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Coat of arms of a Dominion of "Canada"

  • Object type: Painting
  • Formal Title: The Royal Arms of Canada, adopted by proclamation of King George V on 1921-11-21
  • Date Created: 1921
  • Origin: England
  • Current Location: Canada

For the real keeners with some time to kill or an unusual love of heraldry, here is the formal description of the coat of arms of the Government of Canada as presented on May 31, 2014:

The Canadian Coat of Arms - The Shield

The design of the arms of Canada reflects the royal symbols of Great Britain and France (the three royal lions of England, the royal lion of Scotland, the royal fleurs-de-lis of France and the royal Irish harp of Tara. On the bottom portion of the shield is a sprig of three Canadian maple leaves representative of Canadians of all origins.

The three royal lions of England

The first quarter consists of the three gold lions of England walking and shown full face, on a red background. The lion is the oldest device known in heraldry and, as "king of beasts", was adopted by kings of Leon, Norway and Denmark as their emblem. However, the origin of the three royal lions of England still remains a mystery.

In the 11th century, Henry I, known as "the lion of justice", may have been the first English king to use a lion. It is uncertain as to why a second lion suddenly appeared. When Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose family emblem was also a lion, it is believed that he added the third lion. There is no question that, when he led his English troops in the Crusades, Richard I, "the Lion-Hearted" carried a shield emblazoned with three golden lions on a red background. To this day they have been the royal symbol of England.

The royal lion of Scotland

The second quarter consists of a red lion rearing on the left hind foot, within a red double border with fleurs-de-lis, on a gold background. The royal lion of Scotland was probably first used by King William, who was known as "the lion". However it was certainly used by his son, Alexander III, who made Scotland an independent nation.

The royal Irish harp of Tara

The third quarter is a gold harp with silver strings, on a blue background. North of the present city of Dublin, there is a hill called Tara which for centuries was the religious and cultural capital of ancient Ireland. If you visit the site, you will see a 750 foot earthen work that is said to have been the site of the banqueting hall of Irish kings. Thomas Moore recalls the history of this site in one of the most famous of all Irish lyrics that begins: ""The harp that once through Tara's hall the soul of music shed..."" There is a legend, recorded in C.W. Scott-Giles monumental work The Romance of Heraldry, that this harp was found and came into the possession of the pope. In the 16th century, Henry VIII suppressed the Irish people in his attempt to become the lawful successor to the kings of ancient Ireland. The pope sent the harp of Tara to England whereupon Henry added its likeness to his royal shield. From this time it has remained a symbol of Ireland.

The royal fleurs-de-Lys of France

The fourth quarter depicts three gold fleurs-de-lis, on a blue background. The fleurs-de-lis was the first heraldic emblem raised in Canada. On July 24, 1534, Jacques Cartier landed at Gaspé and erected a cross, affixed with the symbol of his sovereign and the royal house of France.

The three maple leaves

To complete the design of the shield, a Canadian symbol was required. Three red maple leaves conjoined on one stem, on a silver or white background, were then added. Throughout the 19th century, the maple leaf had gradually become closely identified with Canada. The maple leaf had been worn as a symbol of Canada during the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1860. The song "The Maple Leaf Forever", written by the Toronto school teacher Alexander Muir in 1868 had become Canada's national song. During World War I, the maple leaf was incorporated into the badge of many Canadian regiments. It was most appropriate that three maple leaves were given a commanding position within the shield, which made it unmistakably "Canadian".

On the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada, Her Majesty The Queen approved, on July 12, 1994 that the arms of Canada be augmented with a ribbon with the motto of the Order of Canada: "Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam". (They desire a better country).

The helm and the mantling

The helm (heaume or helmet), which in heraldry is usually placed above the shield of arms, not only serves as a means of displaying the crest, but also has a significance of its own, since its type denotes the rank of the person bearing the arms. On the helm lies a mantling or lambrequin. The mantle, originally, was to protect the head and shoulders of the wearer from the sun's heat. It has become a decorative accessory to the crest and shield.

The arms of Canada show a royal helmet, which is a barred helm of gold looking outward and draped in a mantle of white and red which are the official colours of Canada.

The crest

On the royal helmet is the crest. This symbol consists of a wreath or ring of twisted white and red silk on which stands a crowned gold lion holding in its right paw a red maple leaf. The lion is a symbol of valour and courage.

The crest is used to mark the sovereignty of Canada. It is now the symbol used on the Governor General's Standard.

The supporters

The figures that stand on either side of the shield are known in heraldry as "supporters" and are often depicted in a ferocious manner. The King of England chose two lions while Scotland chose two unicorns.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, he chose one lion and one unicorn as the supporters of his royal shield. Canada adopted the same pattern and used a lion on the shield's left holding a gold pointed silver lance from which flies the Royal Union flag, and a unicorn with gold horn, mane and hoofs, on the shield's right. Around its neck is a gold and chained coronet of crosses and fleurs-de-lis. The unicorn holds a lance flying a banner of royalist France, namely three gold fleurs-de-lis, on a blue background. The two banners represent the two principal founding nations that had established Canada's most enduring laws and customs.

The motto

Canada's motto "A Mari usque ad Mare" (From sea to sea) is based on biblical scripture: "He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth (From Sea to sea) – Psalm 72:8". The first official use of this motto came in 1906 when it was engraved on the head of the mace of the Legislative Assembly of the new Province of Saskatchewan. The wording of the motto came to the attention of Sir Joseph Pope, then Under Secretary of State, who was impressed with its meaning. He later proposed it as motto for the new design of the coat of arms, which was approved by Order in Council on April 21, 1921 and by Royal Proclamation on November 21, 1921.

The four floral emblems.

At the base of the arms are the floral emblems associated with the Canadian Monarchy: the English rose, the Scottish thistle, the French fleur-de-lis and the Irish shamrock.

English rose

The rose first became the symbol of England when Henry III married Eleanor of Provence and the golden rose of Provence became England's new floral symbol. From this golden rose eventually came the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of the House of York.

Scottish thistle

There is a legend that, in 1010 when they attempted to capture Scotland, the Danes landed secretly at night. As they approached Stains Castle they removed their shoes to avoid making any noise. When they reached the castle's moat, they jumped in not realizing that the moat was dry and overgrown with thistles. The screams of the bare-footed Danes roused the garrison. The castle and Scotland were both saved and, according to legend, it is in memory of that night that the thistle became the floral emblem of Scotland.

Irish shamrock

In Irish legends, it is said that when he brought Christianity to Ireland, Saint Patrick used the three petals of the shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity. As a result, the shamrock became the floral emblem of Christian Ireland.

The French fleurs-de-Lis

Following its adoption as the symbol of France's king, the fleurs-de-lis also became the symbol of Christian France. By the 13th and 14th centuries, the three petals of the lily of France were being described by writers as symbols of faith, wisdom and chivalry. As in Ireland, they also came to be seen as symbols of the Holy Trinity.

The imperial crown

On top of the "achievement of the arms of Canada" is the imperial crown which is indicative of the presence of a monarch as Canada's Head of State.

The shapes of symbols in a coat of arms can be altered by an artist since heraldry is an art as well as a science. However the symbols themselves can never be changed without formal approval. In 1957, when Canada's arms were slightly modified to produce a cleaner more contemporary design, the Government replaced the original Tudor crown of the 1921 design by a crown that would represent not just one of the royal families of English monarchs, but centuries of kings and queens of England. In accordance with the expressed wishes of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Saint Edward's crown is now used for the arms of Canada. It is this crown that has been used for the coronation of kings and queens in Westminster Abbey for centuries.

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