Yesterday, we chatted about the most-worn British crown, the Imperial State Crown. Today, we’ve got a deep-dive into the history of the jewel that quite literally crowns the monarch: St. Edward’s Crown.
St. Edward’s Crown is the oldest and heaviest crown in Britain that is still being used today. Historian Anna Keay describes the crown as having “a very simple structure” featuring a series of 22-carat gold sections (“the headband, the crosses and fleur-de-lys and arches”) that were fastened together in 1661 to form the piece’s basic frame. Keay adds, “The settings for the jewels were then fixed through this frame from behind. Each gem was held in place by a gold collar, with the stones set in clusters surrounded by white enamel mounts in the form of acanthus leaves.” A velvet cap is placed inside the crown, which also has an ermine-trimmed base.
Twelve inches tall, and weighing in at a solid five pounds, the crown is set with 444 precious and semi-precious gemstones. These include amethysts, aquamarines, garnets, peridots, rubies, sapphires, spinels, tourmalines, topazes, and zircons. When the crown was made shortly after the Restoration, it was decided to rent the gemstones used in the crown jewels during coronations, and then remove them and return them almost immediately afterward. (Some historians believe this was a cost-cutting measure.) Today, though, all of the gems set in the crown are permanently fixed in the piece.
Though the current iteration of St. Edward’s Crown dates to 1661, the piece is based on an earlier medieval crown of the same name. The original St. Edward’s Crown was worn by Edward the Confessor (1003-1066), one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England. (He’s the one wearing a crown in the image above, which is a section of the Bayeux Tapestry.) When Edward was canonized in 1161, his crown became a holy relic, and it was kept at Westminster Abbey. Several monks from the abbey claimed that the late St. Edward had asked them to ensure that his crown and regalia were used at all future coronations—and they were, for nearly every monarch for the next four centuries.
The claim made by the monks was fabricated. Keay notes that their story was essentially a tourism ploy, designed “to draw pilgrims and patrons to their church” to view the saintly coronation regalia. But it worked. From 1220 until 1626, the crown was used in the coronation of every English monarch. On one unusual occasion, the medieval St. Edward’s Crown was also used to crown a queen consort: Anne Boleyn, who was crowned at Westminster Abbey on June 1, 1533. Anne’s elaborate coronation was part of Henry VIII’s quest to have her seen as a legitimate queen in the wake of the scandalous end of his first marriage. She was already pregnant during the coronation ceremony, and some historians have suggested that St. Edward’s Crown was used because the child she was visibly carrying was presumed to be Henry’s long-awaited male heir. (It wasn’t. But the baby, Queen Elizabeth I, was eventually crowned with St. Edward’s Crown at Westminster Abbey in her own right, on January 15, 1559.)
The crown was repaired after the attempted theft, and it went through various alterations during subsequent reigns. King James II had the crown’s monde replaced, and King William III had the shape of the base changed so that it better fit his head. William was the last monarch to wear the crown during the ceremony for about 200 years. From Queen Anne in 1702 to King Edward VII in 1902, St. Edward’s Crown was present during the coronation ceremony but not worn by the monarch. In the illustration above, the Marquess of Anglesey carries the crown during the coronation of King George IV in 1821.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, St. Edward’s Crown was inching its way back into royal prominence. In 1902, King Edward VII decided to revive the old tradition of using St. Edward’s Crown as the jewel that crowns the monarch during the coronation. His doctors had other ideas. Two days before the coronation, which was scheduled for June 26, 1902, Edward suddenly became seriously ill. He underwent an operation at Buckingham Palace, and the coronation was postponed until August 9. The king, still weak, was unable to handle the weight of the five-pound St. Edward’s Crown. He was crowned with the lighter Imperial State Crown instead. (The elderly Archbishop of Canterbury still struggled with the lighter crown, placing it the wrong way round on the king’s head.)
The idea of restoring St. Edward’s Crown to a place of prominence in the coronation ceremony didn’t fade away after 1902. In 1911, the crown was refurbished, with its sparkling gemstones fixed permanently in place for the first time ahead of the coronation of King George V. The same gems remain in the crown today.
King George V was crowned using St. Edward’s Crown at Westminster Abbey on June 22, 1911, starting a practice that has continued at both subsequent coronation ceremonies. Above, you can see King George V wearing the crown during the coronation in a painting of the moment made by John Henry Frederick Bacon.
King George VI followed in his father’s footsteps. He was crowned with St. Edward’s Crown by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey on May 12, 1937. The crown is easy to distinguish from the Imperial State Crown in this photograph: note the shining gold of the crown’s arches, as well as the small gold balls that dot the sides of each arch. (These gold balls replaced artificial round pearls that had previously been affixed to the crown.)
And here, on June 2, 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury raises St. Edward’s Crown high above the head of Queen Elizabeth II, just before crowning her queen regnant at Westminster Abbey.
Press reports from the day declared that the “supreme moment of the coronation is when the Dean of Westminster carries the Crown of St. Edward from the high altar on a cushion to the Archbishop of Canterbury who places it upon the queen’s head.” It’s impossible to know what was going through the Queen’s head during the coronation ceremony, but I sometimes think her face betrays the difficulty of balancing the very heavy crown. The Age later reported, “All sovereigns have found this crown tiring, and though it is used at the actual crowning, it is changed as soon as possible for the Imperial State Crown, which is much lighter.”
Here’s one more view of the Queen wearing St. Edward’s Crown during the most recent coronation ceremony, almost seven decades ago. This was the first and only time she has worn the crown.
In the year of her coronation, the Queen also made another decision that put St. Edward’s Crown in the spotlight. She decided to change the crown used for royal badges and insignia, replacing the generic Tudor crown previously used with a more accurate illustration of St. Edward’s Crown. Because of this, you’ll see St. Edward’s Crown featured on all kinds of royal badges, monograms, crests, logos, and coats of arms.
St. Edward’s Crown is kept in the Tower of London, where it is on display with the rest of the crown jewels, unless it is being used. Because it’s only used for coronations, that means that it is very, very rarely taken out of the Tower. One exception came in June 2013, during the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Queen’s coronations. That year, the Queen was filmed handling and discussing the crown for a special documentary.
“Is it still as heavy?” she asked Alastair Bruce when the crown was placed before her a table. Lifting the jewel a little, she answered her own question: “Yes, it is.” Moving the piece around with the kind of freedom only a monarch could feel, she laughed and added, “It weighs a ton. It’s very solid, isn’t it? And it is impossible to tell which is front and back. It’s identical, I think.”
Here’s a look at St. Edward’s Crown on display at Westminster Abbey during the coronation anniversary celebrations in 2013. The Queen marks the 70th anniversary of her coronation in 2023, so perhaps we’ll see it come out of the Tower once more on that occasion. Beyond that, I think the next time the crown will emerge will surely be for the coronation of the next British monarch.