It’s an amazing 70 years since Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne. Over the next four days in the UK we’re celebrating the Platinum Jubilee, so now seems a good time to take a
shameless topical look at one of the many stories I researched in my latest book National Treasures. Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II.
During Princess Elizabeth’s childhood the Crown Jewels were normally kept at the Tower of London but as war approached in August 1939 they were evacuated to the more secure location of Windsor Castle, away from potential bombing of the City. Just two years before, they had been seen on television for the first time by an enthralled public at the coronation of her father George VI. Now they were transported in conditions of the highest security – an operation which involved the Metropolitan Police, the Yeoman of the Guard and Garrard’s, the royal jewellers.
Once at Windsor Castle they were handed over to the custody of the Royal Librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, who took various measures to protect them further. As soon as they arrived, he arranged for the crowns to be packaged in some leather hatboxes to disguise their contents, and kept them in lock and key under his office. Early in 1941 they were then transferred to a specially dug tunnel under the walls of the Castle. Princess Elizabeth’s governess, Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, later described in her autobiography (much frowned up by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) how, on one rainy afternoon, she and the princesses were taken down into the tunnel under the Castle wall and were shown the hatboxes ‘which seemed at first sight just to be stuffed up with old newspapers’. But the tunnels were damp and the valiant Royal Librarian (a decorated war hero from 1914-18) spent a lot of time wiping green mildew off the fine leather.
Morshead had even more unlikely plans for protection of the greatest jewels of the crowns. The famous Koh-i-noor and Cullinan diamonds and a dozen other gems were prised out their settings by him and his partner-in-crime, the Keeper of the Tower Armouries, (and Director of the Wallace Collection) James Mann. ‘These stones I wrapped in cotton-wool and placed inside a tall glass preserving-jar with a screw-top & rubber washer, placing in it a note signed by the King to say that it had been done at his personal direction, and that it was at his wish that nobody had been told. I then packed the glass jar inside a Bath Oliver biscuit tin, which fitted it to perfection; and sealed the two with surgical tape’.
Morshead’s plan was that if the enemy invaded and got as far as Windsor, then he would grab the biscuit tin containing these iconic sacral items for a future coronation of Princess Elizabeth, the heir presumptive, jump into his car and head for Scotland, there to take a ship across the Atlantic to safety in Canada. If he were intercepted he could bury the tin or even sink it underwater to be retrieved later. It was also planned that the royal family, if ever they needed to go into exile, would escape to Canada too, though as Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) put it, this would be the last resort and there was no question of them leaving except in the direst emergency. ‘The children could not go without me, I could not possibly leave the King, and the King would never go.’
Canada was also privy to a further royal wartime secret. The Prime Minister, W.L. Mackenzie King, was one of only four people in the world who knew the hiding-place of the Stone of Scone. The ancient coronation stone had been removed from the fourteenth-century Coronation Chair and hidden in the Abbey, before the Chair itself had left London on 24 August 1939 and headed – closely guarded – to a place of safety in the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral where it was boarded up for the rest of the war (growing a nice crop of dry rot in the humid conditions in the process). As the crossing tower of Westminster Abbey collapsed in the bombing of the worst night of the Blitz, 10-11 May 1941, this was just as well.
In 1953, a worldwide audience once again viewed a spectacular coronation on television, this time of Queen Elizabeth II, featuring the reassembled Crown Jewels and the restored Coronation Chair, which had been saved from destruction during the war through the efforts of Morshead, Mann and many other curators and custodians.
If you enjoyed this story of London’s heritage front in the fight against Hitler, there are more escapades to be found here.