This precious stone set in the silver sea, this sceptered isle


What's the meaning of the phrase 'This precious stone set in the silver sea, this sceptered isle'?

In John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II he appears to rhapsodise over the many qualities of England – ‘this other Eden’. ‘this earth of majesty’, ‘this precious stone’ and so on. While this may be taken at face value, more is being conveyed than simple praise for the country’s virtues.

Gaunt is alluding to the destruction of the old ways brought about by the Plantagenet wars. His description of ‘this sceptered isle’ is not only imagery of England as a jewel set in the sea. England’s kings wear sceptres and the land and its people are ‘sceptered’, that is, subject to the throne. Also, the reference to the country as ‘this seat of Mars [the god of war] and ‘this fortress’ suggest that the throne is a military prize, rules by the strongest, not necessarily the best.

What's the origin of the phrase 'This precious stone set in the silver sea, this sceptered isle'?

From Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1593.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

Trend of this sceptered isle in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.