In the first of a two-part series, we look at the six original ‘King’s Beasts’ of the ten heraldic statues representing the genealogy of Queen Elizabeth II. In part two, we focus on the remaining four, which were added for the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
In 2016 the Royal Mint issued its first coin in the 10-coin ‘Queen’s Beasts’ series. The heraldic beasts on the coins illustrate Elizabeth II’s ancestry, the original six of which are based on Henry VIII’s ‘King’s Beasts’.
The King’s Beasts originate at Hampton Court, a palace to the west of London constructed by the influential Tudor statesman Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530). Prior to Wolsey’s fall from grace in 1529 he gifted the palace to Henry VIII (1491-1547), who soon embarked upon a programme of embellishment and expansion. After his marriage in 1536 to Jane Seymour (1508-37) Henry commissioned a set of 10 magnificent statues to adorn the bridge leading over the moat of the palace. Each statue depicted a heraldic creature bearing a shield illustrating the royal and noble ancestry of the King and his new wife.
At Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, six of these beasts were repurposed as guards of honour outside Westminster Abbey, illustrating her shared lineage with Henry VIII. Just as the history of the Royal Mint, whose origins date to 886AD, connects our contemporary coinage with that of centuries past, so do these beasts symbolically and genealogically connect the United Kingdom’s present-day royal family to those of Tudor England and beyond. This series is therefore a wonderful amalgamation of old and new, depicted in the ever-constant medium of coinage.
The Lion of England
The lion is known all over the world as a symbol of England and features today as the mascot of the English football team. Its associations with courage, strength and valour make it appropriate as a royal supporter. The shield held by the lion bears the Arms of the United Kingdom: the lions of England (arms of the House of Plantagenet), the lion of Scotland, and the harp of Ireland. This was the first ‘beast’ issued in the Royal Mint series and designer Jody Clark has repurposed the heraldic lion to create a contemporary coin echoing the illustrious heraldic history of the king of beasts.
The Red Dragon of Wales
The red dragon is renowned for gracing the Welsh flag and has long been associated with Wales and its earliest kings. It was the emblem of the House of Tudor and when Henry Tudor (1457-1509) became king of England in 1485 as Henry VII, the red dragon adorned his personal banners. This fearsome and legendary beast therefore symbolises the Queen’s Welsh and Tudor ancestry. Jody Clark’s evocative design shows the dragon holding the shield of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (circa 1223-82), a great warrior and the last native Prince of Wales.
The Black Bull of Clarence
The black bull was used as a symbol by Edward IV (1442-83), grandfather of Henry VIII and his brother Richard III (1452-85), the last Plantagenet King of England and the last from the House of Lancaster. This beast ties the Queen’s ancestry to the torrid times of the Wars of the Roses and the family feud which shaped 15th-century England. The bull bears a shield depicting the lions of England and the fleur-de-lys of France. English monarchs claimed the throne of France from the Hundred Years’ War up until the early 19th century and the inclusion of the fleur-de-lys signifies this claim.
The Yale of Beaufort
The yale is a lesser-known mythical beast, often depicted similarly to a horned goat. Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) adopted this creature as her symbol. The shield it holds bears the portcullis, known today as the arms of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.
The White Lion of Mortimer
This is yet another symbol derived from Edward IV, the first king from the House of York. Unlike the Lion of England, the white lion of Mortimer does not wear a crown. Its shield shows the sun circling a white rose. The white rose was the symbol of the House of York and survives today as a symbol of Yorkshire and as part of the Tudor Rose, the floral emblem of England.
The White Greyhound of Richmond
Though the hound has long been associated with royalty and hunting, the so-called sport of kings. The reason for its inclusion in the Queen’s Beasts is its association with the House of Lancaster and Henry VII. When Henry VII became King of England in 1485 he used the greyhound to impress his royal lineage and descent from the House of Lancaster. Henry VI (1421-71) had granted this symbol to Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, and it represented agility and athleticism. The greyhound holds a shield bearing a crowned Tudor rose, made up of the red and white roses of the houses of York and Lancaster representing the joining of the two dynasties.