Today marks the anniversary of a post-war aristocratic wedding. No one knew at the time that the couple getting married would one day see their descendants on the British throne. To celebrate this Spencer anniversary, we’ve got a closer look at the most unique tiara from their family collection: the diamond honeysuckle and meander tiara.
On February 26, 1919, a glittering gathering of aristocrats assembled at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly for the wedding of a future earl and his countess. Albert Spencer, Viscount Althorp was a 26-year-old officer in the Life Guards, and his bride, Lady Cynthia Hamilton, had spent much of the recent war working in a munitions factory. Together, their history was a who’s who of British nobility. He was the eldest son of the 6th Earl Spencer and a grandson of 1st Baron Revelstoke. She was a daughter of the 3rd Duke of Abercorn, a granddaughter of the 4th Earl Lucan, and a great-granddaughter of the 5th Duke of Richmond.
The nuptials were well attended, but they were somewhat overshadowed by the royal wedding that took place the very next day: the wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught and Alexander Ramsay at Westminster Abbey. But contemporary newspapers and magazines still covered the details, publishing lists of guests and wedding presents. Bejeweled brooches, rings, bracelets, and necklaces were among the sparkling haul, as was a sketch of the bride by the famed artist John Singer Sargent (pictured above). The sketch, a gift to the couple from the groom’s father, was described by the Northampton Mercury as “an extremely fine study, which the artist himself considers to be one of the best he has drawn.”
Cynthia also inherited the use of several important Spencer family jewels, including at least two of the family’s tiaras. By the 1930s, she had plenty of opportunities to wear them. Her husband had succeeded his father as Earl Spencer in 1922. In 1937, she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber to the new Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI. She ultimately served as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting for the next 35 years.
One of the tiaras that Cynthia wore as a courtier was the Spencer Tiara, made famous two generations later when her granddaughter, Lady Diana, wore it for her 1981 wedding to the Prince of Wales. The other was an interesting jewel with honeysuckle and meander design motifs. The tiara has taken various forms over the years. Its first wearer is said to have been Charlotte Seymour, who married the 5th Earl Spencer in 1858. One of the earliest depictions of Charlotte wearing a version of the honeysuckle and meander tiara appears to be this illustration, published in The Graphic in 1872.
Like later generations of the Spencer family, the 5th Earl and his Countess were courtiers. He held the position of groom to Prince Albert until the prince’s death in 1861, and afterward served in the same position for his son, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The Spencers even accompanied the Prince and Princess of Wales to Alexandra’s native Denmark shortly after the royal couple’s marriage, helping to look after their eldest son, Prince Albert Victor.
The 5th Earl Spencer also served two tenures as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In April 1885, when the Prince and Princess of Wales made a visit to Ireland, they were the guests of honor at a banquet hosted by the Spencers at Dublin Castle. This portrait of Charlotte wearing the honeysuckle and meander tiara may date from the time of that visit. She certainly wore a tiara for the banquet at the castle. The Belfast News-Letter noted, “The Countess Spencer wore a white satin dress with pearl ornaments, her headdress being a tiara set with diamonds. A brilliant diamond necklace was also worn by her Excellency.”
This detail from the larger portrait photograph shows that, at this point in time, the honeysuckle and meander tiara was made up of individual diamond ornaments sewn to a velvet backing, much like the kokoshniks that were popular with Romanov empresses and grand duchesses (including Alexandra’s sister, Dagmar). Additional diamond honeysuckle ornaments are scattered across the bodice of her gown.
The tiara was still in a similar bandeau-style setting when Cynthia Spencer wore it for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. At some point, however, the tiara was transformed into a taller, more traditional diadem. The diamond meander elements, which resemble the letter “S” for Spencer, was used as the base of the tiara, with most of the honeysuckle elements placed on top of the meander design. A single honeysuckle element was also placed at the center of the tiara’s base.
Cynthia Spencer appears to have been the last person in the family to be photographed wearing the tiara. To my knowledge, no images have been published of either of her daughters-in-law (her son’s two wives, Frances Roche and Raine McCorquodale), her daughter (Lady Anne Wake-Walker), or her granddaughters wearing the tiara. A photoshopped image of Diana, Princess of Wales wearing the bandeau setting of the tiara floats around on the internet from time to time, but it’s not a genuine image. Diana never wore the tiara in public.
And none of the wives of the current Earl Spencer have been photographed in the tiara either. The current Countess Spencer, Karen Villeneuve, has written about the tiara in her email newsletter. She has noted that the tiara (and the rest of the Spencer jewels) are kept in a London bank vault. She calls the honeysuckle tiara’s current setting “basically impossible to wear,” adding, “I think it may have been altered by my husband’s stepmother to allow for her bouffant hair style!”
The tiara may not have been worn in some time, but thousands of people around the world have had the chance to see it in person (including me!). For several years, it toured the globe as part of the Diana: A Celebration exhibition, which famously also featured Diana’s wedding dress and other clothes and family items. The tiara was a spotlight piece, quite literally. It was placed under bright lights, allowing the diamonds to sparkle almost blindingly. Here’s hoping we eventually get to see someone from the family take it for a spin in the future as well.