Royal Arms are one of the intriguing things you might notice if your mind wanders during the sermon. But where did the royal coat of arms originate and how did they develop? Stephen Slater explains


The Royal coat of arms is just one of the fascinating things you may spy in a local church, while your mind wanders wickedly from the sermon. But where did they originate, and how did they develop? Stephen Slater explains.

This time of year may seem bleak but the winter solstice traditions expertly adopted by the Christian Church make it a time of hope and glory – read winter solstice traditions: a bleak but beautiful mid winter.


Imagine one is sat in the local church, thoughts wandering rather wickedly from the vicar’s sermon. One’s gaze alights on a large board upon which is painted the Royal coat of arms. It is an image once familiar to all churchgoers and such displays are still found in 20% of English churches. But what do the individual elements tell us, from where did they originate and how did they develop?

Royal coat of arms

The Royal Arms of Edward VII.

Heraldry has been with us since the late 12th century, when it was used by wealthy military men to identify themselves on the battlefield and in the tournament. The main “platform” for the bearer’s arms was the fighting shield, which used a system of colours and symbols in an increasingly hereditary fashion. An “achievement of arms” (the correct term for a coat of arms) not only shows the shield of arms but the helmet adorned with the bearer’s crest (often an item symbol taken from those on the shield) and, if you were one of the high and mighty, including royalty, supporters to the shield, which were often animals or mythological creatures.

During the reign of Richard I, the arms of the Kings of England start to make their appearance. Often called the “Leopards of England”, the arms actually consist of a red shield with three gold lions walking across it and gazing at the onlooker, each one above the other, the correct heraldic “blazon” (language) being Gules three lions passant guardant in pale, much of that language being taken from the Norman French used at this period in the English royal court. Those little lions have continued in the Royal Arms into the present Queen’s reign.

Royal coat of arms

Royal Arms dating from the reign of Henry IV adorn Westminster Abbey.

Certainly from the reign of Henry III (1216-72), the Royal Arms start to make their appearance in the churches of this country, mainly in those that would have obtained direct royal patronage. Two of the finest examples from Henry’s reign are to be found in the great west window of Salisbury Cathedral and in Westminster Abbey (on tiles and in carved stone).

As we know, the history of our monarchy has been somewhat turbulent and the arms used by our monarchs changed over the centuries (but always keeping the three lions) with the dynasties, Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian or whatever.


One of the most poignant and blatant changes to the Royal Arms took place when the shield became “quartered” with the beautiful arms of the French monarchs, these at the time being a blue shield strewn with gold fleurs-de-lis. The addition was made in the reign of Edward III to accentuate his claim to the throne of France. Those lilies remained on the shields of the sovereigns of Great Britain until 1801, long after we had lost any territories in France.

In the reign of Henry IV (1399-1413), the Kings of England following practice in the French court limited the number of lilies in the French royal arms to just three.

Royal coat of arms

The Royal Arms dating from 1189 to 1901.

This latest version of the Royal shield makes a fine appearance on the pulpit of the church at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire. The pulpit was commissioned during the reign of Edward IV, he, of course, being of the House of York and a prominent player in that turbulent period we call the Wars of the Roses.

The supporters to the Royal Arms were often personal to the monarch and so it is with Edward IV, his shield supported by the White Lion of Mortimer and the Black Bull of Clarence. Look to the right-hand panel above the Royal Arms, for there is the famed White Boar of Edward’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). As such Richard’s boar appears as his personal badge or “cognisance” and would have appeared on the dress of his personal retinue and adherents, one such badge being found on the field of Bosworth where Richard lost his life.

The Battle of Bosworth took place in 1485 and saw a new dynasty on the Throne of England: the Tudors. The new King Henry VII kept the shield of arms of the former Plantaganet dynasty but placed his shield between the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr (Wales) and the White Greyhound of Richmond. Of course, the shield would have been surmounted by the Royal Crown.

To this point, the use of Royal Arms in churches was a matter of personal preference, the arms sometimes accompanying the shields of local lords and gentry as a show of loyalty. But this was all to change with the reign of Henry VII’s son, that extraordinary character Henry VIII.

Royal coat of arms

The supporters to Richard III’s coat of arms were white boar.

We all know what upheavals King Henry’s troubled love life caused for this country, leading it into the Protestant fold. Ironically, Henry had already been created “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, for his defence of the Catholic Church in the fight against Martin Luther; that title is still held by our monarchs. In 1534, Parliament declared that Henry was “The only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England”.

From this time onward, it seems to have become the norm for the placing of the Royal Arms in some prominent place in parish churches as a sign of loyalty to the Crown. They were often placed on the screen that, up until Henry’s break with Rome, had borne the image of Christ on the cross, known as the “rood”. More often the arms were painted or an armorial board placed above the main arch  between the nave and the more sacred area of the church.

It is said that only one Royal Arms from Henry VIII’s reign has survived, this being the extraordinary carved achievement above the chancel arch in the Church in Rushbrooke, Suffolk, but there is much speculation about the exact nature and age of the arms. It has been suggested the Rushbrooke painting dates from the reign of Henry VII and might have been brought from a different building to the church during the lifetime of a 19th-century squire, he being a noted art collector. Whatever the truth the arms make a remarkable statement of royal power.

Under Catholic Mary I the roods were brought back, the Royal Arms probably placed elsewhere in the church. Under Mary’s Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, Royal Arms were made prominent once more, often bearing the Queen’s personal motto “Semper Eadem” (Always the Same). A delightful example can be found in St Thomas’s Church, Salisbury, the bleary-eyed dragon and lion always making me think that they are experiencing the morning after the night before.

Royal coat of arms

The Royal Arms of Edward IV at the church in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire.

An even more remarkable instance of the veneration that Gloriana created in the country survives in  St Mary’s, Preston, Suffolk, where a local antiquary, evident fan, Robert Reyce, commissioned (along with Commandment Boards) a grand display of the Queen’s Arms, like no other. Not only does the shield include the arms of France and England but also those of many early rulers of her Realm, the Princes of Wales and even the Roman Empire (SPQR for Rome). Beneath the grand shield are the words “Elizabeth Magna, Regina Angliae” (Elizabeth the Great, Queen of England).

Come the Stuarts, we see the shield added to by the Scottish Royal Arms and the Harp of Ireland; the Scottish unicorn also helps support the shield. It also became common to surround the shield with the Garter bearing its famous motto “Honi soit qui may Y pense” (Shame on him who thinks evil of it).

Under the Commonwealth, not surprisingly, the Royal Arms were either hidden away, destroyed or turned around so that the reverse was now a platform for the Commonwealth Arms; the shield bore the red cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Harp of Ireland and, in the centre, a little shield with the personal arms of Protector Cromwell. Few Commonwealth Arms have survived in situ, probably the best example being in the church in North Walsham, Suffolk.

There had been no direct order for the Royal Arms to appear in churches until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Shortly after this, Parliament ordained the setting up of the Royal Arms therein. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, actually wrote that the Royal Arms suddenly started to appear in churches and on houses even before the Restoration had been officially announced, much to the annoyance of certain “fannatiques”.


Most of the Royal Arms that survive in our churches today (usually painted on board) date from the Hanoverian period. It is fun looking for the alterations to dates and the monarch’s cypher that, at times, are all too obvious. Also, church authorities, in an attempt to save money, might order a new shield of arms to be stuck over the old one to reflect the more complex quarterings brought in by the Hanoverian dynasty.

Church records offer some charming insights into the negotiations and placing of the Royal Arms in local churches. So it is we learn that in 1661 Mr Johnson was paid twice the sum of 2s 6d for bargaining over the painting of the Royal Arms and a further £9 17s 6d for the actual “drawing of the Kinge’s Arms”. But my favourite insight must be that from a letter in 1742 from Charles Isham to his brother, Sir Edmund Isham, of Lamport, Northamptonshire. Poor Ned Weston, an assistant painter, tumbled down from the scaffold as he was “doing ye King’s Arms in Lamport Church, received little damage as good luck happened he fell upon ye top of your seat and broke his fall”.

Royal coat of arms

Queen Elizabeth I’s coat of arms in St Thomas’s Church, Salisbury.

In the present Queen’s reign there have been a few instances of her arms being placed in parish churches, in the main after her Coronation or jubilees. One was fashioned in 1996 for the church in Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire out of old pews.

Today, about 20% of our parish churches retain one variant or other of the Royal Arms – but take note: these are not to be confused with the large, diamond-shaped boards bearing coats of arms that can still be found in many parish churches. These are “funeral hatchments”, placed outside the home of the deceased for a period of mourning (perhaps a year and a day). Depending on the colouring on the back and nature of the coat of arms, you can tell if the deceased was a widow, single lady, bachelor or widower – but that’s another story. However, I have to say my favourite local hatchment (possibly made by a royal coach painter) is for a member of the Royal Family, it being for HRH Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, youngest son of Queen Victoria. It is in the church at Boyton, Wiltshire, placed there after his death in 1884 from haemophilia.

So do look around you during that interminable sermon – there’s a lot to learn.

Stephen Slater is a Fellow of the Heraldry Society of England and author of The Complete Book of Heraldry.