What is a Royal Cypher? Delve into our collection to find how they pop up on pillar boxes, medals and (of course!) stamps.

Want to know the story behind each cypher? Read our blog post on royal cyphers on letter boxes.

As Deputy Curator of Philately at The Postal Museum, I am lucky to be able to see and work with many artefacts of postal history. We keep our large items such as pillar boxes, telephone kiosks and mail vehicles at our off-site storage at Debden, Essex – many of which feature the Royal Cypher. I delved into my world of stamps to find more examples of these iconic symbols.

A red stamp that depicts the profiles of King George V and Queen Elizabeth II and their royal cyphers.

1st NVI, King George V and Queen Elizabeth II, London 2010 Festival of Stamps, 2010

What is a Royal Cypher?

The Royal Cypher is a way of combining a monarchs’ initials and title, this can either be standalone letters or entwined like a monogram. We can see below the different approaches taken with the interlaced VR for Queen Victoria and the separate characters of EIIR for Queen Elizabeth II.

A pair of postmarks - each showing a round stamp. The one on the left shows the letters 'VR' and the text 'First day of issue Royal Mail Tallents House Edinburgh.' The one on the right shows the letters 'ER' and the text 'First day of issue Royal Mail Tallents House Edinburgh.'

Postmarks for the stamp issues ‘House of Hanover’ 2011 and ‘House of Windsor’ 2012

The most common Royal Cypher to many would be that of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Her ‘EIIR’ cypher stands for ‘Elizabeth II Regina’. The ‘R’ was added to a monarch’s cypher from the reign of Henry VIII, and stands for either ‘Rex’ or ‘Regina’, which is Latin for King or Queen.

Presentation pack information section that depicts the royal cyphers since the reign of Queen Victoria.

Presentation Pack, 150th Anniversary of the Pillar Box, 2002

Royal Cyphers and Pillar Boxes

There are simply thousands of Pillar Boxes across the United Kingdom and the best way to date them is to look at their cypher. This will identify the Monarch that was on the throne during their creation. When the monarch changes, new pillar boxes do not replace old but are added to those in use, and this is why Britain has such an array of boxes.

You will find, however, that in Scotland pillar boxes do not have ‘EIIR’ on them. This is because some Scottish people did not accept Queen Elizabeth as the second monarch of her name, since Queen Elizabeth I was never ruler of Scotland. Earlier pillar boxes with the cypher were vandalised and even blown up, and because of this they instead depict the Scottish Crown.

A miniature sheet consisting of four stamps that depict red postboxes with different monarchs cyphers.

Postboxes, Miniature Sheet, 2009

The Royal Cypher also appears on medals, as you can see in the Distinguished Service Cross below, with the monarch’s cypher surmounted by the crown. It was initially called the ‘Conspicuous Service Cross’ until 1914, when it changed title, and later in 1993 it become available to all ranks, not merely officers.

A stamp showing two silver medals with blue ribbons, and a blue outline of Queen Elizabeth in the top right corner.

Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, 20p, Gallantry Awards, 1990

Royal Cyphers can be found in unexpected places…

Royal Cyphers also appear on some of the strangest items – here is a King George VI toilet roll holder we have in the collection:

A toilet roll holder, with the letters 'GR' and a crown engraved in the grey metal part of the holder.

King George VI Toilet Roll Holder

Many cyphers tend to be surmounted by a crown – the crown above EIIR represents that of St Edward’s. The stamp below depicts the St Edward’s Crown with which the monarch is crowned during the coronation. Due to its weight of 2.23 kg, it is actually carried into the ceremony rather than worn.

A red stamp with an outline of a golden crown, and a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth in the top right corner.

St Edward’s Crown, 10½p, 25th Anniversary of the Coronation, 1978

The ‘Coronation’ stamp below depicts the St Edward’s Crown on the left and the Imperial Crown on the right. It is tradition for the Monarch to change from the St Edward’s Crown to the Imperial after their coronation ceremony. The Imperial crown consists of many legendary stones such as the Cullinan II diamond, St Edward’s Sapphire and The Black Prince’s Ruby. The crown was produced for the coronation of George VI in 1937, though, was largely based on a crown designed for Queen Victoria. You can see below that it sits above the symbols of the United Kingdom: the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock.

Blue stamp with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth Ii along with the St Edward's and Imperial crown.

Coronation, 1s 6d, 1953.

Crowns and cyphers are also used in the watermarks of stamps. This again can act as a method of dating stamps, as the designs change. Focusing on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, there have been three changes, as you can see below moving chronologically from left to right. The first image depicts the Tudor Crown which was made for either Henry VII or VIII and later melted down after the fall of the monarchy in 1649.

A line of three different grey blocks, each containing a different pattern with unique crown illustrations.

Stamp Watermarks during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II

You may also have seen Royal Cyphers on the postmarks that adorn incoming post. The below postmark commemorates 100 years since the Accession of King George V, depicting ‘GVR’ for ‘George V Rex’, adorned with crown.

A round black stamp with the letters 'GR' in the middle, with the words 'First day of issue Royal Mail Tallents House Edinburgh.'

Postmark from the stamp issue ‘London 2010 Festival of Stamps’ 2010

Why not Design your own cypher?

The Royal Cypher is a recognisable symbol of a monarch’s time on the throne. Here are just a few examples of what they look like and where to find them. Why not try and create your own cypher, as I have below, taking inspiration from past and present monarchs? You could even give yourself a crown!

The letters G and T written by hand in black ink.

My own cypher!

– Georgina Tomlinson, Deputy Curator (Philately)

Interested in cypher-spotting? Read our newest blog post on the history of royal cyphers on letter boxes and the stories behind the designs.