|George Washington's inkwell in |
Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne"
portrait. Note GW arms topped by
griffin crest on sauce-type boat.
At the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, the connection between the Stars and Stripes and George Washington's arms (which are also composed of the heraldic equivalent of stars and stripes) was widely accepted and celebrated.
Some skeptics rained on this parade in the early 1900s. They raised questions about the connection. A century later, on the website platform of the authoritative American Heraldry Society, Joseph McMillan, Director of Research for the Society, dismisses what was once conventional wisdom:
[T]here is not a shred of evidence that the one [Washington's coat of arms] had anything to do with the other [U.S. flag].This ex cathedra judgment continues to mystify me? Why was Mr. McMillan's motivation in placing himself out there on such an unsafe, frail limb?
The fact is, many shreds of evidence are in plain sight. They just don't fit with some people's idea of who George Washington was or who they would have liked him to be. The dominant prejudice seems to be our wish to remember George Washington as a man of the people, not an aristocrat:
- George Washington's love of his family arms might have had to be disguised from the hothead rebels of New England who were opposed to aristocrats, whether in the Mother Country or the colonies.
- The influence his family arms had on the design of the flag might not therefore have been seen as helpful. See #7 below for my take on the Betsy Ross story as misdirection.
- Washington did not want to become a U.S. monarch, when the monarchy in England was the enemy. (Postscript 2017: We may look at monarchy differently these days as we see the placid Queen of England giving continuity and dignity to her country and the Commonwealth that looks up to her, while the United States seems to be losing its way.)
Does it matter whether Washington's arms contributed to the creation of the Stars and Stripes? Yes, it does. When the full story is told, it helps us appreciate Washington's greatness, why he was first among the Founding Fathers. It gives us some strong insights into how he looked at the world and how he wanted to be perceived. He was both a man of his times and a man for all times.
Seven Shreds of Evidence
Below I serve up for Mr. McMillan and the educated reader Seven Shreds of Evidence beyond my 2012 Huffington Post article.
1. GW's Arms Are Widely Tied to the U.S. Flag. The connection between the GW arms and the U.S. flag was and is widely believed. Four examples:
- GW's estate custodians believe it. At Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire not far from Oxford, the Washington arms are paired with a shield showing the stars and stripes. The museum staff told me that the connection between the two is taken there as a given.
|Sulgrave Manor pairing, GW and|
U.S. shields. Photos by JT Marlin.
- In New York City's high-real-estate-value Penn Station, there is a large tableau representing it. A revolving mechanical tableau was created by George Mossman Greenamyer in 2002 showing George Washington crossing the Delaware with an eagle on a staff bearing the Washington arms, with three five-pointed stars (mullets in English heraldry). The stars on the flag in Penn Station are idiosyncratically blue rather than the red (gules) of GW's arms. This makes a direct connection to the U.S. flag's canton with its white stars on a blue background. It shows that GW's coat of arms is linked in the artist's imagination with the stars and stripes.
|The circling tableau, erected in 2002, shows|
The Crossing of the Delaware.
Detail below. Photos by JT Marlin.
- The red-and-white flag of the nation's capital is undeniably derived from the Washington family coat of arms.
- In other places such as Washington County, Va., the Washington shield shows blue stars. Again, this creates a missing link between the Washington arms and the Stars and Stripes.
|Detail of Washington's Arms in an artist's |
version of The Crossing of the Delaware.
The colors and symbols of the Washington arms and U.S. flag include colors and symbols that some have assigned meanings (and which I hasten to say others dismiss as invented). White (argent for the arms) is said to signify peace and sincerity, red (gules for the arms) stripes a warrior or martyr, military strength and magnanimity, and blue (azure for the arms) is for truth and loyalty.
Stars in vexillography imply a divine quality from above.
(Postscript, 2016: This meaning of the stars was provided by George Washington himself in the story in the next paragraph told by J. R. Manship in the comment below this post, for which I thank Mr. Manship. When a devout Christian complained to GW that dropping the Union Jack from the canton of the United States flag would mean the loss of the crosses of two saints – Sts George of England and Andrew of Scotland – GW replied: "But we are adding the stars of heaven, a new constellation.")
When Washington's first ancestor adopted a coat of arms it did not imply that a family was a nobleman. That did not come until English heraldry started being supervised by the Crown with the creation of the College of Arms. This negates the argument that GW could not have promoted his coat of arms because he was a modest man who disdained the trappings of office.
In fact, he did promote his arms, in bookplates, silver, letterheads and other artifacts, certainly more than any later president. He even changed his arms, substituting a griffin for the traditional raven. The artist who worked on the Crossing of the Delaware shows the coat of arms on an eagle, another version of the crest. Titles, yes, are forbidden in the Constitution (Article 1, Sections 9-10):
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.
|Gilbert Stuart's 1796 portrait of GW. The|
inkwell below his right hand is enlarged in
the detail at top of this post.
3. A Story of the Two Red Washington Stripes (Bars) is Stirring. A Washington, D.C. source dates the origin of the two red stripes on the Washington shield back to a battle between the Danes and the English in 979 during which the Danish king was killed. The English king allegedly 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. That became the soldier's coat of arms. (The stars came later.) The source of this fine theory is Rick Snider in his blog "Monumental Thoughts", October 2012.
My Comment: Robert Crichton was reported by Jules Feiffer at Crichton's memorial service as having said: "Never investigate an interesting fact." However, I investigated Rick Snider's theory, and it needs to be rethought. I found no corroboration anywhere of a battle in 979 or a Danish king dying in battle. So the legend as told is questionable. But this disproves not necessarily the story, only the date and battlefield. (Quick summary: During the 900s, the individual kingdoms unified under the rule of Wessex into the Kingdom of England. The Kingdom opposed the Viking Danelaw, kingdoms established from the century before in the north and east of England. The year 979 was the second year of the long reign (978-1016, 38 years) of Ethelred II, "Ethelred the Unready." Ethelred was defeated by invading Danish King Sweyn in 1013. But Sweyn died in 1014 and Ethelred II–far from having died in battle–was restored to the throne for two more years. In 1015, Sweyn's son King Canute invaded again, ending the following year with an agreement between Canute and Ethelred's successor, Edmund Ironside, to divide England between them. However, Edmund died in November 1016, so England was reunited under Danish rule for the next 26 years. In 1042 Harthacanute– son of Canute and Emma of Normandy, widow of Ethelred the Unready–died and left no heirs. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor and the Kingdom of England was independent of foreign domination for 24 years, till Edward died without an heir and the Normans took over in 1066.)
4. Two Oxford Connections with the Washington Family. The Washington Family is connected both with Trinity College and Brasenose College, Oxford.
Trinity College. The Washington coat of arms appears in the Trinity College old library. It is believed by the Trinity College library staff to have been moved to the Old Library from the chapel after the previous Durham College was disestablished by Henry VIII and a new college was established under Mary Tudor by Sir Thomas Pope.
One of Pope's jobs (despite the fact that he was a devout Catholic) was to value the various monastic properties that Henry VIII took over and then to sell them. One technique by which Sir Thomas Pope became rich was that he reportedly would require a prospective tenant to pay a substantial entry fee, enough for Sir Thomas to utilize to buy the property for himself.
The Shelby Abbey, Yorkshire, version has the same design as the one in the Trinity College Old Library with the stars (mullets) and stripes (bars) clearly colored red (gules) on a white (argent) background.
A document headed in Latin as being for “Lawrence Washington” is a sketch of the Washington arms. (See photo at left.)
Details on Washington ancestor's coat of arms, with
griffin crest, likely sent to a Washington in Virginia
from the UK.
The supremacy of the Washington arms in the first and fourth quarters means that the coat of arms was in the male line, and the raven above further indicated the standing of the Washington family.
The lower coat is that of the Washingtons. Though undated, the document is written on paper whose watermark dates from the middle of the 17th century, being a shield and fleur de lis–the mark of the English papermaker Thomas Gunther.
The instructions were “gallicé, latiné & anglicé,” i.e., in French, Latin, and English, and show the positions, colors and arrangements of the various elements of the quartered coat of arms. It also gives a “Carmine Heroico,” or heroic verse, below the third illustration.
One possible source of these instructions is that they were sent by Reverend Lawrence Washington in Oxford to those who emigrated to the United States. George Washington was proud of his family’s heraldry and used his coat of arms on his bookplates, seals, china and silver. Someone along the line changed the older raven to a griffin. The original raven could have come from the legend that a raven snatched a poisoned piece of bread from St Benedict and thereby saved the saint's life; Durham Abbey was a Benedictine establishment.
Where did George Washington and other later members of the family get the griffin?
Three griffins appear on the coat of arms adopted by Thomas Pope when he was knighted in 1535 and were then passed on to Trinity College for its use along with properties that he donated such as Wroxton Abbey. Why would the Washingtons have used the griffin in the United States and how would they have known, if there is any connection, of the connection between the Washington family and Trinity College? Could both Pope and Washington have picked up the griffin from a common source?
They both might have used it after 1555 to recognize the successor institution to Durham Cathedral's institution at Oxford, Durham College, and the re-establishment of the college as Trinity College in 1555. Sir Thomas, in his Grant of Arms, was allowed to use three "griffons" [sic] in his coat of arms (see Number II, http://ota.ox.ac.uk/text/5313.html). The Washington family may have felt the griffin was a more appropriate (and meaningful) bird for them than the raven, establishing a connection between them and a living college at Oxford instead of a dead one.
Brasenose College. How would the Washington family have known anything about the establishment of Trinity College? It could have come from an important second Oxford connection, Rev. Lawrence Washington, son of Lawrence Washington (1568-1616) and the father of the two Washington boys who emigrated to the Virginia Colony at the urging of Amphilla, Washington's wife.
Rev. Washington (1602-1653), was a Fellow of Brasenose College (BNC), Oxford. He was also Rector of the above-mentioned large parish, Purleigh. This Rev. Washington is the common ancestor of all the American-based Washingtons. In the early days when Rev. Washington's sons wrote back asking about their family coat of arms, they would be writing to him.
Rev. Washington would be well acquainted with the Trinity College griffin, as Trinity was in the mid-17th century producing future leaders of the country. Three Trinity alumni became prime ministers in the 18th century – Lord Wilmington (1673-1743), Pitt the Elder/Lord Chatham, (1708-1888), and Lord North (1732-1792).
|Washington family silver cup – similar to,|
could have been from, Trinity College,
He was on a list of about 100 marked clerics who were considered deserving of punishment by the religious leaders who supported the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell after the beheading of Charles I.
At the urging of Amphilla and probably her uncle, John (1633-1677) and Lawrence (1635-1677), both went off to seek new opportunities in the Virginia Colony. They founded the Washington family of Virginia. (The sons of the first Lord Baltimore who took over the proprietary colony of Maryland, by contrast split their allegiance between Britain and the colonies. The one who stayed in Britain became the second Lord Baltimore. The one who emigrated became the first governor of Maryland.)
John Washington, son of Rev. Lawrence Washington, was GW's great-grandfather. John had a son Lawrence Washington who was born in 1659 and died in 1698. He was the grandfather of George. And George’s brother, from whom he inherited Mount Vernon, was also named Lawrence.
So the bird that serves as the Washington family crest, traditionally a raven, was changed by the Washington family in the colonies, into a griffin. Later, the bird morphed into the American eagle – see next section.
|Thomson's design of the |
For our purposes, that Great Seal looks a lot like the Great Seal the White House uses today, minus the innovation of the chevron. It also has the major elements of the Washington coat of arms – a bird, stars, and stripes. The bird has become an American bald eagle and two main additions have been made:
- The eagle is carrying the olive branch in one talon and a "bundle of arrows" in the other. Note that in this sketch Thomson has the eagle's head looking left (dexter), which is the correct way from a heraldic perspective. It is also the direction of the olive branch, peace. This was reversed in the final version, which was not the best message. This was reversed again more than a century and a half later, when President Truman decided that the United States should show itself intent on peace, not war.
- In the eagle’s beak, Thomson placed a scroll with the first committee’s motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).
The college at Oxford preceding Trinity College, and on the same location, was a foundation of Durham Abbey for its students, which is why a Durham family's coat of arms is still on display at Trinity College. The Durham archdiocese was led (I was first told by a monk from Ampleforth) a Prince Bishop, the only such bishop with secular authority in England. The foundation of Balliol College, Oxford by John de Balliol, brother of King James II of Scotland, was guided by the Prince Bishop of Durham, which suggests the importance of this bishop to people on both sides of the border. A stained glass version of the Washington coat of arms from 1588 is in the Corning, NY, Museum of Glass.
The ancestry of George Washington shows how the honors to the family accumulated. The names in bold face have already been mentioned. Here is a genealogy. (In the comments I provide a source that takes the ancestry back further, with some authority.)
1 g17grandfather of George Washington - Patric FitzDolfin de Offerton, c. 1145-1182. His son
2 g16grandfather William FitzPatric de Hertburn, c. 1165-1194. In 1183, William de Hertburn procured the village of Wessyngton, not far from the border between England and Scotland. He changed his surname to his new land, i.e., William de Wessyngton. The "Wessyngton" evolved to "Washington" and “Washington.” Their status as a knightly family allowed the family to adopt a coat of arms, i.e., two silver/white (argent) bars and three five-pointed mullets of red (gules). At the crest, the raven rested in the crown (corona) of gold (or). William served the bishop of Durham, and in 1185 was granted the manor of Washington in return for the service of attending the episcopal hunt with four greyhounds. The family lived on the estate for 400 years, but in 1613 the estate was returned to the church with (a source says) compensation for the improvements.
3 g15grandfather William de Washington, c. 1180-1239
4 g14grandfather Walter de Washington, c. 1212-1264Here
5 g13grandfather William de Washington, c. 1240-1288
6 g12grandfather Robert de Washington, 1265-1324
7 g11grandfather Robert de Washington, c. 1296-1348
8 g10grandfather John de Washington, c. 1346-1408
9 g9grandfather John de Washington, c. 1380-1423
10 g8grandfather Robert Washington, 1404-1483
11 g7grandfather Robert Washington, 1455-1528
12 g6grandfather John Washington, 1478-1528
13 g5grandfather Lawrence Washington, 1500-1583
14 g4grandfather Robert Washington, c. 1544-1623
15 g3grandfather Lawrence Washington, c. 1567-1616 - Sulgrave Manor
16 g2grandfather (Rev.) Lawrence Washington, Fellow of Brasenose and Proctor, 1602-1653
17 greatgrandfather (Col.) John Washington, c. 1631-1677
18 grandfather Lawrence Washington, 1659-1698
19 father Augustine Washington, 1694-1743
20 #(President) George Washington, 1732-1799.
George Washington knew that the family coat of arms (as he confirmed in a response to Mr. Heard) had been brought to Virginia about 135 years before by John and Lawrence Washington. These two sons of Rev. Lawrence Washington of Brasenose, Oxford and grandsons of Lawrence of Sulgrave had their arms granted by the Clarenceux King of Arms. The Sulgrave family arms sometimes show the mullets and bars in blue (azure) instead of red (gules), as is done for the mullets in chief in the Penn Station arms.
7. The Washington Headquarters (Personal Position) Flag. (Added May 7, 2016 and updated Aug. 11, 2017). The Washington Headquarters Flag was a blue field with six thin-pointed asterisk-like (i.e., "*") white stars, as noted in the excellent comment below by J. R. Manship. The site that it is associated with has been moved as of 2017, so I will reproduce the comment:
Very interesting blog article. What role do you see in the Sons of Liberty flag from the Massachusetts colony, that was the flag with only red and white stripes? Then what of the Washington Headquarters flag, that was a blue field with six, thin pointed stars, 13 in number? The Grand Union flag was the "union" of the Sons of Liberty red and white stripes flag with a canton added of the British Union Jack. The "Stars and Stripes" flag is the Sons of Liberty flag with the Washington Headquarters flag added as its canton. The story goes that Betsy Ross showed how she could cut 5 pointed stars more quickly, so it was agreed to use 5 pointed stars. It is said there was concern about removing the two Christian crosses of the British flag from our American flag, and according to the story, Washington said, "But we are adding the stars of Heaven..."
|The Hopkinson Flag, with Stars of|
Six Points. Washington's ancestral arms
had five. Was Betsy Ross a beard
for taking a point off the U.S. stars?
The Betsy Ross story is puzzling if you think about it. The fact that one cut creates a star is not persuasive when one thinks of all the steps that are needed to fold the cloth!
The Betsy Ross story makes sense only as misdirection, a "beard," to cover the mutation of the six-pointed stars in the Hopkinson flag and the general's personal position flag to the five-pointed stars that correspond to the general's ancient arms.
See also: More Shreds of Evidence. Even More Shreds. Hey, Still More Shreds.