I suspect that many Scots will be only vaguely aware that we have our own set of Crown Jewels, which are considerably different from the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. They are much older and (in my far from humble opinion) much more beautiful than those in London. The Scottish Crown Jewels are ‘The Honours of Scotland’, collectively they are the regalia that was worn by Scottish kings and queens at their coronations. Now kept in Edinburgh Castle, they date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and are the oldest surviving set of crown jewels in the British Isles. They consist of a crown, a sword and a sceptre.
Princes born in exile, elegant monsters from unexplored depths, woven woollen fabric and the music squeezed from a sheep’s stomach; the Scots have placed their affections in some strange places throughout their battle-worn history
Some, such as King Macbeth and William Wallace, have made their way from history to mythology; others—the Stone of Destiny—for instance, came from mythology to a very solid reality. Only the “Honours” have made the journey from history to mythology and back again to reality.
Asked to imagine Crown Jewels, people the world over will picture the crown and sceptre on display at the Tower of London, but these are relative newcomers in terms of British Royal regalia. For real antiquity, we need to look at the Honours that are lovingly displayed in Edinburgh Castle—but their journey to the hearts of the Scottish people actually began far from the mist and mountains. It began in Rome.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, while kingdoms waxed and waned, while neighbours slaughtered each other over continually changing borders, the power came at the point of a sword or rode on lumbering war horses. One power, however, had authority over kings, princes, and freedom fighters: the Vatican.
The British Isles were a collection of Catholic countries and feared the ultimate sanction of excommunication. King Robert I of Scotland, or The Bruce, had defied the papacy in his quest for power, but constantly sent envoys to Rome in attempts to win back favour. What use, after all, was power in this life if you were denied heaven in the next?
As a result of these entreaties, Scotland was declared a “special daughter” of the Holy See. Gifts from the pope to any nation brought a significance and prestige well beyond the monetary value of the objects themselves. They were honours from a power that claimed a higher kingdom than any on Earth.
The oldest of the papal gifts that would eventually constitute the Scottish Regalia was presented to King James IV by Pope Alexander VI in 1494. The sceptre is a golden hexagonal rod, topped by a finial ball of rock crystal. The crystal is supported by golden dolphins and depictions of Saint Andrew, Saint James and the Virgin and Child. Its finial bears several symbols of Christianity including stylised dolphins, emblems of Jesus Christ’s Church. A rock crystal, probably from Scotland’s Cairngorms, and a pearl sit at its crest.
Thirteen years later Pope Julius II presented James with a “Blessed Sword.” Not such a surprising gift, perhaps, from “the warrior Pope”. The Blessed Sword and its gold-and-silver scabbard were crafted by Dominico da Sutri during the High Renaissance, reflecting the ornately decorative style of the time. The quillons of the handle are stylized dolphins, representing the church. The blade has etched upon it, “JULIUS II PONT MAX,” or Julius II Supreme Pontiff. A woven silk-and-gold-thread sword belt complements the set.
No Regalia would be complete without a crown, and for this the Scots looked closer to home. Tradition has it that The Bruce was crowned (in a hurry) with a rude circle of gold. Kings after him had the circle adorned with fleur de lis and, judging from the number of times it was repaired; it was treated with no great respect. Next to the sword and sceptre, used at the crowning of James V’s young wife, Mary, the current crown must have looked shabby indeed, for James immediately had it remodelled
James V had the crown made in 1540 from the earlier Scottish crown, which was by then very badly damaged, Edinburgh goldsmith John Mosman remodelled the crown, adding 41 ounces of gold (mined from Upper Clydesdale) to the circlet which is encrusted with 23 gemstones and 20 precious stones taken from the previous crown, 68 freshwater pearls from Scotland’s rivers were also included,
The circlet at the base is made from Scottish gold, encrusted with 22 gemstones and 20 precious stones taken from the previous crown. Freshwater pearls from Scotland’s rivers were also used. The crown weighs 1.64kg.Four arches from the old crown were also added. These feature oak leaves made of gold and red enamel. An ornate gold and dark blue enamel orb with small stars sits on top. A gold cross, mounted on top of the orb, is studded with a large amethyst and eight pearls. On the back of the cross is the mark “IR5”, meaning ‘Jacobus Rex V’. It’s thought that the orb is the work of a French craftsman, bought by James V in Paris in 1537. A purple velvet cap and ermine bonnet were added to the metalwork. King James VII/II (1633-1701) preferred to wear it with a red cap. The crown weighs 1.64kg.To make the 4 pounds of gold and jewels easier to wear, James ordered a silk, satin and fur bonnet fixed to the inside.
Days after the birth of his daughter, James V died. The country was at war, so the infant was smuggled to safety in Stirling Castle. There, baby Mary was anointed queen. The sceptre was placed in her tiny hand, the sword laid across her and the crown lowered to her forehead. Throughout the first use of the Honours of Scotland at a coronation, Mary Queen of Scots cried continuously.
When her son, James VI, was less than a year old, his mother was forced to abdicate, and he became the second infant crowned by the Honours. For the next 25 years, James VI ruled Scotland, until the death of Elizabeth I of England tantalized him with the prospect of greater riches and higher estate. As James I of England, he paid scant regard to the land of his birth, and in his absence the Honours took on a more royal role, representing the king at the Scottish Parliament, the tapping of each new act by the sceptre giving royal assent.
If James treated Scotland with disregard, his son Charles I treated it with blatant disrespect, only traveling north for his Scottish coronation eight years after acceding to the English throne. Lacking the diplomatic talents of his father, Charles set about making enemies and sowing the seeds of the English Civil War.
Had they respected him more, the Scots might not have handed Charles over to Oliver Cromwell, but they could never have foreseen the consequences of their action the execution of a king. As Cromwell set about destroying the monarchy and all its symbols, Scotland immediately proclaimed the harried young prince King Charles II, on the same Scone hill where once Bruce had been crowned. Cromwell was furious. He had already destroyed the English Crown Jewels and, next to the king himself, the Honours were the most potent symbol of monarchy remaining.
A ragged and desperate band of Scots soldiers rode ahead of Cromwell’s men with the regalia, finally stopping at Dunottar Castle off the coast of Aberdeenshire. Surrounded by sea on three sides and approached by a narrow, precipitous path, Dunottar had been unassailable in previous generations, and the 70 soldiers defended their treasure for eight months.
Eventually, Cromwell’s commanders called for cannons, and the bombardment of the castle began. When Scotland’s soldiers could hold out no longer, the common folk stepped up and did their bit.
Christine Granger, the local minister’s wife, obtained permission from the commanding English officer to visit the lady of the castle. After her visit, the same officer assisted Mrs. Granger and her servant in mounting their cart. If only this fine gentleman had known—the crown and the sceptre were under her clothes! The sword and scabbard, broken now to disguise their length, were wrapped in the bale of flax her servant carried.
Perhaps thinking there are few places more sacrosanct than a minister’s bed, the Rev. James Granger kept the Honours hidden there for several weeks. For the rest of Cromwell’s reign, they were buried under flagstones in the village church, with the minister and his wife digging them up at midnight once a month to clean and polish them.
Mrs Granger was awarded 2000 merks by the Scottish Parliament for her bravery. Her minister husband, who may have been tortured by Cromwell’s soldiers, died and she re-married becoming Lady Abercrombie.
After Cromwell’s death, the Honours were restored to Charles II, but they would never again be used to crown a monarch. Instead, they became the embodiment of the Crown in Scotland, their principal roles being at the opening of each session of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament, however, was not to last. With the Acts of Union of 1707, both English and Scottish parliaments were dissolved. The difference for English parliamentarians must have been minimal with their institution being immediately recreated as the British Parliament. In Scotland, it was a more sombre occasion, marked as “the end of a long sang.”
The Honours now had no use, symbolic or otherwise. A poem composed for the crown declared:
I, royal diadem, relinquished
By all my friends and robbed of
So left bereft of all I did
They were locked in an oak chest and placed in Edinburgh Castle’s Crown Room. The door was bricked up. From here on the Honours temporarily left the real world and slipped into the lands of myth, rumour, and even propaganda.
With succeeding garrisons and commanding officers holding the castle, the memory of the Honours was all but lost. When, in 1794, the lieutenant governor of the castle opened the room to look for some papers, he saw a dusty chest in a corner and gave it a shake. Having no authority to open it and deciding it was empty anyway, he left and had the doorway bricked up again.
Almost invisible they may have been, but that didn’t mean they could not be used. Scottish separatists, tired of London rule, declared the Honours were in the Tower of London being shown to a chosen few, they had been smuggled to France, they had been melted down. Each option guaranteed to fan the flame of nationalism in the Scottish breast.
In an attempt to calm this unrest, the author Sir Walter Scott petitioned the Prince Regent (the future George IV) for permission, searched for and found the Honours.
Such was Scott’s facility for words that centuries later he is remembered with statues in Edinburgh and New York’s Central Park. But as he watched the chest pried open he could “hardly express” his feelings. Scott knew well the upheaval that might be caused should the chest be found to be empty.
It was evident,” he wrote, “the removal of Regalia might have greatly irritated people’s minds here and offered a fair pretext of breaking the Union.” The echo of the workmen’s tools had half convinced Scott the chest would be empty, but leaning deep into the shadows, he lifted aside a woollen blanket and withdrew the sword. It was, he wrote: “A most beautiful piece….The scabbard is richly decorated with filigree work of silver, double gilded…executed in a taste worthy of that classical age.” Then, with masterly understatement Scott informs posterity, “The fate of these Regalia, which his Royal Highness’s goodness has thus restored to light and honour, has on one or two occasions been singular enough.”His next concern was that the Honours should be made available to public gaze—for a reasonable charge! The Honours and the Stewart Jewels that accompanied them were put on display in the same Crown Room where they had slumbered for 111 years. Since then they have left their home only thrice. Since 1819, the Honours have been on public display in the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle, together with the Stewart and the Lorne Jewels.
In 1939, with the Nazi storm raging across Europe, the Honours were taken into the castle cellars and covered with sandbags. When a German invasion began to look like a realistic possibility, more imaginative measures were needed. The Crown and Stewart Jewels were placed in a zinc-lined case and buried beneath a castle latrine. The sceptre and sword of the state were bricked up in a wall. The location of these hiding places was sent to the Governor-General in faraway Canada.
After the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a National Service of Thanksgiving was held. Scotland’s highest-ranking nobles, bareheaded out of respect for their precious burdens, carried the Honours from the castle to the High Kirk of St. Giles, where they were received by Her Majesty.
On Thursday, July 1, 1999, Queen Elizabeth II opened the first session of the Scottish Parliament to sit for 300 years. In a reminder that they are vastly more than museum pieces, the Honours, which had seen the closure of the last parliament, were laid before Her Majesty in the new parliament building.
Having survived the vagaries and brutality of centuries of Scottish history, having been held in the highest esteem, buried in a church and entombed in a dusty oak coffin, the Honours were once again centre stage in history, back at the heart of Scottish life.
The Honours of Scotland fell and still fall under the jurisdiction of four men titled the Commissioners for the Keeping of the Regalia, the incumbent Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, Lord Advocate, Lord Justice Clerk and the Lord Clerk Register.
In 1822 the tartan-wearing form of King George IV paid a celebratory visit to Scotland to view the Scottish regalia. He was the first monarch to stay at the Palace of Holyrood for almost 200 years.
When the Queen opens the Scottish parliament the regalia is carried ahead of her in a procession called the Riding of Parliament. The duty of holding the crown jewels falls to Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 16th Duke of Hamilton, the Hereditary Bearer of the Crown of Scotland.
It is well worth the visit to Edinburgh Castle to see the Honours, not least because they are things of great beauty and antiquity, the oldest regalia in Britain and among the oldest still-surviving Crown Jewels in the world. They are not the original Crown Jewels of Scotland – they were stolen by King Edward I in 1296 and never recovered.
Unlike the English Crown Jewels which Colonel Thomas Blood almost managed to steal in 1671, no one has ever actually stolen Scotland’s Honours.
Cromwell put Scotland under the military and political command of General George Monck and at Cromwell’s direction, Scottish institutions such as the Parliament, the courts and the Scottish monarchy were suspended, despite Charles II having been crowned King at Scone – and yes, Charles used the Honours. Cromwell also ordered the transfer of Scottish historical documents to London, many of which were lost, and ordered the seizure of the Honours. He was serious about locating and destroying them, as Cromwell destroyed the English Crown Jewels, which is why the Jewels in the Tower are mainly replicas made after the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II, whereas the Honours of Scotland are the originals.
Other jewels feature alongside the Honours. They include the four Stewart Jewels, a locket, a Great George and collar, and a ruby ring which King James VII and II took with him in to exile when William III and Mary II usurped his throne
Becoming a king or queen means a big lavish celebration with lots of fancy traditions. Scottish ceremonies were no different – monarchs here wore a jewel encrusted crown, while holding an elaborate sword and a sceptre.
After the Treaty of Union in 1707, they weren’t needed so, just like in a fairy-tale, they were locked away in a chest in Edinburgh Castle and forgotten about for over 100 years.
There is break in the blade due to the sword being snapped in two in 1652 so that it could be smuggled away from Cromwell and his troops