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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

The Victoria Cross

Updated: Jan 29

Queen Victoria distributing the first Victoria Crosses seen close up drawn June 1857 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

The Victoria Cross was instituted on the 29th January 1856 when Queen Victoria signed a royal warrant declaring the creation of the award. The award was instituted by Queen Victoria at the request of her husband Prince Albert.

She later approved a Victoria Cross medal design on 3rd March the same year. Prior to 1854 the highest award for the military in the British Army was the ‘Order of the Bath’, but it was only awarded to senior officers. Due to the severity of the Crimean War it was decided that there needed to be a medal which could be awarded to anyone that, ‘displayed courage and valour in the face of the enemy against insurmountable odds’. By the time the Victoria Cross had actually been created and agreed upon hostilities had ceased; the first award was made 12 months after.

Queen Victoria took a special interest in the new award to be named after her, in particular the design of the medal. After the first designs of the medal were presented to her she selected one that resembled an existing campaign medal- the Army Gold Cross from the Peninsular War. Queen Victoria suggested that it should be a little smaller and made significant alteration of the Victoria Cross’s motto. Originally it read ‘for the brave’ but the Queen struck this out, changing it to ‘for valour’, in case anyone should think that soldiers who were awarded the medal were the only ones considered brave.

The initial choice of metal (copper) was not to the Queen’s liking. She stated that "The Cross looks very well in form but the metal is ugly; it is copper and not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat." With that it was decided that the medal would be cast in bronze, supposedly the metal was taken from two melted-down cannons captured during the Crimean War. Queen Victoria was meticulous with the design of the medal, ensuring it stood out. The fact that she spent the time and personally oversaw its creation is a testament to her belief in the cause and the men deemed worthy of this prestigious award

“This decoration consists of a Maltese cross formed from the cannon captured from the Russians. The execution of the work has been entrusted by Lord Panmure to Mr. Hancock ”

Daily Telegraph March 1st. 1857 Whilst Officers involved in conflict could be recognised via the Order of the Bath, an award founded by George I in 1725, no such award was available to acknowledge the heroic actions of the ordinary British serviceman. The original Royal Warrant for the Victoria Cross stated clearly that this new award was being….

“…ordained with a view to place all persons on a perfectly equal footing in relation to eligibility for the Decoration, that neither rank, nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery shall be held to establish a sufficient claim to the honour.”

© Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

This was probably the prototype of the Victoria Cross submitted to The Queen on 4 February 1856 for her comments. The medal was die-struck in copper. The design for the hanging ‘V’, the bar and the reverse of the medal, had not yet been developed.

Various designs for the Victoria Cross were presented to the Queen which she would return with her comments and amendments. Finally on 5th January 1856 a design was approved with one final alteration. Her Majesty preferred that the motto on the Cross read “For Valour rather than For the Brave as this would lead to the inference that only those are deemed brave who have got the Cross.”The Victoria Cross takes the form of a Maltese cross shape medal made of bronze, the obverse of which has as its main feature the Royal Crown surmounted by a standing lion with a ribbon underneath bearing the motto For Valour.

It is suspended from a letter V which supports a bar decorated with laurel leaves through which the crimson ribbon passes. The original Warrant denotes “a blue riband for the Navy and a red riband for the Army.” This was the case until the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 when it was decided that all Victoria Crosses would have the same crimson ribbon irrespective of the Force in which the recipient was serving.

The reverse of the medal is unique in that each one issued is engraved with the individual details of the recipient. The cross bears a circle within which is engraved the date of the act for which the medal has been awarded and the suspension bar is engraved with the name, rank, number and unit of the recipient. There is no differentiation made between medals awarded to living personnel and those awarded posthumously.

© Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

The final design for the Victoria Cross, which was approved on 3 March 1856, incorporated a bar decorated with laurel leaves, from which a link in the shape of a ‘V’ was suspended. The medal was sand-cast and finished by hand.

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