This week, the Queen will celebrate the 68th anniversary of her coronation at Westminster Abbey. For the next few days, we’ll be looking at some of the crown jewels worn during and after the ceremony. Today, our focus is on the most familiar crown from the British collection: the Imperial State Crown.
The Imperial State Crown was originally made by Rundell and Bridge in 1838 for the coronation of Queen Victoria. Its design was based on various earlier state crowns, some of which may have existed as early as the sixteenth century. The state crown is a “working” crown, worn by the monarch for occasions like the State Opening of Parliament, but it is not the crown actually used to crown the monarch. (That’s St. Edward’s Crown, which is worn only once each reign: when the Archbishop of Canterbury places it on the monarch’s head during the actual coronation ceremony. There have been exceptions: two monarchs, most notably Queen Victoria and her son, King Edward VII, were indeed crowned with the Imperial State Crown. Others have used their own personal crowns for the coronation moment.) Monarchs wear the Imperial State Crown when departing from the Abbey after the coronation, and for all other occasions requiring crown-wearing afterward.
The Imperial State Crown is set with 2,868 diamonds, as well as hundreds of pearls and other gemstones. Several significant royal gems are set in the crown. The irregularly-shaped red gem on the front of the crown is the Black Prince’s Ruby (which is really a spinel), said to have been in English royal hands since the 1360s, and which was supposedly worn by King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Below the spinel is the Cullinan II Diamond, a 317-carat stone cut from the great Cullinan Diamond. The diamond, which is sometimes called the Lesser Star of Africa, was placed in the Imperial State Crown in 1909.
When the Cullinan II was added to the crown in 1909, the Stuart Sapphire was moved to the back of the jewel. The large blue sapphire, which weighs in at 104 carats, is said to be the same gem taken by King James II when he fled the country after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. An agent for King George IV later purchased the sapphire from a broker, who claimed he had gotten the stone from one of James’s descendants, Cardinal York.
Also of note are the four pearls hanging from the crown’s monde. These are often said to have come from the collection of Queen Elizabeth I, though that provenance is doubted by many historians.
All in all, save for the sapphire-diamond switch of 1909, the crown is substantially the same in design as it was during the reign of Queen Victoria. Other changes to the piece have been made over the years, however. In 1937, before the coronation of King George VI, the crown’s structure was rebuilt to make the piece significantly lighter, and the gems were subsequently remounted. Before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the crown was altered again, this time to reduce the size and lower the arches for a better, more flattering fit for a female monarch.
All monarchs from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II have posed for portraits with the Imperial State Crown. In 1838, Queen Victoria wore the brand-new crown for her official coronation portrait, painted by Sir George Hayter. (Note the Stuart Sapphire situated below the Black Prince’s Ruby.)
Victoria’s son and heir, King Edward VII, wore the crown during his reign, but in this official coronation portrait, he posed beside the jewel instead. You’ll spot the Imperial State Crown sitting on a table beside the king, partially obscured by the scepter. (Again, note the placement of the Stuart Sapphire on the front of the crown.)
In this photographic portrait of King George V from his coronation celebrations in 1911, the Cullinan II gleams on the front of the crown for the first time. (It had replaced the Stuart Sapphire, now at the back of the crown, two years earlier.)
Here’s a particularly interesting image featuring the crown. King Edward VIII, better known to history as the Duke of Windsor, abdicated before he could be crowned, so he never wore either St. Edward’s Crown or the Imperial State Crown in public. But preparations for his coronation were already in progress before his abdication, and a painting was made of the monarch in his coronation robes with the regalia all around him. The composition of the picture owes much to the coronation portrait of King Edward VII; note both the pose and the placement of the Imperial State Crown on the table beside the king. Interestingly, the painting was kept private until 2011, when it was finally shown to the public on the 75th anniversary of the abdication.
Here, King George VI wears the Imperial State Crown on the balcony at Buckingham Palace following his coronation in 1937. Also of note here: the special diamond-encrusted Lesser George, which likely dates to the reign of King George II, suspended from the collar of the Order of the Garter.
Queen Elizabeth II wore the crown for the first time as she left Westminster Abbey after her coronation, and above, she wears it for an official coronation photograph taken at Buckingham Palace following the June 1953 ceremony.
The crown became especially familiar because of its annual appearance on the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament in London. Above, she wears the crown during the 1966 State Opening. (Her Norman Hartnell dress is the same one remade last year for the wedding of her granddaughter, Princess Beatrice.)
Here, she wears the Imperial State Crown for an official portrait marking her Silver Jubilee. That year, she also filmed a special “tour” of the crown, which you can see over here.
The familiar crown continued to sparkle on the Queen’s head for every state opening for decades. Here, you see the front of the crown as she wears it during the State Opening in November 2002…
… and here, you see the back of the crown as she wears it during the State Opening in May 2015.
The Queen never wore the crown (which reportedly weighs a little over two pounds) on her journey to and from parliament for the State Opening, preferring instead to travel in the George IV Diamond Diadem. The Imperial State Crown got to travel in its own car for the event, on a special little platform that allowed the public to view it through the car windows during the drive.
The Queen wore the Imperial State Crown for the final time in public on May 18, 2016, at the State Opening of Parliament in London. It was announced that she would wear the Diamond Diadem during the ceremony, as the weight of the crown was simply too difficult for her to balance any longer.
But the Imperial State Crown, an important symbol of the power and position of the monarch, is still present each time the Queen opens parliament. It arrives in the chamber on a velvet pillow carried by the Lord Great Chamberlain. (Since 1990, that’s been the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley.) The crown sits beside the Queen’s throne as she makes her speech. When not in use, the crown resides with the rest of the crown jewels at the Tower of London.