Friday, February 1, 2013

Stars and Stripes - Origins

In my effort to track down the origins and significance of the American stars and stripes, I have come across a number of interesting heraldic observations.

1. The colors and symbols in the stars and stripes have different meanings:
White or silver (Argent) Peace and sincerityBlue (Azure) Truth and loyaltyStars (mullets - five-pointed stars with a hole in the center)  - Divine quality from above; mark of third sonRed (Gules) stripes - Warrior or martyr; Military strength and magnanimity [].
2. A family coat of arms did not in the Middle Ages imply that a family was in the noble class.
The regulation of English heraldry between 1530 and 1688 has led many writers to project back into the Middle Ages concepts and beliefs of later times. In particular, one often sees the claim made that, in Medieval England, arms were restricted to the knightly class, or at least to the gentry. Furthermore, by equating gentry with nobility, some reach the conclusion that arms were restricted to the nobility [].
3. One of the arguments against the stars and stripes being connected to George Washington's family coat of arms is that GW was a modest man who professed disdain for the trappings of office. But he used his coat of arms a great deal (more than any other president) and coats of arms are not mentioned in the Constitution. Titles are forbidden (Article 1, Sections 9-10), but that is all: 
No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state. No state shall...grant any title of nobility [].                

4. Rick Snider in his blog "Monumental Thoughts" last October referred to a story that the two stripes on George Washington's Coat of Arms - which is also the flag of the District of Columbia - date back to a battle between the Danes and the English in 979 during which the Danish king was killed. The English king honored the soldier who slew the Danish king by dipping two fingers into a wound on the Dane, and drawing two lines across the shield of the soldier.
A private in the English army killed an invading Danish king in 979 A.D. The onlooking English king rewarded the soldier with a coat of arms. The king dipped two fingers in the dead monarch’s blood and ran them straight across the soldier’s shield. Thus, the two stripes. The three stars were added later. 
However, I was unable to find any corroboration of this story. At the Harvard Club memorial service for the author Bob Crichton (The Secret of Santa Vittoria etc.), cartoonist Jules Feiffer in his eulogy said that Crichton's motto, given that he was a fiction writer, was - "Never check an interesting fact." Proof of the danger of fact-checking is that this wonderful story of the two red stripes on Washington's coat of arms is not backed up by any reports of a battle in 979, or a record of a Danish king dying in battle. For example:
During the 10th century (the 900s), the individual kingdoms unified under the rule of Wessex into the Kingdom of England, which stood opposed to the Danelaw, the Viking kingdoms established from the 9th century in the north and east of England. The Kingdom of England fell in the Viking invasion from Denmark in 1013... 
[The year 979 occurs] during the reign of Ethelred II (reigned 978–1016)—known to posterity as Ethelred the Unready. A new wave of Danish invasions was orchestrated by Sweyn I of Denmark, culminating after a quarter of a century of warfare in the Danish conquest of England in AD 1013. But Sweyn died on 2 February 1014 and Ethelred was restored to the throne. In 1015, Sweyn's son King Canute launched a new invasion. The ensuing war ended with an agreement in 1016 between Canute and Ethelred's successor, Edmund Ironside, to divide England between them, but Edmund's death on 30 November of that year left England united under Danish rule. This continued for 26 years until the death of Harthacanute in June 1042. He was the son of Canute and Emma of Normandy (the widow of Ethelred the Unready), and had no heirs of his own; he was succeeded by his half-brother, Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor. The Kingdom of England was once again independent. [Wikipedia on "Danish kings of England".]
I'm continuing to hunt. Surely someone didn't just make up the story about the Danish king?