By Joseph McMillan
Illustrations by the author.
This article appeared in The American Herald, No. 1 (2006)
The Arms of George Washington
Arms: Argent two bars and in chief three mullets Gules.
Crest: From a crest coronet a raven rising wings elevated and addorsed proper.
Motto: Exitus acta probat (The outcome is the test of the act).
1. A Long Line of Washingtons: The Origins of the Arms
Of all America's Presidents, George Washington was without a doubt the leading user of personal heraldry. Throughout Washington's adult life, we find his arms or crest appearing on everything from horse equipment to silverware, from seals to walking sticks. Washington's correspondence is likewise replete with references to his coat of arms, whether he is exchanging letters on family genealogy with the head of the English heraldic establishment or giving instructions on the decoration of a new carriage. Our first President was not merely speaking hypothetically when he said, in a letter to William Barton on September 7, 1788, "it is far from my design to intimate an opinion that heraldry, coat-armour, &c., might not be rendered conducive to public and private uses with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of republicanism." He was being disingenuously self-effacing, however, when he professed himself in the same letter as "imperfectly acquainted with the subject." In fact, heraldry was very much a part of Washington's everyday life and had been for many years.
George Washington inherited his arms from a long line of Washingtons stretching back into the northern England of the Middle Ages. The first of the line, Sir William de Hertburn, took the name of his estate after being granted the lordship of Wessyngton, later called Washington, in County Durham in about 1180. In about 1203, his son, Sir Walter I de Wessyngton used a seal showing arms with a lion rampant, and Sir Walter III was still using a lion, albeit overlaid with a diagonal bend compony in 1318. But by 1346, Sir William IV's seal had the now-famous design of two horizontal bars below three mullets—the rowels of spurs, depicted as five-pointed stars, sometimes shown with a round hole pierced in the center. These seals, of course, do not show the tinctures of the arms, which are known from the listings for the Washingtons in contemporary rolls and ordinaries of arms. Jenyn's Ordinary, dated to around 1327, shows for Washington a red lion on silver with the bend in blue and silver, as on the 1318 seal. Jenyn's Roll, circa 1390, has the bars and mullets, as on the 1346 seal, but in silver on red. Just a few years later, however, the arms appear in Willement's Roll, dated between 1392 and 1397, in the familiar red on silver form used by the family ever since. There has been considerable learned inquiry over the years as to the reason for these changes; they seem to have been connected either with marital alliances made by the Washingtons with various powerful families of northern England, or with the acquisition of feudal estates. In any case, the same arms used by President Washington, silver with red bars and mullets, appear on a number of historic buildings across the north of England, notably in a 15th century window at Selby Abbey in Yorkshire. They were confirmed to Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, by Robert Cook, Clarenceux King of Arms, in 1592. They were later documented in the heralds' visitation of Northamptonshire in 1619, and a description and drawing of them were included in a letter to President Washington from Sir Isaac Heard, Garter Principal King of Arms, on December 7, 1791.
Washington Arms, ca. 1327
Washington Arms, ca. 1390
Washington Window, Selby Abbey, 15th c.
Courtesy Selby Abbey
Drawing of Washington Arms in
letter of Sir Isaac Heard, 1791
Source: Library of Congress
It did not take this letter, however, for George Washington to be familiar with these arms, as he confirmed in his response to Heard. The arms had been brought to Virginia about 135 years earlier by two brothers, grandsons of that Lawrence of Sulgrave to whom the arms had been confirmed by Clarenceux Cook. One of these was the President's great-grandfather, Colonel John Washington.
2. The Arms of George Washington: The Washington Arms in Use
Evidence of the Washington arms being used in Virginia dates back to 1735 at the latest, when they were carved on the tombstone of Major John Washington's daughter, Elizabeth (the President's first cousin), who died in February of that year. George Washington himself was using these arms from a rather young age and continued to do so throughout his life. His earliest known purchases of goods marked with his crest were made in 1755, when he was only 23, and the arms are engraved on a silver cruet set made for him in London in 1757. They also appear on the wax seal on a document he signed in 1758. Washington applied the family heraldry to possessions of all kinds. On June 6, 1768, he wrote to the London firm of Robert Cary & Company to give instructions for the manufacture of a new carriage, suggesting that it be painted jade green with gold trim and stating that "any other Ornaments as may not have a heavy and tawdry look together with my Arms agreeable to the impression here sent might be added, by way of decoration.... On the harness let my Crest be engraved." Three years later, he asked an Alexandria, Virginia, merchant traveling to England to buy him a walking stick with the arms engraved on the head, and to order the now-famous bookplate with a rococo rendering of the Washington arms. During the same time frame, on July 18, 1771, Washington wrote again to Cary & Company ordering two seals, the first to made of "Topaz or some other handsome stone fix'd in the gold Locket sent, with the Washington Arms neatly engrav'd thereon," and "another Stone fix'd in the other gold Locket with the Washington Crest." In his will, Washington would leave the cane and another like it to his cousins Lawrence and Robert Washington, while in the 1802 estate sale following the death of his widow, the late President's nephew Samuel Washington purchased a "Seal with W. arms" for $36, and a second nephew, William Augustine Washington, bought another two seals, one with an ivory handle and another attached to a gold chain. It is quite probable that all three of these, and not just the one bought by Samuel, had either the arms or crest cut on them.
Seal used by George Washington, 1758
Harper's Magazine, May 1891; rpt in Zieber
Bookplate of George Washington, 1772
Source: Library of Congress
Seal used by George Washington, 1783
Harper's Magazine, May 1891; rpt in Zieber
The crest of the Washington arms, correctly a raven rising from a coronet but often shown by the Washingtons of Virginia as an eagle, was engraved on a set of silver cups the general used throughout the Revolution and on a number of small silver items, such as spoons, used to furnish his home at Mount Vernon. (In his reply to Sir Isaac Heard's letter concerning the Washington arms, the President described this crest as a "flying griffin," but heraldic griffins are portrayed with feathered ears, which do not appear on any Washington crest.) The entire achievement of shield, crest, and motto was engraved on numerous items of silver made in London before the war, as well as a silver service ordered from Philadelphia at the end of the War. Such an achievement appears engraved on an inkwell in the famous Lansdowne Portrait of Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart, owned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Many pieces of Washington armorial silver have survived, of which the principal collection is at Mount Vernon, although other items have made their way onto the collector's market, where they command prices of as much as $100,000.
Detail of the Lansdowne Portrait, 1796
Source: Smithsonian Institution
Silver cup used in Revolution
Source: National Museum of American History,
Washington's arms were also used throughout the decoration of the house at Mount Vernon, most notably as a carving on the wooden mantelpiece in the front parlor, completed in 1783, as well as on the frame of a portrait of King Louis XVI of France (along with the French royal arms). The crest alone appears on four cast iron firebacks in one of the house's fireplaces, and Washington's papers include a letter of 1787 ordering a set of metal castings for the chimneys of the house, each to be marked with his monogram and crest.
It was not only in the decoration of the house and its furnishings that the Washington arms influenced life at Mount Vernon. For example, as Mary V. Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, relates, most wealthy Virginia planters of the time dressed their house slaves and those who manned their equipage in distinctive livery suits, similar in cut to the three-piece suits worn by the planters themselves, but in colors derived from the tinctures of the master's arms. Washington was no exception. He wrote to London in 1755 to have his agent there order such suits for his servants:
I wou’d have you choose the livery by our Arms; only, as the Field of the Arms is white. [sic] I think the Cloaths had better not be quite so….The Trimmings and Facings of Scarlet, and a Scarlet Waistcoat…If Livery Lace is not quite disus’d, I shoud [sic] be glad to have these Cloaths Laced. I like that fashion best. and [sic] two Silver lac’d Hats for the above L[iver]y.
The same letter further directed the purchase of "1 set of horse furniture, with livery lace, with the Washington crest on the housings, &c."
Washington's interest in the application of heraldry continued into the years of his Presidency. In 1790, he wrote to David and Francis Clark of Philadelphia concerning the repainting of a coach. Washington's concern that his armorial bearings appear in the best possible light is evident:
...my crest without any cipher is to be on the four quarter panels, all to be enclosed with the original ovals. If it is thought best that the crests should be painted (as Silver does not show on a light ground) they may be painted. But quere, whether of some ornamental painting within the Oval, and around the Silver crests (the colours of which should form a contrast to the silver and not be inconsistent with other parts of the work) might not look well.
3. The Arms of George Washington - Lasting Influence
3.1 Mullets and Bars, Stars and Stripes?
Winthrop W. Aldrich, at the time American ambassador to the Court of St. James, gave new life to an old myth in a speech he gave at Washington Old Hall in 1955: "Who cannot resist the conjecture that here at Washington Old Hall is the true origin of the 'Stars and Stripes' and the Great Seal of the United States Government?" Ever since the 19th century, many have been unable to resist the conjecture that the American flag and coat of arms are derived from the armorial bearings of President Washington. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence that the one had anything to do with the other. Washington was not involved with the committee that designed the flag in 1777, and in heraldic terms there is very little connection between the two designs. Moreover, the sequence by which the flag evolved belies any influence of the Washington arms. Nor was he involved with the committee that designed the great seal and coat of arms in 1782. The design of the shield in the national arms, with vertical stripes ("pallets") and no stars, bears no heraldic resemblance whatever to the Washington bearings. Finally, nowhere in the records of either committee is there any indication of a desire to honor Washington with the flag or the seal, honors which it would have been quite out of character for Washington to accept, considering how he reacted to other attempts to create a cult of personality around him. For example, when Philadelphia silversmith Joseph Cooke proposed to put Washington's coat of arms outside his shop as a sign of Presidential patronage, Washington angrily refused this attempt at aping the practice of royal purveyors to the British royal house.
Nevertheless, the Washington arms have had a lasting influence on heraldry and other symbols in the United States, an influence that continues today. These include the flag of the District of Columbia (a banner of the Washington arms) plus the arms, seals, and flags of a number of counties, towns, religious institutions, units of the armed forces, and universities. The Washington shield even appears on a military decoration, the Purple Heart.
3.2 The Washington Arms and Ecclesiastical Heraldry
Catholic Archdiocese of
Episcopal Diocese of
Christ Church (Episcopal),
St. James Episcopal Church,
Mt. Vernon, Va.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic
Church, Martinsville, N.J.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington honors the first President with the three mullets, or five-pointed stars, in the third quarter of its arms; the three six-pointed stars in the second quarter pay tribute to Pius VI, the Pope at the time of the American Revolution. The reference to the Washington arms is more obvious in those of the Episcopal Diocese, which replaces the center mullet with a mural crown and adds a blue chief with a golden Jerusalem cross. Two Episcopal churches in the Washington area also draw on the Washington arms for inspiration. Washington was a member of the vestry of the first one shown, Christ Church in Alexandria, while the second, St. James, is a relatively new parish on part of the original Mount Vernon estate. The final coat, belonging to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Martinsville, N.J., commemorates Washington's nearby encampment during the war.
3.3 The Washington Arms and Academic Heraldry
Washington and Lee
University Lexington, Va.
University Washington, D.C.
St. Louis, Mo.
Washington and Lee University, which took Washington's name in gratitude for a bequest of stock he left to the school in his will, quarters the general's arms in the second quarter, along with Robert E. Lee's in the third. Washington and Lee also uses the Washington raven as the crest of its arms. This shield was designed by a professor at the university in the early 20th century. By contrast, George Washington University's arms were devised at the end of the 20th century by the heralds of the College of Arms in London. The unusual form of the bars suggests the form of an open book, and the mullets are rearranged to lie vertically down the center instead of horizontally across the chief. Washington University in St. Louis changes the mullets to green and adds three fleurs-de-lis in base to honor King Louis IX, after whom the city of St. Louis is named. The book in the center is inscribed Per veritatem vis, "Strength through truth." Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., uses a plain red coat with the Washington family arms as a canton.
3.4 The Washington Arms and Military Heraldry
258th Field Artillery
Regiment, New York
Crest and Distinctive
Insignia, Washington National
Guard Courtesy: The Institute
of Heraldry, U.S. Army
of Columbia Air
Purple Heart Medal
(Washington shield at the
top of the pendant)
The Washington arms are also used in military insignia. For example, the New York National Guard's 258th Field Artillery Regiment, "The Washington Grays," uses the Washington arms in altered tinctures as its insignia, commemorating the service of one of the regiment's companies as escort to General Washington at his first Presidential inauguration in 1789. The regimental arms use gray in the mullets and bars, an unusual color in heraldry, to symbolize the unit's nickname and the original color of its uniforms. The charges are fimbriated, or edged, with gold. Meanwhile, all units of the Washington Army National Guard use the crest from the Washington family arms as the crest of their own unit arms. The coronet and raven also serve as the distinguishing insignia of the state's National Guard headquarters and as the device on the shoulder patch. In the Air Force, the headquarters of the District of Columbia Air National Guard uses the Washington arms, with the bars changed to "nebuly," or "cloud-like," and superimposes on it the design of the D.C. National Guard crest, the United States Capitol dome against a rising sun. As for the sea services, while no ship apparently uses the symbols of the Washington arms in its insignia, the USS Mount Vernon (LSD 39) did borrow the motto Exitus acta probat as its own. Finally, the shield of the Washington arms figures in the design of the Purple Heart, a revival of the award originated by the general to reward military merit, now the nation's means of recognizing those who are wounded in combat.
3.5 The Washington Arms and Civic Heraldry
Flag of the District of
Columbia Source: Flags of the World
Washington County, Va.
Crest of Fredericksburg, Va.
Flag of Washington, Me.
Source: Flags of the World
As already mentioned, the District of Columbia flies a flag that is actually a banner of the arms of the Washington family. Contrary to what is often reported, however, it does not use this design on a shield as a coat of arms proper. Washington County, Va., does use a shield with the Washington arms, but "differences" them in accordance with heraldic custom, in this case changing the color of the mullets to blue. Fredericksburg, Virginia, also draws on the Washington arms in differenced form, in this case using the crest with a cardinal in place of the original raven. Meanwhile the town of Washington, Me., flies a flag that combines the bars and mullets with an indented red and blue band at the hoist signifying the mountains and rivers of the area. The city of Charles Town, W. Va., and the town of Washington, N.C., also both employs the Washington arms, but in their original form. It is generally recognized as improper heraldic practice to borrow the arms of another in undifferenced form.
3.6 The Washington Arms and Organizational Heraldry
Saint Andrews Society
of Washington, D.C.
Burgee of District Yacht
Club, Washington, D.C.
Finally, a number of private associations and clubs in the Washington, D.C., area use the Washington arms as the basis of their organizational symbols. The Saint Andrews Society, for example, impales a variation of the Washington arms—with a red chief bearing a thistle between two mullets at the top—with the white St. Andrew's cross of Scotland. These arms were granted to the society by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the Scottish heraldic authority. The Sulgrave Club, an old and exclusive ladies' club located in an grand mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, uses the Washington arms with the red altered to blue. And the District Yacht Club flies a burgee that is clearly derived from the shield of the city's namesake.
- Bolton, Charles Knowles. Bolton's American Armory. Boston: F. W. Faxon, 1927.
- Garrett, Wendell, ed. George Washington's Mt. Vernon. New York: Monacelli, 1998.
- Library of Congress. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. Online collection at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html
- Moncreiffe of that Ilk, Sir Iain. "Double Coats at the Dawn of Northumbrian and Scottish Heraldry." The Armorial VI (Dec 1970) 19-30.
- Patterson, Richard S., and Dougall Richardson. The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States. Department of State Publication 8900. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976.
- Smithsonian Institution. "George Washington: A National Treasure: The Portrait." Online exhibit at http://www.georgewashington.si.edu/portrait
- Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War." Online exhibit at http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=695
- Thompson, Mary V. "Different People, Different Stories: The Life Stories of Individual Slaves from Mount Vernon and Their Relationships with George and Martha Washington." Talk Given at a Symposium Entitled “George Washington & Slavery,” Mount Vernon, Virginia, November 3, 2001; slightly revised, April 22, 2002. Accessed from http://www.mountvernon.org/pdf/Different%20People%20Different%20Stories.pdf
- Washington, George. "The Washington Arms." The Coat of Arms X (1968) 116.
- Zieber, Eugene. Heraldry in America. 1895; rpt. New York: Crown Publishers, 1984.
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