The simple answer is that we do not know why a rose was chosen as England’s emblem, 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) that 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 rose [see above] on the crest.
When he founded Rugby School, the new institution based its 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 sub-committee of men who selected the first England side (to play Scotland) 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 was played 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 used thereafter on England rugby shirts until 1920.
The new rose takes shape
It was Alfred Wright, an RFU employee, who standardised the use of the rose by the RFU on England jerseys. Wright was first employed as a clerk in 1919 and subsequently became Administrative Secretary of the Union.
According to Bob Weighill (RFU Secretary 1973-86) Wright was the person who designed the new rose. There are no references to his redesigning or standardising the emblem in the RFU Minute books, nor in any other documents held in the World Rugby Museum.
This is not surprising since at that time the RFU helped to administer the game of rugby throughout the world and the redesign of the rose would probably have been seen as a trivial matter.
In a photograph of the England rugby team taken at Twickenham on January 25, 1913, it can be seen that the players had different 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 after a game had not yet taken root, 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.
The Wright rose
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 World War I 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 11 (as well as a further 10 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 wear eventually. This was the opportunity that presented itself to Alfred Wright in 1919.
By 1924 the four pre-WWI players (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 1998/99 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 rose 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.