ROBERT HARDMAN: Charles III first monarch to have stamp without crown

ROBERT HARDMAN: Featuring an adapted version of his new portrait, why Charles III is our first monarch to have a stamp without a crown on it

  • The new stamps, released in April, show Charles III opting not to wear the crown
  • Stamp will be available in four colours: plum, turquoise, holly and pine green 
  • Retailers are set to continue selling Queen Elizabeth II stamps until they run out 

For nearly two centuries, it has been a rite of passage for successive British monarchs — along with coins, crown and sceptre. Today, it is the turn of Charles III. Here, revealed for the first time, is the King’s first postage stamp.

To be precise, this is his first ‘definitive’: the regular stamp in constant circulation, the one that’s stuck to most of the things we receive or send each day.

Initially, the King will be available in the same four colours as those used by the late Queen at the end of her reign — plum purple for first class, marine turquoise for first class (large), holly green (second class) and pine green (second class large).

However, as philatelists will spot immediately, there is one intriguing difference between Charles III and every other monarch going back to the first definitive, Queen Victoria’s ‘Penny Black’.

For Charles III appears with no crown or diadem. It is, we are told, the personal choice of the King himself.

Charles III appears with no crown or diadem. It is, we are told, the personal choice of the King himself.

All the others have featured some sort of regalia. Even Edward VIII — who appeared on his short-lived run of stamps with a bare head, for he was never actually crowned — had an image of the crown in his frame. Elizabeth II, like Victoria, wore a diadem on hers.

Inasmuch as a stamp can convey intimacy, the crownless Charles III design certainly lends the new stamp a more human touch.

‘It shows the man himself, as opposed to a projection of royal authority,’ says the Royal Mail’s Mark Gold.

The stamps go on general sale on April 4. But in order to avoid undue waste, retailers will continue to sell Elizabeth II definitives until they run out.

The Royal Mail says these can be used indefinitely, as long as they carry that wretched barcode down the side (any without this must be traded in by July 31 or they’ll be invalid).

The King’s stamp features an adapted version of his new portrait by Martin Jennings, which was created for the obverse of the new Charles III coinage.

Unlike Elizabeth II, the King will face the same way on both his stamps and coins. The late Queen faced left on stamps and right on coins, because monarchs alternate the direction of their profile on coins with each successive reign. Her son, therefore, reverts to looking left on coins.

However, all monarchs look to the left on their stamps. The decision was taken by Edward VII who thought it would look peculiar for the monarch to face away from the contents of a letter.

Inasmuch as a stamp can convey intimacy, the crownless Charles III design certainly lends the new stamp a more human touch

The stamps go on general sale on April 4. But in order to avoid undue waste, retailers will continue to sell Elizabeth II definitives until they run out

Britain is the only country on earth which can use its head of state as its postal identity. Everywhere else, from the U.S. to the tiniest Pacific island, must apply its name. Although the Labour Postmaster-General, Tony Benn, famously tried to remove the Queen from her stamps in the 1960s (he wanted to replace her with the words ‘Great Britain’), the monarch stayed put.

The British exemption is down to Rowland Hill, the man who invented the postage stamp. For here was a communications revolution on a par with the internet. Until then, recipients paid for post and the cost was calculated according to the mileage travelled and the size of the letter being delivered.

Hill’s idea of offering an adhesive stamp for a penny — the Penny Black — in return for nationwide delivery was revolutionary.

Placing the monarch’s face on the front, it was argued, also made it much harder to forge, and so the tradition stuck.

What modern letter-writers may find most astonishing is that the one-penny fee remained unchanged throughout the reigns of Victoria and Edward VII.

Nor was there any demarcation. What we now call ‘first-class’, next-day delivery was simply ‘standard delivery’. Astonishingly, the price stayed the same for 76 years.

It was only under George V, in the midst of World War I, that the price for a letter went up to a penny and halfpence. Still, a letter posted anywhere in Britain would reach a soldier on the Western Front a day later.

Queen Elizabeth II, like Victoria, wore a diadem on hers (Pictured a first class stamp early in the late Queen’s reign) 

READ MORE: Ban on non-barcoded stamps is delayed until next summer after Royal Mail climbs down following fears new models could leave millions of stamps unused and useless 

Royal Mail is rolling out barcoded stamps (pictured), which it says will help tackle fraud and make it easier to track post

Compare that with the degree of postal inflation during the reign of Elizabeth II. In 1952, a ‘standard’ stamp cost two-and-a-half pence. By the time the Post Office invented first and second-class stamps in 1968, the prices were, respectively, five pence and four pence.

At the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, first class was 9p; by her Golden Jubilee in 2002 it was 27p; and, come the Diamond Jubilee of 2012, it was 60p.

Today, that same first-class letter costs 95p. As for second-class postage, some people are still waiting for their Christmas cards. It should, however, be pointed out that the Royal Mail’s regulator, Ofcom, imposes some of the toughest delivery targets anywhere. It really is snail mail in some other European countries.

In 2003-04, the Royal Mail set an all-time postal record when it handled more than 20 billion items. But the dawn of email has had a catastrophic impact, reducing that number to eight billion — and that was prior to the postal strikes.

If the trend continues, the postage stamp will be little more than a collector’s curio by the time Prince George’s image ends up on an envelope.

Although the King’s new stamps are not on sale yet, they go on display today in London at the Postal Museum, in Clerkenwell, as part of a fascinating new exhibition of what are, effectively, Britain’s philatelic Crown Jewels.

We see the original designs for the Penny Black and its less well-known sibling, the Two Penny Blue (for postage weighing more than half an ounce).

While a good quality Penny Black is now worth thousands, its blue stablemate actually fetches more.

However, we also see something very much rarer: a full sheet of an Edward VII definitive known as the ‘Tyrian plum’ (due to the shade of purple). These were never released because the King died, and orders were given to destroy the lot. One or two postmasters disobeyed and the few specimens which ended up in private hands are now worth a fortune.

The Postal Museum retains the only two sheets still in existence. One is missing a single stamp in the corner. That is because keen stamp collector George V insisted on obtaining a Tyrian plum for the Royal Stamp Collection. 

Although the King’s new stamps are not on sale yet, they go on display today in London at the Postal Museum, in Clerkenwell

The Penny Black may be our oldest, most famous stamp, but it was not used for very long. All stamps need to be cancelled after use (hence the postmark). Victorian postmasters soon found that black ink did not show up well on a black stamp. So they began printing the same stamps in red.

Over the years, definitives have changed colour for many reasons, not least price hikes and attempts to reduce forgery.

The late Queen’s definitive first-class stamp has been, among other shades, dark olive, red, gold and, latterly, purple.

No reign saw as much postal innovation as the last one. The late Queen presided over a major change in style with the introduction of bold new commemorative stamps honouring everything from pop music and trains to wildlife. These versions remain extremely popular with collectors.

Unlike her predecessors, the Queen also changed her portrait mid-reign. In the early years, the Post Office image was based on a stunning 1952 photograph by Dorothy Wilding. However, stamp designers found it unwieldy and, in 1967, the Queen approved a new bas-relief portrait by the sculptor, Arnold Machin.

Still regarded as a masterpiece, it is one of the most reproduced images in history, reprinted more than 300 billion times.

Edward VIII was a rather different story. His definitive was based on a sketch of the new King by Hubert Brown, a 17-year-old boy from Torquay. Hubert’s father was so impressed by his son’s handiwork that he sent a copy of it to the Postmaster-General — who agreed.

Having settled on a stamp, King Charles must now choose a cypher for his pillar boxes. For now, the Royal Mail is still working through a stock of old ‘E II R’ boxes, and the King wants no wastage before we can post our first letter through a slot marked ‘C III R’.

Charles III also seems likely to make postal history of a different kind, although it will be entirely out of his hands. Given the rate of inflation, it is surely only a matter of time before the cost of a first-class letter shoots up from 95p and through the three-figure barrier.

It remains to be seen whether future stamp collectors will venerate the ‘Purple Pound’ with the same reverence they still accord the dear old ‘Penny Black’.

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