The Royal Coat of Arms reflects the history of territorial claims by the monarchs of what is now the United Kingdom. It is the shield that is the central part of the coat of arms, and where the claims are most explicitly made. After covering the history of changes to the shield I am going to add some notes on the heraldry of the other parts, which should be read as footnotes to the preceding write-up.


The arms of England are: Gules three Lions passant guardant Or. Which is to say: Red background, three gold lions walking along looking out at the viewer. They are arranged from top to bottom (rather than 2 over 1, which is the natural arrangement on a shield for three compact objects like roses or fleurs-de-lis). The earliest known use of this as royal arms is under King John (1199-1216), though it might have been used by his brother Richard I (1189-1199). While still a prince John bore two lions. Their grandfather Geoffrey of Anjou also bore a shield of lions earlier in the century; this is about the beginning of continuing heraldry. Any claim of much earlier arms (such as for Edward the Confessor or William the Conqueror) is a later romance. The arms of England plain were borne by subsequent kings up to Edward III (acceded 1327).

France Ancient and Modern

Anciently the arms of France were: Azure semé-de-lis Or. Which is to say: Blue background, sprinkled or sewn with many gold fleurs-de-lis. In 1376 King Charles V changed it to Azure three Fleurs-de-lis Or, in honour of the Trinity. These are referred to as France Ancient and France Modern. The fleur de lis is a well-known symbol of unknown origin or meaning. The name is literally lily flower, but it resembles the iris more than the flower we today call the lily. While the upper part does resemble three petals of an iris, they are bound together and have three smaller parts coming out below. This is a very old French symbol; the name might even be an alteration of fleur-de-Louis from early kings.

The Hundred Years War hinged on Edward III's debatable claim to the French throne. At first he accepted the new French king, but when that fellow began helping Edward's Scottish enemies, Edward staked his claim to the throne of France in 1339. He joined (in 1340) the arms of France and England together by quartering them, giving France the senior position. So the arms became: Quarterly 1 and 4 France Ancient, 2 and 3 England.

These were borne by kings up to Henry IV (1399-1413), in whose reign the change from France Ancient to Modern was recognized, no later than 1411, when the Great Seal was changed. Some members of the English royal family used France Modern earlier in the 1400s. These were borne by monarchs up to Elizabeth I.

Mary I (1553-1558) married King Philip of Spain in 1554 and they jointly held all their titles: these included Austria, Brabant, Jerusalem, Sicily, and many more. The Spanish arms were fearfully complicated, and during his reign in England King Philip bore his wife's English arms beside his own. His claim lapsed with her death, though, so the Spanish quarterings were not permanently incorporated.

Jane (reigned 14 days in 1553) would have brought in different arms had she remained on the throne for any time, since her father was not of the royal family. Her husband Lord Guildford Dudley was not styled king so would not have affected them.

Scotland and Ireland

The arms of Scotland are: Or a Lion rampant within a tressure flory counter-flory Gules. Which is to say: Gold background, red lion rising up, surrounded by two thin edgings of red around the shape of the shield, these edgings marked with fleurs-de-lis with the heads pointing alternately in and out. This shield was in use from around the reign of Alexander III (and at latest 1272) or possibly earlier. The flowery double border called the tressure flory counter-flory is a characteristically Scottish royal device.

The arms of Ireland as now used in heraldry are: Azure a Harp Or stringed Argent; that is: Blue with a gold harp with silver strings. These were in use by 1280 but not necessarily as the arms of the country. Ireland was not a single ancient kingdom with heraldic tradition the way the others were. It was invaded by the English in 1169, King John took the title of Lord of Ireland, and Henry VIII (1509-1547) was the first English monarch to be styled King of Ireland, but he did not make any change in his arms for this claim. Henry VIII also incorporated Wales fully into England for certain legal purposes, so the fact that Wales is only a principality, not a kingdom, means it has never been represented in the royal arms.

Only when James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603 and conjoined their arms was Ireland taken account of. He took the arms Quarterly 1 and 4 (quarterly i and iv France Modern, ii and iii England), 2 Scotland, 3 Ireland. Although it would look neater to have the four claimed kingdoms arranged one per quarter, this would not reflect the order of inheritance: England-plus-France was one line he inherited, Scotland was another. These were borne by the Stuart monarchs (lapsing during the Commonwealth) up to Anne in 1707.


James VII and II fled the throne in 1688 and the next year his daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III (territorially William of Nassau, dynastically of Orange) were installed as king and queen. Her arms remained the Stuart ones. He, assuming the royal dignities of England and Scotland, adopted their arms - his wife's - with the addition of his own of Nassau on an inescutcheon, a smaller shield superimposed over the centre. The arms of Nassau are: Azure billetty and a Lion rampant Or. Which is to say: Blue background, sewn or scattered with small vertical blocks gold, and a gold lion rising up.

Mary II dying in 1694, William III became sole king till his death in 1702, whereupon the throne reverted to her sister Anne, so Nassau did not become a permanent feature.

Great Britain

England and Scotland had been under personal union, sharing monarchs, since 1603, but in 1707 under Queen Anne they were united into a single kingdom, known as Great Britain. This was reflected in the arms by bringing the two closer together, so the royal arms became: Quarterly 1 and 4 England impaled with Scotland, 2 France, 3 Ireland.

Impaled means the two coats are side by side, showing all of them. However a peculiarity of the tressure flory counter-flory is that when it's impaled it is not continued down the side of impalement, but is only drawn on three sides.


On Anne's death in 1714 the Hanoverians succeeded. George I was Elector of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick, etc., and these arms came with him to Great Britain when he succeeded to the British throne. The arms of Hanover were placed in the fourth quarter, so now the royal arms were: Quarterly 1 England impaled with Scotland, 2 France, 3 Ireland, 4 Hanover.

Those of Hanover were: Tierced in pairle reversed, 1 Brunswick, 2 Lüneburg, 3 Westphalia, on an Inescutcheon Gules the Crown of Charlemagne Or. Which is to say: three coats of arms in an inverted Y, Brunswick on the left, Lüneburg on the right, Westphalia in the reverse-V below, with over all of them a smaller red shield with the gold crown they displayed by virtue of being Arch Treasurers of the Holy Roman Empire.

Brunswick had: Gules two Lions passant guardant Or; that is, red background with two gold lions walking and looking outward. Lüneburg had: Or semé of Hearts Gules a Lion rampant Azure; that is, a gold background sewn or scattered with red hearts and over them a blue lion rising up. Westphalia had: Gules a Horse courant Argent; that is, a running white horse on a red background.

After the union of 1801 the Hanoverian arms were moved from the fourth quarter to an inescutcheon, a smaller superimposed shield on the main arms. Sitting on this shield was an electoral cap. In 1814 the ruler of Hanover was promoted from Elector to King, and (delayed till 1816) the elector's cap was replaced by a royal crown. Women could not inherit the Hanoverian throne, so on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 the kingdom of Hanover went to a cousin, and its arms were removed from the British arms.

United Kingdom

The two kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were united from 1 January 1801, and the anachronistic claim to the throne of France was finally dropped. The new arms were: Quarterly 1 and 4 England, 2 Scotland, 3 Ireland. On top of this was the inescutcheon and electoral cap (from 1816, crown) of Hanover, and when that passed out of British rule in 1837 the arms therefore assumed their present shape.

In Scotland the Scottish lion takes precedence, so the royal arms there are: Quarterly 1 and 4 Scotland, 2 England, 3 Ireland.

No change was made for the marriages of Victoria or Elizabeth II since their husbands did not become kings (nor had it for Anne's husband George of Denmark). Nor were changes made when Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1876, nor when Ireland was partitioned into north and an independent south.

Other parts of the coat of arms

The shield design by itself is used on a standard as the personal flag of the Queen. It flies on a building only when she is in residence. The Royal Standard cannot be lowered to half mast, since on the demise of one monarch the next one instantly succeeds.

When depicted in a full achievement, the shield rests on a compartment, consisting of a grassy mound and the motto Dieu et mon droit. On the mound are growing roses, thistles, and shamrocks, for the three component kingdoms. The roses are the Tudor rose, the conjoined red and white rose that symbolizes the end of the Wars of the Roses.

The supporters are a lion representing England and a unicorn representing Scotland. I don't know what their history is; presumably they were only brought in in that form in 1603. Before that England's second supporter was a dragon, and you still occasionally see this old coat of arms on pub signs. I don't know what other changes have been made in the long history outlined above.

Above the shield is the helmet. For the Sovereign this is a gold helmet, facing to the front, with a closed grille. From that hangs the mantling, a ragged cloth of gold lined with ermine. Only the Sovereign is permitted this combination. On top of that is the crown, which has precise specifications for the number of pearls and the colours of the jewels. And on top of that sits the crest, a lion passant guardant or, crowned, that is a gold lion walking and looking out. This lion has remained unchanged as the crest of England since the time of Richard I.

In Scotland there are numerous variations in the full achievement. Not only do they give the Scottish arms precedence in the quartering, they reverse the supporters, putting their unicorn on the more honourable dexter (left) side. The supporters carry flags, the unicorn with St Andrew's saltire and the lion with St George's cross. The motto on the compartment is that of the Order of the Thistle, namely Nemo me impune lacessit, and the purely English Order of the Garter is not used to encircle the shield. The crest is a lion sejant erect affronté gules, that is sitting upright facing forward. It carries a sword and sceptre in its paws and the motto In Defence.

/msg me if you want any specific heraldic term explained