Revealed: the curious story of the wandering pearl that linked a queen to a movie star

One was a Catholic queen who died leaving England in economic ruin and religious dissent. The other was also a queen, of the big screen at least, who became as famous for her string of husbands as her movie career.

One was a Catholic queen who died leaving England in economic ruin and religious dissent. The other was also a queen, of the big screen at least, who became as famous for her string of husbands as her movie career.

Yet despite the yawning cultural and temporal gulf between the two, Mary I and Elizabeth Taylor do have some things in common: a taste for pearls, and extremely generous husbands.

The pious Mary would no doubt have been amazed to see La Peregrina, one of the most admired jewels of the 16th century and her wedding gift from Philip II, nestling on the ample chest of Elizabeth Taylor 400 years later. Taylor, too, was given the jewel by a husband. It was a gift from her fifth (and sixth) spouse, Richard Burton, soon after their first marriage in the Sixties.

The story of the pearl was revisited yesterday when a very rare portrait of Mary, seen wearing La Peregrina, was unveiled to the public in London for the first time in two centuries. It is to travel to Winchester Cathedral where it will go on show in an exhibition commemorating Mary's 1554 royal wedding in the Hampshire town.

The pearl, which witnessed Mary's short, difficult marriage to Philip, had already survived much by the time Burton handed it to his wife. It was returned to the Spanish royal family after Mary's death in 1558 but was seized by Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon I, when he was in charge in Spain.

When the Napoleon family fell on hard times, they sold it to the Marquis of Abercorn, and it was once lost by a family member at a ball at Buckingham Palace. Burton bought it in 1969 and Taylor still owns the pearl, which was incorporated into a Cartier-designed ruby and diamond necklace. She can be seen wearing it in the 1977 film A Little Night Music.

Yet Taylor, too, once feared she had lost it. During a stay at Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, she realised she had dropped it somewhere in the deep shag pile of the suite she was sharing with Burton. Terrified of telling her volatile husband, she spent several hours walking carefully on the carpet, feeling for the pearl with her toes before noticing her puppies chewing on something.

"I did the longest, slowest double-take in the world. I just casually opened the puppy's mouth and inside was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was, thank God, not even scratched," she said.

The exhibition of treasures relating to the Anglo-Spanish alliance in Winchester will feature valuable medals from the British Museum, manuscripts from Lambeth Palace and paintings from the Prado in Spain, including a portrait of Philip attributed to Titian. But the star is likely to be the painting of Mary, which has been owned by the Society of Antiquaries in London for nearly two centuries and has never been loaned for public display before. It has even been in the same room at Burlington House, Piccadilly, for more than 130 years, leaving only for conservation.

Announcing the exhibition yesterday, the historian Dr David Starkey described the work as "by far the best portrait of Mary. Were it not here [at the Society of Antiquaries] and were it to come on the open market, the National Portrait Gallery would have to go cap in hand to the Heritage Lottery Fund for an impressive number of millions. This is as iconic of Mary as the Holbein is of Henry VIII. It was probably painted for Mary herself."

There will be no shortage of glitter to illuminate the story of Mary's wedding, which was attended by 5,000 people who ate banquets served on giant plates of silver and of gold.

Dr Starkey said the exhibition would "celebrate the extraordinary wedding that had it produced children would have transformed our history. Elizabeth would have become surplus to requirements. We would have been a Catholic country. Our history would have been much nearer to the history of France. The event in Winchester is a very important might-have-been."

The exhibition is being held from 30 June to 30 September and was the brainchild of the cathedral's Canon Flora Winfield, who is also running a series of events, including a lecture by Dr Starkey.

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