Spotting a Royal Cypher
What is a Royal Cypher? Delve into The Postal Museum's collection to find how they pop up on pillar boxes, medals and (of course!) stamps...
As Assistant 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.
Technically-speaking, within a cypher the letters stand alone, whereas in a monogram they are intertwined. The Royal Cypher combines these definitions, as you can see with the interlaced letters of Queen Victoria and the very separate style of Queen Elizabeth. As such, the Royal Cypher is a monogram-like design for a reigning monarch to use.
The most common Royal Cypher to many would be that of our current monarch, HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Her ‘EIIR’ cypher stands for ‘Elizabeth II Regina’. The ‘R’ was added to a monarch’s cypher after the reign of Henry VIII, and stands for either ‘Rex’ or ‘Regina’, which is Latin for King or Queen. When the British Monarch was also ruler of India there was an ‘I’ after the ‘R’, for ‘Imperator’ or ‘Imperatrix’, meaning emperor or empress.
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 the majority of pillar boxes do not have ‘EIIR’ inscribed on them. This is because the Scottish do not accept the current 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, most boxes instead depict the Scottish Crown.
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 Imperial 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.
Royal Cyphers also appear on some of the strangest items – here is a King George VI toilet roll holder we have in the collection:
Many cyphers tend to be surmounted by a crown – predominantly 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.
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 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 by Queen Victoria. You can see below that the Imperial Crown sits above the symbols of the United Kingdom: the rose, thistle, daffodil and clover.
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 commissioned by either Henry VII or VIII and later broken up after the fall of the monarchy in 1649.
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 the St Edward’s Crown.
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!
– Georgina Tomlinson, Curatorial Assistant (Philately)