The British Monarchy owns some of the greatest artistic treasures in the world including priceless Faberge eggs, notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and the largest collections of Canaletto paintings and Sevres porcelains in existence. To these must also be added the British Crown Jewels and the personal jewels owned by the Royal Family. And yet, there were once even more treasures owned by the Crown. The following fascinating items were once owned by the British Monarchy and were lost either through disasters or human agency. This post expands on a chapter called ‘Lost Royal Treasures’ in my book, 'The British Monarchy Miscellany'.
As reported by medieval chroniclers, King John lost much of his royal treasure in October 1216 while marching across the East of England, during his war against rebellious barons. The baggage train carrying his treasure was caught in the rising tides of The Wash mudflats, near King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and disappeared into sand and water. Among the possessions lost were jewels and gold plate used by his brother Richard the Lionheart and father Henry II, and the regalia that his grandmother Matilda had worn as Empress of Germany including her crown and golden wand (luckily the treasure did not include the English coronation regalia used by Norman and Angevin kings as that never left Westminster Abbey). None of these lost items have ever been recovered from The Wash. Some historians claim that John never really lost these treasures but arranged their disappearance in order to sell or melt the items to raise funds to fight his barons. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that Empress Matilda’s regalia and other jewels that were accounted for during John’s reign had vanished by the time he died.
The Three Brothers jewel was a pendant brooch consisting of three large rubies (or spinels) set as a triangle around a large diamond, with pearls in between. It was originally recorded among the possessions of the Dukes of Burgundy in the early 15th century, and took its name from the three rubies which were said to be remarkably alike in size and weight. Lost to the House of Burgundy in the 1470s, the jewel passed through several hands until it was finally bought by agents of King Edward VI in 1551 and brought to England, where it was passed down subsequent Tudor monarchs. It became one of the favourite jewels of Queen Elizabeth I who can be seen wearing it on her bodice in the famous 'Ermine Portrait' at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, as well as on her tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey. On Elizabeth’s death the jewel passed to the Stuart monarchs and later disappeared during the British Civil Wars in the 1640s. It is thought to have been pawned or sold to raise funds for Charles I’s cause.
The Mirror of Great Britain was a large, magnificent jewel created by King James I in 1604 to celebrate the union of the crowns of England and Scotland on his accession to the English throne the year before. Made out of gold in the shape of a hand-held mirror, it contained four diamonds and a ruby. One of the diamonds was the ‘Great Harry’ diamond that had belonged to James’s mother Mary Queen of Scots. Another was the famous Sancy Diamond, which James had bought from Monsieur de Sancy in France, and that had previously been owned by the Dukes of Burgundy and the King of Portugal. James can be seen wearing the finished jewel as a hat ornament in a portrait by John de Critz in the National Gallery of Scotland. On the accession of his son, Charles I, the jewel was broken up and pawned to pay for royal debts, and its gems were later sold and dispersed during the British Civil Wars. The most valuable diamond, the Sancy, was sold to Cardinal Mazarin of France and eventually became part of French Crown Jewels where it remained until it was stolen at the French Revolution. After an eventful history, it resurfaced in the 20th century and was sold to the Louvre Museum in Paris where it can be seen today.
After Charles I’s execution and the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, following the British Civil Wars, Parliament ordered the original coronation regalia used by medieval kings to be dismantled and destroyed. The gold was melted and the gems were put up for sale. Among the pieces that were lost were the original St Edward’s Crown used by King Edward the Confessor; the Tudor Imperial State Crown and sceptre; several Queens Consort Crowns; a special child-size crown that had been made for Edward VI’s coronation; Llewellyn’s Coronet, which had been worn by the Welsh Princes of Wales; and the coronets said to have been worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt and by Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Except for the Tudor Imperial State Crown and sceptre, which are depicted on some paintings, there are no visual records of what these items looked like. Some of the individual gems that were sold, like the Black Prince’s Ruby and St Edward’s Sapphire, were later recovered at the Restoration of the monarchy and set in the newly re-minted Crown Jewels in 1660-1661. The other gems were lost. One tradition holds that the new St Edward’s Crown does contain part of the gold that was melted from the old St Edward’s Crown, however there is no firm evidence for this.
Charles I is said to have owned the greatest painting collection ever assembled by a British monarch. His collection was strong on Italian artists with many Renaissance works bought from Italy in the 1620s, but it also included Northern works from the Netherlands and Germany. Among its individual treasures were two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, several by Raphael, a large collection of works by Titian, and original portraits done for Charles by Anthony Van Dyck. Artist Peter Paul Rubens, who visited Charles I, remarked on a visit to Whitehall that “when it comes to fine pictures I have never seen such a large number in one place as in this royal palace.” The collection was scattered when it was sold at auction by the Republican Commonwealth in the early 1650s, after the monarchy was abolished. Some paintings were bought and kept in England and were later returned to the British monarchy, including most of the Van Dycks. The majority, however, including the most spectacular, were sold abroad and never returned. Many can be seen today in museums all over Europe and North America. They include Caravaggio’s 'Death of the Virgin' and Leonardo’s 'St John the Baptist' in the Louvre, Paris; Raphael’s 'La Perla' and Albrecht Durer’s 'Self Portrait' in the Prado, Madrid; Titian’s 'Young Woman in a Fur Coat' and 'Ecce Homo' in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; and Raphael’s 'St George and the Dragon' in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
German artist Hans Holbein the Younger left us the most vivid images of Henry VIII’s family and court with his life-like portraits, many of which are part of the Royal Collection today. His largest and most celebrated work, however, is lost. This was a mural that he painted in the Privy Chamber of the Palace of Whitehall, London, in 1537. It celebrated the Tudor dynasty by showing life-size, full-length portraits of King Henry VII, King Henry VIII, and their wives Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour. The figure of Henry VIII in particular, in his famous astride pose, was said to have been so lifelike and imposing that many visitors felt intimidated in its presence long after he died. Holbein used it as a model to produce other famous portraits of Henry. The mural was lost when the Palace of Whitehall was destroyed by fire in 1698, but a small copy made in 1667 survives in the Royal Collection. The original life-size cartoon used by Holbein to model Henry VIII for the mural also survives in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The great Italian Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini created a celebrated bust of Charles I in marble in 1636. As he was unable to travel to England to see his subject in person, Anthony van Dyck painted his famous portrait, 'Charles I in Three Positions' specifically to provide Bernini with different views of Charles' head to model his statue in Rome. The finished bust was sent to England and became a favourite of both Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria who praised it for its lifelikeness. It was sold with the rest of Charles I’s art collection in the 1650s but was later recovered by his son Charles II at the Restoration. Like the Holbein Mural, it was destroyed in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698. An inferior copy of it exists in the Royal Collection, however opinions differ on whether it is a true copy of the original.
This statue of a sleeping cupid by Michelangelo was one of the artist's first major works, sculpted when he was only 20-years-old. It caused a sensation in Italy when it was first unveiled in 1496. Its forms and style were so faithful to classical Roman statues that it was thought to be a newly discovered archaeological treasure, with many refusing to believe that a young contemporary artist had sculpted it. Michelangelo indeed contributed to the illusion by treating the statue with acidic substances to make it look like it was an ancient work. It came into Charles I’s possession in the 1620s when he bought many Renaissance works from Italy, and was still part of the Royal Collection after the British Civil Wars. Its fate is unclear, but it is believed to also have been destroyed in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698.
The Old Palace of Westminster—on the site of the present Houses of Parliament—was the medieval residence of English monarchs, much of it built by Henry III in the 13th century. The Painted Chamber was one of its great artistic treasures, also built by Henry from 1226 onwards. Its walls were decorated with colourful murals of biblical scenes, including battles from the life of Judas Maccabeus, miracles by the prophet Elisha, and the fall of Jerusalem. There were also representations of vices and virtues, and a large painting of the coronation of Edward the Confessor, Henry’s favourite saint. Over the centuries the murals fell into neglect, especially after the Palace ceased to be a royal residence in the 16th century and was given to Parliament, until finally many of the murals got in such a bad state that they were whitewashed in the 18th century. Parts of them were rediscovered during restoration work done in the Palace in 1800 and sparked great public interest. However even these survivals were lost when the Old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. Some watercolour copies of the murals done in 1819 have survived.
This spectacular set of tapestries was commissioned in 1592 by Lord Howard of Effingham, who had been Lord Admiral during the Spanish Armada invasion of 1588, to celebrate England’s victory over the Spanish. There were originally 10 large tapestries, each 4.4 metres high by 8.7 metres wide, depicting the movements of English and Spanish ships at different times during the invasion. They were woven in the Netherlands and cost £1,582, the equivalent of about £5-10 million today. King James I bought the tapestries in 1616 for the same amount of money. They survived the British Civil Wars and in the 1660s they were hung in the House of Lords of the Old Palace of Westminster, where over time they became a beloved national symbol of Parliament. Like the Painted Chamber, they were lost in 1834 when the Old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. Drawings made of the tapestries survived however, and smaller painted reproductions of five of them were completed between 2008-2010. The paintings now hang in the new Palace of Westminster, in the Prince’s Chamber next to the House of Lords.