The Elizabeth Tower and the Palace of Westminster are decorated with beautiful and symbolic imagery – representing the values, history, and identity of UK Parliament. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the national plant emblems on the Elizabeth Tower, explore symbols of the UK throughout the Palace, and look at the Acts of Union which laid the foundation for today's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
Parliament and our National Plants
The ‘plant badges’ for England, Northern Ireland and Scotland - the Tudor rose, shamrock and thistle – are all examples of royal heraldic symbols. You can see them at the bottom of the United Kingdom’s Coat of Arms, used to visually represent the union of these countries. Animals are also used in heraldry, the unicorn and lion in the coat of arms represent Scotland and England.
Whilst Wales’ Leek is not a royal heraldic symbol, this popular emblem has been a symbol of Wales for centuries. There are many legends about this symbol of the Welsh – one of the most famous is that before a battle with the Saxons, Wales’s patron Saint David told the army to wear a leek to mark them apart from the enemy. In his play Henry V, Shakespeare’s character of Fluellen draws on the idea of the Welsh wearing leeks into battle. The Scottish thistle has a similarly legendary back story. It became Scotland’s symbol after invading Norsemen at the Battle of Largs (1263) cried out after stepping on a thistle, alerting the sleeping Scottish Clansmen, and saving them from invasion! The word shamrock comes from the Irish word seamróg, and it is said that Saint Patrick used the three leaves of the clover to represent the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. These plants are intertwined with national identity, often closely related to Patron Saints, and defining battles in history – the English Tudor Rose was adopted after the War of the Roses as an emblem of peace.
Decorative Shields on Big Ben: what do they mean?
Just as these symbols are an important part of national identity, the decorative shields on Big Ben show how designs for the new Palace of Westminster sought to represent the values, history, and identity of Parliament. Below is a close-up of the decorative shields on Big Ben.
From left to right, top to bottom, the 8 shields depict:
- A combined emblem of the three kingdoms: the red and white rose for Tudor England, the thistle for Scotland and the shamrock for Ireland.
- The shamrock for Ireland
- The thistle for Scotland
- The red and white rose of the Tudor dynasty
- The fleur-de-lis for France (England used to claim the throne of France)
- The portcullis for the Tudors (Henry VII adopted this symbol of the Beaufort family from his mother)
- The leek for Wales
- The pomegranate for Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife
Plant Symbolism for Stained Glass: Inside the Palace
These floral emblems can be found throughout the Palace of Westminster. This stained-glass window design (right) incorporates four floral emblems to represent the union. ‘House of Commons Lobby’ is written on the drawing, suggesting this stained-glass window was designed for the House of Commons Lobby in the New Palace of Westminster.
Augustus Pugin incorporated many of the symbols we find on Big Ben into other interior elements of the palace. This wallpaper design incorporates the portcullis, pomegranate and Tudor rose.
As an example, here are symbols of Wales in the Palace of Westminster – included are depictions of the patron saint St David, the Gwynedd Arms and a beautiful stained glass window of the Leek on the Committee Stairs. The prominence of these symbols throughout the New Palace of Westminster (completed in 1870) tells us a lot about the importance of the union.
Acts of Union in the Parliamentary Archives
The Acts of Union in the Parliamentary Archives are of outstanding constitutional value – they form the foundation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as it is today. The Acts of Union for Wales, Scotland and Ireland have been digitised and you can see the full Acts by clicking on the links below. It is important to remember that these Acts of Union represent a long and often difficult history of the UK – they cannot tell us everything, but they are a good place to start.
Union with Wales
The union of Wales and England is the oldest on the list. The Laws in Wales Act often called the ‘Acts of Union’ imposed the English language, law, and administration onto Wales. The Act of Union was established by a series of laws passed between 1536 and 1543. The first act in 1535, An Act for Laws and Justice to be ministered in Wales in like Form as it is in this Realm makes the intention to impose English law and language upon the Welsh clear. It also gave Wales parliamentary representation in Westminster.
Wales had been under the control of the English Kings since Edward I (1239-1307) and was ruled as a principality. Stronger links with Wales came about after the War of the Roses where Henry VII was victorious over Richard III. This is important to consider with the symbolism of the Tudor rose on Big Ben. After the English Reformation, Henry VIII was concerned about Welsh loyalty and wanted England to assert control over Wales. The measures in the Act of Union show this assertion of power and control, was this the same case for Scotland and Ireland?
Union with Scotland
Scotland and England were united under one ruler in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, but Scotland remained an independent country with its own Parliament. Read more about the Union of the Crowns here. It took 5 difficult years to agree to the Articles of Union.
The Commissioners met in April 1706 and on 22 July 1706 a set of Articles had been agreed upon. They provided that Scotland should send representatives to ‘One Parliament of Great Britain’ and stipulated that 'all laws and statutes in either Kingdom so far as they are contrary to or indifferent with the terms of these articles or any of them shall from and after the Union cease and become void and shall be so declared to be by the respective parliaments of the said kingdoms'. You can take a closer look at the records in our stock footage of the Act of Union (1707) and the Articles of Union (1706)
The Act of Union ratified the Articles of Union and established Great Britain with Anne as Queen. Scottish Parliament was abolished, with Scottish representatives (45 MPs and 16 peers) to sit in Parliament at Westminster. It also established free trade, but England and Scotland were to retain their separate legal systems and established churches.
Learn more about the Act of Union 1707 and the impact on Parliament and British identity on Living Heritage.
Union with Ireland
In 1800, the Act of Union with Ireland formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. An Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland dissolved the Irish Parliament, and Irish representatives were to sit in the Parliament at Westminster. You can access the entire digitised Act here.
The Act remained in force until the Government of Ireland Act (1920), also known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill, which partitioned Ireland – separating Northern Ireland from the 26 counties of Southern Ireland (now the Republic of Ireland).
The Act paved the way for the United Kingdom as we know it today. You can learn more from our video with Royal Holloway’s History Hub Why is Ireland divided? and 100 years since the Government of Ireland Act 1920 from the House of Commons Library.
Want to find out more about Ireland and Parliament? Read our pages on Living Heritage.
As we can see, national identity, power and our values are deeply intertwined with the history of the United Kingdom as it is today. The balance of power within the United Kingdom is by no means static, you can read more about devolution for Wales, Scotland and Ireland here. Adorning the Palace of Westminster with these symbols of national identity is just one way to tell this story of the union. The decorative shields on Big Ben are being carefully restored to their former glory. To learn more about the ongoing works, please visit decorative shields on Big Ben.