The Royal Arms of Great Britain
See also the page on royal styles.
Most of the information here is from Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson: The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, Oxford University Press, 1990, with some corrections. See also Roger Forder's page on the royal arms of England.
The arms of England (gules three lions passant guardant or) are known since their appearance on Richard Lionheart's second great seal, although he is believed to have used either a lion rampant or two lions affrontes before that (as shown on his first seal), and his father Henry II to have used a lion rampant. His younger brother John had a 1177 seal with two lions passant guardant.
In 1340 Edward III asserted his claim to the kingdom of France through his mother Isabelle de France, sister of the last three kings in the direct Capetian line, against their first cousin Philippe de Valois, closest heir in male line, who had succeeded in 1328. Although Edward III was not heir general (i.e., if one allowed female succession, there were other candidates closer than he was), he and his successors spent a lot of time (one hundred years by the conventional count) trying to conquer France, coming close to success many times but ultimately failing. The claim was expressed by quartering the arms of England with those of France, with France in quarters 1 and 4. According to Froissart, this was done to assuage the Flemings who were bound by oath not to act offensively against the king of France. if Edward were to take the title, they said, they would acknowledge him as such and offer him assistance.
The quarter of France was a semy of fleurs-de-lys or (see the discussion of French royal arms) and changed to three fleurs-de-lys in 1405 or 1406 to reflect French practice. (The seal of Henry IV had a semy, but the arms on his tomb have three fleurs-de-lys, and the future Henry V bore three fleurs-de-lys on his arms as prince of Wales starting in 1405; the seal of Henry V had three fleurs-de-lys).
Interestingly, these quartered arms came to be regarded as the arms of England itself, as distinct from those of France. When Henry VI was crowned king of France in Paris in 1422, pursuant to the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, he minted coins with two escutcheons side by side, France and England (that is, France quartering England; see Ruding's Annals of Coinage 1840, vol. 1. p. 267).
In 1603 James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England, and the following year changed his style to that of king of Great Britain. The royal arms became: grandquarterly, 1 and 4 quarterly France and England, 2 Scotland, 3 Ireland (Henry VIII had proclaimed himself king of Ireland in 1541 but the kingdom's arms had not yet been incorporated into the royal arms).
The Great Seal of Scotland, from 1603 to the present, has retained the same arrangement as the English/British royal arms, but with Scotland in place of England, and England in place of Scotland. The coinage of James VI and I initially showed the same arms (England 1 and 4, Scotland 2, Ireland 3) but an act of the Privy Council of 7 Dec 1609 decided to make the coinage minted in Edinburgh show the arms as they appeared on the Great Seal of Scotland (Scotland 1 and 4, England 2, Ireland 3).
1689-1694These arms show the impaled coats of William and Mary, proclaimed king and queen in England in February 1689 and in Scotland in April 1689. They are identical, except that William bears an escutcheon of Nassau overall.
1694-1701While William reigned alone after Mary's death he used his arms, as above.
1702-07Queen Ann, Mary's sister, returned to her father's arms as they had been used from 1603 to 1688.
1707-14The Act of Union united the kingdoms of England and Scotland; this union was signified by a rearrangement of the arms. The united kingdom was represented by England and Scotland impaled in quarters 1 and 4, France in quarter 2 and Ireland in quarter 3. For the first time, the quartered arms (gules three lions passant guardant and azure three fleurs-de-lys or) ceased to be regarded as a single coat representing England. Instead, France was treated as if it were one of the crown's other dominions like Ireland.
Note that article 24 of the Union with England Act of 1707 states that "[...] a Seal in Scotland after the Union be alwayes kept and made use of in all things relating to private Rights of Grants which have usually passed the Great Seal of Scotland and which only concerns Offices, Grants, Commissions and private Rights within that Kingdom". The design of the seal was left to the sovereign. Accordingly, a different seal and achievement is in use in Scotland to this day.
1714-1801The accession of the House of Hanover brought yet another modification. The fourth quarter, identical to the 1st until 1714, was replaced with the arms of Hanover: tierced per pale and per chevron, 1: gules two lions passant guardant or (Braunschweig), 2: or a semy of hearts gules a lion ram,pant azure (Lüneburg), 3: gules a horse courant argent (Westfalen), over all an escutcheon gules charged with the crown of Charlemagne or (dignity of arch-Treasurer of the Holy Roman Empire).
The duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg had titled himself "Elector of the Holy Roman Empire" from 1698, and added an escutcheon gules and an electoral bonnet to his arms. From 1711 he also bore the title of Arch-Treasurer and the escutcheon was charged with a crown of Charlemagne or (see his coinage in Gerhard Welter, Die Münzen der Welfen). After 1714, his German coinage bore the title: "Georgius I Dei Gratia Magnae Britanniae Franciae et Hiberniae Rex, Fidei Defensor, Brunscvicensis et Luneburgensis Dux, Sacri Romani Imperii Archithesaurarius et Elector".
1801-1816The Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland took effect on January 1, 1801. The 1st article of the Act states:
That it be the first Article of the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, that the said Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland shall, upon the 1st day of January which shall be in the year of our Lord 1801, and for ever after, be united into one Kingdom, by the name of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and that the royal style and titles appertaining to the Imperial Crown of said United Kingdom and its dependencies; and also the ensigns, armorial flags and banners thereof shall be such as H. M. by his Royal Proclamation under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, shall be pleased to appoint.
Accordingly, a Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1801 set the royal style and titles and modified the arms, dropping the quarter of France. The Annual Register (vol 43, p. *2) states that the new great seal was shown to his Majesty and the privy council on that day.
Note, however, that article 24 of the Union with England Act of 1707 was not modified, and that a separate seal for use in Scotland continued to exist.
Art. 10 of the Act of Union (Ireland) provides:
There is a story that the quarter of France was dropped to satify the demands of Napoleon at the peace of Amiens (J. H. Pinches, Royal Heraldry of England), or "in compliance with one of the articles of the Treaty of Paris" (Oxford Guide to Heraldry, p. 189). These claims are rather fanciful, since the Treaty of Paris dates from 1783, and the Treaty of Amiens was signed in March 1802; neither treaty making any mention of the matter. The claim to the throne of France was recognized by many as silly, especially since, as of 1792, there was no throne of France to claim (although Britain had yet to recognize this in international law; it did so with the treaty of Amiens). Furthermore, the one who did claim it, the comte de Provence and future Louis XVIII, was actually living in London at the time.
There is, however, a kernel of truth to the story. In 1797, after the Austrians had signed a peace with France, Great Britain was left without major allies in its war against France, and war-weary. Peace negotiations were begun, during the "conference of Lille" from July to October 1797, with Lord Malmesbury as the British negotiator. The internal politics of France, however, were very volatile, with tensions between several of the five-member executive (the Directory) holding a much more radical line then others, and also in conflict with more moderate and peace-inclined parties in the legislature. As a result, the French negotiators laid down exorbitant demands (including the return of the Channel Islands!) and continually hindered the negotiations by raising time-consuming and insubstantial problems. Eventually, a coup took place in France in October 1797, with the radicals gaining the upper hand, and the negotiations were broken off.
The details of the negotiations were the subject of a debate in the
House of Commons in November 1797. from the documents presented to
the House by the government, the following transpires. At the beginning
of the negotiations, Lord Malmesbury delivered a draft treaty for consideration
by the French (July 8). The French returned on July 10 with a number
of objections formulated in a note. One of them reads:
Malmesbury's dispatch to lord Grenville dated July 11th confirms that
the French raised this objection:
Such feelings are echoed in the Annual Register's description of the
change of title in its 1801 edition (vol. 43, p. 38).
"Emperor of the British Dominions"?The following comes from A. G. Stapleton, Political Life of George Canning, II (1831), pp. 361-2n. [Stapleton was Canning's private secretary, and his information was doubtless derived from Canning himself.]
"His late Majesty, George III, was advised, at the time of the Union with Ireland, in compensation for H.M.'s abandonment, then voluntarily made, of the title of King of France, which had been so long annexed to the Crown of England, to assume the title of Emperor of the British and Hanoverian Dominions; but his late Majesty felt that his true dignity consisted in his being known to Europe and the world by the appropriated and undisputed style belonging to the British Crown."
In 1814, the king of the United Kingdom became king of Hanover (until 1806 and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, he had been Elector of Brunswick-Lunenburg or Hanover). The assumption of the new royal title took place by a note handed by count Munster, the Hanoverian Minister of State, to the Austrian Minister Metternich and the ministers of the other powers assembled in Vienna on October 12, 1814 (Annual Register, 1814, p. 455-56):
The undersigned State and cabinet Minister of Hanover is charged by his August Master to acquaint the Imperial Austrian Court with the following declaration concerning the title which his Royal Highness the Prince Regent of Great Britain and Hanover thinks ti necessary to substitute for that of Elector of the Holy Roman Empire.A proclamation was issued in Hanover on October 26:
We, George Prince Regent, in the name and on the behalf of our Father, his Majesty George the Third, by the grace of God King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick and Luneburg, &c.
Curiously, the royal arms were not changed until 2 years later. A
proclamation of Jun 8, 1816
ordered that the royal Hanoverian
crown be placed over the escutcheon of pretence, instead of the electoral
1837-presentWith the accession of Victoria in 1837, the kingdom of Hanover went to another line by application of the Salic law, and the Hanover escutcheon disappeared (see the proclamation of July 26, 1837).
The medieval crown used by the English kings was an open crown flory, like that of other kings. The seals of Edward VI and Richard III show a single "inverted-V" arch topped with a globe and cross, as does that of Henry VII who also adopted the crown on his coinage. It is under Henry VIII that crosses alternate with the fleurs-de-lys, but the number of arches was not set; the coinage of Charles II clearly shows two smaller arches supporting the main one.
The crown of Scotland is subtly different, in that the central and side elements are fleurs-de-lys, with two crosses in-between (whereas the English crown has a central cross). The cap is decorated with rosettes, whereas the English cap is plain. This difference goes back to the 16th c. or early 17th c., as the first coinage of James VI and I after the union (1604 to 1609) has the same arms but a different crown whether minted in London or Edinburgh (after 1609, the quartering itself differs as well). The adoption of a closed crown in Scotland is also probably around 1500. The description of royal seals in Laing shows crowns as follows:
British Heraldry Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary | Contact
Last modified: Sep 04, 2007