Take one look at the Imperial State Crown and the first thing that strikes your eye is the big, deep red stone exactly in its middle, acting almost as the crown’s own bloodshot eye onto the world. This weird-looking, precious jewel is the Black Prince’s Ruby, the next chapter in our detailed description of Britain’s Imperial State Crown (see my previous two posts on it). As mentioned before, each of the famous stones mounted on the crown represents a period in English history, and the red ruby is a link to England’s bloody, turbulent Medieval past.
The ruby’s position at the very front of the crown today is based on an ancient belief that it is auspicious to have a red gem mounted in the main regalia, especially since rubies have always been scarce. Rubies are in fact rarer than diamonds: the only reason diamonds are more valuable is because of their hardness and luminosity. With that said, the Black Prince’s Ruby is actually not a ruby at all but a spinel, i.e. a less valuable type of ruby that was often mistaken for the real gem until modern times (it all has to do with hardness and colouring). This however does not decrease the Black Prince’s Ruby’s intrinsic value since its size and weight of 170 carats make it one of the largest uncut spinels in the world. Also, a tiny part of it is actual ruby material: the stone was perforated at some point in the past to wear it as a pendant and the hole is now filled with a real, tiny ruby, the so-called pimple on the stone. The whole stone is still traditionally referred to as a ruby.
Murder and Betrayal
The stone was almost certainly mined in the Indian subcontinent, the only part of the world that produced rubies (and spinels) in ancient times. It made its first appearance in the historical record in the 14th century when it was recorded in the possession of the Sultan of Granada, the last Muslim outpost in Spain. At the time Granada was being gradually re-conquered by the Christian Kingdom of Castile, led by King Pedro the Cruel. The Sultan, Abu Said, also known as Mohammed V, organized a meeting with Pedro in 1362 to discuss peace at which he was accompanied by a large retinue of servants. On arrival to the meeting on Castillan lands, Pedro had all of Abu Said’s servants killed, and then had Abu Said stabbed to death. Legend says that Pedro performed the dark deed himself and that on searching the dead body afterwards he found the precious ruby that the sultan always carried with him. From here on, the ruby embarked on a dark journey through the Medieval period when it brought misfortune or death to most of its owners.
Cursed by the ruby for his black deed, Pedro soon found himself under attack by his half brother, Henry of Trastamara, who declared war upon him for the throne of Castile. Desperate for help, Pedro appealed for support to the greatest knight in Christendom, Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376), who just happened to be stationed in nearby France governing the English lands won during the Hundred Years’ War. Since medieval knights were just as passionate about profit as they were about chivarly, Edward agreed to help Pedro in return for appropriate financial rewards.
The Black Prince’s funeral effigy in Canterbury Cathedral.
The Black Prince and Pedro’s forces defeated Henry of Trastamara’s army at the Battle of Najera in 1367, and Edward’s immediate reward upon the victory was Pedro’s precious ruby. Much more remuneration should have followed, but King Pedro claimed bankruptcy and the ruby ended up being the only precious thing Edward brought back from his mercenary campaign in Spain. True to the ruby’s medieval curse, he also brought back the mysterious slow disease that killed him 9 years later. Also, after his victory Pedro was conquered by his brother, and was killed by him three years later.
Battles and Depositions
The Black Prince, firstborn of King Edward III, became the first English owner of the stone which is why the ruby is known by his name today. Once back in England he deposited it with the rest of the English Crown Jewels. Edward died of his disease before he could inherit the throne, and the ruby passed to his son, King Richard II (r.1377-1399). He was later deposed and murdered by Henry IV Bolinbroke, the first of the Lancastrian kings, who was himself also to suffer an agonizing death by a mysterious disease. The ruby then passed to his son, King Henry V, who alone seemed to have reaped good luck from it, though only just.
Henry V (r.1413-1422) is said to have worn the ruby on his crowned helmet during the Battle of Agincourt, in October 1415, during which he almost lost his life. In the heat of battle, the French knights surged towards the English front line and wounded Henry’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Henry came to his brother’s aid and straddled his wounded body while fending off attacks, and at this point a French knight tried to strike Henry down with a battle axe. The blow managed to hack off part of Henry’s crowned helmet with the ruby on it, and only a quick response from other English knights saved Henry’s life. It is said that the ruby fell and was lost in the mud of the field and was only brought back to Henry some time later by a French knight, who was rewarded for his deed with imprisonment by a still resentful Henry. Henry himself died later of dysentery at the height of his conquest of France in 1422.
The ruby’s history for the rest of the medieval period is more shady but still enmeshed in battle. A legend says that during the Wars of the Roses King Henry VI (r.1422-1461) took it with him to the battle of Hexham, where Henry barely escaped with his life, and that after the battle the ruby was taken from Henry’s abandoned encampment and brought to Edward IV who first wore it at York—however nothing of this is certain. A similar legend gives that Richard III (r.1483-1485) wore it on his crowned helmet during the Wars of the Roses’ last battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, and that it was this crowned helmet that was picked up from a bush after the battle and offered to Henry VII, the first of the Tudors. This however seems unlikely since there is no contemporary evidence that the ruby was present at this battle.
The End Of Curses?
By the end of the Medieval period the ruby seemed to have spent its destructive power, and it was inherited by the Tudors who made a more peaceful, ceremonial use of it. It was perhaps worn by Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) at his coronation when he wore a ‘great bauderike about his neck of great balasses’, that is ‘a great collar filled with great rubies around his neck’ (perhaps the ruby was hung from the existing hole in the stone). The ruby then seems to have been set apart again during the late Tudor period. In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) received the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, to discuss a possible marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester. The ambassador wrote that the Queen took him to her privy chamber and showed him ‘a fair ruby, great like a racket ball.’ The ambassador asked her to send the ruby to Mary as a token of friendship, as well as the Earl of Leicester’s miniature. Elizabeth replied that if Queen Mary would follow her counsels ‘she would get them both in time, and all she had’. The Black Prince’s Ruby did not acquire its nickname until the Victorian era and it is well possible, given its size, that it was it that was mentioned by Melville.
Mary Queen of Scots never got the ruby or Leicester, but the stone did pass to her son King James I when the Stuarts inherited the English throne in 1603. The ruby’s capacity to bring misfortune seems to have been reawakened by the haughty Stuarts. James’ son Charles I (r.1625-1649) was executed during the Civil War, after which the old Crown Jewels were destroyed or sold. There is a record from the sale of the jewels in 1649 of a great ‘Rock Ruby’ that was sold for £15. It was apparently bought by a jeweller who resold it to Charles II (r. 1660-1685) when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Charles’ brother, James II (r.1685-1688), was the last monarch to be cursed by the stone when he placed it at the front of the refashioned Imperial State Crown at his coronation in 1685 (there is no evidence that the ruby was ever mounted on the previous Tudor Imperial State Crown). Three years after his coronation, James lost his kingdom and flew into exile.
The Hanoverians suffered no curse from the ruby, and perhaps it has to do with the way they placed it in their Imperial State Crown, which was refashioned after George I (r.1714-1727) inherited the throne. Curiously, the ruby seems to have been placed upside down at the front, with the bulbous part on the bottom, the only time it was ever placed this way on the Imperial State Crown. About 130 years later, the stone was reversed to its normal position when the crown was rebuilt for Queen Victoria in 1837, and the ruby has remained at the front of the crown is this manner ever since. By Victoria’s time, the hole in the stone had also been filled with the tiny ruby.
The last three Imperial State Crowns: George I’s on the left, Victoria’s in the middle, and the present Crown on the right. You will notice that the mould for the Black Prince’s Ruby is reversed on George I’s crown.
Some say that the Black Prince’s Ruby has not yet exhausted its curse. They quote as proofs the fire that almost destroyed the Jewel House with all its treasures in 1841, and the World War II German bombs that almost hit the Tower in the 1940s. But these are all fanciful conjectures. No monarch has suffered calamitous misfortune from association with the ruby in the last three hundred years—or at least not yet…
In my next post I will explore the history of the Crown’s least know jewel, Queen Elizabeth’s pearls.
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