After my last post on the general history of the Imperial State Crown, let us now investigate the tales of some of the individual jewels that are mounted on it. The greatest significance of the Imperial State Crown lies in the fact that it includes gems with centuries-long history, indeed gems that are linked to particular periods of British history and ‘represent’, so to speak, different dynasties upon the golden crown itself. The oldest link to the British past, dating back to the Anglo-Saxon age, is represented by St Edward’s Sapphire.
This sapphire is mounted in the middle of the Maltese cross surmounting the Imperial State Crown and is the oldest gem in the Crown Jewels. It is in fact older than the Tower of London itself where it is kept, and older than the present line of succession that started with William the Conqueror (r.1066-1087). Tradition holds that the sapphire belonged originally to King Edward the Confessor (c.1003/5 – 1066), the last English monarch of the House of Wessex and the second-to-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. He is said to have worn it as a ring, perhaps even at his coronation, and a legend grew around this ring in the Middle Ages.
It is said that once when Edward was on his way to dedicate a chapel to St John the Evangelist he came across an old man begging on the side of the road. The king was moved by the sight, and because he did not have any coins on him he slid the sapphire ring from his finger and gave it to the old man, who afterwards disappeared from the scene. The legend then says that years later some English pilgrims were travelling through the Holy Land when they got lost in a desert. Suddenly, through a dust storm, an old man appeared who led them to safety to the nearest town. Once the pilgrims were safe in an inn, the old man produced a sapphire ring and gave it to them, asking them to the give it back to the kind king who had given it as alms to him once. Then, to the pilgrim’s surprise, he revealed himself as St John the Evangelist, and bid them to also bring a message to Edward: in six months the two of them would meet in heaven. The pilgrims brought the ring and the message back to King Edward in England, and six months later Edward died. (It is worth noting that in Medieval Christian mythology St John the Evangelist was thought to have been granted by God to stay alive until the Last Judgement, and so he was said to roam the world as an old man.)
There is of course no way to attest whether the story is even remotely based on fact but it was widely believed in the Middle Ages and depicted in Christian art. Pictures of Edward holding a sapphire ring appear in stained glass windows in York Minster, in Ludlow (where the English pilgrims were said to be from), and even as far away as France. The most famous image of Edward with his ring comes from the 14th century Wilton Diptych, one of the oldest paintings in England, kept today in the National Gallery in London. The diptych was commissioned by another king, Richard II (r.1377-1399), and shows Edward clearly holding the ring in his left hand as the symbol of his sanctity.
Edward the Confessor holding his sapphire ring in the Wilton Diptych (late 14th century).
In any case, it was Edward’s wish to be buried with his beloved sapphire ring on his finger which was duly done at his death in 1066, just months before England was conquered by the Normans and the Anglo-Saxon age came to an end. His wish to be united with his ring in eternity was respected when his coffin was first opened around 1100 to ascertain his holiness (his body was still uncorrupted 33 years after his death), but at his second exhumation things went differently. In 1161 Edward was proclaimed a saint by the Church because of his chastity and devotion, and given the name of ‘Confessor’ (as in confessing the Christian faith with his life), and in 1163 his body was translated to a saint’s shrine in the old Westminster Abbey. At that exhumation, presided over by Thomas Becket in his first year as Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward’s burial robes were retrieved and made into bishop copes, and his ring was taken off his finger and placed in the Crown’s treasury (some say it was ‘stolen’ by King Henry II (r.1154-1189) but that’s probably just a colourful myth.)
The history of the sapphire over the following 500 years becomes shadier with some saying that the stone, still on the ring, was used to heal the sick. Edward the Confessor is generally accepted as the first English king to touch for the King’s Evil, i.e. scrofula, a practice that lasted until the 18th century, and perhaps the ring was used in healing ceremonies associated with Edward the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey. Other historians suggest that after the Reformation the stone was worn along with other sapphires by Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) on ceremonial occasions, but nothing is certain. There is however an interesting note from the Crown Jewels’ inventory of 1649 saying that a sapphire worth £60 was mounted on the personal child crown of Edward VI (r.1547-1553) used at his coronation: this could have been St Edward’s Sapphire, purposely used to crown one of his royal namesakes.
We know however that the sapphire and the ring were definitely separated by the Commonwealth when the old Crown Jewels were destroyed. The sapphire was sold by the Republic and later re-acquired at the Restoration, and at that time Charles II (r.1660-1685) had it cut into his present rose-cut shape. It then presumably lay in Jewel House vaults for over a century, until it made its first modern public appearance in 1821, set in the old Hanoverian Imperial State Crown during George IV’s coronation ceremony. It did not however grace the head of the new sovereign at that time as George IV used instead a custom-made crown filled entirely with diamonds for the act of crowning. The first king who wore a crown with St Edward’s Sapphire set on it was William IV (r.1830-1837). When the Imperial State Crown was rebuilt in 1838 the sapphire was finally set in the present Maltese cross atop the crown, and was then worn by Queen Victoria at her coronation.
St Edward’s Sapphire was used for the first time in its modern guide during Victoria’s coronation in 1838.
Since then, the sapphire has been towering atop the Imperial State Crown as the most senior jewel of the British monarchy, a concrete link to the country’s Anglo-Saxon past. Its supernatural properties seem to persist to this day, as shown in an event that took place at King George V’s funeral procession in 1936. The former Edward VIII (r.1936) once recalled that as he was following his father’s coffin with the Imperial State Crown fastened on top of it he saw ‘a flash of light dancing along the pavement’ and realized that the Maltese cross containing St Edward’s Sapphire had fallen off the crown. He thought of picking it up but was restrained by ‘a sense of dignity’ and marched on instead. Luckily a Company Sergeant-Major bringing up the rear also saw what had happened and quickly retrieved the sapphire and cross. “It seemed a strange thing to happen,” the former king later said, “and although not superstitious, I wondered whether it was a bad omen.” Perhaps St Edward’s Sapphire recoiled from the idea of being worn by an unworthy namesake, and it just so happens that the coronation planned for Edward VIII was used instead after the Abdication to crown his brother George VI (r.1936-1952).
It remains to be seen if the sapphire still has more divine signs to give, especially since it will celebrate a 1,000 years in the Crown Jewels in the coming decades. For the moment, it shines on the Imperial State Crown as the only jewel to have passed through the hands of all the dynasties who have sat on the English throne.
In my next post, I will explore the history of the Black Prince’s Ruby.
Finally, kudos to anyone who guessed where the clip featured in the previous post came from: it was the opening scene of Royal Heritage, a BBC documentary series on royal artworks that aired during the Silver Jubilee Year of 1977. It is currently available on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pou_rliSfng.
A miniature of Edward holding his namesake stone in the famous ring. Note that Edward himself is surrounded by a sapphire-coloured ring.