When it comes to royal succession, ceremony is sacred. And for the British monarchy, a key element of ceremony are objects that have become imbued with symbolism over the centuries. During King Charles III’s coronation at Westminster Abbey, regalia are featured as the United Kingdom anoints the new monarch as the God-given ruler of the kingdom and head of the Church of England.
Here are five royal objects and what they symbolize:
1. The Coronation Spoon
The oldest piece of coronation regalia is the coronation spoon from the 12th century. It is used to anoint the new monarch with holy oil, “thus infusing him or her with God’s spirit and rendering them unassailable,” explains Tracy Borman, author of Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy. She says the ritual can trace its roots to Saxon chieftains who were anointed with oil from a horn, similar to the ritual described in the Old Testament Book of Kings to anoint King Solomon. The Act of Consecration is considered so sacred that it was the only part of Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony hidden from cameras.
There’s a dark reason why the spoon is so much older than all the other elements of the coronation regalia: The monarchy was temporarily abolished during the English Civil Wars. After King Charles I was beheaded, the coronation regalia was melted down to make coins and the gems sold. The spoon was spared, bought for 16 shillings by a Mr. Kynnersley, who had been in charge of Charles I’s wardrobe. He returned the spoon when Charles II was crowned king during the English Restoration.
2. The Imperial State Crown
The Imperial State Crown, which was on display on top of Queen Elizabeth II's coffin, was designed for King George VI’s coronation in 1937. It is the crown the monarch wears as they leave Westminster Abbey after the coronation ceremony and the one used on ceremonial occasions like the State Opening of Parliament.
Like St. Edward’s Crown, it is a closed imperial crown with arches that form a cross above the sovereign’s head. “It reflects the idea that nobody has authority over you except God. You are not subordinate to the pope or another king to whom you would swear fealty,” says Andrew R. Walkling, a professor at Binghamton University focused on early modern Britain and the English Court.
Queen Elizabeth II called the Imperial State crown “unwieldy” during an interview with the BBC, and it’s easy to see why: Its 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, four rubies, and 269 pearls are quite a load to bear and weigh in at over 1 kilogram. The crown is also heavy with history: Henry V allegedly wore The Black Prince’s Ruby at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and St. Edward’s Sapphire, which adorns the cross above the monde, is said to be taken from the saint’s ring.
3. St. Edward's Crown
St. Edward’s Crown was made in 1661 for Charles II to replace the crown melted down by parliamentarians during the interregnum. The original was worn by Edward the Confessor and is considered a holy relic after his canonization in 1161.
“The whole point of recreating the regalia and making it look as much as possible like the originals is to gloss over the interregnum,” says Walkling.
“When Charles II became king in 1660, he did not date his reign from the moment of his restoration; he dates it from the moment of his father’s execution. They wanted to create as much continuity as possible,” Walkling says.
St. Edward’s Crown was damaged in 1671 when parliamentarian Thomas Blood flattened it with a mallet and stuffed it beneath his cloak to steal it. He was later pardoned and the crown returned to its original glory.
St. Edward’s Crown is used for the moment of coronation and is otherwise kept on display in the Tower of London, where visitors can see its solid gold frame, ermine band, and the over 400 stones that make it sparkle.
4. The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross
“The sceptre is part of a longstanding tradition of a staff as a symbol of office. You can see it in ancient Egyptian paintings and Persian relief carvings,” says Walkling. During Queen Elizabeth II's funeral, the sceptre was among the objects adorning her coffin.
At the coronation ceremony, the Bishop of Canterbury hands the sceptre to the new monarch and says: “Receive the rod of Equity and Mercy. Be so merciful that you be not too remiss; so execute justice that you forget not mercy. Punish the wicked, protect and cherish the just, and lead your people in the way wherein they should go.”
Monarchs have added to the sceptre’s design over time. In 1820, George IV added a rose, thistle and shamrock representing England, Scotland and Ireland, but the most famous modification was George V’s 1910 addition of the 530.2 Cullinan I diamond, known as The Great Star of Africa, the largest colorless cut diamond in the world.
5. Sovereign’s Orb
The orb topped with a cross has been a Christian symbol of authority since the Middle Ages. The Sovereign's Orb was displayed on top of Queen Elizabeth II's coffin.
“The orb that the monarch carries stands for Christian sovereignty and, since the Reformation, his or her headship of the Church of England,” says Borman. The Sovereign’s Orb is made of hallowed gold with jeweled bands dividing into three parts representing the three known continents at the time of its creation.
During coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury places the orb in the monarch’s right hand and says: “Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer.”
Additional jewels and crowns have been added to the collection through conquest and as royal needs changed—for example, a second orb and sceptre was commissioned in 1689 for the coronation of joint sovereigns William III and Mary II.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, calls for the return of some of the gems to their countries of origin, like the Kohinoor diamond from India, have brought renewed controversy to crown jewels assembled during centuries of colonialism.