world for precious stones were in the Indian subcontinent (see picture above). When the crown’s value was estimated in 1649 it was said to be the equivalent of £1.5 million. Alas, that survey was also its epitaph. After Charles I’s execution in 1649 the Puritanical Commonwealth abolished the monarchy and determined to eliminate all its trappings. All the English crown jewels—both the coronation regalia and the state regalia—was sold or destroyed to raise cash for the new and money-strapped Commonwealth.

All precious gems were taken off the regalia and sold in a huge sale at Somerset House, along with the paintings and artworks collected by Charles I. Meanwhile, the stripped gold crowns were taken to the Mint to be melted down into coins. One by one, the ancient, medieval and Tudor crowns were consigned to the fire in the saddest act of destruction in the history of English national heritage: Edward the Confessor’s crown, Empress Matilda’s crown, the magnificent Tudor State Crown, Richard III’s circlet worn at the Battle of Bosworth, Edward VI’s child-sized crown, Elizabeth I’s glamorous tiaras—all was destroyed. In an ironic twist, they were melted down in the same place that had protected them for hundreds of years: the English Mint was sited in the Tower of London. Also ironically, the physical destruction of the Imperial State Crown did not erase its powerful appeal among the people. After Oliver Cromwell’s death, his body lied in state next to a new, makeshift Imperial State Crown made specifically to honour his achievements (it’s unclear what happened to this crown).


At the Restoration of the monarchy Charles II (r. 1660-1685) decreed that the new English regalia should resemble as closely as possible the one that had been destroyed. Many of the jewels that were sold were tracked down and bought back, and a new Imperial State Crown was assembled. Even though it could not replace the magnificence of the old Tudor crown, Parliament and the jewellers did their best to replicate its majestic impact: the new crown contained almost 900 diamonds, 549 pearls, 20 emeralds, 18 sapphires and 10 rubies (see below).

Charles II--Wright

Charles II wears the Stuart Imperial State Crown.

Since the reign of Charles II, the Imperial State Crown has become the most used of all regalia items, so much so that it has had to be remade or replaced 6 times because of wear and tear. Charles II’s crown was used until the end of the Stuart age, and it received an important addition in 1685 when James II (r. 1685-1688) added the Black Prince’s Ruby to it. George I (r. 1714-1727) commissioned a new Imperial crown when he ascended the throne in 1714 and this was used by most of his successors, including at their coronations. The Hanoverians did not like using St Edward’s Crown for the act of crowning, preferring their own creation instead, and both George II (r. 1727-1760) and George III (r. 1760-1820) were crowned with their Imperial State Crowns.

By the time of George IV’s coronation the Hanoverian Imperial State Crown had been worn down by over 100 years of use and George (r. 1820-1830) insisted on having a new crown made for his coronation, which was completely covered in diamonds. The old Imperial State Crown however was still born in the coronation procession, and at that occasion it bore for the first time St Edward’s Sapphire on its top cross. George IV was followed by his frugal brother William (r. 1830-1837), who at his coronation as William IV in 1830 went back to use the old Imperial State Crown of his Hanoverian ancestors. But the crown really was falling apart and a new Imperial State Crown was completely remade for the coronation of Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901).

It is to Victoria’s crown that we owe the design of the Imperial State Crown of today, including its familiar oak leaf arches that reflected jewellery fashion in the 1830s. To Victoria we also owe the addition of the Stuart Sapphire to the crown, and, as all her Hanoverian predecessors, this is the crown she was crowned with (see picture below). But she did not wear it much, if at all, for the rest of her life. After Albert’s death in 1861 Victoria insisted in wearing mourning clothes, and she refused to wear the Imperial State Crown for official occasions because it had coloured gems which were unsuitable for widowhood. So a new, individual state crown was made just for her, and this was the tiny crown that she wore on her white widow’s veil and became most associated with her. Weighing only 5 ounces, it contained over 1,000 diamonds, which were suitable for widows as they were colourless.

queen victoria-hayter

Queen Victoria wore her Imperial State Crown at her coronation.


Edward VII (r. 1901-1910) intended to reinstate St Edward’s Crown into the coronation ceremony, but an emergency appendictomy just before Coronation Day forced him to abandon the idea of wearing that heavy crown during his convalescence, and he wore his mother’s Imperial State Crown instead which was lighter in weight. He also added jewels to the Imperial State Crown, late in his reign when the famous Cullinan diamond was discovered in South Africa. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan was added to the British sceptre, while the second biggest stone, the Second Star of Africa, was added to the front of the crown.

It fell to Edward’s son, George V (r. 1910-1936) to revive the use of St Edward’s Crown during the coronation, which meant that the Imperial State Crown took on the role that it still retains today, being worn after the actual crowning for the rest of the coronation ceremony, being used at the annual State Opening of Parliament, and taking pride of place at monarchs’ funerals. It was in fact at the funeral of George V that it became clear Queen Victoria’s crown had worn beyond repair: as the royal coffin, surmounted by the Imperial State Crown, travelled down Whitehall to lay in state in Westminster Hall, the cart jolted and the top cross with St Edward’s Sapphire popped out of the crown and clanked down the pavement, luckily to be retrieved by a quick thinking soldier in the cortege. It was thought to be a bad omen for the new King, Edward VIII (r. 1936) and in fact he never reigned to see his own coronation.

A new Imperial State Crown was made in 1937 for the coronation of Edward’s brother, George VI (r. 1936-1952), and this is the crown that, with a few alterations for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, is still used today and can be seen in the Jewel House in the Tower of London. In my next post, I will focus on the most famous jewels set in this magnificent crown, including their history and their royal associations. For now, I will leave you with Her Majesty herself who will give you a little preview of these jewels (click on the pic to access the clip):

(Kudos to who guesses where this clip originates from!)


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