Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dark Glamour of the Black Prince's Ruby

by Anne O'Brien

Royal Jewels always pack a punch in the public eye, but where there is myth and legend attached to them they have even more glamour. And so we have the Black Prince's Ruby, burdened throughout its history with Murder, Betrayal, Treachery, Danger and Deceit.

And here it is.  In fact it is not a ruby at all, but a spinel, a large deep-red stone of irregular shape.  Drilled at some time in its past to be worn as a pendant although the hole is now filled with a tiny ruby.  Today it is set in the Imperial State Crown of the English Monarchy.

So what is the history of this famous jewel?  How did it get its fearsome reputation and come into the hands of the Black Prince?

The stone was almost certainly mined in the Indian subcontinent, the only part of the world that produced rubies (and spinels) in ancient times.  It made its first appearance in historical record in the 14thcentury when it was in the possession of the Sultan of Granada, who ruled the last Muslim outpost in Spain.

The Sultan came under attack from the Christian Kingdom of Castile, led by King Pedro the Cruel.  At a meeting in 1362 to discuss peace, the Sultan and his entourage were stabbed to death.  Legend says that Pedro performed the dark deed himself and that on searching the Sultan's dead body he found the precious ruby, and, of course, took it.

When Pedro soon found himself under attack from his half brother, Henry of Trastamara, who declared war upon him intending to seize the throne of Castile, Pedro appealed for support from Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, stationed in Aquitaine. Edward agreed to help Pedro in return for appropriate financial rewards.

The Black Prince and Pedro’s forces defeated Henry of Trastamara’s army at the Battle of Najera in 1367, and Edward’s reward upon the victory was Pedro’s ruby.

From here on, the ruby passed from one English monarch to the next, embarking on a dark journey through history, dubious legend suggesting that it brought misfortune or death to most of its owners.  (More legend than fact, but it makes for an interesting history for this jewel.)  Here are the tragic events said to be the consequence of ownership of the jewel.

- The Black Prince died 9 years later from a terrible debilitating disease.

- Pedro was was overthrown by his brother, and was killed by him three years later.

- Richard II was deposed and murdered by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

- Henry Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, died in great pain from some mysterious disease.

- Henry V alone seemed to have reaped good luck from it, though only just. He is said to have worn the ruby on his crowned helmet during the Battle of Agincourt, in October 1415, during which he almost lost his life, when a French knight tried to strike Henry down with a battle axe. The blow managed to hack off part of Henry’s crowned helmet with the ruby on it. It is said that the ruby fell and was lost in the mud of the field and was only brought back to Henry some time later by a French knight, who was rewarded for his deed with imprisonment by a still resentful Henry.

- But Henry V was to die from some virulent form of dysentery at the height of his conquest of France in 1422.

- King Henry VI took it with him to the battle of Hexham, where he only just escaped with his life.

- Richard III wore the gem on his crowned helmet during the Wars of the Roses’ last battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, and it was this crowned helmet that was picked up from a bush after the battle and offered to Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.  (No proof of this at all!)

By the end of the medieval period the ruby seemed to have spent its destructive power, but it still appears in English history when it was inherited by the Tudors who made a more peaceful, ceremonial use of it. It perhaps put in an appearance at the coronation of King Henry VIII when he wore a collar filled with great rubies around his neck.

In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I received the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, to discuss a possible marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester. The ambassador wrote that the Queen took him to her privy chamber where she showed him ‘a fair ruby, great like a racket ball.’ The ambassador asked her to send the ruby to Mary as a token of friendship, as well as the Earl of Leicester’s miniature. Elizabeth replied that if Queen Mary would follow her counsels ‘she would get them both in time, and all she had’.  Mary Queen of Scots never got the ruby, but the stone did pass to her son King James I when the Stuarts inherited the English throne in 1603.

In the troubled years of the Suart Century, the ruby’s capacity to bring misfortune seems to have been reawakened,  for James’ son Charles I was executed during the Civil War and the Crown Jewels were destroyed or sold. There is a record from the sale in 1649 of a great ‘Rock Ruby’ for £15. It was apparently bought by a jeweller who resold it to Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660. During the reign of Charles II, the stone, by now set in Charles II's State Crown, had another narrow escape when it was nearly stolen by the notorious Colonel Blood, who, unbelievably, was later pardoned by the King.

Charles’ brother, James II was the last monarch to be cursed by the stone when he placed it at the front of the refashioned Imperial State Crown at his coronation in 1685. Three years after his coronation, James lost his kingdom and fled into exile.

The Hanoverians suffered no further harm from the ruby which they had set in their Imperial State Crown, refashioned after George I inherited the throne, and which was later rebuilt for Queen Victoria in 1837.  By Victoria’s time, the hole in the stone had also been filled with the tiny ruby.

In more recent times, in 1841, the crown was almost lost by fire. Only the quick actions of police inspector Pierse saved the day. As the Tower burned, Pierse broke through the iron bars with a crowbar to rescue the Crown Jewels.  Then during World War II, the royal regalia was once more in danger, this time from Hitler's bombers in the Blitz.

All survived intact and undamaged and today the magnificent Black Prince's Ruby, which did not acquire its name until the Victorian era,  can be viewed in all its glory in the White Tower in the Tower of London, along with the rest of the English Crown Jewels.

Its connection with death and misfortune is frankly bogus, but it shows how easily legends are born, and royal jewels always attract interest.  The benign influence of the jewel in recent years is proved by the fact that it has been worn by Queen Elizabeth II with no ill-effects whatsoever since her coronation in 1953.  The Imperial State Crown is the one she wears annually at the Opening of Parliament ceremony.


Sticking with all things royal, my new novel The King's Sister, the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, sister to King Henry IV, and much else besides, will be released in the UK on 7th November 2014. Do visit my website for all up-to-date news.


  1. Great story, Anne. I must admit I do like the dark rumors attached to the stone. It's fascinating the long journey it has been on to reach our century. And it is gorgeous. I've never previously heard of a spinel.

  2. Great story. I love mysterious curses attached to jewels, although one would be hard put to find a royal line back in the middle ages that didn't seem cursed. Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown—because there was always somebody trying to snatch it off.

    1. It's true. So many people just seem to think Kings were just pampered fops who could do whatever they wanted and had an easy life. Yeah right- it was hard enough just to stay alive for some.....

  3. As I still plan one day to write a biography of the Black Prince, I can't resist posting this little tid-bit. Great story and beautiful gem!

  4. Wonderful story ... thanks ... who knew jewels could have such a chequered past.

  5. Is there a reason why it is referred to as the Imperial State Crown of the “English” Monarchy rather than the, “British” Monarchy?

  6. How much is it worth? In american dollar please


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