George Washington's Coat of Arms
A Link With England
Legend tells that the flag of the United States of America was inspired in part by the coat of arms of its first President, George Washington. Washington's family had borne a coat of arms for several centuries, and he did not consider that ancient aristocratic tradition to be in conflict with the ideals of the Republic.
The first President of the United States may have led, and won, a rebellion against monarchy, but until the end of his life he used the symbols of his ancestors' service under the King of England.
George Washington's coat of arms, inherited from a twelfth-century knight, are found today in dozens of devices used by military units, churches, and universities. They constitute an ancient, unbroken link with the mother country.
An Ancient Family
The Washingtons of Virginia traced their descent back to Sir William de Hertburn, who became lord of the village of Wessyngton in 1183, changing his name to William de Wessyngton. "Wessyngton" became "Washington" over time, and the town of Washington still stands near Sunderland, England.
These were the days of armored knights, and each one painted his shield with a colorful device and wore a tall wooden and leather crest on his helmet so he could be recognized in battles and tournaments.
The early Washingtons used several different devices, including a lion and a version with a red background and silver stars and bars. Finally they settled on a silver shield with three red five-pointed stars ("mullets") over two red horizontal bars.
In the language of heraldry, these arms were blazoned (described) as "Argent, two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second."
This achievement of arms above is copied from a bookplate used by George Washington. An "achievement" is an ornamental display of arms. The time had long passed when the shield and crest had a practical use for identification on the battlefield - now they had become decorative symbols of ancestry.
The shield is an exaggerated jousting shield, with a notch on the side to rest a lance. Jousting shields were thought to be more attractive than plain heater shields, and the shape certainly lends itself to elaborate ornamentation.
On top of the shield is a bird emerging from a coronet. Sources identify it as an eagle or a raven, but Washington himself called it "a griffin flying". He didn't use supporters--human or animal figures holding the shield. It has a stylized floral background.
Below the shield is a motto on a scroll: "Exitus acta probat", Latin for "The result justifies the deed". I wonder if Washington adopted that motto as a reference to the triumphant result of his rebellion against the King of England?
Washington Old Hall
Original Home of the Washington Family
Washington's Use of Heraldry
"It is far from my design to intimate an opinion, that Heraldry, Coat-Armor, etc. might not be rendered conducive to public and private use with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of Republicanism."
~~~ George Washington, Letter to William Barton
Washington enjoyed using the arms that had been passed down from his ancestors. He had them painted on his coach, and engraved on personal items like canes, cups, and spoons - including a full set of silverware. He owned several seal rings with his arms; seal rings were used to press an image into the hot wax that sealed a letter shut.
In 1791, Washington engaged in a lengthy correspondence with the Garter King or Arms, the chief official over heraldic usage in England, and several of his own relatives, regarding the usage of their arms in America. They agreed that the arms the Washington family in Virginia used were the same as the ones found on buildings in the North of England.
The famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington contains many symbols and allusions. You can see the Washington arms engraved on the side of the inkwell.
Arms Inspired by Washington's
There is no written evidence, but many people believe that the stars and strips on the American flag are an homage to those on the arms of the first President. Considering his immense popularity, and his public use of the arms - on the side panels of his carriage, for instance - it is a likely enough conjecture.
Washington had no children to inherit his arms, but they are found in many heraldic devices in the United States. The District of Columbia uses his arms as the official flag, and they are incorporated in the devices of several churches and universities.
The most famous use of his arms is in the medal for the Purple Heart, awarded to soldiers wounded in combat. General Washington devised the award, made of purple cloth, and awarded it to three meritorious soldiers during the Revolution. The modern medal bears his profile and shield of arms.
- Revolutionary War - George Washington and Genealogy
Washington's correspondence with Sir Isaac Heard, Garter Principal King of Arms of England, on the subject of his family's arms.
- Washington's Arms and the Stars and Stripes -- Believe!
An argument for the view that the Stars and Stripes were inspired by the first President's arms.
- The Portrait - George Washington: A National Treasure
Close-ups and analysis of the symbols in the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, which include his arms on the inkwell.
- George Washington, 1st President of the United States
Detailed discussion of the development of Washington's arms, from The American Heraldry Society.
- Mount Vernon
A room-by-room tour of George Washington's home.
- Washington, Sunderland
History of the Washington family seat.
- George Washington's Lineage
Brief biographies of each of Washington's direct paternal ancestors.
© 2014 Valerie Proctor Davis