One of the most popular coin collections released in recent years by the Royal Mint is the Queen’s Beasts series. These coins were minted between 2016 and 2021. The Royal Mint issued the coins as bullion and proof versions, and in various sizes and metals. The history and meaning behind these designs dates back the reign of Edward III in the 14th century. They were commissioned to commemorate Elizabeth II surpassing the reign of Victoria to become the United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch.
The British monarchy and the hereditary system employed throughout our history is complicated. As a result, many coats of arms and emblematic symbols have been used and passed down through the centuries. As a result, at the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, statues of ten “beasts” were commissioned. These formed a guard of honour at the entrance to Westminster Abbey.
These statues were comprised of the Lion of England, the Griffin of Edward III, The Red Dragon of Wales, the Unicorn of Scotland, the Black Bull of Clarence, the Falcon of the Plantagenets, the Yale of Beaufort, the White Lion of Mortimer, the White Horse of Hanover and the Greyhound of Richmond. The Royal Mint drew inspiration from these statues and of course the original symbols from heraldry when designing the coins.
Edward III was one of the strongest Kings of the late Middle Ages. He transformed the Kingdom of England into a fearsome military power and catalysed the introduction of a parliament. At that time, three animals were associated with the crown and that’s where the story of the Queen’s Beasts begins.
Edward III had five sons. His eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, died before his father. The throne then passed to his son, Richard II (1377-1399). He acceded at ten years old, spending his early years under the advisement of his uncle, John of Gaunt. Richard II fathered no heirs, and so the next in line would have been John of Gaunt or his bloodline. Richard II had different ideas though and disinherited the eldest son of John of Gaunt; the future King Henry IV. Known as Henry Bolingbroke before his accession, he had much support among the aristocracy at the time. He therefore faced little opposition when he deposed the incumbent King.
Henry IV’s time as monarch is most known for unrest. His accession to the throne was contested by loyal supporters of the deposed Richard II, and he quashed rebellions from the self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndwr, as well as from the Earl of Northumberland (Henry Percy) and his famed son, Henry Hotspur.
Henry VII stabilised England by uniting the houses of York and Lancaster at the culmination of the War of the Roses. He defeated Richard III (1483-1485) at the Battle of Bosworth and then married the niece of the unpopular King Richard, allying the two warring houses and effectively ending the Middle Ages. Henry VII’s ancestry incorporates numerous heraldic symbols, and the marriage to Elizabeth of York brought her own family’s heraldry to the new ruling house. Lets consider Henry VII’s heraldry first:
Henry VII was the Great Grandson of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt was married thrice, and bore children with each wife. His third wife, Katherine Swinford was originally his mistress, and was mother to his four illegitimate children. After the passing of his second wife, Constance of Castile, he married Katherine Swinford. After their marriage their children were legitimised, and so the house of Beaufort came about.
Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York followed the York dynasty, and incorporated the houses of Clarence and Mortimer. These houses themselves also descend from Edward III along her paternal line:
A central figure in the War of the Roses, he deposed the Lancastrian King Henry VI (1422-1461). Edward VI’s father, the “grand old Duke of York” Richard was popular and garnered much support to dethrone Henry VI. King Henry was losing control in his attempts to rule two Kingdoms (England and France). Upon victory his eldest son was crowned and the House of York claimed the royal line.
We have already looked at the life and lineage of John of Gaunt (and briefly his elder brother, Richard II). What of their younger brothers, Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley?
The following period of British history involved religious changes under Henry VIII (1509-1547) and numerous claimants to the throne among his children. At this time England had launched its own church in contrast to the Catholic church still dominant north of the border in Scotland. When Elizabeth I (1558-1603) died with no heir, the House of Stuart laid claim to the throne, following the bloodline of Margaret, sister of Henry VIII, who was married to James IV of Scotland.
The Stuart dynasty ruled England for over 100 years but after the death of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the line of succession became even more complicated. The powers at the time were intent on the throne passing to a Protestant. Queen Anne had united the nations of England and Scotland as Great Britain in 1707. Unfortunately Anne often suffered from ill health and bore no heirs despite falling pregnant on seventeen occasions. As a result, the Act of Settlement in 1701 decreed that they had to find a Protestant heir.