How did a royal cypher cause a significant, but often forgotten, dispute at the start of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign?

In keeping with the tradition of new monarchs, King Charles III recently released his royal cypher which will feature on new post boxes across the United Kingdom. The King will certainly be hoping that his cypher causes less controversy north of the border than his mother’s, Queen Elizabeth II, after her accession to the throne in 1952.

Queen Elizabeth II’s cypher was designed with E R for Elizabeth Regina (Latin for Queen) and her reginal number II fitting between the two letters. However, it was the inclusion of the two Roman numerals that proved problematic to some in Scotland, especially when the cypher appeared on post boxes.

What was the controversy?

Elizabeth II was not recognised as the second Queen by the name of Elizabeth in Scotland. The Tudor Queen Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England and Wales only. Mary Queen of Scots had a turbulent relationship with Elizabeth I during their adulthood. It was only when Elizabeth I died without an heir that the English crown passed to Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland. He therefore became James I of England and Wales.

New post boxes revealed

In 1952 the first post boxes baring the new cypher were unveiled, initially in London at Whitehall and closely followed by Edinburgh. In December of that year, a letter was sent to The Chief of Scotland’s Police demanding that steps be taken against the Postmaster General for their ‘historical inaccuracy’ in using the cypher EIIR. The letter was headed ‘The Scottish Patriots’ (POST 122/1090).

Attacks began to take place on the first post box in Edinburgh. Tar was poured over the pillar box and the cypher was attacked with a hammer. The repair was dealt with promptly, but it came at a cost of £66 and 9 shillings. In today’s money that’s an eye-watering £2,200. The costly repair also did nothing to change the growing popular opinion that the boxes should be changed. In February 1953, the perpetrators wrote to the Post Office threatening not only the newly repaired post box, but all Post Office property in Scotland. The letter, signed by the Scottish Republican Army, finished with the line:

‘Have you English Police to guard every pillar box and post office in Scotland’ (POST 72/105)

A scan of a typewritten letter. The header says "Scottish Republican Army". The letter says: "The Postmaster General. Sir, The offensive pillar box in Edinburgh is removed for repairs, with, it is understood, the intention of putting it back for more attacks. We intend to change our tactics if that is so. Instead of concentrating on that one box we shall make plans and preparations for general attacks on Post Office property anywwhere in Scotland using explosives and incendiaries such as that recently used on the two "liners". The present state of affairs is the fault of the English Government and the responsibility for any subsequent loss of life lies at the same door. Have you English police to guard every pillar box and Post Office in Scotland? Elgin Brodie, S.R.A."

Letter regarding destruction of pillar boxes (POST 72-105)

Another letter followed on 12 February, stating simply that ‘Objective No.1 had been achieved’ – the destruction of the EIIR box. It was claimed that a bomb had been posted inside the new box, but no further damage had been reported. According to experts who investigated the scene, the bomb was never at risk of detonating. Instead, they concluded that the bomb had been made by someone who understood how to make a viable explosive device, but had chosen to ensure it did not actually go off.

However, that was not the end of it, as a short time later a second bomb was found, which could have exploded but didn’t. This second threat resulted in the Post Office taking decisive action, ordering that any new boxes required for Scotland were to be bear the cypher of the late King George VI until the tensions were resolved.

No backing down

It was only a matter of time until the government decided to step in, and in April 1953, that’s exactly what happened. However, rather than standing down, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted that they would not back down. He announced that no changes would be made, despite the protests.

As a result, the rising tide of protest grew. In December 1953, a post box in Glasgow which bore the cypher of Edward VII was targeted by an arson attack. A note placed in the keyhole of the box warned ‘We’re not finished yet’.

A scan of a handwritten letter. It says: "We're not finished yet, so look out for more! No English pillar-box is safe! Lia Fail."

Note found in keyhole of a letter box (POST 72-105)

A change in approach

Just two months later, the UK government backed down and the Scottish campaign proved to be ultimately successful. In February 1954, it was decided that a new cypher was to be used for post boxes and vehicles in Scotland. The new cypher would use the Crown of St Andrew, part of the regalia of the Honours of Scotland and otherwise known as the Scottish Crown Jewels. This image of a crown was to be used alone, without an accompanying monarch’s cypher.

Scottish crown cypher

The Crown of St Andrew was included on Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin during her lying at rest in Edinburgh in September 2022. Throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Scottish Crown remained on postal vehicles, post boxes and even within the Royal Mail company logo.

If you want to find out more about cyphers and cypher spotting, read our blog “Royal Cyphers on Letter Boxes“.