To celebrate the return to my position as a scribe and illuminator for HM The Queen’s Crown Office I decided to write an article for the readers of Royal Central on how the royal coat of arms came to take it’s current form. I have painted the royal arms numerous times during my thirty five year career as a professional heraldic artist. For the reader of this article I have produced some new colour sketches and where possible provided some more finished illustrations from my existing portfolio.
The first thing to understand is that the armorial bearings The Queen uses today are not personal. They are called arms of dominion, that is to say they represent the countries she reigns over. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Heraldry is the systematic use of symbols arranged on a shield. It developed in the latter part of the 12th century and has its own language called Blazonry which describes in precise terms the design of the coat of arms.
So it is that the ‘lions of England’ made their first appearance in the visual history of this island nation during the reign of the mighty warrior, King Richard I, known to history as ‘Lionheart’. He is chronicled as using gold lions on a red shield and they first appear on a seal. There has been much discussion as to the question of how many lions he originally used.
The shield depicted on the seal is obviously curved and so only shows one side and the fact that the lion faces into the shield suggests that it is mirrored on the hidden side and that the lions are facing each other, known as ‘combatant’ in the language of heraldry.
In 1195 Richard adopted a new seal and on this design there is no doubt because it shows three lions or leopards as they were known at this time. In fact the term leopard was used to describe these beasts up until the late fifteenth century.The first blazon written describing the shield used by Richard appears in the Glovers Roll of 1255 where it describes it as Gules three leopards Or. That is to say red with three leopards of gold. This shield was then used by all monarchs until 1340.
In 1337 King Edward III laid claim to the Kingdom of France and pronounced himself king of that realm. He quartered the royal arms of France, Azure ‘powdered’ with fleurs de lys Or with those of England.
In doing so he made the blue shield with its gold lilies part of the English royal arms for over four hundred years. Although they no longer appear on the current royal arms they do still exist on the version used by Her Majesty as Sovereign of Canada.
It was also in the reign of Edward III that the first appearance of the royal crest is seen.
I should point out to avoid confusion here that a crest is not, as is generally believed, a coat of arms. It is only a part of the coat of arms. The part that goes on top of the helmet. In this case a gold lion standing or ‘statent’ on all four legs and looking at the viewer known as ‘guardant’ in the language of heraldry.
It stands on a red cap of estate with it’s fur or ermine brim turned up at the front. The cap was an early symbol of dignity and this became the royal crest until the reign of King Edward IV. The mantle, the flowing cloth that hangs from the helmet was red and lined with ermine and in this form the mantle stayed the same until the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First.
Between 1376 and 1394 Charles V of France reduced the number of lilies on the French royal arms to three. He did so for reasons of symmetry and in honour of the Holy Trinity.
This new coat was henceforth known as, ‘France modern’. Somewhere between 1403 and 1413 the English king, Henry IV decided to adopt the change and reflect this in his own royal shield of arms.
Also it is interesting to note that during Henry’s reign the first mention is made of an arched crown called, ‘St. Edward’s Crown’. There is no record of how many arches but the crown the Sovereign uses today is a copy made of the original when the monarchy was restored under King Charles II. The original being destroyed during the puritan Commonwealth of England, 1649-1660.
This crown however would not be depicted on the royal arms until later.
Supporters, the beasts and animals that can be seen supporting either side of the shield are generally thought to have become prominent in the mid fifteenth century.
King Henry VI is generally attributed to being the first monarch to use supporters regularly on depictions of his coat of arms. However other kings did use supporters occasionally.
Earlier medieval seals show animals in evidence but these are more likely to be used as space fillers for the circular design of the seals rather than designated supporters.
The next change to the royal arms comes in the reign of King Edward IV who took the throne in 1461 he added a gold open coronet to the Cap of estate on the royal crest and used a variety of supporters. A white lion, a gold lion, a black bull and a white hart to show his legitimacy of descent from King Richard II.
Edward also began using the motto, ‘Dieu et mon droit’ as a royal motto and it is still used to this day.
This form was then used with different supporters by several monarchs, King Richard III used two white boars and Henry VII used a red dragon and a white greyhound.
Henry VIII was the first King to systematically display his shield with the blue circlet of the Order of the Garter, England’s highest order of knighthood.
When Elizabeth I came to the throne she made some changes to the royal arms, the motto changed to ‘Semper eadem’, (Always the same) and now new rules were formulated by her heralds for the way in which heraldry was to be displayed.
A gold helmet with gold bars would hereafter only be used for the monarch and a silver helmet with gold bars for the nobility.
The royal mantling was also changed to cloth of gold lined with ermine whilst the red and ermine previously used was retained for use by Peers of the realm.
In 1603 King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as King James I of England unifying the two countries and this had new consequences for the royal arms.
To be continued…
Andrew Stewart Jamieson is considered to be one of the world’s leading professional heraldic artists, he is also a scribe and illuminator to Her Majesty’s Crown Office and author and illustrator of ‘Coats of Arms’ published in the UK by Pitkin. www.andrewstewartjamieson.com
Credit for illustrations go to Andrew Stewart Jamieson.