One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o'er-dusted.
William Shakespeare (c. 1601). Troilus and Cressida.
Heraldic interpretation is a vague art with a protean subject. Although the pattern shown in the arms was known in England and Italy from the late-thirteenth century1 and its origins are in antiquity, its heraldic use appears to be unique to these arms, at least in the British Isles. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages such stylised emblems, whether gilded or silver, scattered over a blue field were taken as indicative of “God's Heavens” and even now they remain commonly symbolic of stars.2 Yet in another prosaic and brazenly pompous interpretation, rather than being suggestive of an abiding interest in the celestially ethereal or astronomy, the pattern could also be an oblique visual allusion to the bearer's name: Geal is Gaelic for bright, clear, white. There is nothing original or peculiar in this: such allusive or canting arms follow an heraldic tradition that has persisted from early times, in distinction to the now pervasive use of overt allegory.*
During the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries the primary purpose of any shield of arms was immediate and unambiguous identification in combat. Thus simple and conspicuous arms were then prevalent, whether geometrical or from a stylized bestiary. In keeping with that spirit, these arms display a simple and distinctive form, a repeated star polygon — in the jargon of English heraldry, a mullet.
It is paradoxical that in an essentially visual art such as heraldry words prevail: the descriptions of arms, the blazons, remain constant and are definitive, whereas depictions are never in established or canonical forms and diverse renderings of individual arms are customary. In English heraldry, mullets with more than five points are commonly shown with accentuated points (Figs. a & c) — thus being indistinguishable from the Germanic heraldic stern (star). However, the exact shape of mullets is not prescribed and less intensely stellate renderings are evident: as in an earlier form of the arms (Fig. b) which recalls a beautiful pattern widely-used in Islamic art and architecture. Even so, although the debt to Islamic exemplars is clear, its immediate antecedents are from medieval Christian Europe.Fig 3
Alternative renderings of the arms
a: the customary form.
b: an earlier form, topologically homologous with Fig. a. The ‘Seven Stars’ badge (see below) corresponds to this pattern.3
c & d: other conforming renderings (also topologically identical with each other). The mullets (stars) are likewise ‘conjoined’ but here in triadic dispositions.
Whatever can be said on the arms, the crest and its derivative badge are plainly symbolic, even if ambiguously so. To Christians, as an eagle is a traditional attribute of St. John the Evangelist, they may evoke a familiar New Testament passage:
… and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32.
Alternatively it is allusive of the truimph of Liberty over oppression. Since the Enlightenment the eagle has been symbolic of individual freedom, especially with the widening awareness that personal power is essential to the maintenance of human dignity and Liberty.
There is nothing exceptional in this ambiguity, as all symbolism is in basis fanciful — or, if you will, an arbitrary cultural construct. Being a striking and elusive creature, the eagle is an ancient and seemingly ubiquitous symbol throughout the northern hemisphere — excepting a few iconophobic cultures. However its particular significances are diverse: for instance, while the association of the eagle with liberation would doubtless have seemed apt to followers of Saladin, it would have been utterly incongruous to Ancient Greeks and Romans, for whom the eagle (άετός διός) was an attribute of Zeus/Jupiter, the Classical apotheosis of sovereignty: especially for the latter, whose legionary Aquila signified imperial dominance. Indeed, this affinity with hegemony persisted: the eagle was manifest in the imperial banners of the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires; the Naploeonic Aigle de drapeau and the German Reichsadler. With the Federal Government of the United States of America finally succumbing to the temptations of unfettered power, even the once fiercely independent Bald Eagle, the emblematic guardian of Liberty, may yet be perverted to merely that of another aspiring imperium. If so, it would seem that only its ancient link to St. John would then preserve the eagle as Liberty's insignia — although stubborn Liberals† may yet persevere with it.
This badge is obviously a direct extract from the arms, although the motif itself is ancient — a similar design can be seen in the opus sectile ornamentation on the plinth in the tomb of Henry III and Sanctuary pavement in Westminster Abbey.Figs. 1&3
And he had in his right hand seven stars …. Revelation 1:16.
The conjecture that the badge is an intentional representation of the symbol in Revelation 1:16 is tenable, but unsupported by evidence. The Apocalypse is itself an incoherent narrative and thus it should be expected that it has often been pressed into the service of absurdities. Similarly, the so-called ‘Flower of Life’4 is implicit in the badge, although again the association is coincidental — the abundant apocryphal speculation of ‘New Age’ enthusiasts of Sacred Geometry relating to this figure has no pertinence here.
† Here I use ‘Liberal’ in accordance with the political philosophy of individual freedom developed by John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hayek, et al. This usage will seem arcane and quixotic to many, since it is contrary to the prevailing political sense. Even so, the attempted arrogation of ‘Liberal’ by ostensibly benevolent authoritarians does not entail the abject surrender of the title to these adversaries.
So spake the false dissembler unperceived;
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone,
By his permissive will, through Heaven and Earth:
And oft, though wisdom wake, suspicion sleeps
At wisdom's gate, and to simplicity
Resigns her charge, while goodness thinks no ill
Where no ill seems ….
John Milton (1667; 1674). Paradise Lost, Book III, lines 681-689.
For some, the combination of stars in the arms and the eagle of the crest may recall those same elements present in the Flag and Great Seal of the United States of America. Despite this similarity, which is plainly more verbal than visual, the emblems are entirely unrelated. Both stars and eagles were widely used in heraldry long before the founding of the USA.
The inadvertent resemblance of the arms to George Washington's personal flag during the Revolutionary War is more striking:
Figure 1: the flag of General George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
This flag was independently adopted by Washington in or about 1775 and was to his own design, as far as is known. No contemporary blazon for it exists — unsurprisingly, since a royal grant would hardly have been sought — but this could have served:
Azure Celeste thirteen Mullets of six points three two three two three Argent.
The pattern of the stars signifying the thirteen States of the Continental Congress is perhaps subtly suggestive of the cross of St. George and saltire of St. Andrew of the British Flag. If so, this implied fraternity might have been intentional: the Grand Union Flag — the first national flag of the United States — had the British Union Flag in the canton.
This is the earliest recorded use of stars in any flag of the Revolutionary War. As it was Washington's personal flag, they were perhaps intentionally evocative of the mullets (stars) in his ancestral arms, although modified from their precursor in that the mullets are entire, whereas they are pierced in the original. If so, the presence of the six-pointed stars in the flag is unexplained, as the stars in Washington's arms have five points, viz.:
Figure 2: the arms of George Washington.
Blazon: Argent two Bars in chief three Mullets Gules.
Setting aside this symbolism, the pattern in the arms shows a noticeable economy of form: the implicit geometry in Figures b & d and in the ‘Seven Stars’ badge can be seen as periodic tessellations of either rhombille or trihexagonal tiling, viz.:
Figures 3a & b: implicit rhombille (3a) and trihexagonal tiling (3b) in the arms
The Eagle and Chain badge bears a slight and inconsequential similarity to a dynastic cognizance of the House of York, the Falcon and Fetterlock. This badge of Edward IV as Duke of York was originally that of his grandfather, Edmund of Langley, the 1st Duke of York. It is shown here as it appears in a late-fifteenth century window quarry in King's College Chapel, Cambridge:
Figure 4: the Falcon and Fetterlock badge