Image of British Coat of Arms of 1786 located
in St. Luke’s Cultural Centre (Source: Christopher Newhook).
“Honi soit qui mal y pense” are the words emblazoned on the coat of arms located in St. Luke’s Cultural Centre. The words are in Norman French and translated to English, they mean “shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.” Below the images on the coat of arms are the words “DIEU ET MON DROIT” meaning “God and my right.”
All of these words and images may appear meaningless
to modern eyes. Although, at the time, their intention was crystal clear. Like many afterwards, the Coat of Arms reflected the intentions of a growing empire to demonstrate and pursue power and glory. Before discussing these words and images and exploring their meaning, a bit of background is in order.
Brief History of St. Luke’s Cultural Centre
Photograph of St. Luke’s Cultural Centre (Source: Lee Everts).
St. Luke’s Cultural Centre was formerly St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Placentia, Newfoundland & Labrador. Established in the sixteenth century as a place of Roman Catholic worship, through the tussles between the British and French, it became Protestent in 1713. It was in 1786 when Prince William Henry visited Placentia on a tour of British lands. From 1830 to 1837, he would reign in Britain as King William IV. While in Placentia, he presented the church1 with several gifts. One was a silver communion service and the other was in fact this coat of arms.
Coat of Arms
The idea for a coat of arms originated with the military, a distinct snd decisive expression of strength and power. Beginning in the twelfth century, knights would seek to ally themselves with various nobles. It began in northern Europe and, over time, it’s spread throughout the world. Every modern day country possess a coat of arms, as well as an array of national emblems appearing on items such as their flags.
Originally it was the knights who sought to ally themselves with some power. They would do so using some form of imagery and text worn on their surcoat, the tunic worn over the armour. In some circumstances, it could be displayed on their shield or rest atop their helmet.
The imagery was intended to convey the power wielded by the owner of the coat of arms. Below the imagery would be some sort of motto. This was serious business. The coat of arms were used during actual warfare, as well as in tournaments, a glamorous representation of warfare.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Coat of Arms Wikipedia).
Nowadays, we do much the same, for instance, the coat of arms of the RCMP displays their intention to “Maintiens le Droit” or “Maintain the Right.” It shows a bison, owing to a segment of the RCMP2 originating in Northwest Canada.
Although, the use of a coat of arms has shifted from strictly warfare or military. Various guilds, churches, schools, universities or other organisations also possess their own coat of arms. However, in all of these institutions, much like our monarchies of old, a clear statement of authority and strength is still being made through the use of the coat of arms.
Coat of Arms in St. Luke’s Cultural Centre
The coat of arms given to St. Luke’s was that of Great Britain. The imagery has changed over time, a reflection of the changing powers in the monarchy. The coat of arms was given during the reign on Queen Anne. She took the crown following the union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England on 1 May, 1707.
Coat of Arms of Britain as given by Prince William Henry in 1786 to St. Luke’s in Placentia (Source: Christopher Newhook).
The Coat of Arms is divided into quarters, the first in the upper left, the second in the upper right, the third quarter in the lower left and finally, the fourth quarter in the lower right.
As to be expected, the images chosen are obvious displays of power. For Queen Anne, she elected to have the image representing the Arms of England and Scotland sharing the first and fourth quarter. That of England consisted of three lions over top one another.
The choice of a lion to signify England is unsurprising. The lion is a symbol for qualities such as courage, pride, and strength. These are all attributes to which any country would aspire. Coincidentally, the lion now functions as the national animal in England. Originally, there were only two lions on the British Coat of Arms. However, a third was added by King Richard I, often referred to as Richard the Lionheart.
The Arms of Scotland was a rampant Scottish unicorn. It was used simply because the eminent unicorn, considered untamable, is not only Scotland’s national animal. It is also considered to be undefeatable, a noteworthy quality given its placement alongside Britain’s lion.
The Arms of France were reflected in the third quarter, consisting of three fleur-de-lis, a symbol believed to have begun with King Louis VII. The Arms of Ireland, placed on the third quarter, are represented by a harp. The harp has been the national emblem for Ireland since apparently 1185. It was at this time when then King John toured Ireland. Touring for about a year, he expressed appreciation for the role of music in the culture of Ireland.3
“Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense”
Surrounding the Arms of the various countries is the motto “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” meaning, as noted earlier, “shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.” The words were chosen by King Edward III using Norman French, the language used since William the Conqueror of Normandy, France had taken control of England in 1066. It was also the language used at the time by the ruling classes in Britain.
These words were also tied to the Most Noble Order of the Garter. The Order was established by King Edward III in 1348 and dedicated to the image and arms of St. George. The Garter, the symbol of the Order has always been worn on the left leg below the knee and is emblazoned with the motto.
Badge of the Order of the Garter: The attributed arms of Saint George circumscribed by the Garter (Source: Sodacan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia)
About the Garter
There are several different explanations for the motto. A somewhat fanciful one holds that King Edward III was dancing with Joan of Kent, his first cousin and daughter-in-law. As the story goes, her garter slipped down around her ankle, causiing no end of mirth by those who witnessed the happening.
King Edward III, apparently, to salvage her honour, placed the garter around his own leg, stating the following words “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” It makes sense, be it a little too perfect. Another explanation states that King Edward III, in preparation for the Battle of Crécy during the Hundred Years’ War, gave “forth his own garter as the signal.”
A further possibility holds that the motto is actually tied more to King Edward III’s claim to the French throne. And the Order of the Garter was created in order to pursue this claim. The Garter, a representation of the straps used to tighten armour, was used to signify the “band” or “bond” held by the knightly supporters for the claim to the French throne.
This explanation seems the most sensible, albeit somewhat embroidered. Still, given the age old tension between the English and French thrones, this explanation appears most worthy of the words appearing on the Coat of Arms.
In this sense, the coat of arms is essentially a statement of the power, maintaining that Britain seeks to make its claim for the French throne and shame on anyone who thinks ill of it. It’s possible. But the jury is still out.
For what it’s worth, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” is widely used. Although, in each case, the same sentiment of pride guides their use. Essentially, there is an action that has been taken and shame on anyone for thinking ill of it.
“Dieu et Mon Droit”
Meaning “God and my right,” it makes sense, as the King or Queen is the “titular head” of the Church of England. Thus, the Coat of Arms is merely officially stating the position of the monarchy as the conduit of the people with their God.
Gifting a Coat of Arms
A Coat of Arms is a national symbol, perhaps the preeminent one. And so, to gift such an item to Newfoundland, which was not a formal colony, is noteworthy. Placentia may not have been a colony. Although it was regarded quite highly by Britain.
Placentia’s importance was waning in Newfoundland throughout the 18th century, increasingly, the focus was being placed on St. John’s. Nevertheless, Placentia had been chosen by Britain as the military centre at the end of the War of the Spanish Success on 1713. So, that status likely carried some weight.
Canterbury Cathedral houses the cathedra or episcopal chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury and is the cathedral of the Diocese of Canterbury and the mother church of the Church of England as well as a focus for the Anglican Communion (Source: Rafa Esteve – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia)
In terms of gifting the coat of arms, Britain and its monarchy sat at the head of the Church of England. Hence, it was in their best interests to assert their supremacy in the gift of a Coat of Arms. Moreover, gifting a coat of arms would also be seen by the people as a sign of trust and belonging.
Britain was still a growing power at the time. Thus, it was vital for the governing power to assure their people of their importance. After all, it is the people who are the true strength of any country.
When walking into St. Luke’s Cultural Centre, the coat of arms sits discreetly on the wall facing the door. Some will remark on it while it will go unnoticed for others. Regardless, it signifies the place Placentia held as one of the dominions of Britain. And ultimately, it stands as reminder of the vast strength and power Britain held during the eighteenth century.
1There have been two churches built on the site preceding the current one.
2One of the armed forces that developed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was the North-West Mounted Police. Charged with enforcing justice in the Canadian Northwest Territories (initially this included Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northwest Territory and part of Nunavut).