March 1

The Crown Jewels: from feudal regalia to icons of freedom


I start off by telling you this book, unlike the previous two I reviewed, is a coffee table book.

But like a lot of high-quality contemporary coffee table books, it is thoroughly researched and a great reference work.

$45.56 hardback $20.87 paperback, post and tax-free (including details of the special edition. Prices were applicable  at the time of writing )

The author Anna Keay is the Curational Director of English Heritage and formerly Assistant Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She has also authored several other works on the monarchy and presented several television programmes.

I remember as a child being taken to see the Crown Jewels when on a family holiday to England. I confess I was rather blasé about them back then. I had no idea about their heritage and workmanship, I just wanted to see the other parts of the Tower of London, preferably those with some military connection.

On my most recent visit to England I must say I dwelled far longer looking at these items. The cold weather and lack of crowds at the Tower allowed me the time and space in the Jewel House to do so.

I was in awe of what was before me: its history and its visual effect.

James Bond once described Miss Moneypenny as “a feast for my eyes”. The same could be said about this book.

The book is superbly researched and includes commentary on little known objects that were made in medieval England but which went overseas as part of dowry’s in dynastic marriages. These beautiful objects include Princess Blanches Crown and the Crown of Margaret of York.

The medieval Crown of Margaret of York made circa 1300AD

The history of the evolution of regalia from the ancient world and how they became a part of medieval imagery are detailed in this book. Also included are many original design sketches by crown jewellers of the crown jewels.

Readers will be surprised to learn the fact that diamonds and other precious stones have been passed from crown to crown for uses at different times, they have rarely ever been static or affixed permanently in crowns with the exceptions of the St Edward and Imperial State Crowns. Indeed before the modern era that is to say roughly the 18th century, the Monarch and Government borrowed jewels for use in Crowns.

Of particular interest to the jewel or regalia historian will be to see the gold and silver frames of crowns long since in disuse. Described as un-set, although formerly-set may be a better way to describe them, they seem like the regalia equivalent of a ghost town, the structure is there but not the jewelled substance.

The author looks at not just the regalia itself but also places these objects in the time in which they were made and their evolving role and significance in the British and Commonwealth culture and body-politic.

Subtle changes in style also show the different times in which these items were created. Queen Mary – perhaps symbolic of her heritage – had 8 arches in her crown similar to the continental European or ‘Imperial’ types of Crown when English crowns had traditionally only 4.

The Crown of Queen Elizabeth later the Queen Mother

The late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s crown made in 1937 was made of platinum rather than silver gilt, as the technology of that era made platinum lighter and more visually impressive to use.

It is also ironic to read about James II who was of course forced off the Throne by Parliament during the bloodless ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1668 as a result of his absolutist style. The only contribution he made to the jewelled collection turned out to be a fake: the James II Monde is made of quartz and paste.

Salt of State, or Exeter Salt as it is known, was presented to Charles II at the time of the Restoration

His reputation however is much sounder on the gold plate front, as several beautiful items were added by him upon his accession.

Also amusing to read about is the over-the-top coronation of George IV. His type of coronation was in a style that had never been seen before or after. It was dazzling but gaudy. When it came to the coronation banquet in Westminster Hall it was so hot a summers day, and as a result of the literally thousands of candles in the room not to mention the fires from all the kitchens outside working away, that the vast chandeliers reigned down hot wax on the ermine robed and bejewelled diners for hours.

The Coronation Banquet of George IV. Despite the seeming order and grandeur, hot wax was reigning down on the diners 1821

But by all measures traditional English coronations have the reputation of being magnificent to behold but dignified in style and need little in the way of the showiness George IV tried to add to them.

There is a lot of study and photographic detail given to the various and amazing gold altar plate that make up the religious items of the Crown Jewels. Most of them date back to the Restoration.

It is when we see those early medieval crowns, such as Margaret of York’s which now dwell in foreign treasuries, that we get an idea of what the original medieval Crown Jewels looked like before they were destroyed by English puritans after the civil war.
Their motives were a mix of religious extremism, republicanism and fiscal desperation, but they robbed history of these beautiful objects. A sadly all too often repeated habit of illegitimate governments trying to erase history for fear of how badly it shows up their regime.

Indeed this book makes you reflect on what an icon the Crown of St Edward the Confessor has become, and how far the Crown Jewels have evolved.

In its original form the image of the St Edwards Crown was an almost a sanctified object, symbolic of the absolute authority of the Monarch in their succession from the English Saint and King.

St Edward’s Crown placed with other regalia from the Coronation rite

The modern version, which has existed since 1661, is now the world famous and instantly recognised symbol of a Monarchy and a system which provides constitutional stability and certainty to over the 16 democratic nations around the world, including our own.

We can as Australians – if only through our constitutional and legal heritage – lay claim to these items as a part of our heritage.

Throughout history the St Edwards Crown has been painted, printed, etched and most recently created in digital form to represent constitutionalism and good government the world over. As a symbol of government the Crown has outlasted the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, it far predates the Eagle of the American Republic and it predated and outlasted both the Imperial Eagle of Napoleon and the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet Union.

St Edward’s Crown is on Government departments, postal institutions, military uniforms and on every day household items on brands that have the Royal Warrant.

It is sometimes forgotten that the English Crown Jewels are amongst the last still in use in the world today. The Papacy has – much to the distress of many of its faithful – not produced or used Papal Crowns for Coronations now for some decades now, whereas the Imperial State Crown is worn by the Monarch at the State Opening of Parliament every year. Other items such as the Sword of State are similarly transferred from the Tower to form a part of the opening ceremony.

The Queen wearing the Imperial State Crown at the Opening of Parliament

Take note though, don’t go to the Tower on the week around the time of the Opening of Parliament, as you may be disappointed. If you had wanted to catch a glimpse of the Imperial State Crown with its amazing stones such as the Cullinan II Diamond, the Black Princes Ruby, the Stuart and St Edward Sapphires, all you will see behind bullet proof glass and resting on a plush velvet cushion may be a small sign reading ‘Item in Use’.

The Imperial State Crown

This is why the last two chapters of the book are devoted to the regalia over the last 110 years: the coronations, ceremonies and state occasions they have been used for.

But it also details the additions to the regalia the Empire brought to the English Crown Jewels such as the Stars of Africa also known as the Cullinan Diamonds and the creation in 1911 of the magnificent and elegant Imperial Crown of India which was worn only once.

The coronation of the Queen, her sons’ investiture as Prince of Wales, the recent funeral of the Queen Mother where her Crown was resting on the coffin, they are all described in the last chapter. The heritage and significance of each item and ceremony is made clear.

One of the great points about the book is the large and high quality images that have been used, showing great detail so the reader can see all the unique workmanship that the author brings your attention to in her writing.

The work is easily readable and leaves you with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the English Crown Jewels over the hundreds and hundreds of years of their existence. It ends with a complete inventory of the Crown Jewels that are in the tower of London.

This is a book that both the student of history and jewel connoisseur can enjoy time and again and a great addition to any collection.

The Crown Jewels by Anna Keay is available at the Book Depository in a specially-bound edition(which includes a 10-feet-long reproduction of Joseph Robins’ contemporary panorama of Queen Victoria’s Coronation Procession in Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838) for $114.08 and in the regular hardback edition for $45.56, paperback, $20.87. All prices are at the time of writing

By following the above links and purchasing the book, your buy will help benefit ACM directly, and as with all orders from the Book Depository postage is free.


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