When Queen Elizabeth II of Britain recently visited Westminster Abbey she was shown the Coronation Chair, which was being restored, and remarked that she had not actually seen it since sitting in it on 2 June 1953. With Elizabeth II in the second half of her eighties, the Coronation Chair being restored is of course a sign of the fact that the next British coronation is approaching. Perhaps this is also the context in which one should see the publication of a two-volume, scholarly work on the British crown jewels in 2008 and now another book on the same topic aiming at a more general public.
The Crown Jewels by historian Anna Keay, who is curatorial director of English Heritage, was published by Thames & Hudson in cooperation with the Royal Collection and Historic Royal Palaces at the end of last year and is a stunningly beautiful book in its design and choice of high-quality illustrations.
They include many paintings showing the splendours of past state occasions, but also other historical illustrations as well as close-up photographs of the items in the crown jewels collection, whole pieces as well as details. A clever touch has been to bring together several items of regalia to be photographed together for comparison, for instance the crowns of Queens Alexandra, Mary and Elizabeth, or the Imperial State Crown from 1937 alongside the now empty frames of the state crowns from 1838 and 1714.
The well-written text takes the reader on a chronological journey through the history of British crown jewels and regalia, starting with the so-called “Mill Hill warrior”, the body of an Iron Age king dating to 200-150 BC who was found by archaeologists in 1988, wearing on his head the earliest known English crown.
Three chapters are dedicated to early English regalia, but it is a sad fact that the 12th century coronation spoon is the only medieval item in the collection. The other older crown jewels were melted down when the country became a republic following the execution of Charles I in 1649.
New regalia thus had to be made when his son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and Keay points out how one was so keen to link these new regalia to their lost medieval predecessors that one recreated even pieces one did not know what were supposed to be used for.
Several pieces have been added also in the centuries following the restoration and they are all covered by this book. Sadly, several grand pieces are no longer in existence or survive simply as empty frames, such as the dazzling all-diamond crown commissioned by George IV for his coronation in 1821, which was set with hired jewels subsequently returned to the jeweller.
Other pieces have fallen into disuse, such as the crown made for James II’s wife, Mary of Modena, which William IV’s Queen Adelaide thought unsuitable for use. Every queen consort since then has had a new crown made for her, although Queen Mary had intended that the exquisite crown she had made in 1911 should be the permanent crown of queens consort. However, when it became clear that she intended to attend the coronation of her son George VI in 1937 and wear that crown (without its arches), a new crown had to be made for her daughter-in-law Elizabeth.
The book also deals with the items which are not strictly speaking regalia, but are kept with them in the Tower and thus counted as crown jewels, such as the splendid tableware used for the coronation banquets, baptismal fonts and other items intended for the royal chapels, processional swords and maces. Thus the book also serves as some sort of splendid catalogue of the items one will see on a visit to the Tower of London.
“While the Crown Jewels are unquestionably impressive in their own right [...] it is their use at great ceremonial occasions that gives them their real power. The objects in the collection were not designed to be viewed in the solitary splendour of a glass case, but to play in the ensemble orchestra of royal ritual”, the author observes on the penultimate page of the book. My only objection to this book is precisely that it does not say much about the actual use of the crown jewels.
For instance, Keay does note that St Edward’s crown, until then used for the actual crowning but replaced with the state crown before the monarch left the Abbey, ceased to be used by the early eighteenth century, a practice which was only revived by George V in 1911. But otherwise we hear little about the regalia’s use for other occasions than coronations.
My first “personal acquaintance” with the British regalia was seeing the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother resting on top of her coffin at her lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. But although Keay tells us that St Edward’s crown was placed on the coffin of Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown on hers and a replica of the state crown on Charles II’s the reader is left to wonder if crowns being placed on royal coffins have been a common practice and if so for how long.
Similarly one may wonder how old the tradition of wearing the crown at state openings of parliament is. The current practice dates only to George V and 1913, but was this the invention of a tradition or had crowns been worn to Parliament by earlier monarchs?
A more thorough treatment of the use of the regalia than just a word here and there would have served to bring the regalia to life, so to speak, and also give a fuller picture of their symbolical and ceremonial meaning.