The Queen’s Beasts coin series | The Royal Mint

The Queen’s Beasts

The Queen’s Beasts Collection is inspired by centuries of history and royal heraldry. Discover more on the origins of these fantastical creatures who represent and guard Her Majesty The Queen. 

Meet the Beasts

Meet the Lion of England and the nine other beasts that form a formidable troop to guard Her Majesty The Queen.

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 emblems were incorporated into the designs. 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.

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  Matilda, 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. 

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, but it  later became 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 chain was to show a great beast had been 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 who was known as the ‘kingmaker’, Edward took power from Henry VI, overturning a troubled Lancastrian rule. Henry VI fled to Scotland, but 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 held a shield with a badge depicting 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 had 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, which is 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 it 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, as it is sometimes said the horse was first  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. 

A Proud Reign for Her Majesty

In 2017 Queen Elizabeth II reached her Sapphire Jubilee. Find out how The Queen’s Beasts were brought to life for Her Majesty’s coronation more than six decades ago.

Connection to the Queen

As Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in June 1953, the entrance to Westminster Abbey was guarded by ten fantastical creatures. They symbolised her heritage, with each statue representing a royal ancestor that had gone before her. They have watched over Her Majesty through an astonishing reign; from a young woman inheriting the throne at the age of 25 to an experienced monarch 65 years later.

The Coronation Beasts

The beasts that lined the entrance to Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953 were formidable six-feet tall, plaster sculptures created by James Woodford RA. They were unpainted, except for their shields, which featured coats of arms that signified which of The Queen’s ancestors they represented.

After the coronation, the statues were displayed at Hampton Court and then Windsor. Today, The Queen’s Beasts can be found at the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, where they are now painted with their bright and impressive heraldic colours. Portland stone replicas, also carved by James Woodford, watch over Kew Gardens.

These proud protectors of the monarch can also be spotted in some surprisingly everyday places, like British passports, on our pound coins, and regularly appear in British art and sculpture.

The King’s Beasts

Each of The Queen’s Beasts had been used as a heraldic badge by Her Majesty’s ancestors, including Henry VIII, who was represented by the Lion of England and Red Dragon of Wales. The coronation statues of 1953 were inspired by the King’s Beasts of Henry VIII, commissioned for Hampton Court Palace in celebration of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. The King’s Beasts can still be seen lining the bridge over the moat at the palace. 

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