There is undeniably a dignity and a certain charm attached to a coronet. Essentially a crown in miniature, the coronet is primarily a distinguishing sign of rank, reserved for members of the nobility and peers of the realm.
The coronet has its origin in the Middle Ages: jewelled examples can be seen on the surviving helmets of medieval knights, and are represented on tombs and in illuminated manuscripts. These ornamented circlets had a functional purpose, holding the wearer’s hair – at this time often worn long – away from the face, as well as performing a decorative role and symbolizing wealth and status. Their design reflected the individual taste of the wearer, and was not prescribed by authority.
During his exile after the Civil War, Charles II had been strongly impressed by his experience of Louis XIV’s lavish court at Versailles. Inspired by French notions of nobility, authority and hierarchy, the king issued a Royal Warrant in 1660 rigidly restricting the use of the coronet to members of the peerage and prescribing coronet designs which were strictly indicative of the rank of the wearer. No precious stones or real jewels were permitted in these new standard coronets, such embellishments being reserved for peers of the Blood Royal.
Since that time coronets have taken the form of a ceremonial cap of crimson velvet trimmed with a band of ermine around the base, topped with a gold tassel and set within a gold or gilt circlet. There is a distinctive design of circlet for each of the five ‘ranks’ of the peerage. The coronets of peeresses are similar to those of peers, but are much smaller and are designed to sit on the top of the head rather than to encircle it.
Duke A gold circlet with eight strawberry leaves
Marquess A silver-gilt circlet with four strawberry leaves alternating with four silver balls known as ‘pearls’ slightly raised on points.
Earl A silver-gilt circlet with eight strawberry leaves and eight ‘pearls’ raised on points.
Viscount A silver-gilt circlet with sixteen silver ‘pearls’ set on the rim.
Baron A silver-gilt circlet with six ‘pearls’ set in the rim.
The precise symbolism of the ‘strawberry leaves’ which adorn the coronets of dukes, marquesses and earls has long been a source of debate. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Encyclopaedia Londinensis gave this intriguing explanation:
“The decoration by the strawberry leaves is very ancient, and we do not doubt but the honour of adorning the brows of majesty was reserved to this humble plant in order to remind sovereigns that though elevated to so high a station in society they ought never to forget that they are but men, and but a single leaf in the great scale of Nature and in the dispensation of Divine Providence.”
The silver metal ‘pearls’, which adorn the coronets of British peers are derived from ancient French heraldry and have their origins in the early medieval era, when the nobility of England was intimately connected to that of France.
For all their splendour and dignity, coronets are worn in Britain for one occasion only, the coronation of the sovereign. As a result opportunities to wear them are few: in the last 300 years there have only been twelve such occasions, and many of those who are entitled to wear a coronet may find that they need never actually have one made.
The presence of the peers of the realm in full regalia at a coronation is a potent demonstration of their loyalty to the crown and to the monarch. Yet it is only once the central ceremony of the coronation has been reached and the Archbishop of Canterbury has placed St Edward’s Crown on the head of the new monarch that the peers follow suit and place their own coronets on their heads. The peers, represented by one member of each rank of the peerage, then pay homage to their new sovereign by removing their coronets, kneeling and swearing loyalty.
The coronet is more than a badge of rank and item of ceremonial dress. It expresses noble status and family lineage, values which find potent expression in heraldry. Members of the peerage are entitled to use the coronet in their coat of arms, where it customarily appears above the shield and below the helm and crest. The form of a coronet can therefore provide an extremely useful clue about the bearer of a particular coat of arms.
The symbolic use of the coronet in heraldry extends to portraits, in which it distinguishes the sitter and their rank, and also finds its way into the engraving and decoration of objects belonging to the household of a titled family such as drinking vessels, sets of china, hall chairs, silver teapots and even carriages. At its most imposing level, a coronet may be used architecturally to adorn the façade or gateway of the family seat, powerfully impressing the visitor with the status and dignity of the occupant. The Fairfaxes did this to great effect at their Gilling Castle estate, incorporating their coat of arms into the stucco decoration of the castle’s entrance hall.
The 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley
Charles Gregory Fairfax became the ninth Viscount Fairfax of Emley in 1738. This title, given in full as ‘Viscount Fairfax of Emley in the County of Tipperary’, was created in 1629 for his ancestor Thomas Fairfax (1574–1636). The title belongs to the Irish Peerage, which ranks below the peerages of England, Scotland and Great Britain in the order of precedence. The title of Viscount was established by Henry VI, the first creation – that of John, Baron Beaumont – being in 1440. It was not until the reign of James I, however, that this order of nobility was granted a specific design of coronet, which has sixteen small silver ‘pearls’ set in contact with each other on the upper edge of the circlet.
It is a coronet of this design that Lord Fairfax would have been entitled to wear at the coronation of George III in 1761, although there is no evidence that Lord Fairfax attended that event or had a coronet commissioned for it. Attendance at a coronation, however, was a valued privilege of members of the peerage, and indeed so many took advantage of the opportunity in 1761 that the streets around Westminster Abbey became dangerously crowded with the carriages of the nobility, and several serious collisions reputedly took place.