By Royal Appointment: History of Royal Warrants


Fancy sharing suppliers with the Queen? today, with around 850 royal warrant holders, ranging from tailors to toothpaste, chances are you do. here we take a look at the history of this royal sign of approval.

A Fortnum & Mason hamper delivered by horsedrawn carriage
A Fortnum & Mason hamper delivered by horsedrawn carriage.

Ever since King Henry II gave a Royal Charter to the Weavers’ Company in 1155 for clothes and castle hangings and William Caxton became the King’s Printer in 1476, Britain’s tradesmen and crafts people have aspired to serving Sovereign and Court.

Today, there are around 850 Royal Warrant Holders granted by three members of the royal family: The Queen, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Charles, Prince of Wales. Their Coats of Arms and ‘By Appointment’ are proudly and prominently displayed on the outside of shops and factories, bills, stationery – and sometimes on the product itself – because, if it’s fit for a royal, then it must surely be the very best available.

Not everyone can apply. The applicant must have provided goods or services on request to the Royal Household for a minimum of five years before they are considered by the Grantor. In the Prince of Wales’ case, they also have to “demonstrate that they have a workable environmental policy.” The Lord Chamberlain then advises on the final decision. The Grantee – a named person, not the company – is personally responsible for the quality of his product.

Everything from crowns to cutlery, confectionery to candles, silverware to silks, furniture to frying pans appear on Sovereigns’ shopping lists over the centuries, but some of the orders have changed with time. Queen Mary Tudor’s Royal Skinner – fur dealer and tailor – made a spectacular outfit for her Fool (court jester) William Somer. “A Turquey Coate with vi (sic) blewe coneyes (rabbits) and gresseled (probably ostrich feather) clowdes” begins the description. Unlike Henry VIII, the present Queen doesn’t have a supplier of “Swannes and Cranes, price the piece two shillings” nor I imagine does she give her Purveyor of Fish “£10 a year for “entertainment” plus £22.11s.8d. for losses and necessaries” like Elizabeth I.

In the 18th century there was a Royal Rat-catcher and Mole-taker, but Andrew Cooke, the incumbent Royal “Bug-taker” seems to have fallen out of favour despite having “cured 16,000 beds with great applause”.

And it wasn’t until William IV’s reign that tradesmen were allowed to use the Royal Arms in public. Some of the king’s holders’ descendents still serve the Royal household: Wilkinson Sword are Her Majesty’s Sword Cutlers and Mattieson Wall’s of Banbury are Suppliers of Sausages and Meat Pies. Caleys of Windsor, Supplier of Household and Fancy Goods are descended from Mrs Caley, William IV’s mother Queen Charlotte’s Milliner and Dressmaker.

The Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, explore the rough stuff department at John Lobb
The Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, explore the rough stuff department at John Lobb

Except for Queens themselves, women have perhaps unfairly played a small part in the history of Royal Warrants. It wasn’t until 1700 that King William and Queen Mary saw fit to grant one to Anne Bridge, their Purveyor of Oysters. Some of the names are very quaint: in 1830 there was Robert Rogg, the “Chinaman”, actually a supplier of tableware and the glamorous sounding Plumassier, or feather worker and supplier. Paperhangers, pencutters and globe makers figure prominently and after Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 over 2,000 shops – including Twinings tea merchants and Fortnum and Mason – craftspeople and factories would receive the Royal accolade. She also revived the Oath for Warrant Holders, as used in Charles II’s time which was taken on the Bible, except by Jews who swore on the Old Testament and Quakers who affirmed, “I hereby solemnly swear that I will be a true and loyal servant to our sovereign Lady Victoria…” it began.

The Royal Tradesmen themselves were justifiably proud of their accolade and decided in 1840 to form an Association “for the celebration of Her Majesty’s birthday in May”. The first meeting was held in The Freemasons Tavern, Great Queen Street in the City and the original minute book with its spidery writing is kept in The Royal Warrant Holders’ Association headquarters in London’s Buckingham Gate.

Being Victorian men, the members immediately formed a dining club! They paid one guinea a year “with attendance right” to the dinner. Sons were allowed if fathers were indisposed, but “if a lady or firm of ladies” held a Royal appointment, they “could appoint a Gentleman to represent them”. The first year there were 25 at the dinner, the next 80 and today members and guests total well over 1,500. Queen Victoria was so impressed she sent venison as one of the seven courses. Word got around and by 1896 the Association was keeping a firm eye out for people pretending to be Royal Tradesmen.

The Royal Warrant Holders’ Assocation (known as the Royal Tradesmen in Scotland) still holds an annual banquet. Its members, as in the past often come from the areas around the royal residences: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse, Sandringham.

Unless it’s obvious – like Lobb’s the royal shoemaker’s and Wolsey’s hosiery – members are not allowed to boast about which products the royals use. Crowing “The Queen eats Buggins’ Bread for breakfast” is definitely not on.

For details of all Royal Warrant holders, contact The Royal Warrant Holders Association. Tel: (020) 7828 2268.