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. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England was no different and had one of these venerable objects – a ruby.
A ruby (Al2O3) is a gemstone and a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminium oxide). It is one of the hardest minerals on Earth (9.0 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale of 10) and ranges in colour from pink to blood-red. Traces of the element chromium cause the red colour 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 colour and exceptional brilliance.
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 colour 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 travelling Venetian also 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, he ordered the shrine to be demolished. From the 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 does not 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. It seems that the precious ruby quietly disappeared from history, forever. Today, its whereabouts are unknown.
Many questions surround the Regale: Did it end up back in France? Was it the size of a thumb or as big as a pigeon 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 except 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 favourite gem remains unknown.
Wall, J. Charles, 1905. Chapter Four: Prelates and Priests, Shrines of British Saints, Metheun & Co., London.
State Papers (ed. 1830), Part II, p. 583. Polydore Vergil, Relation (Camden Society, 30).