Happy Portugal Day!


Blazon: Argent within a bordure gules charged with seven castles or, five escutcheons in cross azure, on each as many plates in saltire

I do really love the gradual evolution of the Portugese coat of arms; in some ways, that’s a more appealing way to trace a nation’s history than a more-or-less static coat of arms.

The story of the Portugese national arms begins around 1096 when Henry of Burgundy became Henry, Count of Portugal by agreement with his cousin Raymond. Traditionally, his arms are given as argent a cross azure. It’s not wholly clear to me whether these were Henry’s actual arms or a later attribution, since heraldic sources for that era were thin on the ground. Even if it is the latter, I’m willing to cut them a bit of slack on this, since it’s such a neat visual predecessor to the current arms. The cross turned into five escutcheons semé of plates either in 1139, when Afonso Henriques became Afonso I of Portugal, or shortly thereafter under his son Sancho I.

The bordure gules semé of castles or was added as a mark of cadency when Afonso III contested his brother Sancho II’s claim to the throne. The castles probably referred to the fact that his mother, Urraca, was a daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile. Apparently Afonso liked the bordure, since he preserved it in his arms when he finally did become king in 1247. 

For a brief period of time, the bordure also incorporated crosses flory vert (or one large cross flory vert, interposed between the bordure and the rest of the shield, so the four points of the cross appeared on the bordure) as a nod to John I’s former role as the master of the Order of Aviz. However, John’s great-grandson, John II, made a number of changes to the royal arms, including removing the cross flory, fixing the number of plates on each shield at five, positioned in saltire, and the number of castles on the bordure at seven. 

Somewhat unusually, the arms have remained unchanged since then (mercifully escaping the visual scourge that was the Napoleonic era in heraldry). While the crest, supporter(s), and motto shifted from time to time, the escutcheon itself had basically reached its modern form, and the arms were readopted with a virtually identical blazon by the Portugese Republic when it was established in 1911.

And, of course, would they really be national arms if there weren’t a number of just-so stories explaining the purported symbolism of the charges? Depending on who you ask, the escutcheons represent the five wounds of Christ on the cross (head, feet, arms, and heart), Afonso Henriques’ five wounds from the Battle of Ourique, which formed the basis of Portugal’s ascendancy to a kingdom, or the five Muslim kings that were defeated in that battle. (Another legend about the battle claims the crucified Jesus appeared to Afonso before the battle, promising him victory.) The plates are said to symbolize either the silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Jesus – an odd decision for a very Catholic country – the ability of the Portugese kings to coin their own money, or the nails that held the torn scraps of blue leather to Afonso Henriques’ ruined shield after Ourique. Please do note that there is no evidence whatsoever for any of these claims, and I relate them purely for entertainment’s sake.

Arms of Belinchón, Spain


Granted 1996

Blazon: Per pale argent an archiepiscopal cross or ensigned by a galero of ten tassels vert and gules a pile of salt; all within a bordure of the first charged with the motto “FUERO DE LA VILLA DE BELINCHÓN. 1171” of the second

Setting aside the violations of the law of tincture, which no one was paying much attention to in the 1990s, I’m delighted that the original grant of these arms does give quite a bit of background on the reasons behind the choices.

The dexter half of the shield displays the regalia of the archbishops of Toledo, who ruled the city for “several centuries.” The galero is more typical of cardinals, but you’ll notice the archbishop’s galero is not red and has one fewer row of tassels – ten on each side, rather than fifteen. (I just want to point out that this depiction of the cross is almost certainly incorrect; the blazon refers specifically to a double cross, which is the archiepiscopal form; the three bars, as depicted here, are the papal cross, which, as the name implies, is only used by the Roman Catholic pope.)

The salt on the sinister side of the shield is a reference to the local salt flats – an extremely valuable resource dating back to Roman times – and the motto on the bordure cites the date the town was incorporated by Cerebruno de Poitiers, archbishop of Toledo from 1166 through 1180.

Arms of Barajas de Melo, Spain

BArajas de Melo

Granted 1988

Blazon: Gules in the dexter, a crescent decrescent argent and a lion rampant or and in the sinister, a cross patriarchal throughout of the second between six plates; all within a bordure of the last

The dexter half of the arms feature the arms of the city of Huete, which had jurisdiction over Barajas de Melo until 1553. The sinister half show the former arms of the house of Melo de Portugal; Francisco Melo de Portugal held dominion over the town sometime in the mid-1600s. It’s possible the plates are an adaptation of the plates in the royal arms of Portugal, but I might be reaching on that. It does look like the Melos changed over to using a combination of Portugal and Sicily in the late 1700s, the better to emphasize their connection to royalty.

Arms of Aude, France


In use since at least 2007

Blazon: Gules a cross of Toulouse or within a bordure embattled argent

This is a tricky one; it doesn’t seem to be a Robert Louis coat, nor does it appear to be official, so I really don’t have a good way of dating it. The cross of Toulouse, of course, is the historical and current symbol of Occitanie, the department’s administrative region. (There are a lot of crosses of Toulouse in Southern France.) One of my favorite sources speculates that the bordure embattled could be a reference to the walls of Carcassonne, the capital of the department. I’m not sure how credible this is; if it were a Robert Louis design, or even a twentieth-century one, this could be a fairly plausible explanation. But… Aude is one of the departments created in 1790, during the administrative reforms of the French Revolution. If the arms really do go back that far, I’d be somewhat more skeptical of the symbolic rationale.

Arms of Richard FitzJohn


(? – 1297) from the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1300)

Blazon: Quarterly or and gules a bordure vair

I don’t have a whole lot on Richard, unfortunately. He does seem to be the son of John FitzGeoffrey and Isabel le Bigod, and he may have had two brothers, Matthew and John. If he had brothers, they almost certainly predeceased him; otherwise, his sister Joan le Boteler wouldn’t have inherited several manors from him.

Arms of Orne, France


Designed around 1950

Blazon: Per fess gules two lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure and of the last three fleurs-de-lis of the second within a bordure of the first charged with eight plates

I’m not entirely clear on the status of most of the Robert Louis arms, but these are explicitly unofficial. This feels slightly less lazy than some of the other departments, even though it is just a pairing of Normandy’s arms with the county of Alençon, the “capital.” Still, though, it feels like at least a nod to the region’s history and not just… throwing in some azure and wavy partitions to vaguely invoke the sea. These particular arms reflect those of Alençon under the rule of the Capetian house of Valois – hence the royal arms of France within the bordure.

Arms of Rhys ap Tewdwr

Rhys ap Tewdr

(c. 1040 – 1093)

From Encyclopedia of Heraldry by John Burke and John Bernard Burke (1844)

Blazon: Gules a lion rampant within a bordure indented or

This week, we’re going from the almost-historically-grounded arms attributed to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to the absolutely spurious arms attributed to Rhys ap Tewdwr and the House of Dinefwr. It is a pretty common attribution, but given that the power of Dinefwr and their realms of Deheubarth had faded considerably by the time heraldry started to gain traction in Wales, I’m somewhat skeptical that these arms have any basis in historical fact.

Anyway. Given that Rhys ap Tewdwr died in literally the eleventh century, we don’t have a whole lot of information about him. He was descended from Rhodri the Great via Cadell ap Rhodri and Hywel Dda. His last wife, Gwladys ferch Rhiwallon of Powys, had a daughter named Nest, whose descendants include the families of FitzGerald and de Barry. Unfortunately, Rhys’ death led to the breakup of his lands, with his heir Gruffydd ending up with some, and the Normans ending up with a whole lot more.

Arms of Alcalá de la Vega, Spain

Alcala de la Vega

In use since at least 2010

Blazon: Gules a tower or within a bordure azure charged with four trees proper; pointé in base argent a cross paté of the first

The tower is probably a representation of the ruins of an Arab castle, formerly called al-Qala. It’s old enough that we don’t know exactly when it was built, but it’s referenced in an 872 document. The same document also notes that the area is densely wooded with stone pine trees that were used for construction and shipbuilding; I’d guess that’s why the arms include trees. The cross gules on a point argent seems like it could be a reference to the 68 or so years that the town spent under direct control of the Templars.

Arms of Joseph Antonio Manso de Velasco

Joseph Antonio Manso de Velasco

Count of Superunda (1688 – 1767)

(Submitted on Tumblr with the message “Merry Christmas!”)

Oh, this is spectacular! I don’t know how well this will go, but I’ll give it a shot! The sinister half of the arms are definitely those of the house of Velasco – I’m going to ignore this weird, weird interpretation of a “bordure of Castile and Leon” – but I couldn’t find anything on the dexter ones. (Admittedly, I haven’t had the time to dig quite as deep.) Given that they’re on the dexter, I suspect they were granted due to something he achieved in his lifetime (possibly the title Count of Superunda, of which he was the first bearer).

Blazon: Per pale, I per fess i per quarterly 1 gules a lion rampant or, 2 azure three towers or, 3 azure a crescent decrescent argent, 4 argent a tree eradicated proper surmounted by a hound (?) courant proper; ii per quarterly 1 and 4 sable a Paschal lamb passant argent, 2 and 3 azure two towers or*; II chequy of fifteen or and vair within a bordure gules charged with four castles azure and as many lions rampant combatant or, alternating (Velasco)

*I cannot quite make out the charge between them; could be a sun in splendor?


Arms of Haute-Vienne, France


Designed before 1965

Blazon: Ermine a bordure gules, overall a fess wavy azure

As another Robert Louis creation, I doubt these arms have been officially adopted. I also don’t have a date for their design, although it obviously has to be before his death. These are essentially the arms of Limousin, Haut-Vienne’s former administrative region, plus a fess wavy azure that presumably represents the Vienne river which gives the region its name. Louis is usually pretty rigorous in his adherence to the laws of tincture; I’m not sure what to make of the azure-on-gules here.