In anticipation of the Coronation of King Charles III, a post originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, the magazine serving the community that includes Highgrove, the King’s country house in rural Gloucestershire
Anyone who has ever planned a celebratory event may sympathise with the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, tasked with masterminding the Coronation ceremony on 6th May. It is only the second Coronation to be televised. If anything goes wrong, it will be witnessed by millions of armchair critics as well as those present in person.
Not least of the Earl Marshal’s worries must be protecting the Crown Jewels as they leave the safety of the Tower of London.
Over the centuries, the Tower’s Yeomen Warders have guarded these national treasures as effectively as any modern technology might do.
Only once did a would-be thief come close to stealing the Crown Jewels. During the reign of Charles II, security was rather less formal than today. The official Keeper of the Crown Jewels lived in an apartment over a basement where they were kept behind a grille. Although the Tower was not open to the public, anyone could pay the Keeper for a private view of the Crown Jewels.
In 1671, the Irishman Colonel Thomas Blood, dressed as a clergyman to exude an air of innocence, did just that. He quickly put the Keeper out of action by hitting him with a mallet, then flattened the crown for ease of transport. After stuffing the orb down his breeches – not such a master of disguise as he believed – he realised the sceptre was too big to fit in his bag, so one of his accomplices tried to cut it in half. Not surprisingly, Blood and his gang were apprehended before they could leave the Tower’s grounds.
The official punishment for this act of treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Instead, Blood was pardoned by Charles II, who, bemused by the fellow’s nerve, granted him an estate worth £500 a year.
Equally audacious, but this time on the right side of the law, is the story of how in 1905 the world’s largest diamond, the Cullinan, a late addition to the Crown Jewels, was sent from South Africa to London. In the wake of the Boer Wars, the Transvaal government presented it as a conciliatory birthday gift to Edward VII.
In a bluff as bold as Blood’s, a replica of the huge gemstone was despatched from South Africa to London by ship, heavily guarded by detectives to suggest it was the real thing. Meanwhile the genuine article was packed into a plain box and sent by registered post, arriving safe and sound.
It was subsequently cut into smaller, more manageable parts. The largest piece, the heart-shaped Cullinan I, now tops the Sovereign’s Royal Sceptre, while the second largest, the Cullinan II, has been incorporated into the band of the Imperial State Crown.
I’m sure the Coronation will go brilliantly – this nation does these things so well – and I for one will enjoy it all the more for now knowing a little of the history of some of the King’s ceremonial accessories.
God Save the King – and the Crown Jewels!