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John Tepper Marlin

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Washington's Arms and the Stars and Stripes -- Believe!

Posted: 09/25/2012 2:53 pm

Washington arms, Trinity College, Oxford window,
from Durham College chapel. Photo by JTMarlin.
Washington arms in a window of
Selby Abbey church, Yorkshire.

I was in the Trinity College, Oxford Old Library last week, as part of the 2012 Oxford alumni weekend, celebrating my 50th year back and looking for links to trace the impact of Oxford alumni on the history of the United States. With the help of a note in the visitors' book, notes on display for visitors, and the Trinity library staff I found out the significance of the coat of arms shown at left above, which appears above a depiction of martyr Thomas Becket. The window does not, and should, appear in the wikipedia list of architectural occurrences of the Washington coat of arms, especially since it must be one of the most ancient surviving occurrences. It is another clue pointing to the connection between George Washington's coat of arms and the Stars and Stripes on the U.S. flag.


Durham Quad, Trinity College, Oxford. The Old Library
where the Washington-crest window is now is in the medieval building
at left, with the Trinity chapel at right (south). Photo taken on the Hall side.
This window and its companions support the idea that the Washington coat of arms inspired the stars and stripes. It is believed to have been installed originally in the old Durham College chapel (built 1406-08) on the site where Trinity College now stands. Trinity was once about 10 yards outside the  Oxford City wall on Broad Street. Durham College was founded by the Bishop of Durham for the use of Benedictine monks of Durham Cathedral Priory. The land for Durham College was bought in 1291 (making it one of the earliest Oxford colleges), after monks had been sent to Oxford for a few years. The college was built around a single quadrangle, now known as Trinity's Durham Quad (see photo). The east side of the Durham Quad survives and includes the Old Library, which was built in 1417-1421 for the use of Durham College and became the Fellows' Library at Trinity College. The windows believed to be from the Durham College chapel in the Old Library would most likely have been moved when the chapel was torn down at the end of the 17th century.  Parts of the Durham College buildings also survive on the west side of the quad, at either end of the 17th-century Hall.

Durham College was one of the victims of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. It was privatized in March 1545, was transferred to private owners in 1553, and was purchased by civil servant Sir Thomas Pope on February 20, 1555 (February 1554 under the existing calendar) to found Trinity College barely two weeks later. Durham College was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St Cuthbert, and the Trinity. Pope is believed to have taken the Trinity College name from the last element of the Durham dedication. Pope, a childless Catholic, hoped to be remembered in college prayers and his wishes are still honored.

Both versions of the Washington family coat of arms above show three five-pointed red stars over two horizontal red bars on a white field ("argent, two bars gules, above, three mullets gules"). This is the flag or crest that is widely believed to have inspired the Stars and Stripes. The Washington coat of arms was certainly the basis for the design used since 1938 of the flag of the District of Columbia. A BBC documentary in 2002  featured Selby Abbey Church in North Yorkshire (not itself a cathedral, but modeled on the huge Durham Cathedral recently used for the first two Harry Potter movies). The Abbey Church shows the Washington coat of arms on one of its stained glass windows of  the Abbey Church. This belief dates back at least to the U.S. centennial year 1876, when in "Washington: A Drama in Five Acts," a  verse play by Englishman Martin Farquhar Tupper, the character Benjamin Franklin says: "We, and not he - it was unknown to him - took up his coat of arms" to fashion a flag. His play was widely performed and the story  was retold St. Nicholas, the magazine for American children.

However, the American Heraldry Society has worked itself into a lather about the claim that the Washington coat of arms inspired the Stars and Stripes. It argues that records on the design for the American flag don't support this belief. However, to my mind its arguments are not conclusive:
  • The Society accepts that George Washington used his coat of arms more than any other president has done since, so that however modest his advocates make him out to be, his love of his crest being known may have influenced the many people who wanted to honor him, whether or not he himself expressed desire for the honor. Tupper's play is consistent with that scenario.
  • The Society credits design of the flag to Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, on the basis that he is the only person who billed Congress for his work, asking for a quarter-casket of wine. Yes, he had some artistic ability and had spent more than a year in England, including some time with future Prime Minister Lord North. However, (1) Hopkinson's design used six-pointed stars, whereas the stars on the American flag are five-pointed mullets as in George Washington's arms, and (2) Hopkinson had the stars arranged in the form of two crosses, like the Union Jack, whereas the first approved flags had the stars arranged in three rows or a circle. The Congress demurred in paying Hopkinson's bill, partly on the basis that he claimed too much credit, since many people were involved in designing the flag. 
Does it matter? I think it does. It strengthens our attachment to the Stars and Stripes to believe that the flag honors our first President. The Washington coat of arms was used to identify the family as far back as the 12th century. An ancestor of George Washington then moved into what is now called Washington Old Hall, in County Durham, the shire immediately north of Yorkshire. William de Hertburne assumed tenancy of the Wessyngtonlands from the Bishop of Durham.  Soon after, he changed his name to William de Wessyngton. (John Wessington is likely a relative - an English Benedictine, Prior of Durham Abbey until his death in 1451.) In 1613 Sir John Mallory and Anna Eure sold the manor to the Bishop of Durham as the family moved south to Sulgrave Manor. The Wessyngton family last owned Washington Old Hall in the early 1400s when Sir William Mallory married Dionysia Tempest, daughter of Sir William Tempest and his cousin Eleanor Wessyngton. In 1936 the hall was threatened by demolition and was rescued by the "Friends of the Old Hall"; in 1957 the National Trust took it over.

The Trinity Coillege window is one more piece of evidence for linking the Washington stars and stripes to the U.S. flag.
 

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