Empire and Commonwealth

The development of a unified Britain, an overseas Empire and the evolution of the Commonwealth are told through objects in the Royal Collection.


An openwork lace shawl woven at Gandhi's request by a Punjabi girl, made from yarn Gandhi had spun himself on his spinning wheel. The square shawl is made of knotted and crocheted cotton with a fringe on each of the four sides and the design incorporates 81 flowerheads at regular intervals on an openwork ground.  In the centre is a rectangular panel woven with the words JAI HIND, which means ‘Victory to India’.  The shawl was given as a wedding present to Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in November 1947.

Theatre de l'univers: contenant les cartes de tout le monde, avec une brieve declaration d'icelles

This is a French version of Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum, first published in Antwerp in 1570 with 53 maps, and considered to be the first modern atlas. Ortelius was one of the leading humanists of the Low Countries and was acquainted with many European intellectuals. Theatrum orbis terrarum was incredibly successful, despite being the most expensive book produced in the second half of the sixteenth century. Interest in it was extended by the continued issue of updated versions. Produced during the European Age of Discovery, new editions reflected new geographic knowledge, and each version contained new maps and new information. The opening double-page spread of the world, engraved by Francis Hogenberg (c.1535-90), is among the most widely reproduced early-modern maps. It reflects contemporary theories about what remained undiscovered: Ortelius believed there to be a large southern continent which he named ‘Terra Australis Nondum Cognita’, or ‘Southern Land Not Yet Known’.

The 1580s, when this edition was published, was a period of English exploration and discovery. Sir Francis Drake returned from circumnavigating the globe, and England was beginning to organise the colonisation of Virginia, named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, by Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth I’s support of exploration led to the expansion of England’s presence across the world, and anticipated the British Empire.

Fragment of George Washington's Coffin

This shard of wood was presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1860 on his visit to Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. The Prince was the first member of the royal family to visit the United States of America. With President Buchanan he went to Mount Vernon to pay his respects at the Washington Mausoleum. Although George Washington had specified before his death in 1799 that he wanted a new brick tomb to be built, this was not undertaken until 1830, at which date the President’s original coffin was broken up and he was reinterred in a new coffin. In a symbolic gesture, the Prince of Wales, as representative of Queen Victoria, was presented with a shard of the original coffin by Washington’s great, great nephew, John A. Washington Jr.

Chess Set

In 1995 The Queen paid an historic visit to South Africa at the invitation of President Mandela – her first visit for 48 years and her first as Head of State.  The visit was particularly significant since it celebrated the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth after thirty-two years’ absence, an event which had been marked in London in June 1994.  In November 1996 President Mandela made a State Visit to the United Kingdom and on this occasion he presented this hand-painted chess set to The Duke of Edinburgh.  The figures represent people of the Zulu and Ndebele tribes in traditional costume.

Dorsaywala Gordenji

This remarkable and extensive series of portraits was painted by Rudolf Swoboda for Queen Victoria while he was in India. The Queen had commissioned the artist to record the ‘different nationalities’ among her Indian subjects in a series of small-scale sketches and studies. They were placed in the Durbar corridor, leading to the newly constructed Durbar Hall at Osborne House, where they remain.

The King's Merino Sheep

In the late 1780s George III began an experiment in an attempt to improve the quality of wool produced in Britain, and specifically to increase the length and quality of the fibres in wool ‘grown’ in the UK, so that it might equal the superior wool produced in Spain. To this end he acquired some Spanish Merino sheep and appointed Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, as his unofficial shepherd. In this 1792 edition of ‘The Bee’, the royal experiment is described. Already in 1790 sheep from the King’s flock (kept at both Windsor and Richmond) were being sold at public auctions. At one of the King’s auctions in 1804 a group of Merinos were acquired for export to Australia, where they were responsible for laying the foundations of fine wool production there.

'The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer' was a magazine written by James Anderson, a farmer as well as a prolific essayist. His article on the monarch’s involvement in a project to produce fine wool in Britain was accompanied by a drawing of a Merino ram ‘to satisfy the curiosity of the public’. He followed this with an extract from 'Annals of Agriculture' by Arthur Young, who describes being given a Merino ram by George III, whom he named Don. Young praises the King’s interest in agriculture as forward-thinking, and good for the country. Indeed, George III’s investigations provided crucial knowledge of sheep breeding and fine cloth manufacture to the first Australian colonists, and contributed significantly to the growth of the Commonwealth wool trade. Within 50 years fine wool production in Australia and other British colonies ended Britain’s dependence on European wool. Australia is still a major exporter of wool to the rest of the world.

Learning resources to accompany the series have been developed in partnership with BBC Schools. These can be accessed on the BBC's Famous people website.

To listen to The Art of Monarchy series, please visit the BBC Radio 4 site.


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