The Jewel House has been one of the principal attractions of the Tower since the early 16th century and housed the monarch’s jewels, plate and other precious items used for state and ceremonial occasions. It is very likely that from the late 11th century onwards William the Conqueror and his successors were storing royal treasure at the Tower. Certain chambers within the White Tower were specially designated to store their most prized possessions like the secret jewel chamber under St John’s Chapel in the mid 14th century. By the early 16th century these precious objects were no longer stored in the White Tower but had been moved to a purpose-built Jewel House erected on the orders of Henry VII in 1508, attached to the south side of the White Tower. This was largely rebuilt on the orders of Thomas Cromwell in 1535. Moreover, the Jewel House had become a separate department in its own right and no longer part of the Great Wardrobe, the institution traditionally charged with storing royal valuables.
Before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the coronation regalia had been kept at Westminster Abbey; other state regalia, jewels and plate were kept at the Tower. In 1649 these items along with other decorative and valuable items in the Tower Wardrobe were forcibly seized by Parliament. In an inventory made by Carew Hervey Mildmay, Clerk of the Jewel House, the entire contents of the Jewel House were valued at £6,500. Although four remaining items of the old regalia were recovered after the restoration of Charles II, the coronation spoon, and the three ceremonial swords of Temporal Justice, Spiritual Justice and Mercy, the remainder had to be re-commissioned. These were housed in the newly-refurbished Jewel House. This particular Jewel House was subsequently demolished in 1669 and the new regalia made for Charles II placed in the Irish Tower, now known as the Martin Tower, which was specially converted for the purpose. The jewels were kept on the ground floor with the Keeper’s apartment above. In 1671 there was the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels by Colonel Thomas Blood. Although apprehended, Blood and his accomplices nearly managed to make off with the crown, orb and sceptre.
A new home for the Crown Jewels was commissioned in 1840 and subsequently opened in 1842. This was attached to the south side of the Martin Tower. The building, however, was plagued with problems and in 1866 it was decided to move the regalia to the Wakefield Tower. Work commenced there in 1867 and the contents moved in 1869-70. There they remained before being placed in a new Jewel House located in the present-day Waterloo Barracks in 1967.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
The Crown Jewels (Historic Royal Palaces, 2010)
C Blair, ed., The Crown Jewels: The History of the Coronation Regalia in the Jewel House in the Tower of London (London, HMSO, 1998)
E Impey & G Parnell, The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History (London, 2000)
T Rosse, The Coronation Ceremony and the Crown Jewels (HMSO, 1992)
E Impey, ed., The White Tower (New Haven and London, 2008)
The last cast-iron British smoothbore cannon – the 68 pounders – were the same calibre (8 inches) as the heaviest guns of King Henry VIII three hundred years earlier. Their performance was probably not very different either!