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Crowns and heroes

Gilded crown atop the reconstructed Gate of Honour at the Chateau de Versailles
Gilded crown atop the replica Gate of Honour at the Chateau de Versailles

To know which leader is in charge, look for the largest headdress, tiara or crown. They are usually finely crafted from rare feathers, beads, or precious gold and jewels. Crowns are one of the most historic and ceremonial hallmarks of leadership.

We begin 2021 wishing all goodwill with optimism for year under a new, healthier regime. Continuing our Insignia Insights series, we start by sharing stories of notable crowns of history, and their role in an epic epidemic.

Royal recycling

Signifying who is at the top, whether tribal, royal or religious, crowns are the ultimate status symbol.

Napoleon's tiara designed by Marie-Etienne Nitot House of Chaumet 1805
Napoleon’s Tiara, illustration public domain

Crowns are highly visible decorative motifs like those on the re-created Chateau de Versailles Gate of Honour. Originally built in the 1680s, the gilded iron gates are one of many symbolic objects destroyed during the French Revolution in 1789. The fate of the crowned gate foretold the ending of the monarchy under Louis XVI.

Placing crowns on the heads of a new leaders is a highlight of ceremonial coronations, signifying a regime change. That moment is a feature of many paintings, monuments and trinkets. A royal rebranding to inform the masses.

Remaking crowns into fresh designs for a new era was a job of court appointed goldsmiths. Working with inherited jewels, and sometimes the spoils of war, when reparations could be paid in gold and gems.

Napoleon’s Tiara made by his official jeweler, the House of Chaumet, is an example of such royal recycling. Not made for the new emperor. He sent this crown along with an insulting message to the conquered Pope.

Crowns that changed the world

Crowns are the signature spikes on the coronavirus shown on this CDC image
Photo: coronavirus by Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS, courtesy CDC

Looking back at 2020, we quickly learned how an invisible crown became the icon of a new global power. Spiked proteins are the hallmark of a strain of a new virus with the nickname “corona”.

It is that signature crown which took charge last year. Spreading illness throughout the world, making us all subjects of pandemic history.

Seeing how quickly scientists began genetically harnessing the crown of spikes on the coronavirus gives us ammunition to fight back. We are witnessing a rapid and historic development of vaccines. Enabling our immune systems to recognize and neutralize the viral intruder is the crowning triumph of science and medicine.

While awaiting worldwide inoculation, we note some crowns serving a different purpose.

Queen Victoria’s crowns

Queen Victoria's sapphire crown designed by Prince Albert 1840
Queen Victoria’s sapphire crown at the V&A

Wearing the Royal Crown Jewels, Victoria was crowned Queen of the British Empire in June 1838 during her coronation at Westminster Abbey. She was just 19. Two years later she married her love, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Taking gems from her old pieces, Prince Albert designed a new sapphire and diamond cornet for her soon after they married. It has the Saxon Rautenkranz, or circlet of rue (rue is a herb), an element of Prince Albert’s coat of arms. He commissioned Joseph Kitching of Kitching & Abud, the official “Jewellers to the Queen” to craft it.

Eleven glittering sapphires are set in gold and surrounded by diamonds set in silver. The crown can be worn in a closed circle coronet, or open at the back as a tiara. It is just one of several tiaras and crowns Queen Victoria inherited or had made. This is the crown she chose to wear for her portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1842.

It is a portrait that takes her image right around the world. Its the great jewel of the young queen. – Victoria & Albert Museum, Senior Curator, Richard Edgecumbe, video, April 11, 2019.

This coronet is the star of a new jewelry gallery unveiled at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2019, the bicentenary year of Victoria and Albert’s birth.

Since it’s founding in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, the V&A has been educating designers, makers and the public by showcasing exemplary design and decoration. Housing over 2 million artifacts, it is the world’s largest repositories of decorative arts and design spanning 5,000 years. And it is free for all to access (except during a pandemic).

Honours system

Royal Victorian Order medal awarded to Governors General of Canada
Royal Victorian Order medal courtesy DND

Besides crowns, hallmarks of the Victorian era include advancements in science, medicine, arts and industry. During Queen Victoria’s reign (1837- 1901), several new orders were added to the British Honours system.

The Royal Victorian Order medal is a dynastic order of knighthood originating with Queen Victoria in 1896. It is given at the discretion of the sovereign for service.  The eight-point Maltese cross RVO medal was first made by the same jeweler who crafted her sapphire crown.

Governor Generals of Canada, and the 54 Canadians recieving the award since 1972, can use “CVO” (Commander of the Victorian Order) after their name.

Note the Royal Cypher in the centre. VRI (Victoria Regina Imperatrix) are the superimposed gold letters on the crimson enamel oval. The Imperial State Crown, sometimes called a Tudor crown, sits atop the blue enamel riband with the motto VICTORIA in gold.

Retaining symbolic elements of the British Crown reflects Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy. These insignia from the Victorian era may seem unnecessary now, but have a role in recognizing service and Canada’s unique history.

Heroes and royal charters

VON Victorian Order of Nurses Argyle St Ottawa designated National Historic Event in 1997
VON Argyle St Ottawa, courtesy Parks Canada

Occurring in the late 1800s were severe shortages of nurses, doctors and hospitals in Canada, especially in remote areas. Learning of these dire circumstances was Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, wife of John Hamilton-Gordon, Canada’s 7th Governor General. Described as a liberal Scottish aristocrat by supporters and detractors, Lady Aberdeen was a champion of the idea to form an order of visiting nurses.

Undaunted by resistance of some ‘medical men’ concerned about proper training, Lady Aberdeen enlisted help from a Harvard doctor. He literally wrote the book “Nurses & Nursing”, and created the Waltham Training School for Nurses considered gospel by the legendary Florence Nightingale. Proposing a name for the order in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee drew criticism, and also helpful in overcoming objections:

Strategically invoking the sovereign, the VON affirmed women as active citizens in a northern nation, a female equivalent of the North-West Mounted Police. –Veronica Strong-Boag, biographi.ca

Signing up the first 12 nurses into the Order in November 1897, the Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada was granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria in March 1898. A few months later, they were granted permission to wear the same badge as those give to the Queen’s Nurses in Great Britain and Ireland.

Predating provincial public health, hospitals and the Canadian Nurses Association was the VON. Traveling with a basic kit and homemade uniforms, they delivered care, compassion (and many babies) to people across Canada. All these organizations are on the front-line of COVID-19 today. More than 6,000 VON Canada nurses, and almost equal number of VON volunteers are continuing their mission. They are providing charitable nursing, home care and social services in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Heroes worthy of new honours?

Front Line Workers lawn sign hearts and heroes in Canada

Early in the present pandemic, people banged pots and stuck plastic signs in their lawn thanking ‘front line workers.’  Those sounds and signs have faded. And the challenge has only increased.

We think all those who continue making it possible for the rest of us to get through tough times are deserving of more formal recognition. This is a moment when Canada could create a new more permanent insignia and honour the heroic everyday people fighting the pandemic battle.

We are not alone. Learning that the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada is advocating for a ceremonial medal for exactly that purpose to be inaugurated in 2022. It is part of a controversial proposal for a Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Honouring the thousands of ordinary Canadian heroes with a gesture of thanks is the least we can do. Just think what a great inclusive national celebration it could be.