Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States

By Joseph McMillan
Illustrations by the author.

Crest of Taylor

The Crest of Zachary Taylor

Arms: None. 

Crest: A naked arm embowed holding an arrow proper.

MottoConsequitur quodcumque petit (He attains whatever he attempts)

A Crest without Arms?

President Zachary Taylor never claimed a coat of arms. Indeed, J. Reese Fry made clear in Taylor’s 1848 campaign biography that “Old Rough and Ready” eschewed such pompous frippery, in sharp contrast to at least one earlier occupant of the executive office:

The extreme simplicity of General Taylor’s habits has become proverbial; but, like all human beings, if the old General was not proud of his dress, or of the pride and pomp of “glorious war,” he had his weakness, and it displayed itself in his state carriage. This magnificent vehicle was one of the last purchases the old soldier made ere he started for the wars [in Mexico]. It was none of these high-backed, four-horse, soft-cushioned, coat-of-arms panelled affairs, such as Martin Van Buren imported from England to ride in when he was President, but it was, in vulgar parlance, a Jersey wagon, and one of the ugliest and most inconvenient ones ever sent out from that sand-soil State.

Taylor’s immediate family, however, did claim the use of a crest, certainly in the succeeding generation and, if the evidence cited by heraldists and family historians is correct, in earlier ones as well. Such a claim is something of an anomaly. Although it is a common mistake to refer to a complete coat of arms as a “crest,” the crest is correctly only the emblem placed atop the helmet above the shield. For historical reasons, it is possible for someone to have arms without a crest, but not the reverse. The English heraldic author Arthur C. Fox-Davies was characteristically scathing on the subject:

A crest cannot exist without a coat of arms, so that those people, and they are many, who vehemently assert a right to the “crest of their family,” whilst admitting they have no right to arms, stand self-convicted heraldically both of having spoken unutterable rubbish, and of using a crest to which they can have no possible right.

However incorrect they may be, however, surely there must be a reason why some people believe they have a crest but do not claim a right to arms. The story of the crest used by President Taylor’s family may shed some light on how this might happen.

Seal Rings and Silver

Heraldic usage has always been influenced by the cultural trends in the society in which arms are borne. One important influence in English heraldry was the shift during the period from about 1670 to 1720, from the flamboyantly ornate styles of architecture and home furnishings of the Tudor and early Stuart periods to the more restrained, classically influenced styles of the late Stuarts and early Georgians. Heraldically, this transition found expression in smaller, less fussy, more discrete forms of display. One aspect of the change of heraldic tastes was the use of the crest of the arms, often with the motto but without the shield, helm, mantling, or other accoutrements, as a type of badge for to marking small personal items on which a rendering of the full arms would be indeciperable. This was particularly true of things like silver eating utensils but also of other small objects such as silver hairbrush handles and boxes. At the same time, the rise of literacy made obsolescent the large, complex seals previously affixed to legal documents, and brought into fashion smaller signets of a size which also lent themselves to use of the crest alone in lieu of the full coat of arms.

This style of display having come into fashion, it is not hard to see how the descendants of an immigrant to the North American colonies, who had brought only a few prized heirlooms engraved with such a crest, might forget after several generations about the coat of arms with which the crest was once associated, and conclude that they were entitled only to the crest, not to any arms. It is quite plausible, although it cannot be proven, that this was the case with the family of Zachary Taylor, ninth President of the United States.

Available published information on the crest used by the Taylor family goes back only to 1893, when Dr. A. G. Grinnan wrote in the William and Mary College Quarterly that:

The crest on the snuff box of Gen. Dick Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, corresponds very closely with Taylor of Pennington House, Co. Hants: a dexter arm, embowered [sic] in armor, the hand in a gauntlet, grasping a javelin all ppr. Motto–conseqitur quodcunque petit. Members of the Thompson family have supposed that it came to the Taylors through their family by the marriage of Martha Thompson with James Taylor of Caroline [County, Virginia] in 1698.

Seal ring attributed to
James Taylor (d. 1698)
Source: Old Louisiana
Plantation Homes

This means the crest was used in the Taylor family by 1879 at the latest, the year of General Richard Taylor’s death, but also implies that it was in use well before that. This prior use may have been based on a seal ring said to have been handed down in the family, which was described in William Armstrong Crozier’s Virginia Heraldica in 1908:

Crest: A naked arm couped at the shoulder embowed, holding an arrow ppr. Motto: Consequitur quodcunque petit. James Taylor, ancestor of the Caroline county family of that name, is said to have come from the vicinity of Carlisle, England…. James Taylor died about 1698 at an advanced age. An old ring handed down in the family is said to have once been his property, and it bears engraved upon it the above crest which is that of the Taylors of Pennington Castle [sic]. 

A photograph of this ring was published in 1941 in Herman Seebold’s Old Louisiana Plantation Homes and Family Trees. In a 1985 history of the Taylor family, one Anna Robinson Watson (presumably the lady of that name who was the granddaughter of President Taylor’s brother Hancock) is apparently quoted as saying that “I was told that my grandfather did not wear jewelry and so his son wore the ring, Col. Charles Taylor, until his death, then the youngest son, my uncle Erasmus.” Finally according to the same December 28, 1999, posting in the soc.genealogy.medieval newsgroup in which this statement is quoted, the ring was at that time still in the possession of a member of the Taylor family in Orange County, Virginia.

Evaluating the Evidence

Three interrelated questions are raised by these two objects:

  1. Was the crest used by President Taylor’s family, if not by him personally, before or during his lifetime (1798-1850)?
  2. Is there a genealogical basis for the use of this crest by the President’s family?
  3. Is there a coat of arms with which the crest can be associated?

Unfortunately, answering these questions adequately requires sifting fact from a large amount of fiction, and doing so more thoroughly than is possible with the available evidence. The task is complicated by the fact that within two years of Crozier’s mention of the seal ring in Virginia Heraldica, the first of several romanticized version of the Taylor crest had found its way into a book about Americans of supposed royal ancestry, Of Sceptred Race, by the same Anna (or Annah) Robinson Watson mentioned above. Matters are only made worse by faulty, and perhaps fraudulent pedigrees of various English Taylor families published in the Burke’s series of heraldic and genealogical reference books and even recorded with the English College of Arms in the early 19th century. 

This is not the place to unsnarl the tangled histories of the various Taylor families; we shall stick to what we can deduce about the heraldry. As noted above, the appearance of the crest on a snuff box known to have been owned by Zachary Taylor’s eldest son places the use of the crest by the family within 30 years of the President’s death, but without knowing the date the box was made and engraved, we can say no more than that. 

The problem with the ring is similar. We have it on reasonable authority that the ring had been in the family for at least a couple of generations as of 1908, but how many? Family lore has it that it was brought to America by the President’s immigrant ancestor, James Taylor, who arrived in Virginia in the mid-1600s, but that is probably not the case. It would have been quite unusual for a seal ring made during or before this period to show only a crest rather than the full coat of arms. From the style of the emblazonment, it would seem more likely that the ring was made sometime after 1780 or so, possibly much later. The quotation above from Anna Robinson Watson, if correct, would tend to bear this out, dating the ring to the lifetime of the President’s brother Hancock (1781-1841) at the latest. Unfortunately, certain details of Mrs. Watson’s account don’t seem to add up. For one thing, Hancock Taylor apparently had no sons named Charles or Erasmus. Furthermore, the 1999 soc.genealogy.medieval posting quoted above cites a jeweler who had examined the ring as saying that the crest is cut into a stone of German origin. It seems most unlikely that a Virginia planter circa 1800 would order a seal ring from Germany rather than commissioning it from a jeweler in Baltimore or Philadelphia or ordering it from London. And the photograph of the ring in the Seebold book, shown above, appears to show the crest engraved directly into the gold, not cut on a stone. Are there two rings? If so, which is the original? Again, if there are hallmarks or maker’s marks on the ring (or rings), expert examination of them might permit more reliable dating. Absent that, it is difficult to judge the the ring’s reliablity as evidence.

On the other hand, other anomalies in the story actually could be interpreted as lending credence to the Taylors’ early use of this crest.

First, and most striking, is that the above accounts of the snuff box and the seal ring actually describe two different crests. Dr. Grinnan says that the engraving on General Dick Taylor’s snuff box “corresponds closely” (although he doesn’t say it is identical) to that of the English Taylors of Pennington, Hampshire. As Grinnan correctly states, this family bears as crest an armored arm grasping a javelin, or lance. By contrast, Crozier accurately describes the design on the seal ring–a naked arm grasping what is unmistakably an arrow, not a lance–yet repeats the attribution to the Taylors of Pennington. Moreover, he unfortunately tacks the word “castle” onto the end of his description. Pennington Castle is not in Hampshire but in Cumberland. From this mistake, Mrs. Watson and her successors seem to have deduced that the American Taylors were descendants of a line of Earls of Pennington (a title that never existed) and to have come from the vicinity of Carlisle–a place of origin for which there seems to be not a shred of evidence other than this mistaken location of Pennington. 

But whatever the correct location of Pennington, the reality is that the crest on the Taylor seal ring doesn’t belong to that family anyway, but rather to the Taylors (or Taylours) of Castle Bective in County Meath, Ireland. This family had been established in Sussex before moving to Ireland in 1653, at roughly the time Zachary Taylor’s ancestor James was immigrating to Virginia. There may have been some distant relationship between this family and the Pennington line, as is suggested by a marked similarity in their arms and the identity of their mottoes, but the genealogical gaps are too great to say for certain. In any case, the progeny of the Irish house achieved considerable rank and fame over the course of the 18th century, with a string of successive Thomas Taylours being made baronets in 1704, Barons Headfort in 1760, Viscounts Headfort two years later, and Earls of Bective in 1766. Finally, the fifth consecutive Thomas Taylour was named Marquess of Headfort in 1800. 

Now the full heraldic details and the claimed pedigrees of both the Bective Castle and Pennington Taylors were well known long before the American Taylors’ use of this crest was first brought to light in 1893. The blazons of the various arms appeared in Thomas Robson’s British Herald as early as 1830, and the pedigrees in various volumes of John and Bernard Burke’s heraldic and genealogical series from 1832 onward. 

Normally, when a family cannot show it used armorial bearings before those bearings are widely published, it raises the suspicion that the arms were simply pirated from a listing for a family of the same name. But if this was what the Taylors had done, why would the erroneous attribution of the crest to the Pennington family have taken such strong root almost immediately after Dr. Grinnan suggested it? It is possible that Dick Taylor’s snuff-box actually did show an armored arm holding a lance–its location is unknown and no photograph has come to light–but the seal ring clearly does not. One might suppose that the appeal of kinship with the mythical Earls of Pennington was too much to resist, but a correct and easily determined identification of the crest as that of a genuine marquess would seem to have been only that much more attractive. Yet it is only in the very recent past that this error seems to have been noted.

Secondly, if someone in the Taylor family had simply ordered a ring with the crest of some randomly selected Taylor (an item which any number of London stationers or engravers would have been more than ready to supply for the asking), why would there have been a belief in the family that the crest had come to the Taylors through the Thompson line in 1698? 

Finally, while the creation of fanciful pedigrees by which title could be claimed to heraldic bearings was not at all unusual in the late 19th century, it almost invariably involved a claim to a full coat of arms. Yet nowhere is their any evidence that the Taylors ever made a claim either to the arms granted to the Taylours of Bective in 1668, Ermine on a chief Gules a fleur-de-lis between two boars’ heads couped and erect Or, or the similar arms of the Pennington line,Ermine a lion rampant guardant Azure on a chief embattled Gules a fleur-de-lis Or between two boars’ heads erect Argent.

While none of these anomalies allow us to take at face value the traditional claims of the use of this crest by the earliest generations of Taylors in America, they do raise enough questions that we cannot dismiss such use out of hand. The parentage of the immigrant James Taylor is as yet unknown, but he does seem to have been a man of either means or connections or both, considering how quickly he and his family fit in with the upper tier of Virginia society of the day. It is just possible that he and the future Marquesses of Headfort shared some unknown forebear, an anonymous ancestor who first made use of the crest of a naked arm clutching an arrow. Perhaps someday the dénouement of this mystery will yet be written.

Arms of the Marquess of Headfort Source: Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 1832

Arms of the Marquess of Headfort
Source: Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, 1832

Sources

  • Burke, John. General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire. London, 1832.
  • Burke, John. Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain. London, 1838.
  • “Coats of Arms in Virginia.” William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Papers, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Oct 1893), pp. 133-35 (accessed from JSTOR).
  • Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. 1909; rpt. New York: Bonanza Books, 1978.
  • Fry, J. Reese. A Life of Gen. Zachary Taylor. Philadelphia, 1848.
  • Robson, Thomas. The British Herald. Sunderland, 1830.
  • Seebold, Herman de B. Old Louisiana Plantation Homes and Family Trees. Vol. 2. New Orleans: Pelican Press, 1941 (accessed from Ancestry.com).
  • Watson, Annah Robinson. Of Sceptred Race. Memphis: Early, 1910.
  • Wingfield, Marshall. A History of Caroline County, Virginia. Richmond: Trevvey Christian, 1924 (accessed from Ancestry.com).