Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Regale of France: Henry VIII’s Lost Ruby

By Steven Wade Veatch

Glittering jewels, precious metals, and religious relics—ranging from a spine from the Crown of Thorns to a twig from the Burning Bush, and sundry relics of saints—were important to all medieval monarchs as physical symbols of power, pomp, and religious expression (BBC). King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England had one of these venerable objects— a ruby.
Figure 1. Henry VIII, The king can be seen sporting several jewels in this 1531 painting. Henry prized the French Regale, a ruby fashioned into a cabochon. It remained in Henry’s private collection until he died at the age of 55 in 1547. Image public domain.
A ruby (Al2O3) is a gemstone and a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminum oxide). It’s one of the hardest minerals on Earth (9.0 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale of 10) and ranges in color from pink to blood-red. Traces of the element chromium cause the red color to bloom in rubies. The Latin word for red, ruber is the basis for its name. The other variety of gem-quality corundum is sapphire. The ruby is extremely rare and considered the king of the gemstones with its magnificent color and exceptional brilliance.

Figure 2. View of a ruby in its natural state. Note  the crystal habit of terminated tabular hexagonal prisms. Used with permission, Wilensky Fine Minerals.  
Louis VII (1120-1180) became the first King of France to visit England when he made a pilgrimage in 1179 to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. He spent the night there, and made several offerings, including the “Regale,” considered the finest gem in Europe, for St. Thomas’s intercession and help in the recovery of his son from illness. Period clerics said its blood-red color commemorated the blood of Thomas Beckett, the martyr, whose shrine held the stone. A Bohemian ambassador in 1446 described the ruby as “a carbuncle [ruby] that shines at night, half the size of a hen’s egg.” A traveling Venetian wrote about the gem in 1500, that the “ruby, not larger than a thumbnail . . . is fixed at the right of the altar. The church is somewhat dark, and particularly in the spot where the shrine is placed, and when we went to see it the sun was near setting and the weather cloudy; nevertheless I saw the ruby as if I had it in my hand. They say it was given by a king of France (State Papers).” While descriptions of the size of the ruby do not match, there is no question this gem was exceptional in size and beauty.

By the time Henry VIII dissolved monasteries in England (between 1536 and 1541), he became aware of the gemstone and longed to possess its radiant beauty. In 1540, Henry VIII ordered the shrine demolished. From that rubble, the ruby mysteriously appeared in the king’s Royal Treasury. A rare document describes the event, the “Royal Commission for the destruction of shrines, under Dr. John Layton and a strong military guard, arrived at Canterbury to carry out the work of sacrilege. The spoil of jewels and gold of the shrine were carried off in two coffers on the shoulders of eight men, while twenty-six carts were employed to remove the accumulated offerings to God and St. Thomas, and the noted Regale of France was mounted in Henry’s thumb ring (Wall, 1905).”

At Henry VIII’s death in 1547, an inventory of his property was taken, and the Regale doesn’t appear in that document. Edward VI, just like his father, was very fond of jewels and would likely inherit it, but there are no records of it during his reign. The precious ruby quietly disappears from history, forever. Today its whereabouts are unknown.

Figure 3. Formal portrait Edward VI (1537-1553) in his early teens. Edward was King of England from 1547 until his death at the age of 15. He is the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Image public domain.
Many questions surround the Regale: Did it end up back in France? Was it the size of a thumb or as big as a hen's egg? Did King Henry order the jewel placed in his royal coffin, or was it secreted away by an attendant? Some thought that the gem was buried with Henry, especially George IV (1762-1830).  Notes and Queries (1863) reports that “With respect to the large carbuncle of diamond [ruby] given by Louis VII, which is said to have been worn by King Henry VIII in his thumb-ring, it was probably buried with him . . . . George IV, when Prince Regent, having ordered the tomb of Henry [VIII] to be opened, and the coffin searched for some ring, which he supposed were still to be found therein . . . Nothing however, was found expect some large bones.”

Since the Regale became widely known in 1179, it has been coveted by many people. It was last seen being worn by the Henry VIII of England. Since then the march of time has continued on and years have become centuries—cloaking the ruby with the dark veil of the past. The ultimate fate of Henry’s favorite gem remains unknown.

References Cited:

BBC - A History of the World - About: Transcripts - Episode 66 - Holy Thorn Reliquary. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode66/

Notes and Queries, Jul-Dec 1863. Mocavo, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

State Papers (ed. 1830), Part II, p. 583. Polydore Vergil, Relation (Camden Society, 30).

Wall, J. Charles, 1905.Chapter Four: Prelates and Priests, Shrines of British Saints, Metheun & Co., London. 



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