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The portuguese coat of arms and it's history

Last modified: 1999-10-01 by jorge candeias
Keywords: portugal | arms | coat of arms | heraldry | armilliary sphere | castle | bezant | quinas |
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History of the portuguese coat of arms

The first documented portuguese coat of arms goes back to the first half of the eleventh century, at the time of Sancho I and Sancho II. It was silver, charged by five blue escutcheons disposed in the form of a cross; the points of the side ones pointing toward the center. Each escutcheon was chardged by silver dots, later called 'bezants'.

From 1252 circa, under Afonso III, the shield was added with the red border with the golden castles. On Afonso III coat of arms the eschuteons had six or more bezants and from eight to twelve castles. At the time of Afonso IV (1325-57), the bezants were many and the castles twelve.

In 1385, when the Avis dinasty reach the throne, João I added the green cross of Avis to the shield, with the castles grouped three by three in the corners of the red border.

Between 1485 and 1495 João II removed the Avis cross and tilted all the escutcheons vertically. From that time on a golden royal crown of ancient type appeared over the shield.

In 1557 King Sebastião modified the crown and fixed as seven the number of the castles and as five the number of the bezants (so the name of 'quinas'), until then subjected to variations.

The coat of arms didn't change until 13 May 1816 when the gold armillary sphere on a blue field was added to the shield and a royal crown placed overall. At the time this coat of arms represented the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve. The shield was sustained by two green dragons and circled by the collar of the Order of Avis.

Mario Fabretto, 22 May 1997

In fact, the coat of arms did not change radically from 1248 until now: five blue eschuteons bezanted on silver bordered red charged with castles gold. Crown or no crown, cross or no cross, sphere or no sphere, the main part remained. Nothing special about the coat of arms in 1826...

In 1816, the country's name had officially, no "united" and (strangely enough) "Algarves", plural...

In that period, a third dragon under the crown was an often variation. These were of course never included into any flag.

António Martins, 22 May 1997

"How did the cross get it's spots"

Reading a quite old book (1908) I found there some assorted comments on portuguese flags and coats of arms. Today I'll report an interesting theory that I've never read anywhere else, about how the simple blue on silver cross of Henrique of Burgundy, Count of Portucallis and father of our first king become the quite complex five blue eschuteons on silver, each charged with 11 bezants, his gandson's Sancho I coat of arms.

[D. Henrique Banner of arms]
by António Martins

According to this book, King (then Count) Afonso Henriques, son of the previous, enherited his father's shield in 1139, but when he was recognized as King of Portugal in 1143, he added to it the silver bezants, that stand for coins and symbolize the right of their bearer to issue currency -- the privilege of a King (another meaning, that the bearer was liberated from captivity by paid ransom, is not probbable in this case for King Afonso Henrique was never captured in battle). The added bezants, in fact large-headed silver nails, were set in five groups of 11 -- the author doesn't give any explanation for this number. Later, in 1573, the bezants were fixed to five -- meanwhile their number changed quite a lot throught the times.

[D. Afonso Henriques Banner of arms]
by António Martins

This book ([coe08]), states that back in those days it was often not to repair minor damages on battle shield's ornaments (the "real", original, coats of arms), making heraldry very dynamical: pieces were lost in battle, colors changed by the harsh sunlight, even new elements were added, like the well known blood stains of Catalonia, Austria or Latvia.

[D. Sancho I Banner of arms]
by António Martins

So, after 81 years of a battleful life, King Afonso Henriques enherited to his son Sancho a quite ruined shield, with ripped off parts of the blue leather that made the cross of his father: all missing escept for those parts still attached to the shield by the silver nails! So, thats how the simple throughout cross became a compound cross of five eschuteons...

António Martins, 26 September 1997

The armilliary sphere

The armilary sphere is a main element in portuguese heraldry, being incorporated in the modern flag and in a number of historical flags of both Portugal and Brazil.

It was an astronomical and navigation instrument made of wood or metal rings ("armilas") interconnected around a central axe to form parallels, meridians and the ecliptic, allowing to calculate one's position on the earth surface by examining the stars.

It is usualy depicted in heraldry in simplified form, with only one meridian (viewed in a 180 deg. position, as a circle), and only three parallel circles, the equator and the tropics. The ecliptic (sometimes bearing four to six zodiacal signs on it), in descending position on the modern flag's obverse, is usually wider than the other circles. The central axe is also visible, sometimes overlapping the meridian (and in that case we could consider it to be a 0 degrees meridian, viewed as a vertical line...). Anyway, the parallel circles overlap the meridians, and the ecliptic overlaps them all.

Older depictions show usually the instrument's "feet", a rotative "stool", as in a modern classroom globuses, and sometimes a smaller globe in the center or on the North Pole.

The modern version consists of the sphere only, and all the elements are samewhat wider and bearing detailed edges. The width difference between the ecliptic and the other rings is much smaller.

António Martins, 28 May 1997

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