02 June 2014

Crown Jewels: The Sovereign's Orb

Happy Coronation Day! Sixty-one years ago today, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms was crowned at Westminster Abbey. The crowning of a British monarch is one of the only coronation ceremonies that still retains the pomp and pageantry of centuries past, and today, we're looking at a bejeweled object that has been present at every British coronation since the seventeenth century: the Sovereign's Orb.

At first, it seems peculiar that the monarch of a modern nation would hold a rather large shiny golden ball as a part of a coronation ceremony. It makes a bit more sense when you think about the ball as symbolizing the globe. Orbs feature a cross surmounting that globe to symbolize the Christian world, divided in three by the jeweled bands to represent the three continents known to medieval Europeans. The Royal Collection website explains that the orb, which is placed in the monarch's right hand during the coronation, is "a representation of the sovereign's power" [1]. The Brits aren't the only ones who have an orb as a part of their regalia. A quick glance through Prince Michael of Greece's book on the crown jewels of Europe finds orbs in the regalia of Bavaria, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland, too.

Orb in detail of portrait of Elizabeth I [2]

Like virtually all of the coronation regalia of the British monarchy, the sovereign's orb dates to 1661. It is a recreation of an orb used in earlier coronations; that orb was one of the pieces melted down by the new republican government after the execution of Charles I in 1649. Orbs had been part of royal portraiture and ceremonies for centuries. In her excellent book on the British crown jewels, Anna Keay notes, "Exactly when the orb started to appear in the English regalia is not entirely clear," though orbs appeared on coins from the reign of Edward the Confessor, and orbs are found "in several Tudor inventories and depicted in many portraits" [3]. Elizabeth I, for example, is shown clutching an orb in a seventeenth-century portrait of her wearing her coronation robes (pictured above).

After Charles I was executed, most of his possessions and the possessions of the crown were auctioned or sold. However, because the regalia held such important symbolic meaning, Anna Keay records that it was ordered to be "totallie Broken and defaced" [4]. The orb, along with crowns, scepters, and bracelets, was melted down at the Mint and made into coins. If you find a coin minted in 1649, with the words "Commonwealth of England" on it, it might just be one of the coins made from the melted-down sovereign's orb.

Detail of Charles II's coronation portrait, including the new sovereign's orb [5]

When Charles II was restored as king, new regalia was needed for his coronation. Goldsmith Sir Robert Viner was commissioned to supply the new pieces, including a new sovereign's orb. The orb is made of a hollow sphere of gold -- actually two separate hollow hemispheres joined together at the central jeweled band. The Royal Collection states that the the jeweled bands are "a zone and arc with clusters of emeralds, rubies and sapphires, surrounded by rose-cut diamonds, each in a champleve enamel mount, between single rows of pearls" [6]. On top of a large step-cut amethyst sits the diamond-studded cross, with a central sapphire on one side and a central emerald on the other. Anna Keay notes that the cross originally faced forward over the jeweled band. Keay also explains that, "more than any other 17th-century piece in the collection, the orb retains its original gems, including most of the 365 rose-cut diamonds" [7]. The orb weighs two and a half pounds, and Charles II was the first king to hold it during his coronation.

Ten years after the new orb was made, it was almost lost. In 1671, Thomas Blood attempted to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. He shoved the orb down his breeches (seriously) and fled with it and with the contemporary version of the Imperial State Crown. He was stopped at the River Thames, but both the orb and the crown had been damaged and had to be repaired.

Since then, it has been used at every coronation; it's been placed in the right hands of James II, William III, Anne, George I, George II, George III, George IV, William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II (pictured above). You'll note one crowned monarch missing from that list: Mary II. Since she was crowned jointly with her husband, an additional orb was needed for her use. Made in 1689, Queen Mary's orb was slightly smaller than the sovereign's orb. Although it was originally set with precious stones, those were later removed and replaced with paste for display at the Tower. After Mary's reign, it was never used again for a coronation, but did make one more appearance in public: at Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901, both of the orbs were placed atop her coffin.

If you're in London, you can see the sovereign's orb and the rest of the crown jewels on display at the Tower of London. They're always there, unless they're needed for an official occasion, like a coronation, the State Opening of Parliament, or a royal funeral. I especially love rewatching clips of the coronation knowing how much that golden orb weighs -- can you imagine having to carry a round two pound weight placed on the flat of your hand, knowing that dropping it would mean dropping the symbol of your divine right to rule? At least the Queen had an armrest and a special velvet orb-holder (suitable for golden orbs or the biggest of Big Gulps) during the carriage ride!

(If you want to continue your Coronation Day festivities, pop on over to The Royal Roundup, where I've added a link to a color film version of the coronation, complete with a narrator who sounds like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a behind-the-scenes documentary. Enjoy!)

1. See the Royal Collection website for more, including great color pictures of the orb.
2. Detail of the ca. 1600-10 portrait in coronation robes; source here.
3. See Anna Keay's The Crown Jewels, p. 32.
4. See Keay, p. 43.
5. Source here.
6. See the Royal Collection website.
7. See Keay, p. 56.