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The Great Gems of State

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, The British Monarchy Miscellany, called ‘The Great Gems of State’. It is a term of my own creation for those gems in the British Crown Jewels whose material and historical value is so great that they deserve to be grouped in a category of their own. They include four gems set in the Imperial State Crown, one in the Queen Consort Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and one in the sceptre.

St Edward the Confessor’s Sapphire

The oldest gem in the Crown Jewels, this deep blue sapphire was owned by St Edward the Confessor, the last monarch of the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex who died in 1066. The sapphire therefore is older than the Tower of London itself where it is kept, and is the historical link to Anglo-Saxon England in the Crown Jewels. Legend says it was originally set in a ring King Edward gave as alms to a beggar who then revealed himself to be St John the Evangelist. Medieval art often depicted this miracle by showing Edward with the sapphire ring in his hand. Edward arranged to be buried with the ring, but the sapphire was retrieved from his coffin in 1163 in the presence of Thomas Becket. It was then stored in the royal treasury in the Middle Ages, sold by the Commonwealth in 1649, and then re-bought at the Restoration in 1660. It was first set at the top of the Imperial State Crown in 1821, in the same position it occupies today.

The Black Prince's Ruby

Set prominently at the front of the Imperial State Crown, this 170-carat, deeply red stone is not actually a ruby but a spinel, though its weight and size still make it one of the biggest spinels in the world. It probably originated in the mines of Central Asia and was first recorded in Europe in the 14th century. In 1367 King Pedro I of Castile gifted it to Edward the Black Prince, the first English owner of the stone, as a reward for his winning support at the Battle of Najera in Spain. Tradition says the gem was later worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where it was almost lost in the melee of battle. It was then noted among the jewels of Queen Elizabeth I, and like other Crown Jewels was sold by the Commonwealth in 1649, but then re-acquired at the Restoration. It was first placed in the Imperial State Crown at the coronation of James II in 1685 and has been set at the front ever since.

The Stuart Sapphire

The Stuart Sapphire, set in the Imperial State Crown, is an ancient 104-carat oval stone that was first recorded in the possession of the medieval kings of Scotland in the 13th century. In 1296 King Edward I moved the stone to England during the Scottish Wars, but it was later returned to Scotland by his grandson, Edward III. It was then passed down the Scottish Stuart dynasty from which it took its name before it was united with the English Crown Jewels in 1603 when James I became king. Like other jewels, it was sold by the Commonwealth in 1649 but was re-acquired at the Restoration. 

James II famously took the stone with him into exile at the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and afterwards it was owned by his heirs, the Jacobite pretenders to the throne. It was reunited with the British Crown Jewels in 1814 after the death of the last Jacobite pretender. George IV famously gave the gem to his last great mistress, Lady Elizabeth Conyngham, who wore it at George’s coronation. After his death in 1830 a great deal of effort went into recovering the stone from Lady Conyngham who initially refused to give it back to the Crown. Queen Victoria first set the sapphire at the front of the Imperial State Crown in 1838. It was later transferred to the back of the crown in 1909 to make way for the Second Star of Africa.

The First and Second Stars of Africa

The First Star of Africa in the British Sceptre with Cross.

The First Star of Africa and the Second Star of Africa are the biggest gems cut from the Cullinan Diamond, the biggest diamond ever found in the world. When initially discovered in 1905 in the Premier Mine near Pretoria, South Africa, the rough diamond weighed 3,106 carats or over half a kilogram (1.6lb). Besides its size it was also notable for its purity and extraordinary blue-white colour. It was immediately named after Thomas Cullinan, the owner of the mine, who sold it to the new South African government of the Transvaal. The government in turn presented it to King Edward VII in 1907 as a token of loyalty to the British Crown following the previous Boer Wars. The diamond was famously sent to London under a ruse: a decoy strongbox was placed on a steamboat headed to England where it was guarded night and day, while the real diamond was sent over by regular parcel post in an ordinary box. 

Edward VII promised to include the Cullinan in the British Crown Jewels for posterity and the diamond was subsequently cut into separate stones in Amsterdam in 1908, with the biggest two gems joining the Crown Jewels in 1909. The biggest stone, renamed The First (or Great) Star of Africa was set at the top of the Sceptre with Cross. At 530.2 carats it remains the largest colourless cut diamond in the world. The second stone, weighing 317.4 carats and renamed The Second (or Lesser) Star of Africa, was set at the front of the Imperial State Crown, below the Black Prince’s Ruby. Seven other stones, smaller in size, were also cut from the Cullinan in 1908 and later became personal possessions of the Royal Family.

The Koh-I-Noor

The origins of the Koh-I-Noor, meaning ‘Mountain of Light’, are shrouded in Indian myth. Its first historical mention is from the 14th century when it was set as an eye in the statue of a Hindu goddess in Southern India. From then until the 19th century the stone changed hands many times as a spoil of war between the rulers of India and Central Asia, until finally it came into the hands of the rulers of Punjab in the 1830s. When the British East India Company annexed Punjab in 1849 they demanded the Koh-I-Noor as a tribute, and the gem was sent to Queen Victoria in England. Already famous because of its history and legends, the stone was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it was seen by over a million people. Disappointment with its lack of sparkle, however, led to its re-cutting in 1852, supervised by Prince Albert, and the stone was cut to 105.6 carats losing 40% of its volume. 

By this time a legend had grown that the Koh-I-Noor brought misfortune to its owners, and that the rulers of the Punjab had given it to the British in the hope that they would lose their grip on India. When that clearly did not happen, the legend was modified to say that the gem brought great misfortune to male owners but great fortune to female owners, since the stone technically had become the property of Queen Victoria. Consequently, a royal practice was started for the Koh-I-Noor to be passed down from woman to woman in the Royal Family. After Victoria’s death, the stone was handed down as inheritance from Queen to Queen at each monarch’s accession, and was in turn set into the Queen Consort Crowns of Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. At the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002 the Koh-I-Noor was inherited by her daughter Queen Elizabeth II, the current owner. At present, however, the gem remains set into the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother kept in the Tower of London.

QEQM crown.jpg
The Koh-I-Noor, at the front of the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

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