Royal Warrant: The History Behind the Legendary Seal of Approval | History Hit

Royal Warrant: The History Behind the Legendary Seal of Approval

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as used by King Charles III from 2022 to the present (as used in all his realms except Scotland).
Image Credit: Sodacan / CC / Wikimedia Commons

Long coveted and highly-esteemed, a Royal Warrant of Appointment is a mark of prestige for those who provide goods or services to the British royal family. They represent a huge range of trades and industries from individual craftspeople to multi-national global companies.

Tea, computer software, champagne, cars and dry cleaners are just a few examples of the type of goods that can receive the seal of approval, and today there are some 850 individuals and companies that hold around 1,100 warrants to the British royal family. Currently, they can be granted by King Charles III or the Prince of Wales, with the origins of royal warrants dating back to the 12th century under King Henry II.

So when were royal warrants first implemented, and what status do they hold today?

Royal charters preceded royal warrants

The first leaf of the Royal Charter of the University of King’s College, granted 15 March 1827. The charter was written on vellum and included an image of the reigning monarch, George IV.

Image Credit: University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services / CC / Wikimedia Commons

In 1155, King Henry II gave a royal charter to the Weavers’ Company for clothes and castle hangings. It marked one of the earliest instances of a royal charter replacing royal patronage; with the former being granted to trade guilds, rather than mainly aristocracy via the latter. However, these charters weren’t formalised; instead, tradesmen and craftspeople began to recognise the prestige that came with serving the Sovereign and Court.

By the 15th century, the Royal Warrant of Appointment formally replaced royal charters in England. The Lord Chamberlain became responsible for awarding tradespeople as suppliers to the Royal household, and in 1476, William Caxton was one of the first recipients of a royal warrant when he became King’s Printer to Edward IV.

Royal warrants can be eccentric

Goods awarded royal warrants over the centuries since have varied wildly. For instance, Queen Mary I awarded a royal warrant to her Royal Skinner, a fur dealer and tailor. She requested that he make a lavish outfit for her jester William Somer, writing: ‘A Turquey Coate with vi (sic) blewe coneyes (rabbits) and gresseled (probably ostrich feather) clowdes’.

King Henry VIII awarded a warrant to a supplier of ‘Swannes and Cranes, price the piece two shillings’, whereas Elizabeth I decorated her Purveyor of Fish with ‘£10 a year for ‘entertainment’ plus £22.11s.8d. for losses and necessaries’.

In the 18th century, there was even a Royal Rat-catcher and Mole-taker. However, it seems that Andrew Cooke, the Royal ‘Bug-taker’ fell out of favour, in spite of the fact that he ‘cured 16,000 beds with great applause’.

Rules had to be tightened to prevent fraud

Wedgwood imitation of The Portland Vase, a Roman cameo glass vase, 1790-91.

Image Credit: Sean Pathasema / CC / Wikimedia Commons

The resulting boom in business that comes with the prestige of a royal warrant means that in the 18th century, mass market manufacturers such as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton recognised the value of supplying royalty, even at well below market cost.

Manufacturers began prominently displaying royal coats of arms on their premises, packaging and labelling, and by 1840, rules surrounding the display of royal arms had to be tightened to prevent fraudulent claims. Under Queen Victoria’s reign, by the early 19th century there were some 2,000 royal warrants granted.

The London Gazette has published an annual list of royal warrant holders since 1885.

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Applications are competitive

Certain trades and goods do not qualify for a royal warrant, with the ‘professions’, employment agencies, party planners, the media, government departments and ‘places of refreshment or entertainment’ (such as pubs or theatres) being barred from entry.

Similarly, the applicant must have provided goods or services upon the request of the royal household for a minimum of five years before they can be considered by the Grantor. In King Charles III’s case, to qualify, the applicant also has to ‘demonstrate that they have a workable environmental policy.’

The application is then presented to the Royal Household and goes to the buyer, who makes a recommendation for inclusion. It is then presented to the Royal Household Warrants Committee, then if accepted, is sent to the Grantor, who personally signs the recommendation.

As is custom, the Lord Chamberlain makes the final call; at any time, he can reverse the committee’s decision. It can be highly personal: The Grantee is a named person, not the company, so is held personally responsible for the quality of their product.

Warrants can be taken away if the quality or supply of the product is insufficient. The warrant is also automatically reviewed if the Grantee dies or leaves the business, or if the firm is sold or goes into liquidation.

Some well-loved companies such as Schweppes, House of Fraser, Fortnum & Mason, Cartier, J. Barbour and Sons and Harrods have held their royal warrants for over a century – sometimes for multiple centuries – so are permitted to proudly display the royal coat of arms upon their wares.

Lucy Davidson