Tradition and Design: The History of Royal Cyphers

On September 26th, Buckingham Palace officially unveiled King Charles III’s royal cypher—a small symbol with his first initial, the letter “R”, a numeral three, and a crown. For many of us, the period since Queen Elizabeth II’s passing has been the first time we’ve paid attention to royal cyphers, let alone witnessed the creation of a new one. It’s rare that a piece of graphic design gets international buzz, so this month we’re diving deep into all things royal cypher: their history, purpose and how these designs get made.

King Charles III Cypher

King Charles official royal cypher on mail sent from Buckingham Palace (Buckingham Palace)

What is a royal cypher?

A royal cypher is, simply, the personal symbol of a monarch. It’s their personal logo. Modern British royal cyphers typically consist of the monarch’s first initial, the letter “R” for “Rex” or “Regina”, the Latin words for “King” or “Queen”, their number if applicable, and a crown. They are used on documents, mail, on royal-approved items like money, police helmets and post boxes as well as on any buildings and landmarks that the monarch commissions.

British monarchs have had cyphers since at least the 15th century, and many other European monarchies have deep rooted cypher traditions that continue to this day as well.

Queen Elizabeth II’s cypher on a sword (Senate of Canada) Royal cyphers found on British swords (Victorian Swords Tumblr)

Marie Antoinette’s monogram, embroidered by herself! (MET Museum) Cyphers and monograms of the Swedish royal family (The Royal Forums)

Cypher vs. monogram: what’s the difference?

Here’s where definitions get tricky. The Project Gutenberg book Monograms & Ciphers distinguishes monograms and cyphers based on how the letters interact:

“A Monogram is a combination of two or more letters, in which one letter forms part of another and cannot be separated from the whole. A Cipher is merely an interlacing or placing together of two or more letters, being in no way dependent for their parts on other of the letters.”

Perhaps an easier way to remember the difference is to dissect the Greek origin of the word “monogram”: mono meaning one, and gamma meaning letter.

A monogram is one letter—a singular symbol that can be made up of many letters but forming one intertwined design. A cypher by contrast is made up of initials that can be taken apart.

Despite these formal definitions, the two words are often used interchangeably.

Examples of a royal cypher—King Edward VII’s— and monograms from Monograms & Ciphers, designed and drawn by Albert Angus Turbayne (Project Gutenberg)

Who gets royal cyphers and monograms?

In the context of the British royal family, Gert’s Royals explains that the monarch’s symbol is referred to as a royal cypher while the rest of the royal family’s symbols are called monograms.

The reigning British monarch has a royal cypher made shortly after their ascension, as we witnessed with King Charles. Other royal family members with private offices have custom monograms created and updated throughout their life to reflect position changes and marriages. 

A glance at Charles’ monograms throughout the years: his royal cypher as monarch (Buckingham Palace), a joint Prince and Princess of Wales monogram of Charles and Diana (Wikipedia) and earlier joint monograms of Charles and Diana (Swann Galleries and Wikipedia

Royal family monograms only feature their first initial and either a crown, in the case of the heir apparent, or coronet for others. There are also different coronet designs, for example the Coronet of the Child of the Monarch, the Coronet of the Grandchild of the Monarch or the Coronet of Child of Heir Apparent.

Monograms can reflect the individual. Prince Harry’s monogram was created as an ode to Princess Diana, while Meghan Markle’s monogram has a calligraphic style that nods to her past experience as a calligrapher.

Monograms of various members of the British royal family (made from Wikipedia images)

Married royal family members also get combined monograms, such as a joint Harry and Meghan monogram, or monogram for Princess Eugenie and her husband Jack Brooksbank.

Harry and Meghan joint monogram (Sussex Royal) and Eugenie and Jack wedding china (Royal Trust via People Magazine)

How far back do royal cyphers and monograms date?

Monograms have existed as far back as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. They were originally used as signatures on money and to mark personal possessions. 

A Greek coin from 515 BC – 480 BC featuring identifying letters (American Numismatic Society) And a Byzantine plate with monogram from 610–613 (MET Museum

In the 8th century, emperor Charlemagne started using monograms beyond money. The imperial-minded monarch wanted to conquer all of Europe and began using his cypher, or signum manus as it was called in the medieval era, as symbol of conquests. The simple mark was effective as it could be recognized across many regions, cultures and languages.

A Roman denarius coin of Charlemagne dated c. 812–814 and Charlemagne’s signum manus (Wikipedia)

In the British monarchy, the royal cypher tradition dates back to at least the Tudor era, starting in the 15th century. One of the best known early royal cyphers is Henry VIII’s, which can be found on many of his mansions and palaces. Henry VIII was the first to add the letter “R” to royal cyphers to make his status as king extra clear. 

Henry VIII’s cypher in King’s College chapel in Cambridge (New York Times) and a joint Henry VIII Anne Boleyn monogram (Elizabeth Schuch via On the Tudor Trail)

The cypher of King George III, the last king of America and king during the War of 1812, can often be found on historical cannons in Canada.

The thrill of finding a royal cypher in the wild, especially on a cannon pointed at the visitor parking lot! King George III cypher at Fort George, Niagara on the Lake, Canada.

Queen Victoria’s royal cypher had many variations. The idea of using a consistent single design across different uses, in cyphers and in branding, is relatively new. Victoria’s cypher designs depended on the medium they were made in and the tools available to the maker. (Victoria also famously had her cypher embroidered into her drawers!)

Queen Victoria’s various cyphers, from canon engravings (Military History Books), a copper pot (Vintage French Copper), stone relief sculpture in London (Waymarking) to her drawers (Victorian Fanguide)

Since the 19th century, one of the most common places to spot royal cyphers in the UK are on pillar post boxes. Thousands of these red boxes are adorned with cyphers of the monarch that was reigning at the time they were installed. The cyphers on the boxes don’t change when a new ruler comes into power, so they’re easy to date based on the cypher.

Collections of postbox images and cyphers from The Postal Museum in London (The Postal Museum)

Perhaps the cypher we know best, and used most consistently in the same design, is that of Queen Elizabeth II. We know that her cypher was quickly produced as one of the first steps in preparing her coronation. A 1953 Reader’s Digest article recounts the creation of the royal cypher:

“This was one of the first steps in the preparations as the cypher has to be embroidered on the uniforms of all Royal servants and countless household articles.”

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown with her cypher (Royal Trust via BBC)

Interestingly, an alternate cypher for Queen Elizabeth II was used in Scotland. The country did not recognize the late Queen as Elizabeth the II. This was because Scotland does not recognize Queen Eizabeth I, as they were ruled by Mary, Queen of Scots. The late Queen’s Scottish cypher didn’t include the roman numeral II and had a different crown.

Who designs royal cyphers?

Modern British royal cyphers and monograms have been designed by the College of Arms, the official heraldic authority for the UK and much of the Commonwealth. 

Heraldry is a design system that began in Europe in the 12th or 13th century to brand noble families with symbols such as coats of arms and crests. Since it originates in warfare and power struggles, much of heraldry has to do with arms and military items.

The College of Arms headquarters in London (Wikipedia)

The College of Arms was created in 1484 to manage heraldic symbols and keep genealogical records and research. It consists of thirteen officers who are appointed by the monarch and who are members of the Royal Household.

You can visit the College in London and do research in their building among centuries of records on heralds and genealogies of British, Irish and Commonwealth families. The show “Who Do You Think You Are” often features the College’s research into various celebrities’ family histories and shows a glimpse at the fascinating types of documents they contain.

The College also produces heraldic art. According to The Heraldry Society, heraldic artwork is made by the College’s staff as well as authorized Herald Painters or approved artists. You can even apply to work at the College of Arms. If heraldry is your thing, keep an eye out on the York Herald’s Twitter account for job openings.

King Charles III cypher design process

Frustratingly, few details have been released about King Charles’ cypher design process. The College of Arms released a statement on the cypher revealing only that it was selected from a series of ten designs, features a Tudor crown as typically used by kings (while the St. Edward’s crown is used by queens), and has a Scottish version with a Scottish crown.

If Kate Middleton’s coat of arms design process is any indication, it’s possible the cypher was handpainted, at least to start.

Recently, British graphic designer and Youtuber Will Patterson analyzed a modernized version of King Charles’ cypher. He concluded that some things shouldn’t be modernized, that tradition prevails in certain domains. It is interesting to see a modern twist on a traditional piece of design, but royal cyphers are so steeped in history that keeping in line with tradition seems only appropriate.

A reimagined, modernized cypher by u/AaronGadol (Reddit)

How to get your own piece of a royal cypher

If all this talk of royal cyphers has you interested in seeing one or owning a piece of one yourself, here are a few ways you can do so:

– spot them out in the wild (UK, Commonwealth countries, in Canada you can see them at certain royal commissioned landmarks, on canons)

– write a letter to the royal family to get an envelope with the current cypher – Gert’s Royals has a whole blog on letter writing to the royal family

– in the UK or Commonwealth countries: search through antique stores

– and of course, Ebay has a multitude of items with royal cyphers

My only two royal cypher spottings in Toronto while researching this dive, the books at The Scribe rare books shop and Edward VIII’s cypher on the former post office at Yonge and Eglinton

TL:DR

This one was a long one! To recap: British monarchs get a personal symbol called a royal cypher made after their ascension to the throne. This has been tradition since at least the Tudors in the 15th century. Other royal family members have monograms with their first initials. The College of Arms designs and maintains royal cyphers, monograms and other heraldic symbols. Much of the story around royal cyphers and monograms is mysterious and steeped in tradition.

Dive Deeper

For a thorough visual reference on monograms, check out Project Gutenberg’s ebook Monograms & Ciphers by Albert Angus Turbayne

A deeper dive into monogram history from the context of jewelry by antique jewelry seller Erica Weiner

For more on coronets and crowns and what changes in monograms now that Charles is king, see this thread by Gert’s Royals

A collection of all British royal cyphers on Wikipedia

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