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Coverlet (Skinnerinc.com) Chris Barber

Coverlet (skinnerinc.com) (Chris Barber)

All images, except the Coverlet above, are Wikipedia’s.

In my last post, entitled Heraldry and Vexillology: designing the Great Seal of the United States, I used the Bayeux Tapestry as an example of “heraldic” devices because of its “emblazoned” or “charged” shields.

Heraldry is a rather complex discipline. For instance, when asked to design the insignia of the American Society of the Cincinnati and its French branch, La Société des Cincinnati de FrancePierre-Charles L’Enfant, the veteran of the American War of Independence who designed the Washington National Mall, was sent to Europe to gather the information he needed to design the insignia of the Society.

Similarly, members of the first committee appointed by Congress to design the Great Seal of the United States called on the services of an expert, Geneva-born Pierre Eugene du Simitière, whose original name was Pierre-Eugène du Cimetière (cemetery). The second and third teams appointed to design the Great Seal of the United States also hired experts, two of whom are William Barton and Charles Thomson.

Another contributor was Francis Hopkinson, who designed the American flag in 1777.

The Great Seal of the United States

Given the complexity of the subject of heraldry, I will limit this post to essential information. For instance, I will not discuss animal symbolism. But we will look at the various parts of a seal, or Coat of Arms, using the image below:

Parts of a Seal or Crest or Coat of Arms

Parts of a Seal or Crest or Coat of Arms, etc.

The National Animal: The Bald Eagle

The bald eagle was “chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of American, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and because it was then believed to exist only on this continent.” So the “supporter” in the Great Seal of the United States is the emblematic bald eagle itself. The eagle stands behind the “arms” (vertical stripes [pales] with azure chief) (See Bald Eagle, US National Emblem [symbol], Wikipedia.) But the obverse side of the Great Seal also shows a motto: E pluribus unum (Out of many, One); talons: an olive branch and arrows; a “glory” of mullets (stars).

Flag  of the United States

Current flag (ensign) of the United States

The Great Seal vs the Flag of the United States

“The seal or shield, though sometimes drawn incorrectly, has two main differences from the American flag. First, it has no stars on the blue chief[.]” The chief is one of the ordinaries of a Coat of Arms (called “arms” for short). “Second, unlike the American flag, the outermost stripes (pales) are white, not red; so as not to violate the heraldic rule of tincture.”

Obverse and Reverse Sides of the Great Seal

The Motto

The motto E pluribus Unum is displayed inside a banner on the obverse (the front side as opposed to the reverse) of The Great Seal of the United States. E pluribus unum seems a de facto motto. It was not adopted through an act of Congress. However, it is a statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson (see Bald Eagle) and a motto suggested by Pierre Eugene du Simitière, a member of the first committee appointed to design the Great Seal. E pluribus  unum remains one of the mottoes of the United States, but its official motto is In God We Trust. It was voted into law in 1956.

The “Arms” or Escutcheon

  • The thirteen stripes of the flag, or ensign, represent the Thirteen Colonies.  These are “displayed” on the Great Seal. We see them on the “arms” placed in front of the eagle. They consist of thirteen paleways in argent (renamed white) or gules (red). The chief or chef is the azure (blue) horizontal line that constitutes the uppermost part of the arms.

The “Glory” or Crest

  • At the very top of the seal, above the banner, we see a “glory” with 13 mullets (stars) on a blue, called azure, field (background). The thirteen mullets represent the thirteen original states.

The Talons: dexter (right) and sinister (left)

The meaning of the talons resembles that of the proverbial Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war).

The Reverse

The reverse, or back side, of the seal features:

Terminology: A Blazon, or to Blazon

A Blazon, or to blazon
Badges, banners and seals, as blazons

As I noted, in my last post, heraldic terminology is confusing because, in many instances, the name of a “part” is used to denote the entire coat of arms. Naming a “part” when referring to the “whole,” or the “whole” when referring to a “part,” is a figure of speech called synecdoche. Wikipedia’s example is “hired hands.”[i] (See Synecdoche, Wikipedia.)

For instance, the word “blazon” may be used to denote a specific graphic element in heraldry, but it may also be used to describe the process of giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless field, such as a naked shield. One emblazons a shield or gives it a “charge.”

Moreover, we have synonyms. Badges, banners and seals may be called “blazons.” As well, coats of arms may be used to identify a nation, a corporation, an association, a university, a college, scouts, various groups, an individual, etc. Scouts wear a badge as do police officers. And my mother used to make me wear medals representing the Blessed Virgin.

Coats of Arms may also be used for decorative purposes. That is the role given the coverlet shown at the top of this post. It features an “escutcheon.”

However, as I noted in my last post, if a shield is no more than the device used by combatants to protect themselves, it is just a shield. It has not been personalized or emblazoned and, therefore, it has no symbolic meaning.

A Plethora of Terms

ordinaries may be chiefs, pales, bends
chiefs (a line running across the field and sitting at the top of the field)
pales (vertical bands)
bends (mostly diagonal bands)
a pallium (ecclesiastical vestment) 
Bend Chief

Bend Chief


Pale (vertical)


We also have a plethora of terms.

  • The bend is the band running across a coat of arms. (See Chief [heraldry], Wikipedia). The Chief Bend is a band (a pale) crossing the field horizontally, at the very top. A bend is not vertical
  • The chief is one of the ordinaries of a coat of arms: bend, chevron, fess, and pale.
  • “A pale (vertical bend) is a term used in heraldic blazon and vexillology to describe a charge (an emblem) affixed to a coat of arms (or flag, or shield), that takes the form of a band running vertically down the center of the shield.” (See Pale (heraldry), Wikipedia.)
  • “In heraldry, a charge is any emblem or device occupying the field of an escutcheon (shield).” (See Charge, Wikipedia.)
  • Heraldry also has the divisions of the “field,” the field being the “background,” or naked shield.
  • Ordinaries are displayed under Family Names Online (just click on the link).
  • But there is an ecclesiastical pallium, a vestment, that reminds me of a pale or a bend.
Arthur Lee's Family's Coat of Arms

Dr Arthur Lee‘s Coat of Arms

On the Lee family Coat of Arms, we have mantling (frilly grey and black), a crest (the squirrel), a helmet, and a divided shield (the arms).

The committees

First Committee

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams (Simitière, heraldist), appointed on 4 July 1776

Second committee

James Lovell, John Morin Scott, and William Churchill Houston, (Charles Thomson and Francis Hopkinson, heraldists), appointed on 25 March, 1780

Third Committee

John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Elias Boudinot (Dr. Arthur Lee replaced Rutledge) (William Barton, heraldist), appointed on 4 May 1782

To know the contribution of each member or heraldist, see The Great Seal of the United States (scroll down). 

Pope Innocent III depicted wearing the pallium in a fresco at the Sacro Speco Cloister

Pope Innocent III depicted wearing the pallium in a fresco at the Sacro Speco Cloister (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Thomson’s explanation of the Great Seal of the United States

The Escutcheon is composed of the chief & pale, the two most honorable ordinaries. The Pieces, paly, represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the chief and the Chief depends upon that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.

The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valor, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice. The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.

Reverse. The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the new American Æra, which commences from that date.

Conclusion: 20 June 1782

The Great Seal of the United States was presented to Congress and adopted by Congress on 20 June 1782.

The Great Seal is the United States’ signature. It is used about 2,000 to 3,000 times a year and the press is in the custody of the United States Department of State. It is an authenticating device often associated with the conclusion of a process. I should think that every treaty signed by the United States bears its Great Seal. Technically, a seal is “impressed” on a document.

There is more to say, but the above and my last post provides sufficient information. If you navigate the Internet, you will find businesses that supply families and individuals with a Coat of Arms or an insignia. There is in fact considerable interest in heraldry.

However, this was my second and last post on heraldry. Yet, given its purpose, identification and authentication, a simplified heraldry persists in the form of logos and labels.

My kindest regards to all of you and my apologies for being a little slow. I haven’t been very energetic for the last few months, but I am confident my energy will return. Spring has come.


Sources and Resources


[i] I removed this information from my last post. It had to be shortened.

Congress voting Independence

Congress voting Independence

A field divided by a diagonal pale

A field divided by a diagonal bend showing the lion rampant, its charge.

© Micheline Walker
May 31, 2014