The George III Coat of Arms

Image by Sodacan. Vector image created with Inkscape. Own work.
Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0

An affirmation of loyalty

There is a coat of arms painted on a board on the west wall of St Mary’s church. It shows the royal arms of King George III. The board could have been on the wall of the local church since the 1660’s when it would have shown the arms of King Charles II. Following the Restoration, all churches were required by Order in Council to display the arms as a demonstration of (protestant) loyalty and obedience. The board may have been overpainted many times and is darkened and difficult to make out now. A pristine image of the arms of 1860 is shown here.

The shield shape ('escutcheon') in the middle is divided into quarters: the top left and bottom right showing the arms of England, top right those of Scotland, and bottom left those of Ireland. A smaller shield (inescutcheon) placed in the middle of the escutcheon shows the arms of the ruler of a large province in Northern Germany: the Duchy of Brunswick and Lunenberg, known by the name of its capital city Hannover. George III was the ruler both of Great Britain and Hannover. The ruler of Hannover was known as the 'Elector' and the headgear on top of the inescutcheon is an 'elector's bonnet'. Following British victory in the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna led to extensive territorial gains for Hannover, which was upgraded from an electorate to a kingdom. In 1816 the elector’s bonnet on the coat of arms was then changed to a crown. So we know that the arms on our board were painted before that date.

What was an Elector?

To understand the title of Elector and its coat of arms we need to go back to the time of the ancient Roman Empire. In those times, the tribes of ancient ’Germania’ developed the practice of choosing their rulers by election. The practice continued over the centuries and by the 1200s had formalised into a system whereby an ‘electoral college’ would choose the ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor. The college consisted of three archbishops and a handful of royal dukes known as Prince-electors.

From 1692, one of these Prince-Electors was the ruler of the Duchy of Brunswick and Lunenburg in what is now Northern Germany. He had taken the title Elector of Hannover after the capital city of the Duchy. A few years later this title passed to Georg Ludwig, who was to become King George I of England. He was the son of Sophia of Hannover, granddaughter of James I of England. As such, he was the closest living protestant relative to Queen Anne.

On the death of the Queen in 1760, she had more than fifty relatives with closer blood relationships to her than Georg Ludwig, but none of these could succeed her because they were Roman Catholics, and the Act Of Settlement of 1701 had said that our ruler must be a protestant. So, in 1760 the Elector of Hannover, Georg Ludwig, left home to become our King George I. The escutcheon of his arms is shown below.

The top left quarter shows the combined arms of England and Scotland, and the bottom left those of Ireland. Since Edward III, the ruler of England had had a claim to the throne of France, and this is shown by the fleurs de lys at top right. The arms of Hannover at bottom right are complicated. They combine the two golden lions of Brunswick, the blue lion of Lunenberg and the silver horse of Westphalia. The status of Prince-Elector is shown by an inescutcheon carrying the golden crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne.

The coat of arms remained the same until 1800. By then, the grandson of George I had become our King George III. He had inherited the Electorship of Hannover. In that year, the Act of Union joined the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom. At the same time, George III dropped his claim to the French throne, which had ceased to exist following the revolution and establishment of the French republic. A proclamation of January 1st 1801 set the royal style and titles and modified the royal arms, removing the French quarter and putting the arms of England, Scotland and Ireland on the same structural level. The dynastic arms of Hannover were placed on an inescutcheon, topped with the bonnet of a Prince-elector. The result was painted on the board now on the west wall of St Mary's.

[Thanks to David Haddon-Reece for providing information for these notes.]

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