Queen Elizabeth II has sat on the British throne for nearly 70 years. During that time, there is very little that the longest-serving monarch in the history of the United Kingdom hasn’t learnt about wearing a crown, both literally and figuratively. Yet you may be surprised to know that Her Majesty isn’t enamored with every aspect of that most important of royal accoutrements.
But what a magnificent crown it is. The royal headpiece is adorned with enough precious jewels to make a person gasp: approaching 3,000 diamonds to start, not to mention the larger specimen on the front. There are also 17 sapphires and 11 emeralds, along with approximately 270 pearls. This is an entire jewelry shop in one single item.
As you would imagine, the crown – officially known as the Imperial State Crown – is almost priceless in terms of its significance. Indeed, there is actually no official financial value attributable to the piece. Yet the Cullinan II diamond, which adorns the front of the crown, is itself said to be worth well over $500m alone.
The history behind the Queen’s crown is also, as is to be expected, impressive. It was originally modeled on the example worn by Queen Victoria – the current monarch’s great-great-grandmother – in the 19th century. The piece as it is seen today was commissioned for the coronation of Her Majesty’s father – George VI – in 1937.
And while the Imperial State Crown is an item of immense importance, it is itself part of a larger collection: The Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. Currently consisting of an impressive array of objects – more than 140 to be precise – this body of finery has been added to throughout the years. More than 23,500 precious gems alone are to be found across the entirety of the collection itself, which is said to be worth somewhere in the region of $4 billion.
Yet the oldest piece in the collection is not a crown at all, but a piece of cutlery. The Coronation Spoon to be precise. Dating back to the 12th century, this royal utensil is actually used for the anointing of a new regent in his or her religious role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Indeed, it seems there is a bejeweled piece for every occasion.
The Imperial State Crown, for example, has only two particular functions. The first is to adorn the head of a new monarch on coronation day. The second is to be in situ on the occasion of The State Opening of Parliament. This is an event which takes place annually, or after a general election when a new British government is chosen.
Indeed, the Queen is expected to wear her crown at every official opening of the parliamentary house in the United Kingdom. Yet, in reality, that has not always been the case. In fact, at the last opening in 2019, Her Majesty was seen wearing a rather different piece upon her head. That in itself caused quite a stir among keen royal observers.
And it should also be noted that the Queen possesses more than one bejewelled piece of headgear. The Imperial State Crown – the one worn at the ceremony to open Parliament – is not the only coronet in the royal collection. And it is certainly not the oldest. That honor goes to another specimen, which is known as St. Edward’s Crown.
St. Edward’s Crown is not only 900 years old but weighs considerably more than the Imperial State Crown. In fact, just the gold part of this particular headpiece, which originally belonged to a king by the name of Edward the Confessor, weighs nearly 5 pounds: more than double its rival coronet. Thankfully for Her Majesty, St. Edward’s Crown is only used in coronation ceremonies, so the current queen should never need to wear it again.
It is hard to compete with St. Edward’s crown in terms of sheer age. As we have seen, the Imperial State Crown may only be a modest 80-or-so years old in comparison. But there are elements to this piece that are every bit as impressive in terms of provenance. And one of the gems used to decorate this particular crown came from the very same Edward who gave his name to the other famous item of headwear.
Set within the crown is a jewel known as the St. Edward’s Sapphire. This gem is traced back to the very same Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, who ruled the kingdom from 1042 to 1066. Legend has it that the sapphire was originally part of a ring that Edward gave to St. John the Evangelist, and which eventually was returned to Edward after being taken to the Holy Land. The ring was then buried with Edward in Westminster Abbey, but the stone was later removed.
Clearly there are stories buried within the detail of the Imperial State Crown. And just as the case with the St. Edward’s Sapphire, these stories relate to some of the individual gemstones which are featured on this incredibly prestigious piece of headwear. And as you would perhaps expect from such a world-famous item of ceremonial jewelry, the tales behind the stones are as sparkling as the crown itself.
Also set within the crown is a gem known as The Black Prince’s Ruby. It is known as a ruby, but the stone is actually a spinel and is of Eastern origin. Don Pedro of Castile is said to have taken the gem from a Moorish king who ruled Granada in modern-day Spain in the middle of the 14th century. Don Pedro then presented the stone to Edward, Prince of Wales, and son of English monarch Edward III, after the Battle of Najera. The younger Edward was known as The Black Prince.
Yet that is not the end of the fascinating history of The Black Prince’s Ruby. This is also a stone that is said to have been among those which adorned the helmet of Henry V in his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It is one of the most famous battles in British military history and adds further historical value to the crown.
And then, also within the crown, is found the 104-carat Stuart Sapphire. Once again this is a gem with an historical connection. It is rumored to have been smuggled out of England by James II – the last Catholic king of England, Scotland and Ireland – in 1688. It was subsequently passed down to his son, who became known as The Old Pretender.
As historically poignant as the Stuart Sapphire may be, it was usurped on the crown by an arguably even more impressive piece of jewelry. The Imperial State Crown may only have been made in 1937, but as previously mentioned, the template of the piece is a little older, dating back to a crown originally designed for another queen – Victoria – back in 1838. The original band had the Stuart Sapphire at the front. Yet the sapphire was repositioned to accommodate an arguably even more impressive stone.
In 1909 the crown was embedded with a gem known as Cullinan II, or to refer to it by its more popular name, The Second Star of Africa. Weighing in at an impressive 317.4 carats, this was the second-biggest of all the stones cut from the Cullinan Diamond, famed for being the largest diamond known to man. It was unearthed in South Africa, hence its name.
In short, and as should be expected, the Imperial State Crown is an incredibly impressive piece of headwear. But while the legends behind some of the stones are intriguing, what does the crown actually look like? Interested parties can actually go and see the crown jewels at the world-famous Tower of London. It is here that the world-renowned collection sits under armed guard in the Jewel House.
With the value of the items within, it is unsurprising that the Jewel House is under the constantly watchful eye of a unit known as the Yeomen Warders. All distinguished members of the armed forces, it is these men and women who are charged with the safe preservation of the royal family’s prized collection.
And down the years, legendary attempts have been made to steal the jewels. For example, In 1671 a gang led by Colonel Thomas Blood struck a guard over the head in an attempt to escape with the royal treasure. Yet the guard’s son arrived on the scene to thwart the robbery.
These days it is the Royal Collection Trust which partly manages the Crown Jewels, as well as the incredible array of artwork owned by the British royal family. And it is on this organization’s own website that an impeccably detailed description of the Imperial State Crown can be found. It is a text that doesn’t fail to translate the detail, craftsmanship, historical provenance and symbolism of this most impressive of headpieces.
“The Imperial State Crown is formed from an openwork gold frame, mounted with three very large stones, and set with 2,868 diamonds in silver mounts, largely table-, rose- and brilliant-cut, and colored stones in gold mounts, including 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls,” the Royal Collection Trust’s website reads.
The decorative elements of the Imperial State Crown – and the headwear itself, of course – are breathtaking. “The crosses alternate with four fleurs-de-lis, each with a mixed-cut ruby in the center. Both crosses and fleurs-de-lis are further mounted with diamonds. The crosses and fleurs-de-lis are linked by swags of diamonds, supported on sapphires,” part of the description reads.
The Queen’s crown is, in short, stunning. So, what exactly could it be about this most dazzling example of royal decoration that provokes the Queen’s displeasure? In fact, how could there be anything to dislike about such an impressive display of monarchical prestige and flamboyance? Well, the thing is, solid gold and precious gemstones are far from light.
In a 2018 BBC TV documentary, Queen Elizabeth II spoke briefly about her famous royal accessory. And the reigning monarch may have surprised some viewers when she described the magnificent crown as “unwieldy.” But perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less of a piece emblazoned with over 3,000 jewels.
But what could Her Majesty possibly have meant when she described her crown in such a way? Well, it must be understood that at the very ceremony the Queen is expected to wear the accessory – the State Opening of Parliament – she must give a speech. And it is at this point that the problem with the crown arises.
You see, the crown really is quite impractical – at least according to Her Majesty, anyway. “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up, because if you did your neck would break – it would fall off,” the Queen told the BBC. She had a knowing smile when she spoke, too.
It is worth noting that the crown to which the Queen is referring weighs slightly more than a kilo, which is 2.2 pounds. To put that in context, that’s the same weight as a liter of water. Or an average-sized pineapple, if you prefer. And when you are in your 90s, as Queen Elizabeth II is, that is not an insignificant burden.
Indeed, nobody could know better than Queen Elizabeth II what it takes to wear a crown. Literally. And Her Majesty summed it up well in her final thoughts on the matter, again expressed in the BBC documentary. “So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things,” she commented. Well, quite.
But what we should be aware of is the fact that a heavy crown and an ageing monarch are not compatible. Unsurprisingly, the Queen, at the age she is, struggles to wear a piece that weighs in at over a kilo. And it was this fact that was the cause of the stir that arose when Her Majesty failed to wear the Imperial State Crown when addressing Parliament in October 2019.
On that occasion the Queen was actually seen wearing what is known as the Diamond Diadem. Itself a crown of sorts, this is actually the headwear seen perched on the Queen’s head on every British stamp and coin, not to mention on similar objects in a host of Commonwealth countries, including Australia. And yet the diadem is traditionally only worn by the monarch on the journey to parliament.
The Queen’s decision not to wear the Imperial State Crown to parliament in 2019 was a big deal. In fact, it was only the third time in her reign that she had failed to wear this ceremonial piece to the event. Both of the other two occasions – in 1974 and 2017 – were because a snap election had been called. Indeed, in that latter year, Her Majesty also failed to wear full ceremonial dress. These garments were seen in 2019, however.
Of course every action is scrutinized with intensity when you are a queen. But the decision not to wear the proper headwear at the State Opening of Parliament in 2019 would have been a personal choice for Her Majesty. As an ageing monarch, there are certain elements to her routine that have had to be adapted.
There are certain traditions that a monarch in her tenth decade simply cannot uphold. For example, the Queen no longer lays the wreath at the foot of The Cenotaph monument in London on Remembrance Day. Instead, it is her son, Prince Charles, who completes this action in order to honor the war dead. Exceptions must be made for a royal in her twilight years.
That said, the Queen continues to fulfill most of her duties in a way of which a much younger woman could be proud. And that commitment doesn’t surprise keen followers. Victoria Murphy, who is a royal commentator and journalist, remembers the promise that the Queen made upon receiving the crown all those years ago. Her Majesty “sees her role as a duty for her whole life,” Murphy told the BBC.
Richard Fitzwilliams, another royal commentator, referred to the Queen’s decision not to wear the Imperial State Crown as a “practical alteration.” Fitzwilliams also told the BBC that the move by the Queen – to wear the Diamond Diadem instead – was “part and parcel of the monarch growing older.” Queen Elizabeth turned 94 in April 2020.
And as has come to be expected from this immensely popular monarch, the Queen’s decision to alter slightly from tradition was viewed sympathetically. “There’s no question that it’s just a matter of accommodating advancing age in as dignified a way as possible,” Fitzwilliams told the BBC. Surely, no one could hold that against Her Majesty?
It is also worth noting that the George IV State Diadem – as the Queen’s alternative headpiece is also officially known – is a fraction of the size of the Imperial State Crown. While the latter measures in at just over a foot at its widest point, the diadem spans only about 3 inches. Much more suitable for practical usage – such as when giving a speech – one can assume.
And one last little historical fact. The current Queen is not the first English monarch to suffer, literally, under the weight of her crown. Queen Victoria, upon whose crown the current version is modeled, also began to wilt under the impressive poundage of her royal headpiece. Thus, she commissioned her jewelers of the day to make her a smaller version. The cost, of course, wouldn’t have been much of an issue.