To Crown a King: A Material History

By: Kaitlyn DeLong, Historian

For over a thousand years, British kings and queens have been crowned at Westminster Abbey in an elaborate ceremony filled with tradition, pomp, and some very old objects. These objects, known as the coronation regalia, have been used by countless monarchs and will play a significant role in the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023. They also all have their own fascinating histories (a.k.a. provenance in art history terms).

The Crowns

King Charles III will wear two crowns during his coronation: St. Edward’s Crown and the Imperial State Crown. St. Edward’s Crown was originally made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II by the royal jeweler, Robert Vyner. It replaced the 11th century medieval crown of St. Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, which had been melted down with most of the original coronation regalia during the English Civil War. Made of solid gold and weighing five pounds, it is only used for the official crowning of the monarch.

Once that part of the ceremony is complete, the monarch exchanges the heavy St. Edward’s Crown for the lighter Imperial State Crown. This crown is relatively new compared to the rest of the coronation objects. It was made in 1937 for King George VI’s coronation to replace a crown made for Queen Victoria and has almost 3,000 diamonds!

Queen Elizabeth II wears the State Imperial Crown and holds the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and Orb in her official portrait. © Beaton, Cecil. Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day. 1953. Photograph. Royal Collection.

King Charles II poses with the newly made St. Edward’s Crown, Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, and Orb. © Wright, John Michael. Charles II of England in Coronation Robes. c. 1661-1662. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Investiture

Before the monarch is crowned, they are given several objects that represent their power and responsibility to govern with honor. These include gold spurs, armills (bracelets), an orb, and two sceptres: the Sceptre with Cross and the Sceptre with Dove. The presentation of these types of objects dates back to medieval times. In fact, spurs were first used in the coronation of Richard the Lionheart all the way back in 1189! However, like the crown, those original objects were destroyed during the English Civil War. The objects you’ll see used in the coronation of King Charles III were created by Robert Vyner in 1661 and slightly altered in recent years. For example, the Cullinan I diamond, the largest colorless cut diamond in the world, was added to the Sceptre with Cross in 1911.

The Ampulla & Coronation Spoon

In a sacred and private part of the coronation ceremony, the Archbishop anoints the monarch with holy oil. To do this, he pours the oil from a container known as an ampulla into a spoon, and then uses his fingers to anoint the monarch’s head, heart, and hands. The Ampulla, which is shaped liked a golden eagle, was made by Vyner in 1661. Its design, which allows the oil to flow from the eagle’s beak, is based on a 14th-century legend in which the Virgin Mary gave Thomas Beckett a golden eagle and a vial of oil to anoint future kings.

The silver gilt Coronation Spoon into which the oil is poured dates back to the 12th century. Made for a ceremonial purpose, it may have been in the possession of Henry II or Richard I before it was discovered among the belongings of Edward the Confessor. The spoon became part of the regalia in 1603 and has been used in every coronation since. When the English Parliament melted the crown jewels in 1649, the spoon was the only piece of the regalia to escape. Instead of being destroyed, it was sold to Clement Kynnersley, a servant of the royal household, for 16 shillings. Once the monarchy was restored, Kynnersley returned the spoon to Charles II.

The Coronation Spoon. © Davenport, C. The Crown Jewels of England. London: Cassell & Co, 1919.

The Stone of Scone inside the Coronation Chair. © Smollett, T, E. Farr, and E.H. Nolan. The History of England. 1859.

The Coronation Chair & the Stone of Scone

The least ornate of all the coronations objects is the Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny. A large rectangular block of sandstone, the Stone of Scone was first used as a coronation throne by ancient Scottish kings. In 1296, King Edward I of England invaded Scotland and looted the Stone, taking it back to Westminster Abbey. There, he commissioned an elaborate “relic-case” for the Stone. This became the Coronation Chair, first used by Edward II in 1308.

Over six hundred years later, on December 25, 1950, four Scottish students from the University of Glasgow stole the Stone from Westminster Abbey and returned it to Scotland. Though the Stone was initially retrieved, it was formally repatriated to Scotland in 1996. It now resides in Edinburgh Castle, and only returns to England for royal coronations.

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