The Crown Jewels were originally kept in Westminster Abbey, but after they were stolen in 1303 they were moved to the Tower of London. Although they were recovered, most of them didn’t survive Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. After Charles I’s execution, Cromwell ordered all the treasure to be “totally broken, and that they melt down all the gold and silver, and sell the jewels to the best advantage of the Commonwealth”, and so apart from three swords and the Coronation Spoon, everything on display originates from after the restoration of the monarchy.
For a while they were kept in the Martin Tower and nearly disappeared again in 1671 after Thomas Blood made off with them but was caught before he got past Tower Wharf.
During the 19th century the Duke of Wellington was Constable of the Tower and the Waterloo Barracks were built to provide accommodation for nearly a thousand soldiers, and this is where the Crown Jewels are now kept.
Entry is through the front entrance which leads to a series of small rooms giving an introduction to the history and the jewels themselves.
Viewing the Coronation Regalia, as it’s also known, is by means of a slow-moving walkway, which I think works pretty well. The items on display are world renowned and the information boards will tell you all you need to know.
Some of the highlights are: –
- The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross – which includes the Star of Africa diamond (the largest colourless cut diamond in the world at 530.2 carats)
- The Imperial State Crown – which has 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 5 rubies and 273 pearls
- The crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – which includes the Koh-I-Noor diamond
There are others including St. Edward’s Crown, the Sovereign’s Orb – and not forgetting the 800 year old Coronation Spoon.
As you might gather, photography isn’t allowed inside the Crown Jewels, and the same applies to the Chapel Royal ad Vincula.
Its Anglicized name of the Chapel Royal of St. Peter in Chains has nothing to do with prisoners in the tower, but the chopping block on Tower Green isn’t far away.
All those that were executed there, including the three Queens, are buried here, as are some that were beheaded on Tower Hill, such as Sir Thomas More and John Fisher.
The chapel was originally a parish church until it was brought inside the Tower walls by Henry III. It became, and still is, a chapel for the community of the Tower of London.
It was rebuilt by Henry’s son, Edward I, and again during Henry VIII’s reign in 1519/20, and basically this is what we see today.
To visit this atmospheric little chapel, you’ll either need to join a Yeoman Warder’s Tour, visit within the last hour of normal opening times, or go to one of the services – but whichever you choose try not to miss it.
Believe it or not those who got executed on Tower Green were the lucky ones. Beheadings within the Tower precincts were reserved for the most prominent figures in society, but for the majority of prisoners in the tower who were sentenced to death, they had to face the indignity of having their head severed from the rest of their body in front of a large unruly crowd on Tower Hill.
There were in actual fact only seven people that were beheaded within the Tower precincts and three of those were Queens – Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (1536), his fifth wife, Catherine Howard (1542) and Lady Jane Grey (1554) who was Queen for just 9 days.
The Countess of Salisbury (1541) seemed to suffer the most as the axe man took eleven goes before he could finish the job off. The other three executed here were William Hastings in 1483, Jane Boleyn (1542) and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1601).
In 2006, a more artistic memorial replaced the rather plain one that was here before. Designed by Brian Catling, he also includes three members of the Black Watch that were shot here by firing squad for mutiny in 1743.
There were more executions by firing squad elsewhere within the Tower in the 20th century. During WW1 there were eleven shot for spying and in WW2 Josef Jakobs, a German, faced the firing squad for the same thing and was the last man to be shot in the Tower. The chair on which he was sat for the execution is in the Armouries vaults.