The history of the display of the Crown Jewels to the public only really begins after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Before then, the old regalia was stored, together with the royal plate, in a building adjacent to the White Tower, erected by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Immediately after the coronation of Charles II in 1661, the new regalia, made for the occasion, was placed there but this was only a temporary solution for in 1669, the lower chamber of the Martin Tower, situated in the north-east corner of the inner Nard, was designated as their new home. The jewels were to be placed in the lower chamber and the Keeper of the Jewels was moved from his residence near the old Jewel House in Coldharbour to the upper Martin Tower in June 1669.
The apartments on the first floor of the tower were not in fact occupied by Sir Gilbert Talbot, the Master of the Jewel House, who had no wish to live there but by a deputy called Talbot Edwards. Edwards had no salary as Talbot could not afford to pay him one, and so he was licensed to show the regalia to visitors in return for a small fee. This was done very informally to begin with, Edwards taking the regalia out of a locked cupboard to show it. But in 1671 the inevitable occurred someone took advantage of the lax and informal arrangements and attempted to steal the Crown Jewels.
Colonel Thomas Blood's attempt to steal the Crown Jewels was very professionally planned and, was, in the end, only foiled by bad luck. In April 1671, he visited Talbot Edwards to view the jewels disguised as a clergyman, with a female accomplice, supposedly his wife. Further visits ensued and as Mr. and Mrs. Edwards became friends with their pious visitors, it emerged that a match might be made between Edwards's daughter and a nephew of Blood's. A date was therefore arranged for the young couple to meet.
On the 9th May, Blood arrived for his appointment with three accomplices, one of whom was his alleged nephew and the prospective suitor. While they waited for Mrs. Edwards and her daughter to come down, Blood suggested that they view the Crown Jewels. On opening the jewel House for his visitors, Edwards was coshed, bound and gagged. Blood, acting quickly, seized the crown and put it under his cape, one accomplice thrust the orb into his breeches while the third grabbed the sceptre. To this point, the raid had gone like clockwork but suddenly their luck ran out as Edwards's son unexpectedly appeared on leave from his regiment in Flanders. His arrival caused the robbers to flee, dropping the sceptre and making for waiting horses on the Wharf. There, they were apprehended and taken into custody.
All this ended the informal arrangements for viewing the regalia set up after the Restoration. An armed guard was now provided and when visitors were admitted again there was a broadsheet listing the jewels on show. It was, in effect, the first edition of this guidebook and almost all the items listed in it are still on display today.
Visiting the Jewels in the 18th Century
Visiting the jewels in the early 18th century with broadsheet in hand was a very different experience to that which visitors have today. Visitors were locked into the lower Martin Tower, an armed guard was posted outside and they were seated on benches from which the regalia could be viewed. For a small additional fee, visitors could reach through the bars, feel the weight of the jewels and even try on the armills. The room was windowless and candles and lanterns flickered in the gloom.
The keepers were wholly responsible for the display of the regalia and this inevitably led to problems. The Keeper of the Jewels between 1702 and 1719 was Talbot Edwards Junior. He became increasingly worried about their security and decided to replace, at his own expense, the rather flimsy wooden bars protecting the jewels with iron ones. On his death in 1719, his executors announced that the bars were theirs and that they were going to remove them. The Office of Works had to pay £148s 4d to buy the bars and secure the safety of the jewels.
Another incident in 1815 led to more changes being made to the displays. That year, a woman visitor (later found by a magistrate to be insane) got hold of the State Crown and wrenched its arches apart causing over £10 worth of damage. This and the poor quality of the Keeper's accommodation led to a major modernisation of the Jewel House. In 1816, the jewels were removed and over £730 were spent on modernising the display and the residence above. A rail was introduced to keep the public away from the regalia, turntables were installed and on them, under glass cases, were placed the State Crown and the Exeter Salt. Eventually oil lamps, for better viewing, were provided. Rut conditions were still not ideal and there were complaints that the new bars were so close together that no-one could see the jewels.
Plans for a new Jewel House
Improvements to the display and the general popularity of the regalia made the office of the Keeper of the Jewel House a very lucrative one. In the early 1830s, he was earning up to C1550 a year, a considerable sum. After 1838 when the entrance fee to the Tower as a whole was reduced, there was a surge of visitors and the Keeper's income soared to £1500 a year. The Treasury, hardly surprisingly, was unwilling for this situation to continue. It bore the liabilities for the display and received none of the benefits. So in 1840, new arrangements were planned. A new jewel house would be built which would provide better viewing facilities and admit more people. An entrance charge of 6d would be levied and the Keeper put on a fixed salary. Unfortunately, these plans were held up by the next great event in the history of the Crown Jewels the Fire of 1841.
The Fire of 1841
On the night of 30-31st October 1841, the Great Storehouse directly adjacent to the Jewel Tower went up in flames. It was impossible to know where the fire would stop and there were fears for the safety of the jewels. Before long the decision was taken to evacuate them. Unfortunately in the interests of security the keys were in the possession of the Lord Chamberlain whose whereabouts was unknown and so it was decided to force the bars of the case apart with a crowbar to remove the jewels. The superintendent of police himself pulled the jewels out of the partially demolished display case and only with extreme difficulty managed to extract the Plymouth Fountain which was too large to fit through the forced opening.
The 1842 Jewel House
After the fire, the jewels were not returned to public display until March 1842 when they were installed in a new Jewel House next to the Martin lower. This incorporated several innovations for visitors. The jewels were now in a glass cage in the middle of the room which allowed visitors to circulate round them. This was surrounded by a low stone wall topped with a railing. The room was lit by large windows.
All this sounds like a great improvement, much better than the displays which were formally in the tiny medieval basement of the Martin Tower. But there were severe problems with the new display reflection on the glass made the jewels impossible to see; the light was in the wrong place; the building was damp and both fire and security inspectors condemned it as seriously inadequate. Only 12 years after its completion, the Duke of Wellington said that the new Jewel House ought to be demolished. This was easier said than done because a suitable space had to be found for an alternative display elsewhere in the Tower of London.
The 1868 Jewel House
Eventually a proposal was made which allowed space to be found on the first floor of the Wakefield Tower and a residence for the Keeper to be formed in St Thomas's Tower next door. The cost of the works, to be undertaken by the architect Anthony Sabin', was £3,181. Work started in August 1867 removing much of the medieval interior of the Wakefield Tower, inserting a new stone vault and building a bridge to link it with St Thomas's Tower. A new display case was designed by Salvin, surrounded by a magnificent Gothic grill. Inside it, the Crown Jewelers, Garrard & Co. Ltd, designed a new setting for the jewels at a cost of €510. The new building received the jewels in April 1868. The Wakefield Tower remained the home of the Crown Jewels for almost exactly 100 years, during which time the display case itself was refurbished twice, in the interests of greater security and better presentation.
After the Second World War, there was talk of moving the jewels from the Wakefield Tower to a more spacious and secure location. A scheme was devised to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II whereby the jewels would be moved to the Waterloo Barracks. This was abandoned, but during the 1950s suggestions were made for an underground bomb-proof Jewel House, one near the Lanthorn Tower and another under Chapel Green. For various reasons, neither of these came to fruition. By 1960 visitor pressure on the Jewel House was enormous on peak days there were over 1,250 visitors, and so the decision was taken to build a new underground Jewel House near the Waterloo Barracks. This was completed in 1967 and the jewels were installed there in a star-shaped case by the designer Alan Irvine.
The underground Jewel House was home to the jewels right through the Cold War, through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. During this time the display was refurbished twice, most recently in 1988. By then, up to 15,000 people a day were descending the 49 steps to see the jewels causing queues up to an hour long. These queues were the principal factor which led to a decision in 1992 to bring the jewels up to the surface again and put them in a much enlarged space on the ground floor of the Waterloo Barracks. The new Jewel House was opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 24th March 1994.
Writer – Kenneth Mears