Rugby World Cup: Tales of Emblems


The Webb Ellis Trophy – Rugby’s World Cup

September and October will see the Rugby World Cup hosted in England. Each of the home nations will be aiming for glory, and amongst the crowds there are sure to be plenty of flags, thistles, shamrocks, roses and inflatable plastic daffodils, depending on your allegiance! As well as the home nations, France and Italy will be in prominence as the tournament comes close to home. Each team has a distinct emblem of association, then. But are there any particular meanings to them?

The rose on the England jersey has its origins in the fifteenth century, when the royal house of Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) fought the royal house of York (whose emblem was a white rose), during the Wars of the Roses. The war ended in 1485 when Elizabeth of York married Henry VII, and the red and white roses were combined to create the Tudor Rose. The England rugby team have worn the Tudor Rose on their jerseys since 1871.

The Welsh rugby team adopted the three feathers of the Prince of Wales as their emblem. As with the English team, the Wales emblem has strong historical roots. They were first used as a symbol by the Black Prince, who became the Prince of Wales in 1343.

Scotland’s rugby team’s symbol is a thistle. The thistle has been Scotland’s national emblem since 1263, when Vikings attempted to invade Scotland at night, prior to the Battle of Largs. Legend has it that the invaders wanted to make sure they couldn’t be heard, so they took off their shoes, but their leader stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain. It was this howl of agony that woke the Scots, who then drove the Vikings out of the country.

The shamrock that appears on the Ireland shirt is said to symbolise good luck. When St Patrick arrived in the country to spread Christianity he told people of his belief in the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He explained the idea of the trinity by plucking a shamrock from the earth and pointing to the three leaves, which he said was living proof of the Holy Trinity.

The French team’s emblem, the cockerel, is also steeped in history. In the past France was known as Gaul, which is similar to gallus, the Latin word for cockerel. Over time, France came to be represented by a cockerel, with cockerels being engraved on coins in the Middle Ages. The symbol was adopted by the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789, and during World War I the cockerel became a symbol of French courage.

The fans will all hope to generate that extra bit of inspiration that can drive their side to victory, and it should make the tournament a spectacle to savour. Especially as they don’t come around that often!

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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