Island Orchid Jewellery

The Most Famous Pearls In The World And What They Have To Do With Mary, Queen Of Scots And The Crown Jewels

Mary Queen of Scots was born days before the death of her father King James V. Her birthday was the 8th December 1542 and by the 14th December James was dead and as she was the only surviving legitimate child of James she succeeded to the throne of Scotland.

Her mother, Mary of Guise, became regent and she managed Mary's affairs. Mary of Guise always favoured a French match for her daughter but the Scottish nobles themselves were initially opposed. However, as a result of the 'rough wooing' of England where Henry VIII tried to force an alliance with Scotland, a French alliance became preferable to the Scottish nobles.

In July 1548, Mary was betrothed to Francis, the French dauphin, son of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici and at the end of July Mary departed for France to spend her childhood in the French Palaces. Just a young girl, she left her mother behind to rule Scotland. Henry II and Catherine de Medici had a large family and Mary's childhood was happy enough and she was genuinely fond of her betrothed. They were married, at 14 years of age in April 1558 and Mary, Queen of Scots, agreed in secret that should she die, Scotland would fall to the French crown.

Among her wedding gifts, Mary received some beautiful pearls from her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici. This is the story of those pearls.

Catherine de Medici was one of the famous and powerful Italian Medicis, wealthy, bankers, patrons to the arts and collectors of fine things. Her uncle, also a Medici, was Pope Clement VII and undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in the whole of Europe.

He arranged the match between Henry II and Catherine de Medici and brought a generous dowry - much gold, the Comtes of Auvergne and Lauraguais, as well as jewels, precious stones and other wedding gifts.

Among this large dowry were the famous Medici pearls. They were purchased by Pope Clement VII in 1523 and consisted of 6 ropes of large, fine pearls strung like rosaries and 25 separate pearls which were larger, some as big as nutmegs and particularly beautiful!

Catherine de Medici and her Uncle arrived in France with a huge retinue and determined to display extreme magnificence to outdo the court of France. The galleys they arrived in were richly decorated and furnished with fine treasures and artworks. Balzac said the Pope arrived at Livorno "in one of his galleys, which was lined with crimson satin and fringed with gold.This galley contained several apartments destined for the bride, all of which were furnished with the richest treasures of art the Medici could collect." The court of France, headed by Francis I also put on a lavish display and the wedding festivities of Henry de Valois and Catherine de Medici lasted for thirty-four days!

The marriage ceremonies of Francis, the dauphin of France and Mary were also full of pageantry. They were married at Notre Dame and balls, banquets and other entertainments followed. The beautiful Medici pearls were the ones that were given to Mary by Catherine de Medici on her marriage.

Just over a year later Henry II of France died and Francis II succeeded to the French throne in July 1559.

Mary of Guise died and the young Mary, grieving, then lost her husband, Francis, who died on 6th December 1560 and power fell to his mother Catherine de Medici.

Relations between Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots were far from friendly and Mary decided her best interests lay in Scotland so she returned. When she departed for Scotland it was suggested that she should for prudence' sake leave her jewels behind in France. Mary retorted that if she was safe to go to sea then her jewels were too! And so Mary, her jewels and the Medici pearls landed in Leith on the 19th August 1561.

Jewels were very important to Mary. She used them as solid financial assets as well as for decoration. Many pieces she gave away as presents, and if necessary they were an asset which could pay for troops.

There was an inventory of her jewellery made in 1562, the 'Inventaires de la Royne d'Ecosse Douairiere de France' published by the Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh 1883, where 180 pieces are recorded, 21 more than in the inventory made when she left France. Among her new acquisitions were some Scottish pearls which were said in that day and age to be as good as Bohemian pearls and the best in Europe although not as good as oriental pearls. Mary loved white and seems to have been especially fond of pearls. At the time of the inventory she was wearing two of a group of twenty-five pearls in her ears - probably the Medici pearls.

Her cousin Elizabeth I also loved pearls because they represented virtue and chastity and she pronounced herself the Virgin Queen, married to the people. She wore large numbers of pearls - in her wigs, crowns and lace ruffs, embroidered onto her gowns as well as in ropes. Not all of them were real pearls, it was quite acceptable to use glass pearls.

Mary was always very keen to meet her cousin although it could have been a bit of an awkward meeting. Mary was heir presumptive to the English throne and Roman Catholics argued that her right to the Crown was better than Elizabeth's, the legality of Henry VIII's marriage to Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, not being recognised by the Pope (Pope Clement VII incidentally!)

Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, on 29th July 1565. This wasn't a popular marriage. Darnley's family had many enemies among the Scottish nobles and Mary's half-brother James, Earl of Moray, raised a rebellion against him.

While Mary was pregnant (with a boy to be James VI of Scotland and I of England) her secretary and trusted advisor was murdered by Darnley, among others and Mary became completely estranged from him.

Mary grew fond of James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell and while she probably discussed the divorce of Darnley with him she was unlikely to have been aware of the plot to kill her husband. This plot came to fruition at Kirk o' Field, Edinburgh, on the 10th February 1567 when he was murdered. Although it was widely held that Bothwell was guilty he was acquitted after a show trial.

Bothwell then abducted Mary (although possibly consensually) on 24th April, divorced his wife on 7th May and on 15th May married Mary which caused a huge scandal and led to Mary's imprisonment by the nobles in Lochleven Castle. On 24th July she was forced to abdicate in favour of her young son.

She escaped on 2nd May 1568 and after defeat in a skuffle at Langside she crossed the Solway and asked for Elizabeth's protection. After her abdication, her half-brother James Stewart became regent of Scotland. He took Mary's jewellery, something which grieved her bitterly ever after. She had wanted to unite some of them permanently with the Scottish crown - as her will of 1566 stated and many of the jewels, in any case were her own personal property, having been gifted to her by her French relatives.

Moray gave some of his ill-gotten gains to his wife and sold others to Elizabeth I in May 1568. The jewels that were shown to Queen Elizabeth included the Medici pearls.

In The Book of The Pearl by George Frederick Kunz there is an excellent account of this transaction:

"After the downfall of the Queen, most of her jewels were sold, pawned, or lost by theft. A number of them passed into the possession of Queen Elizabeth in 1568, in a manner not wholly satisfactory to lovers of justice. Some of these were described in a letter dated May 8, 1568, and addresses to Catherine de Medici by Bodutel de la Forest, the French ambassador at the English court, as "six cordons of large pearls, strung as paternosters; but there are about twenty-five separate from the others much larger and more beautiful than those which are strung. They were first shown to three or four jewellers and lapidaries of the city, who estimated them at three thousand pounds sterling, and who offered to give that sum; certain Italian merchants who viewed them afterwards valued them at 12,000 escus, which is the price, as I am told, this queen [Elizabeth] will take them at. There is a Genevese who saw them after, the others and estimated them as worth 16,000 escus [$24,000].

"Catherine de Medici, who was mother in law of Mary Stuart, was very anxious to obtain these pearls; but the ambassador wrote on May 15, 1568, that he had found it impossible to purchase them; for, as he had told her from the first, they were intended for the gratification of the Queen of England, who had purchased them at her own price, and was even then in possession of them."

Mary was detained in England for the rest of her life. A later inventory taken while she was in captivity at Chartley showed her prized possessions were now miniature portraits, one of her son, one of Elizabeth as well as members of the French Royal family and former kings of Scotland. The jewels were all gone and friendless, her treasured possessions included the portraits of many people who did not have her interests at heart. Mary was beheaded at Fotheringay on 18th February 1587 after Elizabeth I hesitation finally turned to decision when a plot to assassinate her and put Mary on the throne came to light.

Elizabeth, having once been a prisoner in the Tower herself probably had very confused feelings about Mary. Although she was buried in Peterborough her body was removed to Westminster Abbey in 1612 which Elizabeth I would have approved of as it was a more fitting resting place for a sovereign queen whom she had had no right to imprison and execute in the first place. (As an aside, there have recently been calls to have Mary's remains removed to Scotland). But, as J D Mackie said in his book 'A History of Scotland' Elizabeth "had profited from Mary's downfall to buy cheaply the famous Medici pearls from one who had no right to sell them."

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and left the pearls to her successor, King James I, Queen Mary's son. He gave them to his daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia which was probably just as well considering what followed in England.

In 1605, on 27th March, King James I had issued a decree declaring that the Crown Regalia and some other jewels were indivisible from the kingdom. However, on James' death in 1625, Charles I came to the throne and was so short of money that he was forced to sell off many assets. When the Civil War broke out in 1642 even more treasures were sold off. Charles was beheaded on 29th January 1649 and the new Cromwell government ordered that all the gold and silver be melted down and the jewels sold to the best advantage of the Commonwealth.

Fortunately, the pearls were in the safe hands of James' daughter, the Queen of Bohemia. The National Portrait Gallery has a picture of her wearing the six strands of pearls. National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth passed on the pearls to Sophia, her daughter, on her marriage to the Elector of Hanover. Sophia's son George became George I in 1714 and brought the electress Sophia and his son George and daughter-in-law Caroline of Anspach with him, to England.

There is a painting in the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich of a family group showing the Electress Sophia wearing what had now become known as the 'Hanover pearls'. The Board of Directors of the hospital had invited Sir Thomas Thornhill to decorate the hall and this allegorical painting of the family was part of this commission.

George I was married to Sophia Dorothea of Celle but divorced her for adultery in 1694 and left her imprisoned in Germany. His morganatic wife came with him to Britain in 1714 but as she had no status as consort Caroline of Anspach took on some of the duties of Queen. It was she who came to wear the Hanoverian royal jewels, including the Hanover pearls. Her husband, George, became king in 1727 and she was very involved with affairs of state. She died in 1737 after hernia surgery.

The pearls then passed down through George III, George IV and William IV until Victoria succeeded to the throne on 20th June 1837. She inherited the Crown jewellery, including the Medici, now the Hanover pearls.

Pearls had been added to the Crown collection with each successive reign. As a Princess, Victoria wore her first string of pearls at the age of two. At the age of sixteen she had four rows of pearls as a necklace, a four-row pearl bracelet as well as large pendant pearl earrings.

She started a family tradition by giving her daughters two pearls a year, giving them enough for a necklace when they came of age.

The most valuable part of the Crown collection was said to be the Medici pearls which Victoria's husband, Albert, 'held were the finest in Europe'. Victoria often wore them during her reign. They were also worn by Alexandra who was very fond of pearls - a 1905 portrait in the Royal Collection shows her wearing them. (This can be seen atThe Royal Collection) The Queen, Elizabeth II also wears them.

Of the loose pearls, four were set in Queen Victoria's new Imperial State Crown in 1838.

The Imperial State Crown had been made for King George IV's Coronation. At that time it was traditional to use hired stones but when Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne she was only 18 so a new crown was made, identical to the first but set with stones from the Royal collection, including the four Medici/Hanover pearls. It cost £1000 with its carrying case.

In 1902 King Edward VII had the Crown enlarged and some stones were re-set for King George V's Coronation in 1911.

In 1937 a new, identical frame was made for King George VI and it was this crown that was remodelled to fit the Queen in 1953.

The Crown weighs 2lb 13oz and the Queen practises wearing it at the Palace before opening Parliament because of its great weight. It holds 2,873 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies. It has a circlet base, mounted by four arches with a diamond-set globe and diamond cross at the top.

Below the diamond-set globe hang the four large pear-shaped pearl drops. These four pearls, even more than the other Medici pearls, with so much history, bought by a wealthy and powerful pope in 1523, worn by the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, her powerful cousin Elizabeth I, right through to Victoria and the present Queen. In their history, gifted, handed down, stolen but survived and said to be among the most fabulous pearls in the world!

Copyright Melanie M-McKay 2009


The Book of The Pearl by George Frederick Kunz Archive

Georgian Monarchy by Hannah Smith Google books

The Queen's Jewels by Leslie Field. Guild Publishing London 1987

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. Phoenix Press 1969

A History of Scotland by J.D.Mackie. Penguin 1991

Jewellery, From the Renaissance to Art Nouveau by Claude Fregnac. Octopus Books 1973