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To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen in 2012, a spectacular display of the Crown Jewels has been created at the Tower of London. The visitor takes part in a virtual ‘procession through history’, toward the Coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, with the Crown Jewels at the heart of the exhibition. An introductory display with graphics, music and film footage conveys the importance of the collection to the British Monarchy. The focus is on Royal symbols: crowns, orbs, sceptres and swords, and the Coronation service itself.
Anyone who has visited the Tower of London, and seen the Crown Jewels, will not have forgotten the occasion. My first visit at the age of six – a perfect age for aspirant princesses – has stayed with me as an experience of awe, at the architecture and history of the Tower of London; the horror, visiting the spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded; and delight, at the jaw-dropping sparkliness of the Crown Jewels. Revisiting the Tower of London as an adult to see this new display has not diminished the magic, or sensation, of being part of history, when one walks across one of the castle drawbridges and onto paths that lead to the Jewel House.
This sense of procession has been recreated in the Crown Jewels new exhibition, beginning in the Monarch’s Hall with a montage of images of anointed and crowned Kings and Queens from 1661, when the Monarchy was restored in Britain after 11 Commonwealth years under Oliver Cromwell, to the present Sovereign, HM Queen Elizabeth II and her coronation in 1953. Her near-60-years’ reign means that very many of her subjects did not witness the actual event. This exhibition aims to fill in the very special details that create the Coronation Day and the routine that each monarch undergoes before, during and after the ceremony at Westminster Abbey.
After progressing through several rooms that carefully explore the religious and symbolic meaning of the Coronation, focusing on the regalia with careful attention to each piece, a large screen shows in detail the crowning moment of HM The Queen’s 1953 coronation. With a fanfare and shouts of ‘God Save the Queen’ ringing out, one is ready to appreciate fully the symbolism and special relationship between the Crown Jewels, the Sovereign, the Church of England, and the people of Britain, the only country in Europe that continues to use coronation regalia for the consecration ceremony of crowning the Sovereign.
Thus one enters the final rooms full of expectation. In special display cabinets – the dark blue velvet base of each serves to accentuate the brilliance of the cut stones – diamonds, emeralds and rubies shimmer and glitter in the subdued light, revealing an array of glittering regalia. The Sovereign’s sceptre holds the largest top-quality cut diamond in the world: the 530 carats Cullinan I (Great Star of Africa).
The only platinum crown in the collection is that of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, created for her in 1937 for the coronation of her husband George VI. It contains the legendary Koh-i-Nûr (Mountain of Light) diamond brought to Britain from India in 1850. It vies for attention with the 6,002 diamonds set in the Imperial State Crown of India, created for King George V.
Amongst this fabulous display of crowns, sceptres, orb and ceremonial plate, note the Imperial State Crown, created in 1937 for King George VI. It is set with 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 5 rubies and 273 pearls. The present crown is the tenthmanifestation since the Restoration in 1660. The crown is worn by the Sovereign on leaving Westminster Abbey after the Coronation, and for the State Opening of Parliament.
The coronation ceremony in England dates to the 8th century and for the last 900 years has taken place at Westminster Abbey. The Crown Jewels mostly date from 1661 when Charles II was crowned; earlier regalia had been melted down or destroyed or disposed of by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary Commissioners after the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. The oldest piece in the collection is a 12th-century silver-gilt Coronation spoon, which escaped the melting pot. The Coronation Spoon is the only survival held at the Tower of London
from the mediaeval regalia and was listed in an inventory of the Abbey in 1359 as even then being ‘of ancient form’. It is also the only piece of royal goldsmith’s work to survive from the 12th century, with its characteristic handle decorated with intricate leafy arabesques and a monster’s head. The spoon avoided being melted down during the Civil War because it was bought by Clement Kynnersley, who served in both Charles I’s and Cromwell’s Wardrobes and returned it at the Restoration.
Perhaps the most fascinating piece is Queen Victoria’s Small Diamond Crown, with 1,000 diamonds, which is only 9.4cm (3.7in) in height; weighing 145g (5.11oz). After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore the lightweight crown on top of her widow’s veil, in place of the heavier Imperial State Crown. Paintings of her in her later years often show her wearing the diminutive crown.