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. The once evident symbolism implicit in these arms is now confounded with resonant contemporary allusions: these are highly disparate, such as Judaism (the six-pointed stars in the arms) and Nazism (the Eagle with expanded wings in the crest); with both elements also being suggestive of similar US symbols.
The pattern shown in the arms has its origins in antiquity and was known in England and Italy from the thirteenth century:1 even so, its heraldic use appears to be unique to these arms, at least in the British Isles. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages such emblems, whether gilded or silvered, scattered over a blue field were taken as indicative of “God's Heavens” and remain ubiquitously symbolic of stars.2
During the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries the primary purpose of any shield of arms was immediate and unambiguous identification in combat. Thus simple and distinctive arms were then prevalent, whether of geometrical charges or from a stylized bestiary. These arms, consisting of a repeated simple element — a star polygon, a mullet in the jargon of English heraldry — are in keeping with this spirit.
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 somewhat 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: another form, topologically homologous with the preceding figure. The ‘Seven Stars’ badge (see below) corresponds to this geometry.3
c & d: other available renderings, again a topologically identical pair. The mullets (stars) are likewise ‘conjoined’ but here in a triadic disposition. Although conforming to the blazon and hence reserved by it, neither had heraldic use — under the Law of Arms these are merely artistic variations.
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 triumph 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 aniconic 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 was an attribute of Zeus/Jupiter and thus the apotheosis of sovereignty: especially for the latter, whose legionary Aquila signified imperial dominance. This affinity with hegemony has 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 become perverted to that of yet 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 manifestly an extract from the arms. The motif 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. Similarly, the so-called ‘Flower of Life’4 can be seen as implicit in the badge, although, again, the association is coincidental — and the abundant apocryphal speculation of ‘New Age’ enthusiasts relating to this figure has no pertinence here.
* Liberal is used here in accordance with the political philosophy of individual freedom developed by John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, et al. To many this outworn usage will seem quixotic, since it does not surrender the title to its purportedly benevolent authoritarian usurpers.
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 will 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, any connection is illusory: both stars and eagles were widely used in heraldry long before the founding of the USA.
Figure 1: Flag of General George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
The flag of George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief during the Revolutionary War, was independently adopted by him in or about 1775. No contemporary blazon for it exists — unsurprisingly, since a royal grant would hardly have been sought nor granted — 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 also 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 use of stars in an American flag of the Revolutionary War. As Washington's personal flag, reputedly to his own design, the stars are widely presumed to be evocative of the mullets (stars) in his ancestral arms. However they are obviously modified, since unlike their putative model, the stars have six points. In the original they have five points, as they do in Washington's adopted arms. Likewise, the latter has entire mullets rather than the ancestral pierced mullets, viz.:
Figure 2: Arms of George Washington.
Blazon: Argent two Bars in chief three Mullets Gules.
Setting aside this symbolism, the pattern in the arms shows a striking economy of form: the implicit geometry in several alternative renderings of the Arms (Figs. 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 aspects of the Falcon and Fetterlock cognizance of the House of York from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — although the symbolism invoked is conflicted.
Figure 4: Falcon and Fetterlock badge
From a late-fifteenth century window quarry in King's College Chapel, Cambridge.