Crown jewels go on show for major new exhibition

The imperial state crown – as seen on postage stamps – will be on display for a new exhibition of the crown jewels at the Tower of London. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty

A major exhibition of the crown jewels with new music, restored film footage of the Queen’s coronation in 1953, and new lighting producing an almost blinding glitter from some of the world’s most famous bling, had to be organised during overnight sessions at the Tower of London because the authorities dared not close their most popular attraction. The new display formally opens to visitors on Thursday but can in fact be viewed a little later than usual on Wednesday.

Like the artist Lucian Freud, who when he painted the Queen asked her to wear “the crown on the postage stamps”, 2.5 million visitors from all over the world arrive every year determined to see the enormous diamonds among 23,578 gems in the collection. The imperial state crown alone holds 2,969 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, and 11 emeralds.

Some of the diamonds are bigger than walnuts, including the Cullinan I – found in 1905 and once the largest uncut diamond ever discovered – and the 105 carat Koh-i-Noor, which Indian politicians regularly optimistically call to have returned to their country.

The regalia – minus the jewels that King John lost when his baggage train was swamped by the incoming tide of the Wash in 1216 – dates back to early medieval times, but was broken up at the Tower in the Commonwealth after the civil war, and had to be reinvented for the coronation of Charles II in 1661.

Ten years later the magnificently named Colonel Thomas Blood made an appointment to see them and with accomplices bashed the elderly Jewel House keeper over the head, tied him up and stabbed him. They were in the process of crushing or sawing up pieces, or stuffing them down their trousers, when they were captured. To the lasting delight of conspiracy theorists, Charles II gave Blood a pardon and a pension.

The display cases have to be impregnable to thieves but easily accessible to those authorised. The regalia is still a working collection: on state opening of parliament days and other grand occasions, visitors find small cards stating “in use” instead of the crown from the postage stamps.

Source: The Guardian