During the coronation of King Charles III this May, he will be crowned with the St Edward’s Crown. Dr Andrew Barclay, senior research fellow of our House of Lords 1640-1660 project, reflects on the origin of this crown and its purpose as a gift to an earlier King Charles.
The central act of King Charles III’s coronation on 6 May will be his crowning with the St Edward’s Crown. He will be only the seventh monarch to wear it. That is because the current crown was made for Charles II at the Restoration and was not used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Its name however recalls a much older crown. As early as the twelfth century the monks of Westminster Abbey possessed what they claimed was the crown of St Edward the Confessor. In time some even said that it had belonged to Alfred the Great. This was the crown with which English monarchs were crowned. It however had been broken up and melted down in 1649 when the Rump Parliament ordered the destruction of the old coronation regalia. New regalia therefore had to be created for Charles II on his return from exile in 1660.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of that new crown were less than straightforward. They were further confused during the twentieth century by speculation that it was made using gold from the old crown. Every aspect of that theory has been refuted. What had confused scholars was that the new crown was probably produced in two stages. In both, the 1660 Parliament took the lead.
A new Parliament assembled at Westminster on 25 April 1660. Its Members had been elected in elections authorised by the Long Parliament before it had dissolved itself the previous month. The big questions confronting it were whether they would recognise Charles II, then in exile in the Dutch Republic, as king and, if so, on what terms. The big breakthrough came on 1 May, when Parliament received a message from Charles setting out a series of promises which MPs were then able to accept. On that basis, the Commons and the Lords agreed that he should be invited back.
Both Houses moved quickly to prepare for the king’s arrival. The palaces needed to be made ready and the complicated process of recovering Charles I’s possessions, many of which had been sold off a decade earlier, was begun. MPs were also mindful that the new king would need new regalia. On 15 May, they therefore ordered a crown, a sceptre and ermine robes for the king. The crown and the sceptre were to be supplied by Sir Thomas Vyner, the pre-eminent London goldsmith. The cost was set at £900. These gifts were clearly intended by MPs as symbols of their eagerness to welcome their new sovereign.
This crown was certainly made. Vyner mentioned it in a petition he submitted to the king only a few months later. It was also mentioned by Garter king of arms in a memo written later that year. But there is no evidence that Charles had yet worn it. The usual practice in England was that monarchs did not wear crowns prior to their coronation and Charles seems to have followed this tradition. This new crown would therefore not be needed until the coronation, which did not take place until 23 April 1661.
There was one important development in the meantime. By December 1660 it was clear that the king planned to dissolve this Parliament in order that new parliamentary elections could be held. A new Parliament elected on the basis of royal writs would, in royalist eyes, be legitimate in a way the existing Parliament arguably was not. But some MPs in the departing Parliament were determined to make one final statement of their loyalty. In a debate on 17 December a backbencher, Sir John Northcote, proposed that they grant up to £6,000 to buy jewels for the new coronation regalia. Other MPs were enthusiastic. Another backbencher, Sir William Lewis, then proposed a far more generous gift of an assessment tax for one month for the same purpose. That was worth roughly twice what would end up being the total bill for the entire 1661 coronation. This was accepted by the Commons, possibly without demur.
Royal officials had already decided that the coronation would take its traditional form. Other new items of regalia would therefore be needed. Those included an almost identical second crown, which would be used as the ‘state crown’, worn by the king when addressing Parliament. Orders for those pieces had probably already been placed with the new royal goldsmith, Robert Vyner, Thomas’s nephew. The Commons’ generosity ensured that the new regalia could be as impressive as possible. It probably also enabled the crown recently supplied by Sir Thomas Vyner to be further embellished. This was why a later document would speak only of alterations to the St Edward’s Crown, which is what so confused those historians who wanted to believe that the old St Edward’s Crown had somehow survived. The real story was that the 1660 Parliament wanted to augment and enhance the crown they had commissioned and presented to the new king earlier that same year.
One other modern myth, which dates back only to the 1990s, must also be rejected. It has sometimes been claimed that Charles II never paid Robert Vyner the full amount due to him for the new crown jewels. Historians suggesting this made the mistake of relying only on printed sources. The unpublished official documents record all the payments in full and reveal that, if anything, Charles was uncharacteristically prompt in settling this bill. He could make those payments because Parliament had been so munificent. Most of the regalia commissioned in 1660 and 1661 will be used again this May in exactly the way that the 1660 Parliament intended.
A. Barclay, ‘The 1661 St Edward’s Crown – refurbished, recycled or replaced?’, The Court Historian, 13, pp. 149-70
A. Keay, The Crown Jewels (2011)
R. Strong, Coronation (2005, reissued 2022)
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