During the funeral procession of the late Queen Elizabeth II, watched by an estimated 4-6 billion worldwide, the largest viewing audience in history, prominently visible were the regalia – the symbols of monarchy – the Imperial State Crown, the Orb and Scepter, including the 530 carat Great Star of Africa, the Cullinan I, the largest clear cut diamond in the world.
Jewels and royalty have long been intertwined. Originally precious gems were so rare, they were only available for the most powerful in society, royalty, eventually evolving into symbols of the monarchy itself – crowns, tiaras and coronets, the orb, symbolizing the world, and the scepter, the iconic staff or wand, signifying imperial authority.
The “Other Crowns”
Most familiar to royal watchers is the Imperial State Crown, worn by Queen Elizabeth II at the annual openings of Parliament throughout her unprecedented 70 year reign. Adorned with 2901 precious stones, including the Cullinan II diamond, St. Edward’s Sapphire, the Stuart Sapphire, and the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a red spinel), it has existed in various forms since the 15th century. The current version was “downsized” to fit the queen’s smaller head.
But there are other crowns! The most precious is St. Edward’s crown. This priceless relic is only worn once in each monarch’s lifetime, at the time of his or her coronation. The original version dates back to the 11th century royal saint, Edward the Confessor. A newer version was commissioned in 1661. It is 22 karat gold set with 444 precious and semi-precious gems. Like the Imperial State Crown, it consists of a circlet base, arches, and a velvet cap.
Consorts and queens have crowns too! Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s crown, made for Queen Elizabeth II’s mother to wear at her coronation alongside her husband King George VI in 1937, is made of platinum and contains 2800 diamonds including the 105 carat Koh-i-Noor. Queen Consort Camilla is expected to wear this on King Charles III’s coronation day.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Literally! Some of these priceless headpieces weigh five or more pounds, and can be very uncomfortable when worn for extended sessions. Queen Victoria had a small diamond circlet she was particularly fond of, especially because it was small and lightweight. Of course, many famous tiaras and coronets are regularly worn by all the royals, passed down from generation to generation.
The Divine Right Theory
Originally monarchs were thought to rule by divine right, to be the representatives of the divine on earth. The coronation ceremony is also a religious ceremony, in which the monarch is anointed with holy oil during the most sacred part of the event. (This was the only part of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that was not televised.) Kings and queens were thought to be able to heal by divine touch. In today’s more democratic societies, such as Great Britain’s constitutional democracy, monarchs share their power with a representative parliament, reflecting the will of the people. However, the king or queen is still the Head of the Church of England. And, after all, isn’t the crown a more concrete projection of a halo, suggesting a divine connection?
The Royal Family – Worldwide!
Queen Victoria had nine children who, through their marriages, reigned on thrones of many countries in Europe, including Prussia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Norway, Sweden and Spain. Many crown jewels were passed down and shared internationally. During the Russian revolution, many nobles fled, and Queen Mary, a world-class jewel lover and collector, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, was happy to take their jewels – often their only source of accessible wealth – off their hands as a “favor”, helping them with living expenses, “grace and favor” apartments, etc., in what some view as a business interaction of dubious benefit to those who originally possessed the jewels. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Russia, she was careful not to wear any jewels of Romanov origin so as not to stir controversy. Megan Markle’s first tiara choice to wear at her wedding was reportedly the Greville Emerald Kokoshnik. But she was advised against this choice because of its dubious provenance, instead selecting the dramatic, contemporary-style Queen Mary’s diamond bandeau.
What will the future hold? Will monarchies survive? Should they? Should priceless world-class jewels, such as the Cullinan, source of the Stars of Africa and Koh-i-Noor, be returned to their countries of origin? As the world become more democratic, “republican” (anti-monarchic), it may seem that royalty are a dying breed. However, 44 countries world-wide currently have a king or queen as head of state. Queen Elizabeth II had an 80% approval rating in the UK. And more than half the world’s population viewed her vast ceremonial funeral cortege. Perhaps there is something elemental in the human psyche that still resonates with kings and queens, princes and princesses, and their jeweled regalia?