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England's Rose - The Official History

By Museum of Rugby, Twickenham
June 3 2005

England's Rose - The History,A couple of weeks ago ali_fish asked us all a corker of a question - where does England's rose come from? And why does the England jersey sport a rose rather than the Lions that the England football and cricket lads wear? Untitled Document

As usual debate raged but without conclusion so we called in the experts at the Museum of Rugby at Twickenham and this is the real story...

Rugby Football Union and the Red Rose

england rose

By the Museum of Rugby, Twickenham (Museum of Rugby Website can be found here...)

The (at the time, multinational) RFU was responsible, shortly after its formation in January 1871, for selecting a team of players to represent England against a team of its Scottish members.  For this match in Edinburgh they chose a stylised representation of a red rose as the England team’s emblem.

The simple answer is that we do not know why it was chosen, but there are three possibilities:

The royal English rose is white and red.  This rose was created to symbolise the marriage between Henry VII (House of Lancaster) and Elizabeth (House of York) and the end of the War of the Roses.  Therefore, the ‘English’ rose is not red, but half red and half white.  However, subsequent monarchs (such as Elizabeth I) continued to be associated with the red rose because they were descended from the House of Lancaster.  So it is the red rose (rather than the red and white rose) which is often, incorrectly, seen as symbolising England or the English monarchy.  Therefore the RFU might have selected the red rose for this reason.

Secondly, Lawrence Sheriff, the founder of Rugby School (where the game started) was presented with a coat of arms by Elizabeth I and in doing so she allowed him to use her red (Lancaster) rose [see above] on the crest.  When he founded Rugby School the new institution based their own coat of arms on his, and so the red rose ended up on the Rugby School crest.  The white kit worn by England was taken from the kit used at Rugby School, so it might be that a symbolic image was also taken from the school crest as a badge.  Even more likely is the possibility that a combination of this connection with Rugby School and the incorrect identification of the red rose as the ‘English’ rose [see above].

The third possibility is that the red rose is actually used because it is also the symbol of the county of Lancashire.  Of the subcommittee of men who selected the first England side in 1871, two came from clubs in Lancashire (Liverpool and Manchester).  It is therefore possible that they were also responsible for selecting the England kit (including the red rose).  However, it is highly unlikely that the other RFU Committee members would have accepted such a blatantly regional emblem on the national jersey and they would have reversed such a decision immediately.

In 1872 a return fixture was arranged, and this time was held at the Oval cricket ground in London.  It is clear from the RFU meeting minutes that "the same uniform" as the previous year would be used.  It was therefore never a foregone conclusion that all post-1871 England teams would wear the same kit and emblem.

Various versions of this rose were thereafter used on England rugby shirts until 1920.

Alfred Wright, an RFU employee, standardised the use of the rose used by the RFU on England jerseys.  Alfred Wright was first employed as a clerk in 1919.  He subsequently became Administrative Secretary of the Union.  According to Bob Weighill (RFU Secretary 1973-1986) Wright was the person who designed this new rose.  There are no references to his re-designing or standardising the rose emblem in the RFU Minute books, or in any other documents held in the Museum of Rugby.  This is unsurprising since at that time the RFU helped to administer the game of rugby throughout the world and the re-design of the rose would probably have been seen as immensely trivial.

In a photograph of the England rugby team taken at Twickenham on 25 January 1913 it can be seen that all players had different, stylised, versions of a red rose.  In some, such as that worn by C H Pillman, the stalk of the flower is pointing in a different direction.  Although some of the 1913 roses followed a broadly similar pattern, they are quite obviously not of an identical design.  The fashion for swapping jerseys with an opponent following a game had not yet taken root and so many England players would have worn the same jersey for the duration of their careers.  As new players were introduced to the team they would have had their roses embroidered individually and in isolation.

On a photograph of the England rugby team taken at Twickenham on 20 March 1920 is the first photographic evidence that we have for Alfred Wright's rose.  It can be seen quite clearly being worn by the majority of the players.

1919/20 was the first international season after the First World War and many of the players from the 1913/14 team had lost their lives.  Only four players (the first four seated, from left to right) had played before the Great War.  The other eleven (as well as a further ten who played internationally for the first time in 1920) would have required new jerseys, which presented the Rugby Football Union with a perfect opportunity to create a standardised badge for the entire team to eventually wear.  This was the opportunity that presented itself to Alfred Wright in 1919.  By 1924 the four players previously mentioned (who had worn the various older roses) had all finished playing international rugby.  Subsequent photographs all depict the England team wearing the Alfred Wright / RFU Rose.

The same rose design was used on England jerseys, without alteration, from 1920 until the 1998/9 season and many different manufacturers were commissioned by the RFU to produce these jerseys for the England team.  When sales of replica jerseys for supporters to wear took off in the 1980s it suddenly made the RFU / England jersey contract a far more lucrative commercial venture.

In 1997 Nike replaced Cotton Traders as the RFU’s official kit supplier and exclusive licensee of the England Rugby ‘Red Rose’.  In 1998 the England Rugby ‘Red Rose’ used by the RFU was modernised as part of an update of the RFU’s overall corporate branding.

The use of the RFU Rose in other circumstances (match programmes, advertising, literature, etc…) prior to 1998 was not as broadly consistent as on the jersey.  However, since 1998 the new ‘branded’ RFU rose has been used in every situation.

Jed Smith

Museum of Rugby, Twickenham

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