How the Medici pearls of great price found themselves round the neck of an English Queen
On 1 September 1533, 15 year old Catherine de Medici left her home city of Florence forever.
Her consolation for leaving her beloved home city was her dowry, which had to be large enough to buy her into the Royal Family of France. She also carried a fortune in jewellery that had been gifted from her marriage broker, her uncle Medici Pope Clement VII, including six ropes of “some of the largest pearls ever seen” and 25 pear shaped pearls, with a combined value estimated at the time to be 27,900 gold Ecus (*roughly £8.15million at today’s price per ECU)
In the portrait above, attributed to Bronzino, young Catherine appears to be wearing these large ropes of ‘black’pearls around her waist.
The pendant drop pearls were also estimated to be worth ‘a kingdom’ although there was a rumour that Clement had acquired them from a merchant from Lyon for a mere 900 Ecus!
On the wedding day of Mary Queen of Scots (aged 16) to Catherine’s rather weakly son Francis II (aged 15) in 1558, Catherine gave Mary a precious gift of at least one of the ropes of her own pearls – still valued as being worth “a kingdom”- and perhaps featured in Mary’s hair as well as around her neck in the couple’s wedding portrait below?
After poor young Francis died, less than two years later, Queen Mary Stuart was dispatched back to cold and gloomy Scotland and into her troubled life, upsetting Presbyterian Church of Scotland leader Protestant John Knox, with her vanity and her strict adherence to the Roman Catholic faith, almost as much as she upset her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, with her claim to the throne of England. In particular, when she doubled her claim to the English throne by marrying her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and giving birth to their “fair son” James.
Queen Elizabeth was known to adore pearls, and despite her howls of fury as she raged at her Chancellor, Lord Burghley in her distress at his “trick” to get her to sign Mary’s death warrant hidden amongst other unimportant papers, she had been unable to resist appropriating the famous “Medici” pearls as her own before the impetuous head of her troublesome cousin had been detached from her elegant shoulders!
Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have kept her promise to wear these pearls in tribute to her beloved cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, for the rest of her life.
So, How did some of these pearls fare thereafter?
This is the trail of those that still form part of the British Crown Jewels even to this day.
On Elizabeth’s death, they passed into the hands of her Stuart successor, Mary’s son, James Stuart, who united the two countries as James 1 0f England (VI of Scotland) with his wife Anne of Denmark, a lady who also collected jewellery, in particular, she preferred pearls!
James gave the pearls to his daughter Elizabeth as a wedding gift, when she became the Queen of Bohemia, and thankfully, “the Winter Queen” was able to keep them when her husband was dethroned and they were sent into exile.
In the portrait of her, shown below, she is wearing ropes of these pearls in almost exactly the same fashion as worn by her mother in the portrait above, which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia
This also meant the precious pearls were safely outside of the United Kingdom when in 1649 Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell decided to decapitate another troublesome Stuart, King James I’s son, King Charles I, and also ordered that all royal jewellery was sold or melted down to be used for the benefit of the Commonwealth.
King Charles’s sister Elizabeth, then gave them to her daughter, Sophia, on her marriage to the Elector of Hanover, and through her, they were inherited by her son, who in 1714, after the death of the last monarch directly from the House of Stuart, Queen Anne, became King George 1 of Great Britain.
Now referred to as the Hanover Pearls, they were passed from Queen to Queen throughout the Georgian age, until there were no more sons and the throne went to brother Billy – King William IV.
On Williams death in 1837 the pearls passed to his successor Queen Victoria, whose husband Albert still declared them to be the finest in Europe.
Victoria decided to divide her pearls fairly amongst her five daughters by giving them two pearls each year until they came of age.
The remaining 4 pear drop pearls were adapted to display in the Queen’s Imperial Crown in 1838.
The Crown was expanded when it was passed to Victoria’s son, Bertie when he was crowned King Edward VII, used by King George V and amended within a new frame for his successor King George VI, but these famous Medici pearls were maintained in Queen Elizabeth’s Imperial Crown and can be seen amongst the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London to this day!