On 12 December 1911, the recently crowned King George V and his wife, Mary, were formally proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India in Delhi during the Durbar—a grand ceremonial gathering that served as a demonstration of India’s loyalty to the crown. Though Durbars had been held before for Queen Victoria and Edward VII, this was the first time the monarch and his consort actually bothered to make an appearance, which was rather nice of George and Mary. They made a right spectacle of it too, wearing their coronation robes (in Indian heat!) with George sporting the brand-new Imperial Crown of India, which was created by Garrard & Co at a cost of £60,000 (more than £4.5 million today). The crown was actually a practicality—there’s an old royal law that forbids the British crown jewels from ever leaving the UK. Despite its magnificence, the crown was hugely uncomfortable and hasn’t been worn since. Nor have any other Durbars been held, though British monarchs continued to be styled Emperor of India up until a year after Indian independence, which is a bit bizarre. Guess they were busy attending to other things.
And why were they called Empress/Emperor of India in the first place? Funny story, that. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria realised that her daughter, Vicky, who was married to the Prussian Crown Prince, would one day be an empress, thus outranking her mother, who was ‘only’ a queen. Well, we can’t have that, now, can we? In an extreme example of sucking up, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli offered up the title Empress of India, claiming that the queen’s superiority to the various rulers who controlled parts of British India justified the grandiose new title. I’m sure the maharajas weren’t offended at all by being put in their place like that. The strategy worked and Victoria got her nice, shiny new title on 1 May 1876. It then passed on to Edward, George, Edward VIII (for a little while), and finally to George VI before it was formally abandoned on 22 June 1948.