26 August 2017

The Spencer Tiara


As the commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales begin to draw to a close, I'd like to offer one more of my own -- a more sparkling, less controversial tribute than many I've seen in the media of late. Rather than dwelling on the details of the late princess's private life, let's enjoy some glitter courtesy of her family diadem, the Spencer Tiara.

In the summer of 1981, Lady Diana Spencer arrived at St. Paul's Cathedral in London to marry the heir to the British throne, the Prince of Wales. Perched atop her bridal veil (and her famous blonde 'do) was a tiara that belonged to her own family: the Spencers, an aristocratic English clan with a history that can be traced back for centuries.

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Diana's bridal tiara has been in the Spencer family for nearly a century, though its creation story happens in bits and pieces. In 1919, the central part of the tiara was given as a wedding present to Lady Cynthia Hamilton, the new bride of Albert, Viscount Althorp (the future 7th Earl Spencer and grandfather of Lady Diana). The new viscountess received the tiara from another member of the family: Lady Sarah Spencer, the unmarried daughter of the 4th earl.

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The ends of the tiara are also said to be bits from Lady Sarah’s collection, which she had apparently acquired in the 1870s. (Some say that these end elements were bequeathed to Sarah, and that they had come from a tiara that belonged to Frances, Viscountess Montagu. Since Frances died in 1814, and the Montagu viscountcy was extinct by the end of the 18th century, there are some pieces missing from that particular puzzle.)

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By the 1930s, Garrard had supplemented Lady Sarah’s gifts and constructed the tiara into the diamond floral diadem we know today. Diana’s mother, Frances Burke Roche, wore a tiara from her own family’s collection at her wedding to the 8th earl, but all of three of her daughters — Jane (pictured above), Sarah, and Diana — wore the Spencer tiara at their weddings.

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The tiara was also worn by Victoria Lockwood (pictured above) at her wedding to the current earl in 1989. Neither of the 9th Earl Spencer’s subsequent wives (including Karen Villeneuve Gordon, the current Countess Spencer) wore the tiara on their wedding days.

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After Lady Diana became the Princess of Wales, she was given a tiara with royal provenance to use — Queen Mary's Lover’s Knot — but she continued to borrow the Spencer on a regular basis for white-tie events. Sources suggested that the Spencer tiara was much lighter and easier to wear than the Lover's Knot, hence Diana’s seeming preference for it.

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But Diana only wore each of these tiaras during her tenure as the Princess of Wales. After her divorce, the Lover's Knot Tiara was returned to the queen; as for the Spencer tiara, it always belonged to Diana’s father (and later her brother) — the piece was only on loan to her.

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For many years the Spencer tiara was on display as a part of the traveling exhibit on Diana’s life, but now I think it's safe to say that the tiara is back in the vault at Althorp, ready and waiting for an opportunity for the current countess to wear it. I know many often express their wish to see either the Duchess of Cambridge or Prince Harry's future wife wearing this tiara, but I think that's highly unlikely -- it's a Spencer tiara, not a royal one. Instead, I think we'll see it again one day on another Spencer lady (either the current countess, or maybe one of the earl's daughters). Dare I suggest that the next coronation — that of the earl’s former brother-in-law — might one day be just that event?

Note: This is an updated version of an earlier post, with new text and images.