Friday, November 21, 2014

HERALDRY: Oxford Stars (Updated Apr. 22, 2018)

Is this the oldest (c. 1346) extant use of the arms
 of George Washington's ancestors? From a Trinity
 College, Oxford window. Photo: JT Marlin, 2012.
At Oxford's 2014 North American Reunion, in NYC's Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, the Oxford colleges' arms were arrayed around the balcony.

There being a longish speech, I found myself counting the number of stars on the college shields.

Seven, there were, 250 percent more than at Cambridge.

I wondered whether these heraldic stars might help explain the vexing puzzle of the origin of the stars that appear in the canton of the Stars and Stripes.

Oxford's Stars

In the ancient language of heraldry, stars are a heraldic charge on the field of a shield, which is the central component of a full achievement of a coat of arms.

The star is not an ordinary charge; it is a "device". In England, an unpierced star is more commonly called a mullet rather than a star, after the French moulette–meaning a spur-rowel:
  • The mullet or rowel is the star-like disk with points that when dug into the side of a horse causes pain and persuades the animal to move faster.
  • The dowel is the rod that goes through the disk and allows the rowel to rotate.
  • The rowel and dowel together are located on the end of a spur that sticks out of the bottom of the back of each of a knight's boots.
Sometimes the mullet is "pierced" with a dot in the middle, to show that the dowel goes through it, as in the Trinity College, Oxford window (see photo above). This also makes clear that the device signifies a knight's spur and not a star in the sky.

In Scotland, where heraldry has the force of law, a star can be "star" as well as, if pierced, a mullet,

The English idea is that charges on a shield should signify something associated with a knight's outfit, and the spur is an important accoutrement because in a crisis it is what most connects the knight with his horse. (A knight in armor without a horse to sit on is not very mobile, like a ship without a sail.)

Postscript: When talking about flags (i.e., in the language of vexillology), the word "star" is universally correct.

My Holy Grail

My search has been for a Sceptic-Crushing Link between Washington's coat of arms and the U.S. flag.

Around the 1876 centennial, it was widely accepted that the Founding Fathers replaced the Union Jack in the corner of the Grand Union Flag with stars in 1776 as, in part, a gesture of respect for then-General George Washington.

Then three publications appeared in 1906-1917 that claimed to smash this consensus that the Stars and Stripes were connected to the Washington arms:
  • A 1906 book by Peleg D. Harrison.
  • A 1909 letter to the New York Times, based on a brief tour of England.
  • A 1917 book by George Henry Preble.
These sources all said that because the writers could not find a contemporary 1776 letter or report saying that the Stars and Stripes were based on George Washington's arms, therefore the connection was disproved.

However, that is not how theories are disproved. There needs to be a better theory and so far none has emerged. No one can explain where the five-pointed stars in the Stars and Stripes come from other than vis the anecdote of Betsy Ross's "shortcut", an elaborate folding exercise to generate a five-pointed star with one snip of a pair of scissors.

My survey of three Oxford colleges (Trinity, Oriel and BNC) uncovered interesting connections to George Washington's ancestors and the stars in the Stars and Stripes, and I am on the trail of several more (Balliol and the Scottish connection via Douglas, for example). This was driving my curiosity at the Waldorf-Astoria, and is sustaining it. Let me share my questions and my answers so far.

Why the Grand Union Flag Stopped Working in 1776

To put my quest in some perspective, consider the puzzle facing the Founding Fathers in 1776. They had rebelled against Britain,  yet the Union Jack, the two British crosses–the blue-on-white Scottish saltire of St. Andrews superimposed on the red-on-white cross of St. George–was still ensconced in the canton (the reduced quadrant on the upper-left corner of flags) of the red-and-white-striped Grand Union Flag of 1775. Once open hostilities had occurred at Lexington and Concord, and they had t o have concluded that "From now on, we can't count on this canton!"

Before Lexington, the colonies were still grateful to William Pitt for sending redcoats to chase away  French soldiers and Indian tribes loyal to the French. The colonies were united in protesting to protest to George III, as his loyal subjects, about the cost of having to pay for his troops. 

After blood was shed at Lexington at 5 a.m., April 19, 1775, the colonies were no longer loyal subjects protesting to their King. They wanted out.

Douglas (L) and Moray/Murray (R) shields.
The Washington family's shield was like
that of Douglas, but with a red (gules) field
in chief, with two red stripes (bars) below. 
The colonies needed above all a symbol of independence from London, not one showing the union of England and Scotland. 

Why Stars Worked Better than Crosses

Many ideas for symbols of American independence in the canton were proposed, including a venomous snake and the slogan, "Don't tread on me." 

The canton that won out was 13 white stars on a dark blue field. George Washington presented the chosen flag to the Congress with the slogan "a new constellation". Responding to the worry that no good could come from removing the sacred crosses of two great saints that formed the Union Jack, Washington said: "We are replacing them with heavenly stars."
The Moray of Petty arms
shown with six-pointed
stars, probably an earlier
form of the arms.

It is reasonable to believe that Washington's supporters in 1776 wanted stars in the canton for three reasons: 
  • They lionized Washington.  George Washington's arms were those of his ancestor John Wessington, who adopted a shield with three red stars (mullets) above (in chief) two red (gules) stripes (bars), on a white (argent) field. Washington was deeply proud of his family's heritage.
  • They liked the Scottish connection. The Washington shield was the same as the Douglas shield, in red. The stars reminded the rebel colonists of the brave Scotsmen fighting with King Robert Bruce for independence against earlier English kings – Edwards II-III. Both Sir James the Good Douglas and Sir Andrew Moray of Petty had stars on a blue (azure) field in their coats of arms. "Braveheart" William Wallace earlier fought with Moray's father against Edward I. Records indicate that about one-third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had Scottish ancestors. 
  • The stars were expandable.  The numbers of stars could be expanded in the canton depending on how many colonies joined in the Revolution and later in the new nation. 
The Likely Influence of Scottish Heraldry on the Wessingtons

Add to the considerations above the fact that the Douglas five-pointed star would be well known to the Washington family and their forebears the Wessingtons, because they lived under the Bishop of Durham in territory on the Scottish border. This proximity could be a key to establishing the long-asserted, dubiously disputed connection between the Stars and Stripes flag and the Washington coat of arms.

My hypothesis is that the stars in the Stars and Stripes come from the Douglas (and possibly Moray/Murray of Petty) arms via the Wessington/Washington arms.

The full achievement of George Washington's Coat of
Arms. He used his arms more than any other president.
His shield was adopted as the flag of Washington, D.C.
The mullets on the Washington arms have five points or rays.

A French heraldry book I consulted at the British Library asserts that the Washington family was a pioneer of the five-pointed mullet in England.

It describes the shedding of one of the six points by the first Washington (de Wessington) as "vraiment révolutionnaire".

I am still struggling to determine whether that statement has real meaning in heraldic history or is just an inside-baseball joke by a heraldic writer who was bored (it must happen sometimes even to heraldry enthusiasts).

If it is true that Edward III conferred the mullets on the Washington family at the same time as he knighted his son, the "Black Prince", it means that the coat of arms dates to the Battle of Crécy on August 26, 1346. It was one of the most decisive battles in history, and the English crossbow mowed down the knights on their horses.

A book on Durham County, also at the British Library, shows examples of Washington coats of arms that include both six-pointed and five-pointed mullets. This suggests that de Wessington started with the then-more-usual six-pointed mullets (mullets in German and French heraldry almost always have only six or eight points) on his shield and at some point between 1346 and 1401 reduced them to five – probably having as his model and precedent, consciously or unconsciously, the Douglas coat of arms.

It may have been the first recorded use in history of the red v. blue colors to denote partisanship.

The French avoided using five-pointed mullets. I'm guessing that a rotating spur could be assumed to have an even number of points with a minimum of six – an even number for balance or for fabricating simplicity. A spur would surely have no fewer than six points to prevent the knight from drawing blood from his horse (or her horse, in the unique case of Joan of Arc). But in England, over time, mullets were increasingly five-pointed, perhaps merely to difference themselves from French coats of arms – a major objective of heraldry (and of its trademarking successors).

Trinity College's Washington Shield, c. 1346

Trinity College, Oxford has a window in its Old Library that may be the oldest surviving occurrence in England of both the Washington arms and the five-pointed mullet that is found in it. The early mullets were all pierced. Later versions of coats of arms, including that of George Washington, dropped the pierce.

The arms were of John Wessington, a Benedictine monk sent to Durham College at Oxford. That is why he gets his arms in Window 3 of the ancient Durham College chapel, along with Gregory the Great, the Benedictine who was called by John Calvin the "last of the great popes". John Wessington became bursar of Durham College in 1398, according to the excellent 1988 booklet by Richard Gameson and Alan Coates, The Old Library, Trinity College, Oxford (p. 30).

The Trinity College window is believed to have been moved from what was once the chapel of Durham College, Oxford. Durham College was created in 1278 for the training of Benedictine monks from Durham Abbey, which also supported for this purpose University and Balliol Colleges (the function is today still well served, by St. Benet's Hall).

When Durham Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, Durham College was also disestablished. Sir Thomas Pope purchased the site in 1555 – we must assume at an insider price – and used during the reign of Mary for the creation of Trinity College.

The Washington family coat of arms (L) and shield of U.S. 
Stars and Stripes (R), at Sulgrave Manor, near Oxford. 
Photo by JT Marlin, 2012.
BNC's Rev. Lawrence Washington, 1619-45

Fast-forward from Henry VIII to the English Civil War. The Rev. Lawrence Washington, from a well-off family that settled not far from Oxford at Sulgrave Manor, was a student (1619-1623) and don at Brasenose College (aka BNC).

Lawrence Washington was preceded at Oxford by two uncles, Christopher (matriculated 1588) and William, both at Oriel College. He had also been preceded by a cousin Lawrence (from Much Hadham, Herts.) at Balliol (matriculated 1594), at that time not the academic powerhouse it became, but rather simply a college with a preference for Scottish students,

Rev. Washington served as an Oxford Proctor and in that capacity is said to have helped purge Oxford University of Puritans under Charles I. In his last years, Charles I hunkered down in  Oxford, a center of the Cavaliers – virtually all of the colleges were royalist, as were many Cambridge colleges, even Oliver Cromwell's own Sidney Sussex College.

Rev. Washingon during that time resigned as a don from Brasenose College, probably because he was getting married –dons were expected to remain bachelors. He sealed his letter of resignation to Brasenose College with a three-mullets-and-two bars family seal that is reported as dating back to 1401, although as noted the actual shield may date back to the Battle of Crécy in 1346.

Following his resignation, Rev. Washington was initially assigned by the Church of England to a good living at All Saints Church in Purleigh, Essex. But four years after Cromwell's Roundheads took over Oxford in 1645, the tables were turned on Rev. Washington and he was on an Enemy List of about 100 Church of England clergymen destined to lose their comfortable or have their stipends reduced.

Lawrence was banished to a such smaller parish. Embarrassed by her husband's demotion, Mrs. Amphilis Washington moved with her children to the home of her well-off stepfather, and – as worried parents can miraculously do in time of trouble – encouraged her two sons to leave her for their own good. They emigrated to the prospering British colony of Virginia. Thus did Lawrence's enforced poverty, though little of it did he know then, helped make him the great-great-grandfather of the first President of the United States.

Estoiles in Three Oxford Colleges

But to return to my interest in the Oxford coats of arms, my purpose was to find out if possible whether any of them provided a clue to the origin of the stars in the American flag. My main sources at the time were:
  • An armorial survey of the Oxford Colleges conducted for the Heraldry Society in 1951, here.  Now 63 years old, it badly needs updating – coats of arms have been created for colleges and halls that did not exist in 1951. (I did this in a four-page updating published in Oxford Today, Michaelmas issue 2015.)
  • The book by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1871-1928), A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909).
The word "star" is clear vexillogically, but not heraldically. That is not to say that the word is vexing or illogical, but that it is a term clear to a flag analyst but not to a heraldic scholar. The heraldic word for star in English heraldry is usually estoile or mullet (we also find a faceted star). When the rays of a star are wavy the device on a shield is termed an estoile (the ancient French word for star, now étoile). It has six rays, unless otherwise specified (although eight rays appear in the Tarot card and in German heraldry) in the blazon, i.e., the verbal description of the arms. The arms of Hobart include an estoile of eight rays, in the German tradition. The town of Ilchester has an estoile of sixteen rays, but these arms are ungranted, "not of any authority." 

Three estoiles, St. Hilda's,
correctly shown as wavy.
St. John's College "estoiles",
incorrectly shown straight.
Wycliffe Hall, with estoile
correctly shown as wavy.
The St. Hilda's estoiles are correct in the example shown, and also the one for Wycliffe Hall. The ones on the bordure of the coat of arms of St. John's College as displayed on their website are incorrectly shown because they appear to have straight rays. The Wycliffe Hall coat of arms shown on its web site has the correct wavy-rayed estoile; but a version shown on the inside back page of the booklet for the 2014 Oxford Biennial Reunion in New York City had, incorrectly, straight rays. 

Pierced Mullets in Three Oxford Colleges

Every charge with straight points is in England a mullet. English practice permits a mullet to be  pierced (Keble, St. Antony's, Lincoln) or unpierced (Somerville). Mullets are occasionally pierced with a color other than the field they are charged upon, as in the Keble coat of arms. According to English practice, the mullet is not pierced unless the blazon expressly states it to be so. The mullet, both in England and Scotland, is of five points unless a greater number are specified. But mullets of six (French) or eight (German) points, pierced and unpierced, are frequent enough in English armory. 

Lincoln College, mullet
that may be inappropriate.
Keble College, three mullets "in
chief", above "engrailed" chevron.
St. Antony's College,
three mullets on chevron.

The coats of arms of Keble and St. Antony's College both have three mullets on them, pierced. The Keble College coat of arms shares some similarities with the American flag, since the mullets are on a blue background. However, the mullets are yellow, not white. The red chevron is also bent and has scalloped (engrailed) sides. The St. Antony's College mullets are also fixed on a red chevron.  The unusual Lincoln College coat of arms includes a single black (sable) pierced mullet on a silver/white (argent) field.

Stars at One Oxford and Two Cambridge Colleges
Somerville College, with three
stars and six crosslets fitted.
Somerville Family (Scotland) with
three stars and seven crosslets fitted.

Scottish practice is more correct than the English, though more complicated. Scottish armory includes the estoile, the star, and the mullet or spur-revel. The use of the estoile differs little from English practice. But in Scotland a straight-pointed (non-estoile) charge is a mullet only if pierced. As a mullet is the "molette" or rowel of a spur, it could not exist unpierced. A pierced mullet is also frequently called a "spur-rowel", or "spur-revel" in Scottish practice. 

A mullet/star is in the arms and badge of the de Veres, Earls of OxfordIn Scottish heraldry, an unpierced mullet is called a star – as in, for example, the Somerville coat of arms or in the Scottish shield of Alston. 

Somerville College has three unpierced mullets and has one less "crosslet fitted" than the Somerville family coat of arms. Also the colors have been changed from gold (or) on blue (azure) to black (sable) and red (gules) on silver or white (argent). The college is named for celebrated Scottish-born scientist Mary Fairfax (1780-1872), whose second marriage was to William Somerville. She is the first non-royal person to appear on a bank note (the £10 note) of the Royal Bank of Scotland, starting in 2017.

Newnham College, Cambridge.
Griffin and mullet/star.
Murray Edwards College,
Cambridge. Three faceted stars.

Cambridge has two colleges with stars/mullets on their coat of arms - Newnham College, established about 1871 as Cambridge's second all-female college, and Murray Edwards College, a post-World War II college also created for women. Note that the Newnham College faceted star looks nothing like a mullet. The stars in the Murray Edwards coat of arms are clearly intended to be stars, as in the Murray coat of arms, with no vestige of a spur, 

The Significance of the Stars in the Stars and Stripes

The Stars and Stripes with 50 stars.
In seeking to understand the origins of the Stars and Stripes, I was early on convinced,  the key link is to the stars. There is evidence enough that the stripes were borrowed from the East India Company, in part because they were echoed by the early striped flags used by the rebels in Massachusetts.

What George Washington announced to the Congress when he put before them the Stars and Stripes was that the three saints of the Union Jack (Sts George, Andrew and Patrick) would be replaced by "the stars of heaven."

The Stars in George Washington's Ancestors' Arms

Various sources report that the three-mullet and two-bar coat of arms of the Washington family were conferred on Walter de Wessington by Edward III, when de Wessington was part of the fighting force of the Bishop of Durham.

After the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward III knighted his 16-year-old son Edward the “Black Prince”, saying he had “won his spurs”.  In that battle de Wessington also won his spurs, in the form of three mullets on his coat of arms, and two red stripes below it to indicate the blood that was shed. These mullets are a feature of the Washington family crest, which George Washington utilized as a bookplate, a seal, and in artifacts around his house. At that stage in U.S. history, to build a tall tree required having deep roots.

Who Was the First to Use the Five-Pointed Mullet?

A French heraldry source (tongue in cheek, surely) describes de Wessington's change in the number of points, from six to five, in the mullets on his coat of arms as "vraiment revolutionnaire".  Was de Wessington the first knight in England to use a five-pointed mullet? Are there any earlier uses?

Hylton Castle (1377-99) has Washington mullets of both six and five points, suggesting that Washington's ancestor switched from six to five. So the question can be rephrased - are there examples of five-pointed mullets in use in England prior to 1377?

The Douglas stars are said to go back to a Flemish family. But a signet ring of Sir William Douglas "Le Hardi" has three five-pointed stars at the top (see photo), so the Douglas stars were well established as early as 1288.

Switching from mullets with six points to a star of five points at that time was significant. In Continental Europe, stars had eight (German) or six (French) points. The Normans brought with them the six-pointed French mullet, so the five-pointed one was a distinct departure. The reason for the break is unclear, but proper use in English and Scottish heraldry of stars, estoiles and mullets did not then have the definition that it later acquired, according to Fox-Davies (1871-1928), in his previously cited guide to heraldry.

Seal of William de Douglas
"le Hardi", c. 1288, after he had taken
 the title of First Earl of Douglas. Note
five-pointed stars. 
What is clear is that the word "star" is properly used in Scottish heraldry and is avoided in English heraldry. However, the residences of the Washington family in northern England were much closer to Edinburgh than to London, and it is possible that they were influenced by Scottish, not English, heraldic developments.

Sir William "the Hardy" Douglas became the first Earl of Douglas. The seal at right shows the three five-pointed stars. He pledged allegiance to King Edward I and then fought against him unsuccessfully. He died in the Tower of London.

The Good Sir James Douglas was knighted in 1314 and after his death the three five-pointed silver (argent) mullet/star on a blue (azure) background was in use by the Douglas family/clan in a row and the Murray/Moray family in a two-and-one array. The Douglas shield had a heart added after the death of The Good Sir James on his way to Jerusalem with the heart of King Robert I.
King Robert I,
"the Bruce".

My theory is that after having been knighted by Edward III in 1346, de Wessington adopted the stars of the Douglas coat of arms. The border between Scotland and northern England was highly permeable in the century before Edward I decided to march north. Robert the Bruce traveled around freely. The Douglas family would be well known and respected by the Washington's.

Betsy Ross expressed her preference for the five-pointed star on the new flag of the United States based on the ease of cutting it. But in fact the six-pointed star, being symmetrical, is much easier to fold. The Betsy Ross story may have been introduced to cover up a campaign to bring the Washington family star, or the Douglas family version, to the Stars and Stripes. The same applies to George Washington's introduction of the new canton as "a new constellation".


To recap what I have found so far about the connections between the stars and stripes in the American flag and possible other flags or coats of arms that might have inspired the stars or stripes, including George Washington's family coat of arms:

1. In 2012, I was satisfied that the stripes in the Star and Stripes are easily explained by the stripes in the East India company flag and other flags and shields, including (if one is so inclined to believe) the bars in the coat of arms of the Washington family. I posted something on Huffington Post about this - Washington's Arms and the Stars and Stripes -- Believe!

2. In 2013 I followed up: More on George Washington and the Stars and Stripes... and June 14 - Thoughts for Flag Day on the Origins of the Stars ... 

3. In 2014 I have been on the trail of the white/silver (argent) stars (mullets) on a blue (azure) field, which are the missing devices to explain the connection between George Washington's ancestral arms and the "constellation of stars" that replaced the Union Jack on the East India Company flag. I have written about the faceted star on the coat of arms of the de Vere family, the Earls of Oxford, of whom one has been claimed as the real author of Shakespeare, and about the stars on the Douglas and Murray families/clans coats of arms. I am convinced by the timing of the evolution of the white-on-blue stars that this is the ultimate origin of the stars in the Stars and Stripes. It fits the time, 1775, and the situation of rebellion against the British Crown.
Shield at Magdalen College list of
dead from WW1. Photo by JT Marlin.

Two Postscripts

1. Sep 29, 2016–In Oxford for a few weeks, I did more research on the coats of arms of the Oxford colleges in Duke Humfrey's Library. They have a fine collection of books on the history of the colleges. Here are two new morsels of information:
  • Magdalen College's blazon has no mullets or estoiles in it (The blazon is: "Lozenge ermine and sable on a chief of the second three lilies argent slipped and seeded or." Wikipedia incorrectly includes punctuation.), but a coat of arms posted with the list of the alumni who died in the Great War impales the keys of St Peter and the sword of St Paul with a quartered shield with two quarters azure with a chevron between three mullets two and one or. Magdalen is therefore a college with star-like objects in their arms. The other two quarters are lions rampant, possibly referencing Scotland. The stars without the chevron suggest the Murray/Moray arms. (See photo.)
  • Hertford College has a plaque on the wall with a deer (hart) and several stars. I have seen only a photo, and intend to check out the plaque on my next visit.
2. Apr 22, 2018–I gave two talks at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London on the coats of arms of the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges and then I went to Selby Abbey near York and then to Washington, ancestral home of the Washingtons near Newcastle, after they left Hertburn.

Some of My Other Posts on the Arms of Oxford Colleges and PPHs: Original Article in Oxford Today . Heraldry as Branding . Heraldry as Fun .  Coat of Arms vs. Crest . Sinister Questions . Visit to the College of Arms . Windsor Herald Talks to New Yorkers . Shaming of Harvard Law Shield :: Rapid Expansion of Oxford's Colleges and Halls . Oxford Stars . HERALDRY SUPERLINK . Harris Manchester College . Linacre College . St Catherine's . St Cross College . St Edmund Hall . Trinity College :: Regent's Park College . St Benet's Hall . 

Other Heraldry Posts: Douglas-Moray-de Vere Arms


  1. The Oxford arms RELATES in origins to the 1st-EARL OF OXFORD who is a De VERE or Lord Oxfords kin were with Sir Jame the Good Douglas at Teba! They are related many times over!

  2. Capt. Gio - Thank you for this. I have made a note of these multiple connections.