King Charles 1st and his French Queen, Henrietta Maria by Anthony Van Dyck
Henrietta Maria and the English Crown Jewels
Who owns the British Crown Jewels? If asked, what would you say: the monarchy; the reigning monarch of the time; the State or the people of Great Britain?
The question itself represents just about everything in dispute in the United Kingdom during the period leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1646), a time when ‘ordinary people’ were trying to limit the power of a monarchy that considered it reigned through ‘divine right’. Charles 1st believed he could rule without Parliament and had the right to raise taxes as he saw fit to cover his expenses. That is an over-simplification, but it is how many commoners in towns and villages interpreted his actions. Ongoing disputes finally led to a vicious war between Parliamentarians, known as Roundheads because of their short hair, and Royalists, who fought to keep Charles 1st on the throne.
As a means of raising funds for the Royalist cause and her husband in particular, King Charles I’s French-born Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), tried to pawn and sell a large part of the Crown Jewels during the early 1640s. Her attitude was that they were the property of the reigning monarch, not the State. When considering Henrietta Maria’s attitude one must bear in mind that she was the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France and the much loathed Marie de Medici, and that she was married to a Stuart, who, as mentioned above, believed entirely in the divine right of kings. Other factors that may have led Henrietta Maria to take financial matters into her own hands were the knowledge that her husband was not ‘good with money’ and her Medici ancestry. Needless to say, her actions met with major opposition from the British Parliament. But it became more than a question of ethics as Parliament actively tried to thwart Henrietta Maria’s attempts to finance the Royalists.
In July 1641, a year prior to the actual start of the war, the House of Commons drew the attention of King Charles to the fact:
That the House of Commons have received Information of great Quantities of Treasure, in Jewels, Plate, and ready Money, packed up, to be conveyed away with the Queen, not only in such a Proportion as the present Occasions, with due respects to Her Majesty’s Honour, may seem to require; but a far greater Quantity; and that divers Papists, and others, under the Pretence of Her Majesty’s Goods, are like to convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace. (JHC 2: 15 July 1641)
It was already evident to Parliamentarians that Henrietta Maria was in the process of obtaining money or credit with the aim of acquiring guns, ammunition and mercenary support for the Royalists. The view of the Commons was that all gemstones, regalia and plate in the possession of a monarch were part of the Crown Jewels, ‘owned’ not by the monarchy but by the State.
This was just the beginning. On 11 March, 1642, Henrietta Maria arrived in The Hague and set about selling and pawning precious objects she had brought with her from England. One contemporary report placed a total value of 1,265,300 guilders on the various items. (To get a perspective on this sum, an artisan and his family could live reasonably well for a year on the 300 guilders). The jewels, silver and gold came from three interlinked sources: items belonging to King Charles, jewels belonging to Henrietta Maria, and items forming part of the State collection known as the Crown Jewels. But while being astute in money matters Henrietta Maria had overlooked one important fact – her ardent Catholicism. As David Humphreys says in ‘To Sell the Crown Jewels’ *
“The sale of precious objects by an English Catholic (albeit not an English Catholic of average status) in Protestant Holland, under circumstances clearly motivated by political needs, was a task of enormous difficulty at best. That fact was brought home to Henrietta Maria when the first formal viewing of the items for would-be buyers was conducted at the New Palace in The Hague’s Staedt Straat in mid-March 1642. Many of those who attended were pro-Parliament in sympathy and questioned the queen’s right to sell any of the items on show—particularly those items considered to be specifically from the Crown Jewels collection. The queen insisted she had rights of ownership and could prove them with a document signed by King Charles and, therefore, had the right to sell. Those present baulked at the enormous sums expected for the most magnificent of the items on show: two collars, one of which was described as the ‘ruby collar’. Their response grew even more negative when it was made clear that payment for items was expected in specie.”
The Queen did manage to pawn a number of items while in The Hague, but the most valuable remained unsold. In the end she was only able to raise funds on that which was clearly in her personal possession. Unwilling to accept defeat, she then tried to pawn items on the Antwerp and Amsterdam markets, then either sell or pawn the larger of two hugely valuable ruby and pearl collars to the King of Denmark.
A letter dated 2 June, 1642, sent from Amsterdam, was read to the House of Commons on the 11 June by Sir Walter Erle:
That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. … (JHC 2: 11 June 1642).
Another letter from an unnamed correspondent but someone close to the Queen was later read to the House of Lords.
I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me. (JHL 5: 11 June 1642).
Henrietta Maria did succeed in raising some finance, though. In Amsterdam a man named Webster advanced 140,000 guilders on her rubies and pendant pearls, the Burgomaster of Rotterdam offered 40,000 guilders on unnamed items and Fletchers of The Hague 126,000 guilders. Compared to what the Dutch had been spending on tulip bulbs between 1635 and 1637 these were not vast sums. By January 1643, Henrietta Maria eventually disposed of or pledged most if not all of the items considered to be her own, but when she set sail from Holland a month later she still had many of the items taken out of England, including the famed Three Brethren jewel.
The Three Brethren comprised of a massive pyramid-cut wine-yellow diamond surrounded by three square-cut spinel rubies and three large pearls set in pronged brackets rather than in elaborate goldwork. The centre diamond, of a most unusual cut, weighed approximately 30 carats. In the early 15th century it had been described as the largest faceted diamond in Europe. The jewel was said to have been commissioned as a shoulder-clasp for John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy from 1404 to his assassination in 1419. His grandson, Charles the Bold, owned it in 1467 when his inventory describes it as “Un Gros Dyamant Pointé a Fass”. It was then possibly sold to or via a banker called Fugger, and came into the possession of Henry VIII in England circa 1546. In 1551 it belonged to Henry’s only son, Edward VI.
On Edward’s death, the magnificent Three Brethren passed into the hands of his elder sister Mary, then became a favourite jewel of Elizabeth I. It features in several of her portraits including the famous ‘ermine portrait’. Subsequent portraits of James 1st of England, VI of Scotland show him wearing the Three Brethren as well.
What happened to the Three Brethren during the Civil War is uncertain. Various theories suggest it was sold, or pawned but not retrieved, in Amsterdam or Antwerp; that three more diamonds were added to it and it was renamed the Three Sisters; that Cardinal Mazarin, who collected valuable gemstones, acquired it along with the debts he purchased from Henrietta Maria. One theory says the jewel was adapted and offered for sale through Henrietta Maria’s agent, a ‘Monsieur Cletstex’ of the Bank of Lombardy in Rotterdam. What really happened to the Three Brethren is open for speculation . . . and this is where the third story in the Ludo da Portovenere trilogy begins.
In 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to her last child in England then, gravely ill, returned to her homeland of France. Despite ill-health and lack of a permanent home (she was not welcome in Paris at the time and moved between various towns until finally allotted a suite in St Germaine) she continued to pawn and/or sell items considered to be the Crown Jewels to raise funds for the floundering Royalist army in England. Parliament maintained watchful spies but Henrietta succeeded in raising money and credit in various European markets until her husband was imprisoned.
The remaining items of royal regalia left in England were broken up to finance the Roundheads, or melted down to be made into more useful items. The very last of the valuables kept in the Tower of London were then nearly lost forever in 1671 when the infamous Colonel Blood made a daring attempt to steal them, only to be captured at the east gate with the crown, sceptre and orb in a sack.
Numerous authors have incorporated these deeds into historical fiction, not least because somewhere there are antique, now priceless gemstones that once belonged to the English monarchy – or ‘the people’ – in private hands.
This post was originally hosted on the English Historical Authors’ blog in September, 2017. See: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es
- *For a more detailed analysis of Henrietta Maria’s attempts to raise money for Charles 1st see: To Sell England’s Jewels: Queen Henrietta Maria’s visits to the Continent, 1642 and 1644 by David HUMPHREY: https://erea.revues.org/3715