Opals became a sine qua non of royal and aristocratic dress in Renaissance England. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and indeed members of the Elizabethan nobility, wore lavish parures of Opal.
On New Year's Day 1584, the Queen was delighted to receive a splendid set of matching opal jewellery from one of her favourite courtiers, Sir Christopher Hatton. In gratitude for this she arranged for the palace of Ely, near Holborn, to be let to him at a token rent by the Bishops of Ely. Incidentally the area today is known as Hatton Garden and has been London's jewelry quarter since the 1870's.
The English Queen used precious gems as objects of diplomacy, in her public appearances she would be seen bedecked with pearls and stones giving an overpowering impression of opulence and regal dignity. During the reign of Elizabeth it was written:
Optallio is called Oppalus also, and this stone bredeth in Inde and is deemed to have as many virtues as hiews and colors.
Loyalty & Heroism
Sir Francis Drake (1543-1596) is considered the most famous of the heroes and navigators of Britain’s illustrious maritime history. The first Englishman to sail around the world, he fought the Spanish on numerous occasions defeating the Armada in 1588.
Queen Elizabeth I conferred a knighthood on him, decreeing his ship the Golden Hind a national monument. As a token of her thanks, around 1579, the Queen gave Sir Drake an Opal and ruby hatpin as a memento for the jewels he purloined for her on the Spanish main.
The 'Sun Jewel' was worn by Sir Francis Drake on his hat. It has at its centre a ruby engraved with an intaglio orb, surrounded by Opals within a diamond and Opal border. This is framed by straight and curved rays alternately enameled red and set with rubies. On the back of the jewel is a miniature of Elizabeth I of England. The orb, which is emblematic of sovereignty, may allude to Elizabeth, or to Drake’s historic circumnavigation of the world.
Sir Bevil Grenville (1596–1643), Royalist soldier in the English Civil War. Grandson of Sir Richard Grenville, Elizabethan sailor, explorer, and soldier. Educated at Oxford, Bevil was a Member of Parliament, and the most generally loved man in Cornwall.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "Grenville was the type of all that was best in royalism. He was neither rapacious, drunken nor dissolute, but his loyalty was unselfish, his life pure and his skill no less than his bravery unquestionable." He valiantly led the Cornish infantry to victory at Stratton but fell at Lansdown, near Bath. His soldiers refused to fight under any other leader and returned home, carrying the body of Sir Bevil which was buried in a tomb in Kilkhampton Church.
The 'Grenville' Jewel which bore his portrait is one of few existant pieces of the period. It is important as it demonstrates that the English, who set the fashions in the 16th century, were indeed fond and avid users of Opal in the formal ceremonial style jewellery of the day.