Symbolism behind Coats of Arms


Ostriches are fond of eating shiny metal objects. Or so the thinking used to go. Insignias on coats of arms reinforced this difficult-to-digest idea, as did medieval bestiaries. Even William Shakespeare refers to the notion in a dramatic duel scene:

 … I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and
swallow my sword like a great pin…

This curious threat comes from one of the bard’s staged histories, The Second Part of King Henry VI (Act 4, Scene 10, Lines 28-29).

Though not native to England, these big birds were brought there long before Shakespeare’s time. In fact, several royal precursors to Henry VI owned ostriches, including Normandy’s William the Conqueror and King John. The latter kept them among his stable of exotic creatures. Interestingly, archaeological digs of London’s old Lion Tower have uncovered nails near the neck bones of these birds’ remains, suggesting that people once fed ostriches sharp metal pieces (1). Wow, talk about heartburn!

Notions of iron-eating ostriches captivated the European imagination, as evident from iconography depicting ostriches with nails, keys, and horseshoes in their beaks. Typically representing an individual of great authority or religious zeal (2), the images made up part of a vast collection of symbols used in heraldry.

Emblems for Nations, Statesmen, and Rock Stars

Heraldry is an elaborate system of symbols used to represent the identities of individuals, families, cities, and nations. Though primarily associated today with European nobility, the practice spans the world and goes back thousands of years. Several ancient nations of the Middle East adopted representational images of the eagle (3), a bird that has remained popular as a heraldic symbol. Similar displays of national coats of arms are designed in the spirit of this tradition. Many feature feathered animals: Chile’s includes the condor; Uganda’s, the crested crane; and Nauru’s, the frigatebird (4)

Individuals have frequently relied on avian symbols for expressing personal characteristics, such as rank, origin, and occupation. Adorning Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms are a guitar and a “liver bird,” the latter a heraldic emblem of the former Beatle’s hometown, Liverpool (5). By the way, the “liver bird” is based on the cormorant, just as the mythical martlet, a small bird depicted without feet, is modeled on the swallow or house martin (6). Commonly used by the younger sons of a large family, the martlet appears in several places on Ben Franklin’s arms (7). Franklin, after all, was one of seventeen children!

The Fun Side of Heraldry

Sometimes considered esoteric and stale, heraldry I’ve discovered can be rather fascinating—even amusing. For example, take the coat of arms of Benjamin Franklin’s contemporary, American statesman John Hancock. This man obviously had a sense of humor. Making light of his name, he chose an open hand and three roosters or cocks as his symbols (8).

William Shakespeare’s coat of arms suggests that he, too, had fun using images to play on his surname. The “spear” element is obvious: prominently displayed are a couple of large, pen-like items of the weapon (9). The “shake” part of the design, however, relies on an unfamiliar reference. Gripping one of the spears is a falcon readying for flight. This action didn’t initially mean anything to me, but I soon learned that the motion is referred to in falconry as “the shaking” (10). As a result, I came away once again impressed with the wit of England’s greatest punster and wordsmith.

Though not as popular as during Shakespeare’s time, the ancient art form of heraldry is still alive and well today. Aficionados are continuing to find creative ways to enjoy their pastime. A few websites devote space to looking at the heraldry employed in Game of Thrones, studying Disney’s fictional McDuck family’s coat of arms, and generating heraldic representations of National Football League team logos. What I enjoy most, of course, is that birds can be seen on all of them!


  1. Heck, C, Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. pp. 550–552.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 56.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 28.
  4. J. The Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. pp. 120, 229, 928.
  5. Wilson, AN. “As the Bercows unveil their boastful coat of arms, the vulgar truth about family crests”, 11/30/2011. Daily Mail:
  6. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186, 187, 189.
  7. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry:
  8. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry.
  9. Dingfelder, S. “A draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on display for Folger Shakespeare Library’s ‘Symbols of Honor’”, 7/10/2014. The Washington Post:
  10. Duncan-Jones, K. Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623. London: A & C Black, 2011. p. 107.

15 thoughts on “Symbolism behind Coats of Arms

  1. I think all Gravatars should be of birds, after all they are, in a way, an emblem of who we are, yes?! (Thinks: I must speak with Matt about this).
    What would mine be…let me think…pause a long time…although I truly love our magpie and crow, I’d have to say our local blackbird…beautiful song, brave and fiercely protective, even shooing away the larger crows who don’t fight it, and yet quietly going about its business, as it should, knowing it belongs where it belongs. 😀
    I do find the horsehoe in the beak image quite intriguing and think it could only mean that the horse is the closest thing to a bird that lets you ‘fly’ over the country rather quickly! In those days.
    My family crest, on my mother’s side, is of a red stag rampant on plain white background. McCarthy. This surname derives from Carthac, of the twelfth century, being one of the most ancient and numerous of all Irish surnames. The MacCarthys were great builders of castles. The remains of such are to be found all over Munster. The most famous being Blarney, where lived Cormac McCarthy, whose evasive answers to Queen Elizabeth’s letters, demanding his submission, roused her to call his protestations, ‘Blarney’. So started the legend of kissing the ‘Blarney stone’.
    Are you considering doing your next post about the birds in the Christmas song, The Twleve Days of Christmas, and their meanings, apart from being food?

    1. Using birds or heraldic symbols for Gravatars would make for some cool possibilities! Though I’d have a difficult time narrowing down my selection to any one bird, the blackbird sounds like a wonderful choice. Like crows, geese, sparrows, wrens, and many other common birds, they don’t get enough respect. Since I did a post last year on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I’ll try to do something different this year. We’ll see!

      1. cool possibilities..yes, certainly the more creative amongst us could come up with some decidedly interesting bird-designs.
        I didn’t know of your post last year; I’ll check it out. 🙂

      2. Having some ready-made templates of bird Gravatars that can be customized could be fun! However, I can understand the reluctance of fans of other critters – dogs, cats, gerbils, iguanas, etc. – not wanting to be restricted. Flexibility is important for self-expression and creativity.

      3. I do appreciate the need for diversity. One can have as many gravatars as one likes and change them to suit the mood, like I do, annually at least! The templates sound like a very good idea, M.R. 🙂

  2. The Shaking is interesting. I have seen some birds appear to have certain movements before they take off….sort of like a runner on the blocks bouncing a little before the gun. That is interesting and I too should think up what bird would represent me. Right now with janthina images I’ve identified myself with the pelagic shell which floats on rafts of bubbles since I sort of drift around. Time to take flight maybe!! 🙂

    1. Floating on rafts of bubbles actually sounds quite fun and idyllic! You have such a wonderful selection of avian photographs. I could easily see your Gravatar as a heron or ibis!

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