Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Royal Treasures: Queen Victoria’s Indian Crown

I was visiting an exhibition at the British Library last weekend on the Mughal emperors (just for royal variety) when I came across a very interesting treasure that had been lent from the Royal Collection: the crown of the last Mughal emperor of India.

The Last Mughal Crown.

The crown belonged once to Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor, who by the 1850s ruled only a small Indian rump consisting in the royal palace of Delhi. After peaking in the 17th century under emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb the Mughal Empire had descended into infighting and crumbled, while at the same time that the British East India company made inroads in the government of India.

In 1857, after the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny, the British government took over mastery of India from the Company, and one of the first things they did was pensioning off the last nominal Indian emperor. Bahadur Shah II was put through a show trial for supporting the Mutiny, was stripped of his title, and he was exiled to Burma where he died as an old man.

The British then sold his possessions at auction, including his jewels, and the crown was bought by an Army Major called Robert Tytler. He brought the crown back to England where it came to the attention of Prince Albert who, mindful of the enormous symbolism now that the British ruled India directly, advised Queen Victoria to buy it (it was one of the last things Albert did in 1861 before dying at the end of the year).

Fifteen years after acquiring the Mughal crown Victoria herself was proclaimed Empress of India. Technically, now that she owned the crown Victoria could have started wearing it by right, however there is no evidence that she ever did which in fact would have looked quite stupid (see below). The fact that she owned it however lent some legitimacy to her new title.

The reason why Victoria never wore her Indian crown should look obvious...

The crown is actually not that old. It was made in the early 19th century and was likely only used by the last two enfeebled Mughal emperors. It is made of gold, lined with velvet, and is set with diamonds, rubies, pearls, turquoises and emeralds, these lasts dangling from golden edges and set with what look like tiny gold grass skirts. Today it is part of the Royal Collection—the royal treasures the Queen owns on behalf of the nation—along with other Indian jewels that came into British possession like the Timur Ruby and the jewels of Tipu Sultan.

If you’re in London or coming to the capital, the British Library exhibition on Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire runs until April 2.

Browse more royal treasures at

Learn more about the Queen’s Jewels at Her Majesty’s Jewel Vault, an excellent blog on the British Monarchy’s jewels.

This famous cartoon from London’s Punch magazine of April 1876 satirized the creation of Victoria as Empress of India. Benjamin Disraeli, dressed as an oriental peddler, offers a fancy new Indian crown to Victoria in exchange for her old one. However Victoria never wore an actual Indian Empress Crown.

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