Why Is the U.K.’s Royal Coat of Arms in French?

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as used by HM Queen Elizabeth II from 1953 to the present (as used in all Her realms except Scotland). Credit: United Kingdom Government / Public domain

Dieu et mon droit,” or “God and my right,” are the words featured on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (minus Scotland). They are frequently found throughout London engraved on old buildings, or even on the British passport. But it’s in French that those words under the lion and the unicorn are written. Why?

To fully understand, we have to go back several centuries. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, the English elite spoke French, or more precisely Norman, as historian Kevin Guillot explains. Indeed, William the Conqueror, who in French is Guillaume le Conquérant, Duke of Normandy, won the English crown in 1066 after a victory at the famous battle of Hastings. And ultimately, the Anglo-Saxon elite gradually enmeshed themselves within the aristocracy thus giving rise to the Norman language.

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A few centuries later, the Norman kings continued to rule one after the other and the reign of Henry V arrived. The sovereign, rather conservative, wanted to keep Norman as his language at court. Thus, he chose the motto “Dieu et mon droit” for the Kingdom of England. This phrase came from Richard the Lionheart (Richard Cœur de Lion, in French), monarch of the country between 1189 and 1199. During the battle of Gisord in 1198 against Philippe Auguste, King of France, Richard the Lionheart said “God and my right” to indicate that he owed his crown to only God and himself.

Since then, the phrase has endured the test of time and become the motto of the British monarchy. It continues to generate discussion: in 2016 a petition was launched to remove the French words from the British passport, without success.

When you look even more closely at the British coat of arms, you can read the phrase “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which is intertwined between the lion and the unicorn. This is the motto of the Order of the Garter (l’ordre de la jarretière, in French), the highest order of knighthood in Britain. Dating back to the 14th century, it was Edward III, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, who added it to the Royal Arms and the anecdote of its creation (which has never really been verified) is a great story.

Edward III was known to be a greedy man: in addition to the English crown, he dreamed of the French one. But this was impossible because at the time the royal power on the French side was only transmitted by the father… except that it was the mother of France’s king who was French. Angry, Edward III started the famous Hundred Years’ War against Philip IV, King of France.

During the fighting, Edward III got his hands on Calais and decided to settle there for a while. He organized a ball there in 1348 and invited all kinds of beautiful, classy people, including his mistress, the Countess of Salisbury, to attend. During the party the Countess accidentally dropped her garter in the middle of the dance floor, and laughter broke out. She was saved from this embarrassing moment by her lover, Edward III, who picked up the fabric and put it around his own knee, saying: “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it. Those who laugh now will be very honored to wear such a ribbon because it will be so honorable that the mockers themselves will eagerly seek it” (Honi soit qui mal y pense. Ceux qui rient maintenant seront très honorés d’en porter une semblable car ce ruban sera mis en tel honneur que les railleurs eux-mêmes le chercheront avec empressement). A pretty poetic pirouette, which allowed the young woman to preserve her dignity and Edward III come up with a very pretty name to baptize his order of knighthood with: the Order of the Garter (l’ordre de la jarretière).

This article first appeared on our sister site French Morning London.