Saturday, 8 February 2014

Naval Heraldry

In this post I am going to look at an interesting and relatively unexplored category of heraldry, naval heraldry. traditionally ships could distinguish themselves from each other by gilding, paintwork and decorative figureheads like this one from the first true iron warship HMS Warrior, below:
Sometimes these were even based on coats of arms like the figurehead of Nelsons flagship in 1805 HMS Victory:
(A little off topic but It is also interesting to note that despite being over 200 years old, Victory is still a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy which is why she is flying the Union Jack from her bow "jack staff" in the above picture).
However in the mid 19th century such decorative items were actively discouraged or banned outright by most of the worlds navies, partly because of cost and partly because of ships starting to fallow a more uniformed pattern decoration and display.  So ships started adopting badges, coats of arms, crests, seals and other distinctive marks to identify themselves. In the Royal Navy this began in the mid 1800s and was unregulated to begin with. Initially they were markings on equipment belonging to the ship, or on the ships longboat so sailors could easily identify which boat belonged to which ship while in port (and thus know which to get into). The use of heraldry eventually began to be used on the ships themselves, thus beginning modern naval heraldry.
A common feature in the naval heraldry of quite a lot of nations is the naval crown, so I think its a good idea to briefly explain what this is:
Basically its a crown (normally gold) surmounted with the bows and sails of ships. Originally the naval crown was an award in the Roman Military and was awarded to the first man to board an enemy ship. (a similar idea was behind the camp or palisade crown awarded to the first man to enter an enemy camp during an attack) In heraldry the naval crown is surmounted on top of badges and shields of ships or maritime related badges and coats of arms.
Like heraldry itself naval heraldry differs from nation to nation so here are a few examples:

Royal Navy

In the United Kingdom as already mentioned ships were using heraldry since the 19th century. However in 1918, after designing heraldic badges for a few ships, a certain Charles Ffoulkes of the Imperial War Museum was appointed the Admiralty advisor on Heraldry. Soon a special ship's badge committee was established to create badges for ships.
The standard design was a badge with a rope border, surmounted by a naval crown, below which was the name of the ship. Originally the shape of the badge represented what type of ship it belonged to. Circles were for battleships, pentagons for cruisers, a 'U' shape shield for destroyers, and a diamond for auxiliary units, aircraft carriers and small commissioned vessels like torpedo boats.  The inside of the badge was and is unique to each ship.
Badge of the light cruiser HMS Dublin which served between 1912 and 1924
A problem with this is that as names are often reused in the Royal Navy, a different ship bearing the same name as a past ship might not be the same type and so the bade would need to be redesigned each time. So in 1940 the badges were standardised to the modern design which is a circular design. After WWII ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have pentagon shaped badges, and shore bases diamond shapes for example:

 Left to right badge of the Type 45 (Daring Class) destroyer HMS Dauntless(left), Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ship RFA Fort Victoria (centre), and the Scottish naval base HMS Caledonia (right).
Ships badges (sometimes incorrectly called ships crest) are mounted on the ship's superstructure. badges are reused the same as names, so with each name being approved by the Queen the badge is also approved. The only ship in the Royal Navy that has a completely original badge is the type 22 Frigate HMS Chatham as none of the previous Chathams' had badges:

Royal Australian Navy

Judging that the Australian Navy originated as a colonial branch of the British Navy, it is not supersizing that Australian Naval Heraldry is based on and fallows the example of badges in the Royal Navy. Initially before World War Two badges were approved by the Admiralty in London, however fallowing the war a body known as the Names, badges and honours committee took over this role.
It is important to note that while Australian and British badges are similar they are not identical and have a number of distinctive differences.
The name on an Australian badge is on a scroll rather than the name plaque of a British one. Below the badge there is a scroll for the ships motto (something I think Royal navy ships should adopt as most also have mottos but don't display them on their badge). Between the motto and the rope circle is a boomerang and crossed axe and nulla nulla, aboriginal weapons identifying the ship as Australian.
Badge of the Adelaide Class guided missile frigate HMAS Sydney

Royal Canadian Navy

Like the Australians, heraldry in the Canadian Navy is based on the British Navy. However unlike the Aussies, the RCN ship badge is almost identical to a Royal navy badge but for a coloured name plaque and three gold maple laves at the bottom of the badge.
In WW2 the supply of ships was two great for the heraldic authorities to cope with, so local authority was granted to a ships commanding officer to adopt a badge, thus many war time badges featured popular cartoon characters. however these were regarded as unofficial. Authority to grant a ship badge now comes from the Governor General.
badge of Iroquois class destroyer HMCS Iroquois


 Royal Norwegian Navy

The Norwegian navy heraldry is similar to that used on land, the difference being the shield has a rope boarder. The Norwegian Navy don't use the Naval crown but use the Royal crown of Norway instead. What the badge depicts is often inspired by the ships name for example HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen bears the Nansen coat of arms, alternatively the badge may depict the ship's function:

United States Navy

 Unlike commonwealth and other navies the US Navy does not display heraldic items on its ship's superstructures. USN ships do bear heraldic badges though, these are often worn as arm patches on the uniform of the crew. US navy badges are commonly called both seals and crests. It is up to the first captain of a new ship to design his ship's "crest" and submit it for approval. In this her/she has a lot of leeway, and may seek the services of the US Army's Heraldry Branch, (and I think it is obvious which ships appear to have done this). As a result the badges vary greatly, however there does appear to be some common patterns. Most designs appear in a rope circle or oval, with the ship's full name at the top and number at the bottom. Many of the badges themselves include very well thought of and designed coats of arms often complete with crest and supporters, the two most common design types appear to be these:
 Not all of the American ship badges have coats of arms some depict images of the vessel itself or other historic vessels that bore the same name, or say something about the ship:


 It is obvious that the Missouri is a nuclear submarine and one can tell by the nuclear atom symbol and missile in the badge of the Mississippi that it is a nuclear powered guided missile cruiser.

 Irish Defence Forces (Naval Service)

Despite having a very small navy the Republic of Ireland has formed its own maritime heraldry and grants its ships badges. They appear to be based on the emblem of the naval service. Below is the emblem of the naval service and that of the LE Aoife:


 Military - Maritime Fleet of the Russian Federation

The Russian Navy uses a coat of arms based design with the naval ensign in the chief of the arms with a Russian double eagle with a naval crown, the shield is often flanked by two anchors. Example is the badge of the RFS Admiral Chabanenko:

 Portuguese Navy

The coats of arms consist of a round tip shield (Portuguese shield), topped by a naval crown and under which is placed a scroll with the motto or the name of the body or unit. A scroll with the war cry of the unit can be placed above the naval crown. These designs include many units and ships and even the navy itself, Navy coat of arms (left) and NRP Antonio Enes (left) below
Also of interest is that the Portuguese Navy uses Heraldic flags, depending on the unit these may be a banner, standard or pennant.
Portuguese Naval heraldry also appears to be the basis of naval heraldry in some South American Countries notably Chile.


  1. Very interesting article, congratulations!

    The naval crown is omnipresent in Brazilian naval heraldry. Moreover, it's basically divided in two types:
    * Ships heraldry: Pentagonal shield, always with same golden ornamental bordure. Examples: [1] [2] [3] [4]
    * Commands, commissions, schools, etc. heraldry: Portuguese (round) shields, usually adorned with a chord ending on a reef knot. Often, medals are displayed. Examples: [1] [2] [3] [4]

    1. Thanks, some interesting designs, Before this post I thought the naval crown was a commonwealth thing but through the research I found out that it is an interesting aspect of world heraldry.

  2. Another difference in the Australian Ship's Badges is the Naval Crown. The Australian Naval Crown differs from the RN one. At the time the powers that be in Australia (post WWII) decided on the standardised emblems, they chose the crown from the RN that was in fact the funerary device used by the RN. It differs in that the side of the crown has "cutouts" rather than the flat sides.

    Source: Cassells V, "The capital ships : their battles and their badges" and the RAN Hraldry book (I can't recall the name)