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Heraldry in the USA
Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 26th and 32nd Presidents of the United States
Text and illustrations by Joseph McMillan
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Next to George Washington, the two Roosevelts were probably the most enthusiastic users of heraldry of the 43 men who have served as President of the United States. Like Washington, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt were the heirs of a long tradition of armorial bearings within their family.
When the Dutch colony of New Netherlands was captured by British troops in 1664, probably the last thing on the minds of the new rulers was that, along with an outpost of Dutch law, religion, and culture, they were also absorbing an outpost of Dutch heraldic practices that were quite different from those in force in the England of the time. In seventeenth century England, the official heraldic establishment had come to enjoy a legal monopoly over the creation and regulation of coats of arms. In theory, at least, bearing a coat of arms was the privilege of the gentry and was authorized only with the approval of the King's heralds, who conducted periodic visitations of the counties of the realm to ensure that only gentlemen were using such arms, and that all arms had either been granted by the heraldic establishment or confirmed on the basis of long and continuous use.
The situation in the Netherlands, as on much of the European continent, was totally different. As Carl Alexander von Volborth observes in Heraldry: Customs, Rules and Styles, the use of coats of arms by urban merchants and artisans in the Netherlands is extremely widespread. Such arms are often referred to as "burgher arms," although, as there is really no essential difference between such arms and those of the nobility, it would be more accurate to call them "arms of burgher families." Volborth goes on to write that "Only a small percentage of the existing arms [in the Netherlands] belong to the noblesse. The majority of these arms [of burghers] probably originate from the period between 1581-1806, when the Netherlands was a republic under the hereditary stadhouders of the house of Orange-Nassau." In contrast to England, there was no official establishment regulating heraldry in the Netherlands, and no prohibition against any person's adopting and using a coat of arms if he chose to do so.
Among the Dutch families adopting arms during this period were the Roosevelts of New Amsterdam. While there is no evidence that the Dutch ancestors of the two presidents bore the arms shown above before Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt came to New Amsterdam around 1650, they were certainly in use within one generation of his arrival. The earliest known depiction of the arms appears on a silver tankard, now in the Museum of the City of New York, made by the silversmith Gerrit Onclebagh (1675-1735) for Claes's son Nicholas.
Theodore Roosevelt's Bookplate
An important difference between the English and Dutch rules of heraldry is that the arms of Dutch families can be inherited unchanged by all the original owner's descendants in the male line. In England, the theory is that only the eldest son inherits the arms in their original form; younger sons are supposed to change the arms by adding small charges known as marks of cadency, so that each member of the extended family of descendants from a common ancestor will have a slightly different shield. (In practice, this rule is now generally disregarded and was never strictly applied.) Thus, even though he was the descendant of several younger sons of younger sons, Theodore Roosevelt used the same arms as his great-great-great-grandfather Nicholas Roosevelt—a rose bush with three blossoms standing upon a grassy mound—although, of course, each generation and each household within the family might use a number of different artistic interpretations of the design. By rights Theodore Roosevelt's fifth cousin Franklin could also have used these same arms, but in fact either his branch of the family or he himself modified them somewhat. In place of the bush growing on the mound, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's arms consisted of three cut roses with their stems criss-crossing each other. He used this version of the arms in a number of applications, including on his bookplate and in the furnishings of his house at Hyde Park, as discussed below).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Bookplate
By all accounts, both branches of the Roosevelt family were immensely proud of their armorial bearings and used them at every opportunity. Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, pointed out that the family "had roses in book plates and crested rings. Roosevelt babies always had cascades of roses tumbling down their christening robes." And FDR's grandson David B. Roosevelt would write that "roses have always been an important symbol of our family's heritage," whether in gardens or coats of arms. As we have already seen, the early Roosevelts put the arms and the graphic elements drawn from them on pieces of silver. Later Roosevelts would continue to use them in ways ordinary and inventive, including even the naming of one of the family's estates—the house built at Hyde Park by FDR's grandfather Isaac was named "Rosedale."
As one might expect, Theodore Roosevelt used the family arms on his bookplate, but it might be surprising to learn that they were also embroidered into the train of the dress that Alice wore at her White House wedding to Nicholas Longworth in 1906. The arms are carved on the memorial stone to TR's son, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., in Young's Cemetery at Oyster Bay, Long Island. The motto, Qui plantavit curabit, was prominently carved on the beam over the north door at the President's house, Sagamore Hill and there is even a rumor that the President had the "family crest" tattooed on an undisclosed part of his body.
Theodore's niece, Eleanor, a Roosevelt by birth as well as marriage, was of course entitled to the roses and feathers in her own right. It's interesting to speculate whether she had the family arms in mind when she picked the bridesmaids' dresses for her wedding with cousin Franklin in 1905. The New York Times account of the event describes the house as being decked with pink roses and says that "The attendants were in white faille silk frocks trimmed with lace and silver, and wore tulle veils attached to white Prince of Wales ostrich feathers, tipped with silver, and carried large bouquets of pink roses." Franklin certainly had the family emblem in mind at the time--his wedding gift to Eleanor was a gold pin of the Roosevelt shield and crest. In addition, during their belated wedding trip to Europe, the couple bought a custom-made set of Venetian wine glasses with the Roosevelt arms etched upon them. Franklin and Eleanor were also surrounded by the Roosevelt arms at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York. Among other applications, the arms were carved in wood over the fireplaces at each end of the library-living room, which Franklin had had added to the house in 1915 (see photograph below), and the chair at Franklin's desk was lavishly carved with roses. FDR himself regularly wore a signet ring with the arms carved in lapis lazuli and a tie pin representing the three-feather crest. Even their friends took the Roosevelts' love of the family arms into account when giving gifts. During World War II, when Winston Churchill gave Franklin a set of the first editions of his own collected works, the Prime Minister first had the Roosevelt arms stamped on the bindings in gold.
FDR's Arms over the Fireplaces at
Hyde Park Courtesy Library of Congress
If anything, Franklin and Eleanor carried the use of the family arms even further than President Washington had done. When the Roosevelts ordered a new set of White House china from Lenox in 1934, the roses and feathers from the Roosevelt arms were incorporated into a gold border inside the dark blue band running around the rim of each of the 1,700+ pieces. Moreover, FDR ordered the crest of his arms to be used as decoration on the frames of a number of pictures presented as gifts to members of King George VI's traveling party during the 1939 state visit. This must have given the recipients quite a shock, for any British courtier would have immediately taken such a three-feather design for the heraldic badge of the English heir-apparent. Moreover, the most recent person to use that badge had been the King's recently abdicated brother, Edward VIII, whose emblem it had been when he was Prince of Wales. Given what we know about FDR's sense of humor, it's hard to believe he wasn't perfectly aware of the confusion he was sowing when he ordered the frames!
Badge of the
English Heir Apparent
Crest of the Roosevelt Arms
In the early days of heraldry, one of the most popular types of armorial design was one that made a visual pun on the name of the owner of the arms. Such arms are known in English as "canting," from the Old Norman French word canter, meaning "to sing." The word "cant" in English refers to a type of slang or argot, because of the sing-song fashion in which it was spoken, and apparently comes into heraldic use because of the allusive character of the slang jargon. Regardless of the origin of the term, the pun in canting arms may range from the obvious to the obscure, and sometimes requires a knowledge of how the arms are formally blazoned. A number of examples of varying complexity are given on François Velde's excellent website, http://www.heraldica.org. The Roosevelt arms are an classic example of this traditional type of heraldry. The name Roosevelt is a respelling, adopted after the family's arrival in New Amsterdam, of van Rosevelt or van Rosenvelt, meaning "of the rose field." The shield is thus clearly a visual representation of the family's name.
Arms of Van Rosevelt, Guild House,
While it is often tempting to conclude that similarities between two coats of arms of families with the same surname imply that the families are related to one another, the fact that canting arms have been so popular over the centuries suggests that a certain degree of skepticism is in order. For example, David B. Roosevelt, a grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, says in his biography of his grandmother that the oldest known Roosevelt arms were adopted in the 16th or 17th century, and that every known variation since then has included roses, usually three of them. One such coat of arms, attributed to the family of van Rosevelt, hangs in the guild hall in the small town of Oud-Vossemeer in Zeeland, the Netherlands, the town where Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt is said to have been born. The carving, which dates to about 1736 and is part of a display of prominent families of the vicinity, would be blazoned in English as Per fess, Vert a chevron between three roses Argent, and Or a lion rampant Gules. In fact, however, it appears that the family whose arms these were was not related to the New York Roosevelts at all. William J. Hoffman, writing in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Register in 1941, discovered that "opt Rosevelt," the farm from which the American Roosevelts took their surname, had changed owners during the early 17th century. As was the custom of the time, the original owners took their surname from the name of the farm, and assumed arms that made a pun on their name—a green field with roses upon it. These arms were subsequently modified through marriage to a family that bore a gold shield with a red lion, and it is these combined arms that are displayed in the Oud-Vossemeer guildhall. It appears that Claes Martenszen was a descendant of the man who bought the farm "at the rose-field" from this earlier family. By the same process as the previous owners, the new ones became known as van Rosenvelt, and according to the same tradition of canting arms eventually adopted a completely different coat of arms that also displayed roses.