Official Birthday of the British Monarch

United Kingdom

Today (ed. yesterday, due to technical issues) is the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. It’s not the day she was actually born, but an official holiday. The tradition of two birthdays was started by Edward VII. His actual date of birth was in November, which is not the best time for a public celebration. So he opted to pick a day in June that would hopefully have less terrible weather. Most British monarchs whose birthdays fell during the less pleasant months followed the tradition.

The arms borne by Elizabeth II do not differ significantly from those borne by Victoria; the one major difference is the Irish harp is now a plainer form rather than the older winged woman. Elizabeth made the change in 1952 due to personal preference.

The three basic elements of England, Scotland, and Ireland have shared a shield (albeit often with other arms) since the personal union of James I and VI in 1603. This is also, not coincidentally, around the same time that the line of monarchs began using different arms in Scotland; James bore per quarterly I and IV Scotland, II per quarterly France and England, III Ireland. The current royal arms of the United Kingdom take the same form in Scotland, with the omission of the French arms. (For the record – the British monarchs did not yield their claim to the French throne, or their use of the French arms, until 1801, which is still remarkable to me.)

The Scottish version of the achievement also transposes the lion and the unicorn supporters, placing the Scottish unicorn on the dexter (more prominent) side and adding an imperial crown. The supporters also bear banners of their respective nations’ crosses; St. Andrew (azure a saltire argent) for Scotland, and St. George (argent a cross gules) for England. Finally – although there are numerous other small differences – the crest on the Scottish version is a lion sejant affronté gules armed and langued azure, royally crowned holding in the dexter paw a sword and in the sinister a sceptre, all proper.

I don’t want to go into too much depth on Hanover’s incorporation into the national arms, since I’ve already covered those monarchical variations in pretty significant depth while walking through the Burkes’ royal armory, but suffice to say that between 1714 and 1837, the British arms included either a quarter or an escutcheon of pretense with the arms of Hanover, to reflect the kings’ titles in the Holy Roman/Austrian Empire. It is specifically the kings who used the Hanoverian arms, since by definition, a woman could not inherit the land – and when Victoria became queen in 1837, she didn’t, which gives us nearly the same arms Elizabeth II uses today.

Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Day

Today is the wonderfully named Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Day – I love the emphasis on how they were an independent nation before the USSR, thankyouverymuch. On March 11th, 1990, Lithuania became the first Baltic state to break away from the Soviet Union, so congrats to them on 30 years of reinstated independence, and let’s take a look at their arms!


Blazon: Gules a knight armed and armored mounted on a horse salient argent, caparisoned azure, ornamented gules; bearing a sword proper and a shield of the second, a cross patriarchal of the third

Supporters: On the dexter a griffin and on the sinister a unicorn argent, armed or, langued gules

The Lithuanian coat of arms (or the arms of the Lithuanian ruler) has remained pretty consistent since its first appearance in 1366, attributed to the Grand Duke Algirdas. It continued to appear on 14th-century coins and seals. The positioning of the knight and horse, and the overall tinctures were established by the beginning of the 15th century. 

(The charge of the knight and horse has a specific name in Lithuanian – Vytis. There are, of course, numerous theories behind this – it could be derived from the verb “to chase,” from a Slavic title of “knight,” etc.)

The knight’s shield didn’t quite settle until the 16th century. It’s not entirely clear why the cross patriarchal was selected – it could be a reference to the Hungarian cross, or possibly to Ladislaus II Jogaila’s conversion to Catholicism. I find the former explanation more credible; the cross patriarchal tends to be associated with the Orthodox, not Catholic church. 

Aside from some minor modifications in the depictions, the arms stuck around even after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795. (Okay, technically the arms were abolished, but the arms they were awarded instead are basically the same except for the shield and the tincture of the horse’s trappings. Why fix what isn’t broken?) Unsurprisingly, the Vytis became a symbol of national pride and, often, resistance to foreign rule. When Lithuania broke away from the Russian Empire in the late nineteen-teens, the arms became extremely popular, despite not having an official version. I’m not clear if the Republic of Lithuania ever established an official version, but the basics don’t ever seem to have been in question. 

Unfortunately, in 1940 – say it with me – the USSR annexed Lithuania and replaced its national symbols with the bog-standard Soviet heraldry. Wheat, sun, hammer and sickle, five-pointed star, the works. Interestingly, as part of the slow liberal thaw in the late 80s, display of the previous national arms was re-legalized in 1988 – two years before the country broke with the Soviet Union. They didn’t waste any time readopting their beloved arms; the Vytis was returned to his place of honor on March 20th, 1990.


Bulgarian National Day


Blazon: Gules a lion rampant crowned or

Crest: The crown of the Second Bulgarian Empire proper

Supporters: Two lions rampant crowned or

Compartment: Two oak branches in saltire vert fructed or

Motto: Съединението прави силата (Strength through Unity)

Before we get into things, there is absolutely no way I cannot include the earliest known depiction of royal arms for Bulgaria, circa 1294, which probably belonged to Smilets, tsar from 1292 to 1298. The depiction included in the Lord Marshal’s Roll is absolutely hysterical, and also bears a broad similarity to the eventual national arms:


(This has to be one of my favorite terrible heraldic lions ever. It’s awful. I love it so much.)

Anyway. It seems like Bulgaria didn’t have any formal national arms for several centuries. They may just have used the personal arms of whoever was tsar at the time, or various heraldic writers recorded (or made up) different configurations and colors of lions. The gold-on-red seems to have come into common use by the eighteenth century, and became a useful rallying symbol for the new Bulgarian nationalist movement. The center escutcheon seems to have remained fairly consistent, although the shield ornaments (mantle? supporters? crown? compartment?) fluctuated quite a bit until they settled into supporters, compartment, and motto in 1927. The tsars were also permitted to use these as personal arms… at least, until the coup d’état in 1944.

Fortunately (from a heraldic perspective), even the Soviets didn’t screw this one up too badly, although I have no idea why a lion rampant that was specifically used by the tsars was an acceptable motif. Apparently removing the crown and adding a gear wheel in base was communist enough? I don’t know.

Apparently, whoever was in charge of reinstating the coat of arms in 1991 didn’t learn from history. Again, the central escutcheon stayed the same, while debate continued around the ornaments and general appearance of the achievement. (The Bulgarian government apparently has very strong opinions on heraldic design. Part of me wonders if there’s really not anything better on which to expend time and effort; part of me deeply approves.) Eventually, in 1997, they settled on the (first) design above.

Fiesta Nacional de España

There are actually two important Spanish holidays on this date; the Fiesta Nacional, chosen to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Americas, and the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar. The former might be more official, but the latter is apparently more popular culturally – understandable in a majority-Catholic country. She is the patron saint of the Civil Guard, and also of the region of Aragon, which provides a nice segue into discussing the Spanish national arms!


Blazon: Per quarterly, I gules a castle triple-towered or windowed argent (Castile), II argent a lion rampant purpre crowned or (León), III or four palets gules (Aragon), IV gules a chain in saltire, cross, and orle or, charged with a center point vert (Navarre); enté en point argent a pomegranate slipped, leaved, and seeded proper (Granada); overall in the fess point an escutcheon azure three fleurs-de-lis or within a bordure gules (Bourbon-Anjou)

Supporters: Two columns argent, capitals and bases or, standing on five waves azure and the first, the dexter surmounted by an imperial crown and the sinister the Spanish royal crown proper, and entwined with a ribbon gules charged with “Plus ultra” of the second

The current depiction of the arms was formally granted in 1981, but the individual elements are all very old. The first two quarters of Spain are the best counterargument I’ve ever seen against the idea that canting arms are somehow ‘lesser.’ (Canting arms are arms that are essentially puns on the name of the family, country, etc. – think mountains for Bergs, eels for Ellis, etc.) There’s a weird idea in some heraldic texts that canting arms are less “noble” than non-canting arms. But Spain features three coats of canting arms, beginning with the somewhat obvious Castile and León. 

Castile and León were two of the more powerful states in medieval Spain. They went back and forth between unified and not for a few centuries until they were formally unified under Ferdinand III in 1230. The lion and castle show up in a lot of Spanish arms, usually as quarters or smaller sections, although often the lion will be rendered gules instead of purpre. (Gules is a much more common and easily-rendered tincture in heraldry than purpre.)


The third quarter, the widely-used Bars of Aragon (not bars in the heraldic sense), joined the arms along with the Crown of Aragon when Isabel I of Castile – the several-times-great-granddaughter of Ferdinand III – married Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469. The pomegranate (the third canting element) was added shortly afterwards, perpetually enté en point, after the conquest of Granada was concluded in 1496 and it was added to the Spanish crown. 


It is with immense gratitude that I can skip over the two hundred years of Habsburg rule in Spain, because while their arms are mind-bendingly complicated, none of the several dozen coats with which the Spanish arms were combined stuck around. However, the kings of Spain used the title “King of Navarre” after the War of the League of Cambrai, and some of the variants of the Spanish arms (especially those used in Navarre) incorporated the chain figure, especially as an escutcheon. A smaller version of Navarre officially survived as an independent kingdom until they were incorporated into Spain in 1833, which is also when the Navarre arms start showing up as a full quarter in the Spanish royal arms.


The last of the current elements of the Spanish arms appear when Philip V inherited the Spanish throne in 1700. Philip was a Bourbon – specifically, of the cadet line of the dukes of Anjou. Because everyone in European royal circles was pretty inbred at this point, his arms as the King of Spain also included Austria, Burgundy, and Flanders, among others. However, he bore the arms of Anjou in an escutcheon, and that’s stuck around since then. My theory is that they’ve also stayed in the escutcheon due to the agreement laid out in the Peace of Utrecht that the French and Spanish crowns would never be unified. Because of that, the Spanish monarchs could only “pretend” to the French throne, and never have any territorial claim.


Finally, while the unique supporters aren’t quite canting, I think they’re worth a mention. They are, specifically, the Pillars of Hercules, which flank the Strait of Gibraltar, i.e. Spain’s gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. The motto “Plus ultra,” or “Farther beyond,” is a reference to the legend that the pillars were carved with “Non plus ultra” to warn seafarers to stay on the side of the strait without (as many) storms and sea monsters and other such dangers. The removal of the negative is a nice nod to Spain’s history as a seafaring and exploratory nation.

Armenian Independence Day

In honor of the twenty-eighth anniversary of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, I figured we’d take a look at their highly symbolic coat of arms:


There’s a lot going on here, so let’s go bit by bit, in roughly chronological order.

First of all, in the escutcheon, there’s a depiction of Mount Ararat with Noah’s Ark. Though this was possibly a mistranslation, tradition holds that the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, which is also Armenia’s national symbol. In one shape or another, Mount Ararat has featured on Armenian arms and seals consistently since 1918. Even the Soviets kept the iconography, which ought to say something about its deep national importance.

We venture from myth into (distant) history with the Artaxiad dynasty, symbolized by the dexter base quarter. The Artaxids ruled from 189 BCE through 20 BCE, when Armenia became a Roman protectorate. The last Artaxid client king was overthrown in 12 CE. The two eagles and the eight-pointed star is a fairly well-established emblem of this dynasty – somewhat surprisingly, given its antiquity. From the examples here, it’s pretty clearly a star; I’m not sure how it ended up as an octofoil on the arms, which is typically a more floral shape. (I will say that the artists who designed the arms seem to have played around with the tinctures of the fields; the author in the linked article makes a pretty good argument that the ground for the Artaxiads should have been gules instead of azure, and a prior version of the arms had the same charges, but with the opposite tincture for the field.)

Moving on to the sinister chief quarter, we see the very common symbol of the double-headed eagle. This is apparently intended to represent the Arsacid dynasty, who ruled from 52 to 428 CE, and included the first Christian ruler of Armenia. I’m a little skeptical of the attribution of the double-headed eagle to the Arsacids for a couple of reasons: first, proof of what kind of symbols they used (if any) is thin on the ground, and second, the double-headed eagle is so, so commonly affiliated with the Roman (and later Byzantine) Empire that it’s hard for me to believe that association didn’t have any influence on this choice of charge. I am willing to believe that the Arsacids got it from the Romans, and passed it on here, but they were originally Parthian, so I’m not sure how well that holds up.

The dexter chief quarter, the lion and cross, was the symbol of the Bagratuni dynasty. They came to power in 861, when Ashot I was recognized as Prince of Princes by the Baghdad caliphate, and hung on until 1045, when the Byzantine Empire seized control of Armenia. The Bagratid princes evidently used the same device, though it was (possibly) argent on gules. Presumably, the tincture of the charge was sensibly updated to match the other three charges.

Lastly, the sinister base quarter holds the crowned lion and cross-tipped staff of the Rubenid dynasty, who did not actually rule Armenia. Instead, they established an Armenian state in Cilicia (called the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia), which they ruled from 1080 to 1375, when the Mamluks conquered the state. The Rubenid arms were or a lion rampant gules armed, langued, and crowned argent; if I had to speculate, the staff may have come from the kingdom’s allyship with the other Crusader states. The Rubenids also claimed descent from the Bagratunis, though this would be very difficult to prove.

I know this is long, but I can’t not talk, albeit briefly, about the elements surrounding the shield. The supporters, the eagle of the Artaxiads and the lion of the Bagratunis, mirror the charges on the shield. The elements of the compartment were all chosen for specific symbolic reasons, which I think are worth going through. The sword in pale is for power and strength; the broken chain, the struggle for national freedom; the wheat, hard work and industry; the feather, culture and intellectual heritage; and the ribbon, the Armenian flag, whose colors are represented in the arms. (Hence, I suspect, the unusual use of orange in the arms.)

Arms of Prince Albert Edward

Edward VII

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

The text gives the blazon as follows: “the Royal Arms, differenced by a label of three points and an escutcheon of pretence, for Saxony, viz. barry of ten, sable and argent, a bend treflé vert.”

I was so distracted by the fuckup on the charge of Saxony last week (seriously, how is that a cross? It’s a bend! It’s obviously a bend!) that I missed the other glaring fuckup in the blazon: sable and argent? It’s or! Saxony has never involved argent at all! Argh. Also worth noting is the escutcheon of pretense; we typically see these in the arms of men married to heiresses, but here, it indicates that Edward is also an heir to Saxony, though as a kingdom, the UK takes precedence over a duchy.

The Burkes, bless their status-obsessed little hearts, very carefully place the at-the-time infant Prince Albert Edward (who will, eventually, become Edward VII) above his father due to his status as heir apparent. Victoria and Albert’s first child, Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, gets her label placed just below her younger brother and just above her father, as second in line to the throne. Despite the fact that this edition was republished in 1844, it doesn’t look like anyone added the arms (or even the label) of Princess Alice, born 1843. Next week, we’ll take a look at a whole bunch of fancy labels that differentiated all the many princes and princesses of the United Kingdom in 1842.

Arms of Prince Albert

Prince Albert

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

The Burkes give the blazon as follows:

“Quarterly, first and fourth, the Royal Arms, differenced by a label of three points, on the center point a cross gules; second and third, barry of ten, sable and argent, a cross treflé vert, for Saxony.

Supporters – Two lions rampant or, crowned proper each charged on the shoulder with a label as in the arms.”

Okay, first off, because I can’t not point it out: the charge of Saxony is not, and never has been a cross treflé (or botony, as I typically prefer.) It’s a ducal coronet (embowed or not might be a point of dispute), but it’s…. definitely not a cross. The arms of Saxony aren’t hard to find, and this is a second edition of the text, and this particular slip-up isn’t mentioned in the errata, AND they blazon it correctly (or anyway, less wrongly) on literally the same page, so I’m gonna have to blame shitty editing here. Like, come on, that is demonstrably not a cross. The artist got it right, at least.

Also, the label is worth a word. English royalty tend to use labels with differences to distinguish between the inevitably numerous heirs to the throne. We’ll see more of this a bit later on, since the Burkes have included depictions of the labels for many of the other members of the royal family. You will probably notice that Albert has a label with a difference (the cross gules) instead of the undifferentiated label of three points. This is due to the fact that, as Prince Consort, he wasn’t actually first in line to the throne. That honor goes to his and Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, whom we’ll look at next week.

Arms of Queen Victoria


The Burkes give the royal blazon as follows: 

Arms – Quarterly, first and fourth, gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or, for England; second, or, a lion rampant within a double tressure, flory, counterflory gules for Scotland; azure a harp or, stringed argent for Ireland; all surrounded by the Garter.

Crest – England – Upon the royal helmet, the imperial crown proper thereon a lion statant, guardant or, imperially crowned, also proper.

Supporters – Dexter, a lion rampant guardant or, crowned as the crest. Sinister, an unicorn argent armed, crined, and ungled or, gorged with a coronet composed of crosses pattée and fleurs-de-lis, a chain affixed thereto, passing between the forelegs, and reflexed over the back, also or.

Crest – Scotland – On an imperial crown proper a lion sejant affrontée gules imperially crowned or, holding in the dexter paw a sword, and in the sinister a sceptre erect, also proper.

Crest – Ireland – On a wreath, or and azure a castle, triple-towered, gold, a hart argent springing from the gate.

I’ve written out the abbreviations used – gu. into gules, pass. into passant, etc. but everything else is copied directly. I can’t quibble with the actual content of the blazon, although I would use a lot fewer commas. I’m also not sure why they give the blazons for the crests of Scotland and Ireland, but good to know, I guess.

The depictions of the royal arms are excellent examples of nineteenth-century heraldic art; whatever else I can say about the Burkes, they got some pretty good and period-typical heraldic artists. I’m planning on posting the rest of the complete achievements given for the royal family, as well as some of the labels, and possibly a few of the simple arms given for former monarchs.

Arms of Birmingham, England


Granted 1977

Blazon: Per quarterly I and IV azure a bend of five lozenges conjoined or, II and III per pale indented or and gules, overall on a cross ermine a mitre proper

Crest: On a wreath or and azure issuant from a mural crown or charged with a Tudor rose a dexter arm embowed holding a hammer all proper

Supporters: On the dexter a figure representing Art proper vested argent wreathed with laurel vert tied by a riband gules, holding in the sinister hand resting on the shield a book bound of the last and in the dexter a palette with two brushes proper; on the sinister a figure representing Industry habited as a smith, holding in the dexter hand resting on the shield a cupel and in the sinister a hammer resting on an anvil all proper

Mantling: Azure lined or

Motto: Forward

Both coats quartered here were used by the de Bermingham family at various points in time. The family also quartered the coats, but in opposite quarters; the city changed the order for difference. The city was previously granted arms in 1889, which used a fess ermine instead of a cross, and a mural crown instead of a mitre. The supporters in the previous arms were also reversed, with Industry on the dexter and Art on the sinister.

Arms of the borough of Amber Valley

Amber Valley

Derbyshire, England

Granted 1989

Blazon: Vert a pale wavy or within a bordure argent charged with five horseshoes sable, on a chief of the second between two lozenges a cresset sable fired proper

Crest: On a wreath of the colors the battlements of a tower proper issuant therefrom between two croizers or an oak tree also proper fructed and ensigned by a crown of fleurs-de-lis of the first

Supporters: On the dexter a unicorn argent armed and crined or gorged with a collar pendant therefrom a cross flory gules; on the sinister a leopard proper gorged with a collar gules pendant therefrom a fleur-de-lis or

Mantling: Vert lined or

Motto: Per laborem progredimur (By hard work we progress)

The pale wavy evidently represents the river Amber, while the lozenges and cresset symbolize the coal and iron industries. The horseshoes on the bordure are taken from (one of the versions of) the arms of the Ferrers family.