The Queen’s Beasts Collection is inspired by centuries of history and royal heraldry. We have created this dedicated area for you to discover more about the origins of these fantastical creatures.
Heraldry may be littered with mythical creatures but it has very practical origins. Centuries ago, enemies needed to tell each other apart on the battlefield so they carried simple flags or shields in different colours, clearly identifying each side as they charged into battle.
Over time the standards and seals used by knights and the nobility evolved and they started to incorporate emblems. Shields began to chart heritage and lineage, becoming more and more complicated as lands and titles were won and lost. A simple solution was a ‘badge’, a simple motif such as a knot or thistle, which could be recognised by anyone. These badges could also be decorated with ‘beasts’, a more personal and intimidating representation of its holder.
Meet the Beasts
The Lion of England
The lion is one of the earliest animals to appear in royal emblems; a traditional symbol of bravery, strength and valour. The first recorded use was the gift of a blue shield, decorated with small golden lions, given to Geoffrey Plantagenet by Henry I as he married Henry’s daughter Maud , in 1127. As long as England has had a shield of its own, it has always featured the lion in some form – the Norman kings of England used motifs featuring the ferocious beast, a tradition made consistent under Henry II and his son Richard I the ‘Lionheart’ in the twelfth century.
King of the Beasts
The lion is not only an English symbol as it appeared on the arms of the Principality of Wales. Today it features on the Royal Badge of the National Assembly of Wales and is a prominent figure in the Scottish royal coat of arms. This inclusive symbol was an obvious choice for The Queen’s Beasts but at her coronation it was the golden Lion of England who stood in pride of place, nearest the entrance to the Abbey, crowned and holding the shield of the Royal Arms, king of the beasts.
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The Unicorn of Scotland
Tales of the mythical unicorn date back to around 400 BC, perhaps confused or exaggerated descriptions of animals like the rhinoceros or wild bulls and horses. The creature was at first thought to be huge, strong and fierce, and later a more elegant beast, a symbol of purity and innocence. James I of England, who united the English and Scottish thrones, chose the Scottish Unicorn to join the Lion of England in supporting the Royal Arms. They have supported the shield ever since.
The Unicorn of Scotland, milk-white with gold hooves, horn and mane, has a coronet around its neck, like a collar, with a gold chain attached. It is thought that the chains were to show a great beast tamed to serve the king. As with most chained beasts in heraldry, its strength is emphasised rather than diminished by its shackles. It holds the royal coat of Scotland, unchanged since the time of Scottish king, Alexander III. A red lion rampant (the most fierce stance) is shown on a gold background.
The Red Dragon of Wales
Dragons are one of the best known mythical beasts, found in legends all over the world. In Europe the dragon was seen as a frightening but strong, wise and powerful creature. In Wales it was mentioned in chronicles as early as the sixth century, sometimes known as the red dragon of Cadwallader , the legendary king of Gwynedd. The Red Dragon of The Queen’s Beasts was an emblem of Owen Tudor, a claim to Welsh heritage that was carried on by his son, who would become Henry VII. The troops of Henry VII carried a fiery red dragon standard at the Battle of Bosworth, when Henry secured the crown of England.
Henry VIII used a red dragon on green and white – the colours of the House of Tudor – on his ships. It was an official emblem of Wales for many years but it was not until 1959 that The Queen made the red dragon on a green and white background the official flag for Wales. The dragon of The Queen’s Beasts is red with a yellow underbelly and it holds a quartered red and gold shield with leopards, the arms of Llewelyn ap Griffith, the last native prince of Wales.
The Black Bull of Clarence
The Black Bull of Clarence is a ‘Yorkist’ beast which came to The Queen through Edward IV, the first king of England from the House of York and one of the key players in the ‘Wars of the Roses’. Assisted by the Earl of Warwick known as the ‘kingmaker’, Edward took power from Henry VI, overturning a troubled Lancastrian rule. Henry VI fled to Scotland and was later briefly returned to the throne before he was finally defeated in battle by Edward in 1461. His execution at the Tower left no doubt over the new king’s reign. Edward IV is said to have often used the bull as a symbol, as did his brother, Richard III, the last York king. Edward’s original claim to the throne was as the great-grandson of Roger Mortimer, descendent of the Duke of Clarence, who Richard II had named as his successor but who was usurped by his nephew, Henry IV.
At The Queen’s coronation the Black Bull of Clarence held a shield with the Royal Arms as they were borne for more than 200 years, not only by the Yorkist kings but by the Lancastrians that went before and the Tudors who came after. The shield has two quarters with the gold lions of England adopted by Richard I and two with the golden lilies of France, added by Edward III to support his claim to the French throne.
The Falcon of the Plantagenets
The Falcon passed to The Queen from the Plantagenet king Edward III. He chose the symbol to embody his love of hawking but it is also closely associated with his great-great-grandson, Edward IV. The white Falcon at The Queen’s coronation holds a shield with a badge of a second white falcon within an open golden ‘fetterlock’ or padlock.
The fetterlock and the falcon were popular emblems in the Houses of both York and Lancaster, as they were descended from Edward III’s younger sons John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley. The fetterlocks used by John and Edmund were always locked, perhaps to show they had no claim to the throne. Edward IV gave his younger son, Richard, the badge of a white falcon within an open fetterlock – the lock Edward forced to take the throne. Henry VII, who united the houses of York and Lancaster with his marriage to Elizabeth of York, often used a falcon symbol and it was said to be the favourite badge of Queen Elizabeth I.
The White Lion of Mortimer
The White Lion came to The Queen through Edward IV who inherited the creature from his grandmother, heiress of the Mortimers. Although Edward sometimes used the White Lion as a supporter of his Royal Arms, unlike the Lion of England the White Lion of Mortimer has no crown and its tongue and claws are blue rather than red. In heraldry lions are often ‘rampant’, standing with forepaws raised, but the Lion of Mortimer is often shown sitting rather like a tamed dog with its tail between its legs.
The White Lion of The Queen’s Beasts holds a Yorkist shield of blue and ‘murrey’ or mulberry colour with a ‘white rose en soleil’, a white rose on a golden sun, combining emblems that were used by both Edward IV and Richard III. It was a badge used by George VI, The Queen’s father, when he was Duke of York.
The Yale of Beaufort
The Yale is a mythical beast with characteristics of an antelope or goat, depending on the imagination of the artist and their desire to portray grace and elegance, or strength and determination. Strangely, it is said to have horns that can turn independently so in medieval illustrations it is often shown with horns pointing in different directions. The white and gold-spotted Yale of Beaufort has such horns along with the whiskers or ‘tushes’ of a boar.
The Yale of Beaufort was a symbol of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. The Yale of The Queen’s Beasts holds a shield with the blue and white quarters of Margaret’s arms but with a golden portcullis at the centre, a badge used by Henry VII. The portcullis is also part of the arms of Westminster City Council, home to Westminster Abbey where the coronation took place in 1953.
The White Greyhound of Richmond
The hound is a common symbol in heraldry, used by royalty long before Henry VII, but is closely associated with the first Tudor king. The white greyhound is a special beast of Richmond in Yorkshire – Henry’s father was created Earl of Richmond in 1453. Henry’s greyhound was white with a gold-studded red collar and it often supported his Royal Arms, alongside the Red Dragon of Wales or Lion of England.
The greyhound of The Queen’s Beasts holds a shield of Tudor white and green with the famous Tudor rose at the centre. Here the rose is crowned but in heraldry the Tudor rose can take many forms. However the joining of the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York also represents the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York and the union of the warring houses.
The White Horse of Hanover
On the death of Queen Anne, last of the Stuarts, the throne passed to George of Hanover, who became George I. At The Queen’s coronation, the Horse of Hanover carried the Royal Arms of George I. Three quarters represent his sovereignty as King of Great Britain, France and Ireland while the fourth has the arms of Hanover. The Hanoverian arms are in turn divided into three, with the two leopards of Brunswick, the blue lion of Lüneburg and the White Horse of Hanover itself.
The white horse is a familiar symbol in Kent which is sometimes said to have been brought to the county by Saxon hordes. The Kentish white horse is always depicted ‘rampant’ or rearing but the Horse of Hanover is shown at full gallop.
The Griffin of Edward III
In mythology the griffin was thought to be strong and courageous, a watchful guardian with keen sight and swift action. The fantastical beast, part eagle, part lion, was also believed to make its nest with gold to protect its valuable agate eggs and have claws that would change colour on contact with poison. The Griffin of The Queen’s Beasts is shown with wings which according to legend would make it female, as males have no wings.
The griffin was closely associated with Edward III who ruled for more than 50 years. He had the creature engraved on his private seal showing that, along with the falcon, it was perhaps his most favoured beast.