The history of royal crowns stretches back a long way to the end of the Neolithic period when communities of hunter-gatherers began settling into permanent areas. Royal crowns have long been a symbol of authority, power, and sovereignty and made from the most prestigious and rare materials possible. It’s likely that the concept for a crown was inspired by features of malehood like antlers, manes, and plumage. Read on to learn more about the long history of royal crowns and examples of the most famous.
Early Royal Crowns
The precursors of modern crowns included diadems worn by emperors beginning with Constantine I and then later rulers of the Roman Empire. Emperors of Rome wore the radiant crown (corona radiata) prior to conversion to Christianity. The most well-known example of the radiant crown can be seen on the Statue of Liberty.
In Pre-Columbian times, Native American tribes created crowns and other headdresses from rare feathers and other materials. The most well-known example is the Native American feather headdress or war bonnet, which was worn by about a dozen tribes like the Sioux, Cheyenne, Plains Cree, and Crow. Many of these war bonnets were made from golden eagle feathers, with each feather earned through bravery. War bonnets were only worn by male warriors and chiefs. Most tribes of Canada and the U.S. did not have royalty in the same sense as Europe.
The Highland Maya and Aztec Indians of Mexico and Central America also wore feathered headdresses made from the feathers of the macaw, parrot, and quetzal. The royal families in these cultures wore more magnificent feather headdresses with jade, gold, and jewels.
The pharaohs of the Egyptian civilization also wore unique and recognizable crowns. These crowns were used for religious purposes and to demonstrate authority. Each crown had its own meaning and its shape can be used to determine where in Egypt it came from. The Hedjet is the name for the smooth white crown of Upper Egypt that resembles a bowling pin. The pharaohs of Lower Egypt wore the red crown, which was likely made of leather or fabric. The Double Crown or Pschent combined both of these crowns after Egypt was unified. Pharaoh Djet of the First Dynasty was the first to wear the Double Crown.
Other early crowns also depart from the style many today recognize as a crown. Along with diadems, many royal families wore tiaras, which are usually not a full circle. Many tiaras feature ornate designs. Royal tiaras were common among Mesopotamian kings and the Assyrians.
The oldest crown in the world was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in a cave in 1961. This crown, made from blackened copper about 7 inches in diameter and 7 inches high, came from a culture that existed during the Copper Age, or 4500 to 3600 BCE. All that is known of this culture is their mastery of coppersmithing. The upper rim of this ancient crown features a hilt-shaped cross, two birds, stylized grills, and horns.
The Royal Coronation
In many cultures, especially in Europe, the crown was heavily associated with a coronation ceremony of crowning a new sovereign. The British Monarchy is best known for its coronation ceremony, which continues today. This practice has remained the same for more than 1,000 years and has occurred at Westminster Abbey in London for most of this history. The English coronation begins with the sovereign being presented to the people and swearing an oath before being anointed with holy oil, dressed with regalia, and crowned. The wife of the king is also anointed and crowned as the queen consort.
Many European coronations since the Middle Ages have incorporated elements of the Christian rite of anointing. European countries with a Christian tradition have monarchies whose power is granted by the church. Many Holy Roman Emperors even traveled to Rome so they could be crowned by the Pope. Coronations have persisted in some form since ancient times, however. Ancient Egyptian records even depict the coronation of Seti I in 1290 BC.
While coronations usually occur after the death of a sovereign, the practice of crowning an heir apparent became popular during the Middle Ages. This practice began with Capetian Kings of France who wanted to avoid disputes over succession by crowning their chosen heir. The practice spread to England, Hungary, and other kingdoms. In France, the last heir apparent crowned during his father’s life was Henry the Young King. As the practice died out throughout Europe, the last heir apparent who was crowned was Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in 1830.
The Use of Royal Crowns Today
Only two monarchies continue the tradition of crowned and anoited royals: the Tongan and British Monarchies. Other monarchies simply retain the crown as their national symbol. For example, the French Crown Jewels were sold in the 19th century by order of the Third French Republic while the Spanish Crown Jewels were destroyed in a fire.
Most nations with royalty safeguard their crowns and royal jewels to preserve their history and culture. Many of these crowns have been fought over, stolen, and recovered many times. The following are some of the most famous royal crowns and a bit of their history.
Imperial State Crown
This is perhaps the most recognizable crown in the world and it has existed since the 15th century. The Imperial State Crown, worn by Queen Elizabeth II, contains 3,000 diamonds, 300 pearls, 11 emeralds, 17 sapphires, and 5 rubies.
Crown of Baekje
These gold diadems were discovered in a tomb in 1971 and comes from the Korean kingdom of Baekje, which was founded in 18 BC. The Crown of Baekje refers to a pair of gold diadems with intricate branches shaped like flames and patterns resembling flowers at the top.
Crown of Saint Wenceslas
This crown was made for Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1347 when his kingdom includes parts of Hungary, Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Ukraine. The crown is made from 22k gold with 1 ruby, 44 spinels, 19 sapphires, 30 emeralds, and 20 pearls.
Crown of Bavaria
This crown was made by and for King Maximillian I. It’s best known for its Wittelsbach Diamond, a 31-carat blue diamond that rivals the Hope diamond and has been stolen and sold many times. The diamond was put up for auction when Bavaria become a republic but it was not purchased. It disappeared for years before reappearing at auction in 2008, selling for $23.4 million. Today, the Crown of Bavaria is worth $17 million on its own with a glass replica of the diamond but numerous precious gems.