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How Did the Black Prince’s Ruby Become Part of the British Crown Jewels?

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Cynthia has a degree in History and Business Economics. She loves archaeology and would happily spend every holiday exploring ancient sites

Jewel House at the Tower of London

Jewel House at the Tower of London

When is a ruby not a ruby – when it’s actually a large red spinel!

Have you ever been lucky enough to go and see the British Crown Jewels exhibited in all their glittering splendour in The Tower of London? If so, did you see the very large ruby set prominently in the front of the Imperial State Crown of Queen Elizabeth II just above another famous precious stone the Cullinan II diamond? Well if you did you were looking at a gemstone that is known as ‘The Black Prince’s Ruby’.

Of all the gemstones that have been used to create the Crown Jewels this is one of the most fascinating and we actually know a lot about its history and how it came to be set in the royal regalia. But the most important piece of information and something that may surprise you about this gemstone is that it is not in fact a ruby at all, but a very large red spinel.

The Black Prince’s Ruby is a large and heavy gemstone, roughly the size of a small egg and is thought to weigh around 170 carats. But how did this magnificent spinel get mistakenly identified as a ruby? Well back in medieval Europe they did not have the scientific knowledge and technology we have available today to accurately classify gemstones and minerals. All sparkling red gemstones would have been called rubies, with nobody being the wiser.

Nowadays, gemmologists can easily tell the difference between the stones and it is unlikely that the two stones would be confused with each other. Rubies are much more valuable than spinel, are rarer and are also harder and slightly denser in composition. They also differ in appearance. When you gaze into the heart of a ruby you can see different colours depending on the light and the angle the stone is viewed at, which is known as dichroic, whereas red spinel is singly refractive.

Spinel is found in a variety of colours, such as red, pink, blue, lilac and mauve, but fine red and pink stones are the most sought after by collectors. However, even a superlative red spinel is generally worth only a tenth of what you would have to pay for an equivalent size top class ruby. But ‘The Black Prince’s Ruby’ is priceless because of its unique royal history and its long association with the British Crown Jewels.

It is regarded as the biggest uncut red spinel in existence in the world today and it has only ever been lightly polished. Where it was mined is lost to history, but some experts think it was extracted from the fabled ruby mines of Badakhshan, which is now part of modern day Tajikistan. However, the existence of this fascinating jewel has been documented since the 14th century when it first entered the history books as a treasured possession of Abu Said, a prince of Granada when the Moors still ruled the southern parts of Spain.

This was a very turbulent period in Spanish history as the Catholic monarchs of northern Spain were determined to drive the Muslim Moors off the Iberian Peninsula forever. Unfortunately, Abu Said decided to put his trust in King Pedro of Castile, also known as Pedro the Cruel, and journey to Seville to hammer out the terms of a surrender treaty with the Castilian monarch. Unbeknownst to the trusting Moorish Prince,

King Pedro was only encouraging this visit because he thought Abu Said would bring a lot of valuable treasure with him and Pedro needed more money to pay for his ongoing wars. Pretty soon after his arrival Abu Said was stabbed to death along with his retinue and it was even whispered that King Pedro himself wielded the knife that killed the Moorish Prince. The huge red spinel was discovered on Abu Said’s dead body and swiftly transferred to the Castilian monarch’s coffers.

As well as battling the Moors, King Pedro of Castile had political problems of a more domestic nature. He had an illegitimate brother called Henry of Trastamara who had started a revolt against him in 1366. Pedro badly needed help in putting this revolt down and enlisted the assistance of Prince Edward of England, also known to history as ‘The Black Prince’, who was always up for a fight if there was plenty of money in it for him. Now you might be wondering what an English prince was doing with a sizeable army close enough to Spain to come to the aid of the Castilian king.

Edward of Woodstock, The Black Prince

Edward of Woodstock, The Black Prince

The Black Prince had been born in 1330, the eldest son of King Edward III of England and his queen Philippa of Hainault. In his early life he was known as Edward of Woodstock after his place of birth and in 1343 he was created Prince of Wales.

He was never called ‘The Black Prince’ during his lifetime and it is a title that seems to have been given to him by historians and antiquaries sometime in the 16th century. Where the name came from is disputed, but as he was a brilliant military commander from an early age it could have derived from the colour of his armour or shield or because he was also known to have been cruel and ruthless in battle and as a ruler.

Prince Edward was only sixteen when he played a decisive part in French defeat at the Battle of Crecy in 1446 in the early years of the Hundred Years War. He was subsequently sent to Gascony in 1355 as Edward III’s lieutenant and immediately began to make himself unpopular with the locals. He started leading raids northwards into France, burning towns and villages, destroying crops and pillaging as he went.

He got as far as Tours on the River Loire before he was checked, a heavy storm preventing him from taking or burning down the castle there. This delay allowed the French King, John II, to catch up with him and Prince Edward won another resounding victory over the French at the Battle of Poitiers in September 1356. He was rewarded by his father by creating him Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony in 1362. He took his wife Joan of Kent to live in his new French holdings and both of his sons, Edward who died young and the future King Richard II, were born there.

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So Edward, the Black Prince was well placed to step in and help the beleaguered Castilian monarch and he even brought his brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster along for the campaign. The forces of the English princes and the Castilian king clashed with the army of Henry of Trastamara and his French allies at the Battle of Najera in April of 1367. Prince Edward notched up another great military victory as their forces routed Trastamara’s army. However, among his other bad qualities King Pedro was to prove a perfidious friend to Prince Edward.

He did not give him the money he had promised him to cover campaigning costs. Edward demanded the large red gemstone in lieu of part of what he was owed. The Castilian king handed it over with bad grace, but he also managed to negotiate favourable marriages for two of his daughters at the same time, Constance being married to John of Gaunt and Isabella being married to another of Edward’s younger brothers Edmund of Langley.

Failing to get reimbursed by Pedro of Castile drove the Black Prince to near bankruptcy, so to improve his financial situation he added to his unpopularity in Aquitaine by imposing swingeing taxes on the locals. He topped this off by massacring around 3,000 residents of Limoges when he besieged the town in 1370 before retiring back to England due to illness, his bleak financial situation and the fact that he was rabidly disliked in France. He took the red spinel with him and since his death in 1376 it has largely remained in the possession of the English royal family.

Tomb of Edward, The Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral

Tomb of Edward, The Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral

It was to prove a popular bauble with later English monarchs, many of whom chose to wear it. King Henry V wore it into action at Agincourt in October 1415 set into his battle helm. This was very nearly the end for the fabled jewel as Henry V nearly got himself killed when the Duke of Alençon’s swung his battleaxe at King Henry’s head, badly damaging the jewel-encrusted helmet. It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly lucky stone to wear into battle, as King Richard III also had it set into his helmet when he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, entering the history books as the last English king to ever be killed on the battlefield.

The Black Prince’s Ruby was first incorporated into the British Crown Jewels by King James I who had it set into the state crown as the start of the 17th century. However, Oliver Cromwell broke up the crown jewels and sold them off for bullion when he overcame the Royalists in the Civil War and set up the Commonwealth. As luck would have it, the red spinel was bought by a jeweller who was prepared to sell it back to King Charles II after the Restoration of 1660. Charles II had the jewel set into a new state crown and it was once more part of the Crown Jewels. It has been reset again as it was placed in the Imperial State Crown of Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation in 1953.

Now the Imperial State Crown of Queen Elizabeth II containing The Black Prince’s Ruby is on display with the rest of the Crown Jewels in the Jewel House at The Tower of London, where they have been securely kept since the early 14th century. Luckily, they have never been stolen, although Colonel Blood made a notable attempt in 1671. Millions of visitors flock to see this historically-important collection of jewels every year, with ‘The Black Prince’s Ruby’ remaining one of the most fascinating gemstones ever to be set in a British royal crown.

Jewel House at The Tower of London image InSapphoWeTrust Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic

Tomb of Edward, The Black Pince image Jerry & Roy Klotz Wikimedia Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution 3.0 Unported

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 CMHypno


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on March 22, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed the hub Mel. Really the history of the English monarchy is a bit like a long running soap opera where everyone is related, romantically involved or feuding with each other (or all three at the same time)

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 21, 2014:

You have given me a fascinating lesson on jewels and on a bit of history of the English monarchy, which is always much too complex and convoluted for my Yankee mind to get a grasp of. We only have to remember 200 years of history for crying out loud! Fantastic hub.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 09, 2014:

Happy New Year Heidi! Hope you get over to the UK to see the Crown Jewels soon. The whole of the Tower of London is an amazing place to visit, with so much history and so many stories

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 08, 2014:

Definitely something to add to the "must see" list if I ever get to the UK. And what a history! Happy New Year!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 08, 2014:

Thanks Nell for reading the hub and the vote and share. This article combined two of my interests - gemstones and history - so was good fun to research and write

Nell Rose from England on January 08, 2014:

Hi Cynthia, I had never heard of a spinel before! this was fascinating, and as you said back then they couldn't tell the difference, great history and facts! voted up and shared, nell

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 08, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed it Alicia. I love delving into the past - so many interesting people with fascinating stories to tell. Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 06, 2014:

This is an enjoyable hub, Cynthia. I love learning about historical periods and the lives of the people at that time. Your story of the Black Prince and the spinel is very interesting!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 06, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed the hub CarolynEmerick and thanks for the social share. If you go and see the Crown Jewels again, have a good luck at that large red stone in the middle of the crown

Carolyn Emerick on January 06, 2014:

Great read! I have seen the Crown Jewels before but never this story! Up voting and sharing here on HP and social media :-)

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 06, 2014:

Thanks Jodah. Not really a very nice guy the Black Prince. Just goes to show that things were pretty much the same back then as they are now - give somebody too much power with no checks and they will run amok. I bet they had a big party in France when he got back on his ship and sailed back to England lol!

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on January 06, 2014:

Very interesting hub CMHypno,

I know very little about the British Crown Jewels so this just helped increase my knowledge, and a very interesting history lesson about the Black Prince as well.

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