St Edward’s Crown: The tale of the crown being used at the Coronation of King Charles III

It is to the Crown that we owe allegiance. Matthew Dennison considers the history of this most familiar attribute of royalty, which he finds as laden with the hopes of a nation as it is with glittering gold and precious jewels.

The hand that descends from heaven holds above the king’s head a golden circlet. Jewels stud the sturdy band, alternating egg- and lozenge-shaped knuckle dusters. To the monarch’s left and right, in this 9th-century illustration of the coronation of the Frankish ruler Charles the Bald from a manuscript in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, stand bishops. Their gaze does not dwell on the king himself. Instead, it is the crown that transfixes their attention. At this moment of royal transformation, the crown embodies Charles’s pre-eminence. Above it is a cross, which, like the crown, is golden, gleaming.

Nothing expresses earthly kingship more powerfully than a crown. As an emblem of royalty and divinely ordained authority, it was assumed in evocation of Old Testament references by Byzantine Emperors from the 4th century. Charlemagne’s coronation by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day 800 effectively introduced it to the kingdoms of the former Western Roman Empire and English kings are regularly depicted wearing crowns from the 10th century.

In the late Middle Ages, these objects were important partly for their value and accrued in numbers within the Royal Treasury. The first page of the inventory of Richard II’s treasure drawn up in 1398–99, for example, lists 11 gold crowns, collectively valued at the stupendous sum of £50,237. One of these, probably the possession of his Queen, Anne of Bohemia, survives.

The crown of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV, one of two surviving medieval crowns. Credit: Reuters/Alamy

For English kings, however, one crown associated with Edward the Confessor, from whom William the Conqueror claimed legitimate succession in 1066, acquired particular significance. The real date and history of St Edward’s Crown — as it became known — are now beyond rescue and it seems to have changed in character within its documented history, being worn from the 14th century with an internal, furlined cap of estate and incorporating from the 15th century two intersecting arches of metal surmounted by a miniature orb and cross, a so-called ‘imperial’ form.

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St Edward’s Crown was used in the English coronation ceremony and became a mark of legitimacy. As with all the regalia, it was preserved in Westminster Abbey, where the shrine of this royal patronal saint stands. As a mark of its inalienable association with this church, it was exchanged for what was later termed the Crown of State when the King departed from the choir after the anointing ceremony.

St Edward’s Crown survived the Reformation — when the coronation acquired a new significance by force of religious change — but it was destroyed after the Civil War.

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell may have dismissed England’s royal regalia as ‘worthless church stuffe’, but he recognised its potent symbolism. His order that it be ‘totallie broken and defaced’ was followed by instructions to melt down all gold and silver items and remint the metal as coinage. The ancient crown of St Edward, valued by Cromwell’s commissioners at £248 (and confusingly described as King Alfred’s Crown), could not be allowed to survive as a reminder of erstwhile glories.

Within little more than a decade, a new regime reversed Cromwell’s act of vandalism, castigated as ‘the Rapine of the late unhappy times’. In May 1660, Charles II returned to England’s throne; a meeting of his Coronation Committee in October commissioned a replacement for the medieval crown of Edward the Confessor. With four high arches, studded with jewels, topped by an orb and cross, and decorated with fleur-de-lys and crosses, Charles’s new gold crown was symbolic proof of the return of royal government. ‘When you appeare… shew your Selfe Gloryously to your People,’ the Duke of Newcastle had implored the King.

Line by line, from top left: Crowns through British history, drawn from effigies, seals, portraits, engravings and life: the simple 11th-century crown of William the Conqueror; of Richard I; King John; Edward I; Richard II; Henry V; Elizabeth I; a Scottish crown kept in Edinburgh Castle; James I; Charles I; James II; George I; George III; the Imperial State Crown; (the second) St Edward’s Crown. Credit: Alamy

The Committee commissioned not one, but two new crowns, one for the moment of crowning and a second for state occasions, such as the King’s opening of Parliament. St Edward’s Crown was placed on Charles’s anointed head at the climax of his coronation, the greatest dramatic flourish of the ceremony. He wears it in a state portrait by John Michael Wright. In the painting, an armorial cloth of honour hangs behind the King, embroidered with an image of a crown that closely resembles Charles’s own.

In 1661, the bill for new regalia came to an impressive £12,184 7s. 6d. Charles’s government was on short rations and Robert Vyner, created royal goldsmith by letters patent in July 1661, would be driven to the brink of bankruptcy by late and incomplete payments over the following decade. To save money, Charles’s new St Edward’s Crown was decorated with borrowed jewels, at a cost of £500. This is how it appears in an unsigned painting of the royal regalia completed in the 1670s and the engraving included in Francis Sandford’s pictorial record of the coronation of Charles’s younger brother, James II, published in 1687. The jewels are modest in scale. Significantly, it was no longer stored at Westminster Abbey, but in the Tower of London, the royal stronghold within the walls of the capital.

The crown remained without permanent jewels until 1911. Then, on George V’s instructions, it was set with the precious and semi-precious stones it retains, including nearly 350 rose-cut aquamarines, as well as tourmalines, rubies, amethysts and sapphires.

At Charles III’s Coronation on May 6, St Edward’s Crown will be placed upon The King’s head after his anointing with holy oil. Although he has been monarch since Elizabeth II’s death on September 8, his sovereignty will be confirmed at that moment to the watching billions around the world. As the former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote in a poem celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 2013: ‘The Crown translates a woman to a Queen.’

A monarch crowned is a timeless image, remote from party politics, the squabbles or endeavours of any epoch, fleetingly shorn of his or her own virtues and shortcomings, transformed into a glistering symbol of authority, of present trust and hopes for the future, shiningly branded by destiny, isolated in an age-old calling. At that moment, for the King himself, the congregation in Westminster Abbey and myriad spectators across the globe, time will fleetingly halt; and the King who has felt on his head a weight of more than 4lb will carry with him for the remainder of his life the imprint of that unique burden. It is a memory he will share with no one living.

Of the Imperial State Crown, which she wore annually for the State Opening of Parliament, Elizabeth II observed that it was meant to be heavy. That heaviness, like the crown itself, is a symbolic, as well as a physical weight. ‘It hurt me a good deal,’ Queen Victoria recalled of her own experience of wearing the crown, yet she remembered, too, as ‘a most beautiful impressive moment’, ‘the Crown being placed on my head’.

The Imperial State Crown, worn for the Opening of Parliament, is, as the Queen noted, heavy, befitting its role as a reminder of royal duty. Credit: Country Life Picture Library

Images of early-Christian kings exploited the resemblance of crowns and halos. As a saint is God’s servant, so the crowned sovereign is the servant of his subjects. A crown exacts more than it exalts. ‘To be a king and wear a crown,’ suggested Elizabeth I, ‘is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.’ The Archbishop’s words at the pivotal moment — ‘God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness’ — are a reminder that, for its wearer, the crown is as much a symbol of aspiration and intent as of rank. In the liturgy of the coronation service, the sovereign attains ‘the crown of an everlasting kingdom’ through ‘a right faith and manifold fruit of good works’.

For His Majesty, the symbolic crowning with St Edward’s Crown, made for his namesake Charles II more than 350 years ago and last worn 70 years ago by his mother, places him in a continuum of these islands’ rulers that stretches back more than a millennium. St Edward’s Crown, used once in a reign, resembles the crown that ‘shone with the various glitter of gold, silver and precious stones’ at the coronation of the teenage Saxon king Eadwig in 955 or 956 or that of the Bible-clasping king in an illuminated manuscript in the collection of the British Library, which, produced some time after 966, is considered the earliest surviving depiction of a crowned king in England.

Although kingship pre-dates the fashioning of precious crowns, a crown has become the defining emblem of royalty. The Crown, indeed, is the embodiment of the state, an entity that outlives kings and queens. For that reason, from the uniforms worn by policemen to postmen’s vans, it is the image of the crown that, embroidered, emblazoned, engraved, painted and printed, asserts the authority of the state and articulates Britain’s status as a constitutional monarchy.

For The King, the crown is also a link with his mother and, in time, his elder son. Neither he nor we have seen St Edward’s Crown worn by anyone else and there are few people alive who remember the spectacle of a young Elizabeth II, enthroned and crowned to receive the homage of princes and peers.

Given his love of history, Charles III will undoubtedly be reminded of ancient predecessors: Edgar, whose coronation in 973 His Majesty’s will resemble in many essentials, or Edward the Confessor, who built the first Westminster Abbey and, in the first scene of the Bayeux Tapestry, appears crowned and seated on a throne. The gold crown commissioned for Charles II in 1660 sought to re-create the crown first recorded as belonging to Edward, which, following his canonisation, acquired the status of a holy relic.

At the beginning of December last year, Buckingham Palace announced the safe removal of St Edward’s Crown from the Jewel House of the Tower of London as a preliminary to alter its size and fit ahead of the May coronation. The purpose of these alterations is to ensure, insofar as possible, His Majesty’s comfort when wearing the crown. Yet The King’s chief concern will not be his own comfort. Shaped by historical precedent and the artistry of leading goldsmiths, ornamented with the sign of the Cross and studded with jewels acquired over more than 1,000 years, the Crown binds together sovereign, church and nation, past, present and future, in a gleaming golden circle without beginning or end, as heavy as expectation, as bright as hope.

A bright ring of power

The Coronation Ring. Credit: Alamy

Since the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, British sovereigns have worn a Coronation Ring made by royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in 1831. Created for William IV, it consists of an octagonal sapphire, surrounded by diamonds and overlaid with a ruby cross. William bequeathed his Coronation Ring to his widow, Queen Adelaide, who, in turn, bequeathed it to her niece, Queen Victoria. Victoria left both William and Adelaide’s rings to the Crown, ending a tradition that coronation rings — made anew for each monarch — became part of the monarch’s personal property.

The ring is traditionally placed on the monarch’s fourth finger, as a symbol of his or her ‘marriage’ to their kingdom. Unlike Elizabeth I, who wore her Coronation Ring throughout her reign, Elizabeth II wore hers, like St Edward’s Crown, only at her coronation, a tradition Charles III is likely to follow. Coronation rings are as old in origin as St Edward’s Crown. A large sapphire today mounted in the Imperial State Crown may previously have formed the central stone of the Coronation Ring of Edward the Confessor, made in 1043.

A spoon of holy meaning

The Ampulla and Anointing Spoon, the oldest elements in the Regalia, probably dating from the 13th century. Credit: Alamy

Made in the 12th century, the engraved and pearl-decorated silver-gilt Coronation Spoon is the oldest surviving item of coronation regalia, probably supplied to Henry II or Richard I, but first recorded — as a spoon of ‘antique forme’ — in 1349, when it was in the keeping of the monks of Westminster Abbey, together with St Edward’s Crown and associated items. Valued at 16 shillings, the spoon was included among those ‘Jewels’ that, on August 9, 1649, Cromwell’s commissioners instructed be sold ‘for the best Advantage of the Commonwealth’. Its purchaser was a Yeoman of Charles I’s Wardrobe, a Mr Kynnersley, who, 12 years later, returned it to Charles II.

Although the spoon’s original purpose is uncertain, it is known to have been used for the act of anointing at James I’s coronation in 1603 and has been used for this purpose at subsequent coronations, beginning with that of Charles II. The holy oil poured by the Archbishop into the spoon at The King’s coronation on May 6 is kept in the amulla (also shown) and will be used to anoint His Majesty on the hands, breast and head. It will confirm him as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a position that, like kingship, is lifelong.

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