Schoolchildren have always grumbled when made to learn long lists of names, dates, and British kings and queens in their history classes. What is the use of such lists? Why would anyone need to know this sort of thing when you can find out by posing a quick question to a search engine?
In this brief article today, I would like to propose one real-world example for why learning this sort of information can actually be useful, and why it is helpful to know these details without having to turn to the internet.
British kings and queens had royal cyphers
Each of the kings and queens since the Union of the Crowns (and possibly earlier) has had a “royal cypher”, a stylised monogram or logo, that has often been incorporated into the design of various objects – many of which are now considered antiques and can be collectable.
If you know your lists of names and dates, then seeing a royal cypher can give you quite a lot of information about an object.
Antique swords with royal cyphers
Antique swords often bear these royal cyphers to show which monarch was reigning when the sword was made. Being able to take one look at a cypher and identify the monarch means that you can date an antique sword or narrow down the dating a bit more accurately. This means that you can assess the rarity, the age, and potentially the value of a piece quickly and easily – as long as you know the names and dates of the kings and queens.
If you read this article by Matthew Forde about identifying British infantry officers’ swords, and look at each of the photos, you will see that many of them include a royal cypher either as part of the hilt or etched onto the blade:
The 1897 pattern infantry officer’s sword is still in service today. But how can you know if one of them dates from the 19th century, WW1, WW2, or the last few decades?
Well, if you know your British kings and queens and the dates of their reigns, you would be able to see a cypher for Queen Victoria, and you would know that that particular example dates from 1897 (when the pattern was introduced) to 1901 (when she died). Seeing an Edward VII cypher would let you date the sword to between 1901 and 1910, while a George V cypher would let you date the sword to between 1910 and 1936.
If you have memorised your list of kings and queens then you can take one look at an antique sword and make a good guess about its age and therefore its value. You won’t fall victim to someone trying to pass off a sword with the Elizabeth II cypher as being two or three hundred years old.
And, needless to say, training yourself to spot this kind of detail does wonders for your ability to notice relevant details and make an informed decision yourself about something, without having to rely on sellers to tell you what you are buying! This is a useful skill even if you never start collecting antique swords.
Pillar boxes with royal cyphers
Some antique police artefacts bear the royal cypher too, and so does an everyday object that is potentially quite unexpected: red pillar boxes, for posting your letters! If you look at the next pillar box you see on the street, you will observe that it will carry a royal cypher, and this will let you assess when the pillar box might have been installed.
The following image shows an example of a red pillar box with the royal cypher of Edward VII. If you know your names and dates, then you would be able to narrow down the date when this box was installed to between 1901 and 1910.
This is quite a nice detail to be able to observe. Identifying (and perhaps photographing) pillar boxes with different cyphers is almost like collecting antiques, but without the financial expense and the need for storage!
Buildings with royal cyphers
You can also see royal cyphers on some historical buildings – sometimes an old building will have a date visible to show precisely when it was built, sometimes they have a royal cypher, and sometimes they have nothing. But in the situation where they have a cypher, once again, it lets you narrow things down and understand some wider context of what may have been happening at the time when they were built.
The following image shows an example of the cypher for George II (as well as a date) on the wall of St Aubin’s Fort on Jersey. If you know that George II ruled from 1727 to 1760, then you would know that this stone was laid in roughly the middle of his reign.
Maybe this doesn’t give you as much immediate benefit as being able to identify, date, and value an antique object that you might be interested in buying, but it is nonetheless nice to be able to put any given date into some kind of context.
I never learned a list of British kings and queens in history classes at school. If I had been forced to, then I probably would have grumbled about it, because what use would I ever make of such information, when I could open a book if I wanted to find out?
Well, these days, I work with names and dates on quite a regular basis, and I wish I had had this kind of knowledge embedded firmly in my head, because it would have made some of my business and leisure activities quite a lot easier than I found them to be at first!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.