People often wonder about the symbolism in the royal coat of arms. Wonder no more! Inspired by a lovely brass trivet I received, I explain the significance of the animals as well as the mottoes and the heraldic shield.
The above is a bit different from the typical royal coat of arms (more on that later). For now, I will discuss what the current coat of arms means. We’ve all seen it, love it, and want to know – what does it all mean?
The lion, known as “King of the Beasts”, represents England.
The unicorn represents Scotland. It was added to the royal coat of arms when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England in 1603. The unicorn’s presence here can also stand for the unity of Scotland and England.
The small lion on the top is in “statant” stance and has St. Edward’s Crown on its head.
The blazon, or shield, in the center is supported by the lion and the unicorn. The design of lions and the harp are usually seen on here and on the Royal Standard, the Queen’s flag. Let’s zoom in:
The three golden lions, in the first and fourth quarters, represent England. Their origin is traced back to Richard I, “The Lionheart”, known for his bravery in battle. The lions were images on his shield and part of his Great Seal.
The red lion on yellow, in what is known as a “rampant” stance, represents Scotland. It is the Scottish Royal banner, not the national flag, and “its correct use is restricted to only a few Great Officers who officially represent The Sovereign”.
The Gaelic harp represents Ireland.
This all changes depending on which part of the kingdom the Queen is in at the time. If she’s in England, the first flag is used. In Scotland, Her Majesty’s Royal Standard will show the red rampant lion in the first and fourth quarters [Note: this does not occur for the harp, and there have been disputes over flag symbolism].
Let’s zoom back out for the remaining elements in the crest:
The motto on the bottom banner is Dieu et Mon Droit – God and My Right. This is the belief that monarchs received their right to rule from God directly. Surrounding the banner is grass with the national flowers of England (Tudor rose), Scotland (thistle), and Ireland (Shamrock).
Honi soit qui mal y pense: Shame to him who thinks this evil. The provenance of this French phrase comes from two theories surrounding Edward III. The first is that Edward “gave forth his own garter as the signal” at the start of battle. Another theory suggests it was a simple wardrobe malfunction. As Edward danced with Joan of Kent, her garter slid down her leg to her ankle, causing laughter to ripple through the crowd. To counter poor Joan’s embarrassment, Edward placed the garter around his own leg uttering the famous honi soit qui mal y pense! Hence the belt design with the motto inside.
Now back to my brass trivet – you’ll note that the central heraldic shield is quite different. After a bit of research, I found that it shows the last Royal Standard of the 18th century. It is hard to see in the photo, so take a look at this clear image from this site. The first and fourth quarters, which now hold English lions, used to represent the Anglo-Scottish alliance (first quarter) and the Hanoverian royal line (fourth quarter). The French fleur-de-lys (second quarter) became the red Scottish lion. All Anglo-Norman and French symbolism was removed, as well as the symbols for the Germanic house of Hanover so that the United Kingdom’s symbolism as a whole could take center stage.