English Royal Heraldry

by Paul James
August 28 2005

Coat of arms from various stages of history can be seen throughout the country, from churches and other historic buildings, to royal publications, commercial products of companies that hold a royal warrant allowing them to advertise that they supply the Queen, to acts of Parliament and other official documents.

But what are they, and where are they coming from?

Heraldry originated in medieval warfare and tournaments when it was necessary to identify knights who were completely covered in armour. The knights adopted unique designs painted on their shields and on the surcoats covering the armour (hence the term “coat of arms”). The designs from the shields were also repeated on banners and standards which could be held aloft in battle (so apologies for some repetition to those who’ve read my earlier column on royal flags and standards!)

In time, arms were recorded for reference by heralds on rolls of arms, and became hereditary, passing from father to son. The sons would use the same arms but with an added distinguishing mark, making it possible to identify not only a family, but the individual members of it. These distinguishing marks are called “differences”, and arms containing them are said to be “differenced”. An eldest son would retain the difference until his father’s death when he would inherit the undifferenced arms. Other sons retain their differences for life and pass them on to their descendants.

The basic, essential, element of a coat of arms is the shield. In tournaments, knights also wore a carved ornament on top of their helmets called a crest (a term which is often, but wrongly, used to describe the whole coat of arms). When arms were depicted on paper, parchment or seals, it was common to show them with the shield, helmet, and the crest. To these basic elements, others were often added, including crowns or coronets of rank, mottoes on a scroll underneath (usually above in Scotland), and “supporters” such as animals (e.g. lions, dogs, unicorns), birds (e.g. falcons, eagles) or human figures. In modern England, only certain classes of people, such as peers, Knights of the Garter and Knights Grand Cross, are entitled to use supporters.

Heraldry became more elaborate through centuries, with rules for usage and inheritance, and, in England, by the 15th century it came under royal control with the responsibility for recording arms, genealogies, and granting new arms, falling to the King’s heralds. Arms were recorded not only as a designed pattern, but were also accompanied by a written description called a “blazon”, which included (and still includes) a fair amount of Norman French terminology.

There are rules governing the way a blazon is written, which make it possible for anyone who understands them to draw an accurate rendition of the arms from the blazon. Versions of the same arms needn’t look identical in every particular, as long as they reflect what is written in the blazon. A “lion rampant” (standing upright with one leg raised) must be clearly a lion, and it must be rampant, but it can be as stylised or as naturalistic as the artist wishes. Red (“gules”) can be any shade of red, but cannot be replaced by another colour. The shield can be of various shapes and can be tilted or upright. It is acceptable to leave out certain parts of the design as long as the shield is there. The version of the Royal Arms used by the British government and Parliament usually leaves out the helmet and crest, replacing them with the Crown, whereas the Queen uses a more complete version.

Kings, knights, and nobles started adopting arms around the 12th century. The first definite English royal arms were used by Richard the Lionheart (1189-99) and consisted of three yellow or gold (“or”) lions on a red (“gules”) background, one above the other (“in pale”), walking (“passant”), with their heads turned outwards, facing the observer (“guardant”). This design is blazoned as “Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale Or,” and it is still the coat of arms of England today. The royal crest became a gold lion standing on the royal crown, head turned outwards. Various “supporters” were used by English kings, but a gold lion became a regular “supporter” by the late Tudor period.

The evolution of the arms since its beginning reflects English history. In the 14th century, Edward III (1327-77) laid claim to the throne of France (through his mother) and added the French royal arms to his. The shield was quartered, and, since France was the senior kingdom, the French arms took precedence in the first (top left) and fourth (bottom right) quarters. The arms were blue and scattered with the famous gold fleur-de-lys of France. Around 1400, the French king reduced the number of fleurs-de-lys on the shield to three, and Henry IV (1399-1413) followed suit. Although the claim to the French throne was meaningless by the late 16th century (the last mainland possession – Calais – was lost in 1558 during the reign of Mary I), British monarchs continued to claim the title “King of France”, and to use the arms, until 1801.

Apart from changes in “supporters”, the Royal Arms remained stable for the next 200 years, until the union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (1603), when James I (1603-25) quartered the arms of Scotland and Ireland with those of England (including the French arms). In England, the English arms took the first and fourth quarters, but in Scotland, the Scottish arms took pride of place. This continues to be the case today. The “supporters” were a lion (from the English arms) and a unicorn (from the Scottish arms), and they have remained unchanged since.

William III (1689-1702) added his own arms on a small shield (inescutsheon) in the middle of the main shield, but the next major change to the arms came in 1707 when England and Scotland were united to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The English and Scottish arms were “impaled” (placed side by side) in the first and fourth quarters, to reflect the fact that they were now a single kingdom, and France was relegated to the second quarter. After Anne’s death, George I (1714-27) replaced the fourth quarter with the arms of Hanover, and so, for the next 87 years, the lions of England occupied only one-eighth of the shield (half of the first quarter).

The year 1801 saw the union between Great Britain and Ireland, and the arms were re-arranged to reflect this event, with the main shield consisting of England (1st and 4th quarters), Scotland (2nd) and Ireland (3rd), with the arms of Hanover (a separate realm) on an escutcheon in the middle. Because Salic Law (male-only succession) prevailed throughout Germany, Queen Victoria (1837-1901) didn’t inherit Hanover, and so the arms of Hanover were dropped from the arms, giving us the Royal Arms we know today.

In addition to the royal “arms of dominion” of the Queen, every adult member of the Royal Family has his/her own personal coat of arms. For children and grandchildren of the sovereign, the coats of arms consist of the Royal Arms with a white “label” (a white strip across the top, with other strips, “points”, hanging from it). The label for children of a sovereign (and Prince William) has three points; those of the rest of the grandchildren have five. The Prince of Wales’s label is plain (although he also has an escutcheon with the princely arms of Wales), while all others have a small charge on one or more of the points [anchors, crosses, lions, hearts and, for the Wales princes, shells (escallops) are currently in use]. There is a standard system of differentiating in English heraldry, in which only eldest sons use labels, while others use other symbols (e.g. a crescent for the second son, a star for the third son), but the Royal Family doesn’t follow the rule. Every member of the family is awarded a distinctive coat of arms with a label, issued by Royal Warrant from the Queen rather than a grant of arms from the heralds as others receive.

Princesses, in their own right, have their own arms with a label (on a lozenge, or diamond-shaped shield, and with no helmet or crest), but women who marry into the royal family impale their fathers’ arms with those of their husbands (impaling is dividing the shield vertically, and when it’s done through marriage, his arms are on the left and hers on the right). Men who marry into the royal family use their own arms, which need not have a connection to the British Royal Family. Prince Philip was granted arms by George VI (1936-52), which quartered the arms of Greece, Denmark, Mountbatten, and Edinburgh.

Until 1917 (when the British royal family dropped German titles), the male-line descendants of Queen Victoria bore the arms of Saxony (for Prince Albert) on an inescutcheon over the royal arms. This practice was not repeated for the current Queen’s children, so they bear no indication of their paternal heritage on their arms.

This is but a brief overview of heraldry and royal heraldry. There is much more to them than I have outlined here, and rules and practices differ from country to country. Scottish heraldry differs from English in some respects, and, since 1988, Canada has had its own heraldic authority, which has introduced a few innovations.

– Paul James