Five years ago, August babies were given the gift of a brand-new alternate birthstone. Along with the grassy green peridot, the spinel was named by the American Gem Trade Association as August’s second gem option. (Always good to drum up additional sales, of course!) This week’s Sparkling Spotlight will be shining on some famous royal spinels—starting with the most famous of all, the Black Prince’s Ruby.
Why is this gem called a ruby when it’s really a spinel? It’s because the technology that allowed for differentiation between the two stones has only existed since 1783. Before that date, all red gemstones were called rubies. This gem was mined at least four hundred years before spinels and rubies could be differentiated. It was probably discovered in the Himalayan mountains of central Asia, in the Badakhshan (Balascia) region that was famed for its spinels. The red stones mined in that area were often called “balas rubies.” This particular balas cabochon was drilled at some point so that it could be worn as a pendant. The hole was later plugged with a smaller cabochon ruby edged in gold.
Traders traveling on the Silk Road passed through Badakhshan on their way east to China and west to the Middle East, and then on to Africa and Europe. They bought and sold the spinels, dispersing them across continents as they traveled. The famed Italian merchant Marco Polo specifically mentioned the Badakhshan region and its balas rubies in his writing.
The documented history of the Black Prince’s Ruby, really a 170-carat spinel from Badakhshan, begins in the 1360s in Granada, an independent kingdom in present-day Spain. The stone features in the story of conflict between Sultan Muhammad VI of Granada and King Pedro I of Castile. The large cabochon spinel was among the sultan’s treasures at Granada’s iconic royal palace, the Alhambra. In 1362, Muhammad (who was also known as Abu Said)’s grasp on power was slipping away, as he was increasingly challenged by one of his cousins.
In April 1362, Muhammad was toppled from his throne. With as many of his possessions as he could carry away from the Alhambra—including the spinel—Muhammad traveled to Seville, where he tried to convince King Pedro to help him retake Granada. But Pedro was an ally of the new sultan, and he murdered Muhammad, along with numerous members of his entourage. The story goes that Pedro searched the dead sultan’s body and found the enormous cabochon spinel, pocketing it for himself.
The spinel didn’t stay in King Pedro’s treasury for long. Just like Muhammad, Pedro faced a challenge at home: his half-brother, Enrique, who wanted the Castilian throne. Pedro turned to one of his foreign allies, King Edward III of England, for help. Edward III’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, traveled to Castile in 1367 to help quell the rebellion. Edward was a soldier, who reportedly earned the nickname “the Black Prince” because he was particularly brutal in battle. (He was a good match for Pedro, whose own bleak nickname was “the Cruel.”)
Pedro and the Black Prince were victorious, defeating Enrique in the Battle of Nájera. Edward had spent a great deal of money hiring soldiers to pull off the victory, and Pedro either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay him back. The alliance came to an end as a result (and two years later, Enrique murdered Pedro and took the throne anyway). But Edward did manage to extract one thing from Pedro as payment: the balas ruby from Granada, which he took back to England.
Now in English hands, the spinel became known as “the Black Prince’s Ruby.” Edward (pictured above in an illustration from 1453) died in England in September 1376. When his father, King Edward III, died a year later, the Black Prince’s 10-year-old son succeeded to the throne, becoming King Richard II. The great balas ruby that the Black Prince brought back from Spain isn’t mentioned in the documented history from this era, but presumably it remained in the young king’s treasury. And when Richard was deposed in 1399, the stone was presumably transferred into the hands of the new monarch, King Henry IV.
The Black Prince’s Ruby shows up next in the historical record in 1415. Henry IV’s son, King Henry V, was now on the throne, and he was in the midst of a war with France. On October 25, 1415, Henry’s forces faced the French at the Battle of Agincourt in northern France. The king rode into battle wearing a helmet covered in gems, including the Black Prince’s Ruby.
The decision to wear such a heavy, ornate helmet sounds like a foolish (and uncomfortable) one, but the gems may have afforded Henry a little extra protection. In the heat of battle, the Duke of Alençon, one of the French commanders, struck Henry’s helmet with a battle axe. Henry survived the blow, as did the ruby, and the English won a famously decisive victory. (Seventy years later, the stone was also supposedly worn by King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, with less successful results.)
In 1521, an inventory of the crown jewels belonging to King Henry VIII includes mention of “a great balas ruby” set in the king’s crown. It’s impossible to prove with absolute certainty that this is the Black Prince’s Ruby, but most sources agree that it’s probably the same stone that was worn at Agincourt. The spinel stayed in the crown until the days of Cromwell, when the crown jewels were dismantled and dispersed.
Exactly what happened to the gem is unclear, but when King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the cabochon stone—presumably the same one, anyway—was returned to the royal treasury. It’s been in royal hands ever since. Queen Victoria had the large, irregularly-shaped cabochon set in the front of her new Imperial State Crown in 1838. (The illustration above shows the spinel on the front the crown, ca. 1919.)
The Imperial State Crown has been altered and remade several times since 1838, but the Black Prince’s Ruby has continued to gleam in the front of every version of the crown. Since 1911, the stone set below the spinel has been the grand Cullinan II, part of the enormous Cullinan Diamond. (Before that, the Stuart Sapphire was set below the spinel.)
For years, the Black Prince’s Ruby has shone regally on the crown as the Queen enters the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament. For the majority of her reign, the Queen wore the crown; today, it’s carried ahead of her as she walks. The Black Prince’s Ruby, and the other gems set in the crown, are physical reminders of both the majesty of the monarchy and the centuries of history and tradition embodied in the institution.