Despatch Boxes or ‘Red Boxes’, are a visible symbol of our democratic system of government. They ensure the efficient and secure transportation of sensitive documents that impact the United Kingdom and our relations with other countries. They contain the state decisions that are made by The Queen, the Prime Minister and other ministers.
The designation of the Despatch box goes back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and refers to an important message for the Queen. The modern role of Boxes in the governance process has not changed for over a century. The papers they contain ensure there is transparency in the decision making process, and provide a historic record. Physical documents and papers remain as important now as ever.
Each day the papers contained in the Despatch Boxes are prepared for the Sovereign, and her ministers by their private offices. Papers included usually require decisions. Other papers include briefing papers and papers for meetings. Red Boxes follow their holder around the world, ensuring they can execute the responsibilities of their office. Wherever in the world the Sovereign or Minister is, the Red Box is close by.
Our despatch boxes are not only an elegant design, but are functional and secure. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, described the despatch box as “a product of beautiful craftsmanship but also as being robust, sturdy, durable, reliable - the epitome of Britain’s democracy.”
For enquiries from Her Majesty’s Government, please visit HM Government page.
There are two possible reasons why the Despatch Box became the iconic red colour. The widely-accepted reason relates to Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria, who is said to have preferred the colour as it was used prominently in the arms of his family, the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. However, there is a School of thought with origins dating back to the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I's representative Francis Throckmorton presented the Spanish Ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, with a specially constructed red briefcase filled with black puddings. It was seen as an official communication from The Queen, and so the colour red became the official colour of the state.
The Queen’s Despatch Box
In our system, The Sovereign as a constitutional monarch, has an integral role in the governance of the UK. Walter Bagehot defined the monarchs’ role as, the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. The Queen continues to sign all legislation, and the Prime Minister and other ministers act in The Queen’s name. This means The Queen receives a constant stream of Despatch Boxes containing documents from the Government, Parliament and The Queen’s Private Secretary. The Queen chose to be photographed with her Red Box to mark the occasion when she became the longest Reigning Monarch in British history.
The King’s Despatch Box
This is an earlier style of Despatch Box from our collection used by King George V, the grandfather of HM The Queen. This Box was used throughout The Great War carrying messages concerning the conduct of the war and reports from the front line. This Box also followed The King to France during one of his visits to the Front.