A brief history of the Icelandic coat of arms
A brief history of the Icelandic coat of arms by Birgir Thorlacius. Previously published in Icelandic in Fáni Íslands, skjaldarmerki, þjóðsöngur, heiðursmerki [The Flag, Coat of Arms, National Anthem and Official Honours of Iceland], published by the Prime Minister's Office, 1991.
Coats of arms proved useful for identifying allies from enemies in battle. Some coats of arms were also long used on seals, although without colours. The insignia of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson [d. 1213] is the oldest known Icelandic seal. It was a gold ring bearing his name and the image of a raven [Hrafn], a gift from Bjarni Kolbeinsson, Bishop of Orkney.
Strict principles govern the design of coats of arms of individuals, families, heads of state and states. The coat of arms is limited to what appears on the shield itself, but it may be flanked by bearers such as the guardian spirits on the Icelandic coat. Two metals and four colours are used in their design: or (gold or yellow), argent (silver or white), azure (blue) gules (red), sable (black) and vert (green). The main rule is not to use two successive metals or colours, but alternate them. Exceptions are made, however, especially when an older coat of arms is augmented or otherwise changed. It should be noted that, in heraldry, the terms right (dexter) and left (sinister) refer to the holder standing behind the shield, not the viewer of it.
Although rare, personal coats of arms were found in Iceland. Medieval writings refer to illustrations on shields (e.g. a lion) and they were also sued on seals. In the 14th and 15th centuries a number of Icelanders were knighted and adopted coats of arms. Loftur Guttormsson the Powerful is said to have had a white falcon on a blue field as his coat of arms, but a serpent on his seal. Torfi Arason's coat was a polar bear on a blue field and half a polar beat above the helmet. Björn Þorleifsson the Powerful had the same kind of design, except there was a whole polar bear above the helmet.
Recipients of the Grand Cross of the Dannebrog Order were supposed to have a coat of arms made if they did not have one already. A number of Icelanders had them designed when they became eligible for this honour , including Bishop Pétur Pétursson, who was the first Icelandic recipient.
Iceland's coat of arms has a much longer history than the flag.
From 1950-1959 a committee was active in Denmark which had been appointed by the Prime Minister to examine and make proposals for a national coat of arms. One member of the committee, lawyer P. Warming who was the heraldic advisor to the state, has since made his views known on the Icelandic state coat of arms before 1262-1264, i.e. before it swore allegiance to the King of Norway, and the royal coat of arms that the Norwegian king used when he was also ruled Iceland. The following is a summary of some points in P. Warming's article.
The French Wijnbergen Roll, thought to have been written in 1265-1285 and now preserved in the Royal Dutch Association for Genealogy and Heraldry in The Hague, was printed in Archives Heraldiques Suisses over the period 1951-1954. The Roll describes 1,312 coats of arms, mostly French but with some German examples, as well as 56 royal coats of arms from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. These include the arms of the kings of France, Spain, Aragon, England, Portugal, Germany, Bavaria, Denmark, Navarre, Scotland, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. The back of one sheet in the roll (no. 35) shows the arms of the King of Iceland, i.e. the King of Norway after Iceland swore allegiance to him in 1262-1264. The caption reads le Roi dillande, i.e. le Roi d'Islande. The edges of the shield are dark, with blue and white (silver) horizontal stripes. The lower two-thirds of the shield bear alternating blue and white stripes. The uppermost third is a gold field without stripes. A red lion rampant is charged on the base of the shield, with its head touching the upper edge. In its paw the lion is holding a blue axe in the uppermost (golden) third of the shield, the shaft of which extends over the upper seven silver and blue stripes and seems to be golden below the uppermost silver stripe. The lion in the Norwegian royal coat of arms was not drawn with an axe in its paw until the reign of King Eirik Magnusson after 1280.
Judging from the French roll, this coat of arms appears to have been used by the King of Norway in his capacity as King of Iceland after 1280. Although the axe was added after 1280, the same or similar arms were conceivably used without it by the “King of Iceland” before then, perhaps immediately in 1264. The use of the cod as an emblem of Iceland is not documented until so much later that it need not clash with this coat of arms or any other.
This coat of arms of the “King of Iceland” was apparently formed by taking the Norwegian arms – a gold lion on a red field – and reversing the colours to produce a red lion on a gold field. In addition, the lower two-thirds of the shield are also altered to produce alternating blue and silver horizontal stripes, starting with blue at the base, with the uppermost silver stripe adjacent to the gold third. For some reason, this is in breach of the heraldic principle that silver and gold should not meet but should be separated by one of the non-metal tinctures, in a series such as colour-silver-colour-gold, and so forth. If heraldic principles alone had governed the design, the gold field should have been adjacent to a blue stripe, then a silver one, etc. – however, a silver stripe is adjacent to the gold field. This may invite the conclusion that the coat of arms had to take into account an existing design.
In such a case of adding to a previous coat of arms, heraldry allows a deviation from this principle. For similar reasons, the sections representing the Faroe Islands and Greenland are adjacent in the Danish coat of arms, although they are both in colour – in fact, the same colour.
The existing shield that had to be respected and taken into account when part of the Norwegian state arms were added to it must have been Iceland's coat of arms before 1262. According to the above, this would have been a shield with twelve silver (white ) and blue horizontal stripes, with silver at the top and blue at the bottom. From a heraldic point of view, this simple design is an attractive one.
If this hypothesis is correct, the oldest Icelandic state coat of arms dates from the same time as Norway's, which is known (without the axe) from the days of King Hakon IV. The number of stripes on the Icelandic arms need not have any special significance, but it does bring to mind the fact that Iceland was originally divided into twelve assemblies, although admittedly this was changed before the custom of adopting coats of arms was adopted in Scandinavia in 1150-1200.
The presence of the lion from the Norwegian arms in the roll holding an axe, which was added at precisely the time that the roll was drawn up, shows that the compiler had a clear knowledge of Nordic heraldry, according to Warming.
The shield with twelve alternating white (silver) and blue stripes is conceivably the emblem (or flag) that King Hakon bestowed upon Gissur Þorvaldsson in Bergen in 1258, when he made him Earl of Iceland.
Warming's hypothesis about the arms of the King of Iceland has been challenged, for example by Norwegian curator Hallvard Trætteberg; some critics consider that the coat of arms in the Wijnbergen Roll is a fictional work by the illustrator. Warming has answered these arguments, pointing out that the Rolls are generally accurate and reliable, for example in their coverage of the arms of England, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Orkney, so it is not surprising for Iceland to have arms of its own, bearing in mind that small communities such as Man, Orkney, Jamtaland and the Faroe Islands did.
For all this speculation about the royal emblem of Iceland, P. Warming considers there to be overwhelming evidence that the shield with twelve white and blue stripes is the original national emblem (coat of arms) of Iceland.
It is not known when a fish (cod), sometimes split and sometimes round, became the emblem of Iceland. Merchants from Hamburg had a cod in their seal around 1500, and likewise the Lubeck merchants in Bergen around 1415. An illustration of a split cod is found in the margin of an Icelandic calfskin manuscript from around 1360 (Stokkhólmsbók, no. 5, fol. in the Royal Library in Stockholm) while Olaus Magnus' map Carta Marina, published in Venice in 1539, portrays a cod on a shield, similar to the later coat of arms.
In 1550, King Christian III of Denmark sent governor Larentsius Mule to Iceland with a royal seal and a letter dated January 28 of that year, in which the king thanks the Icelanders for their loyal support during the Reformation. The letter states that 6-8 selected men shall safeguard the seal to prevent it from being misused.
Whether the king had the seal made on his own initiative or at the request of Icelanders is not known. Its purpose was to guarantee to the king and others that the documents bearing it were from the correct authorities.
This seal has apparently been lost and its design is unknown, but probably included a cod emblem.
A meeting of Parliament in 1592 designated lawspeaker Jón Jónsson to present a number of matters to the State Council of Denmark, which held the regency under the infant king Christian IV, including a request for an Icelandic seal, to be in the safekeeping of the governor of Iceland and used in royal business. In a letter to the governor dated May 9, 1593, the State Council says it has granted the request and had a seal made which has been presented to Heinrich Chrag, governor of Iceland, assigning it to his safekeeping and ensuring that it will not be misused.
The seal is made of silver and shows a headless cod with a crown above it, with the date 1593 to one side, with SIGILLVM INSVLÆ ISLANDIÆ in an arc. It is preserved in the National Museum of Iceland (no. 4390), after being presented by the national authorities in 1897.
This is a reliable source about the crowned cod as an emblem of Iceland, which in fact was used before the seal of 1593 was made, for example on Danish gold coins minted in 1591. The cod was incorporated into the Danish royal seal during the reign of Christian IV and remained there until the reign of Frederic VI, with a modification in 1819. From 1820, when Norway ceased to belong to Denmark and its royal lion was removed from the common state coat of arms, the emblems of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands replaced it. The Icelandic cod was at the bottom right, split, in silver on a bright red field with a gold crown above it.
The cod emblem was later removed from the Danish state coat of arms and replaced by a falcon to symbolise Iceland.
In the latter half of the 19th century, a campaign began to replace the cod as the symbol of Iceland with a white falcon on a blue field.
A decree by the King of Denmark of October 3, 1903 stipulated that Iceland's coat of arms should be “a white Icelandic gyrfalcon on a blue field.” Many Icelanders considered this strong-featured, hardy and noble bird to be a more impressive symbol of their country than a cod. It has been said that Iceland's renown abroad was jointly maintained by the country's poets and falcons for three or four centuries. When the aristocracy in neighbouring countries ceased to understand and appreciate Icelandic poets, they continued to admire the falcon for centuries; the bird was described as a “king's treasure” and is still sough-after today. Falconry is an ancient form of hunting, thought to have originated among nomads in Asia and particularly practised at first in Turkestan. Around 2000 BC, falcons were considered precious gifts in China. The sport of falconry reached Europe and was an aristocratic pastime for centuries, as it had been in Asia before. Hunting with falcons was practised in Scandinavia well back into pagan times. Thus it was not surprising that the remote country of Iceland gained some mystique as the source of the best hunting falcons in the world, which were exchanged as royal gifts.
After Iceland's coat of arms was changed in 1919, a decree was issued in 1920 prescribing a special Icelandic royal flag showing an Icelandic gyrfalcon.
The King of Denmark used such a flag on his royal visit to Iceland in 1921, and the same summer he established the honorary award of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon, which bears this emblem.
The falcon coat of arms was not used for long. On February 12, 1919 an emblem was adopted showing the flag of Iceland on a shield. The royal decree on the coat of arms is as follows: “The Icelandic coat of arms shall be a crowned shield charged with the flag of Iceland. The bearers of the shield are the country's four familiar guardian spirits: a dragon, a vulture, a bull and a giant.”
Woodcarver Ríkarður Jónsson designed the coat of arms following a competition in which leading Icelandic artists including Jóhannes Kjarval took part. Bearing the shield are the four guardian spirits of Iceland, described by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla [History of the Kings of Norway]:
“King Harald [Gormsson of Denmark] told a man versed in magic to travel to Iceland in a different shape and find out what he could learn there to tell him. The man set out in the shape of a whale. And when he approached land he headed west along the north coast. He saw that all the mountains and hills were full of land spirits, some large and some small. Off Vopnafjörður he entered the fjord, intending to go ashore. Then a huge dragon came down along the valley with a train of serpents, insects and toads breathing poison over him. He fled and went westward off the coast as far as Eyjafjörður and went into the fjord there. Then a bird flew towards that was so great that its wings spread over the mountains on either side of the fjord, and many other birds with it, large and small. He left there and continued westwards, then turned south into Breiðafjörður, and headed for the fjord. A large bull came towards him there, waded into the sea and began to bellow menacingly. A band of land spirits followed it. He headed south from there around Reykjanes and tried to go ashore at Vikarsskeið. A mountain giant came towards him there with an iron staff in its hands and its head higher than the mountains, and many other giants were with it. From there he went eastwards the length of the land, but “there was nothing but sand and deserts, and surf off the shore, with such a vast sea between the parts of land,” he said, “that a longship could not cross it.”
These guardian spirits are the concept behind the shield bearers in the coat of arms from 1919. The idea of placing one guardian spirit in each section of the shield itself was considered, but rejected in favour of having them as its bearers. The coat of arms consists only of what is on the shield itself, and it can be used with or without bearers.
As the date for the re-establishment of the Republic of Iceland approached in 1944, Prime Minister Björn Þórðarson appointed three ministerial under-secretaries (Vigfús Einarsson, Agnar Kl. Jónsson and Birgir Thorlacius), together with Dr Matthías Þórðarson, Keeper of National Antiquities, who had been a consultant for the design of the coat of arms in 1919, to examine and recommend modifications to the state coat of arms. A change was called for because of the crown above the shield, which had to be removed when Iceland ceased to be part of a monarchy. We who were engaged on this project discussed changes to the coat of arms itself, in particular whether to reintroduce a falcon on a blue field. However, it was decided not to recommend a modification changes to the arms, nor to drop the guardian spirits as shield bearers. This was a unanimous decision and was discussed with the Prime Minister, who agreed. A new illustration was produced for the coat of arms omitting the crown and altering the shape of the shield. The shield bearers were redrawn and a plate was added on which the shield was mounted. Painter Tryggvi Magnússon drew the new arms. The original design is preserved at the National Museum of Iceland, no. 15026.
We found the drawing unsatisfactory. The idea of consulting heraldry experts at the Vatican was raised, but they were too busy designing coats of arms for newly nominated cardinals that they were unable to undertake other tasks. The foundation on which the shield rests was modelled on the natural stone slabs of the „church floor“ at Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
At a meeting of Parliament held at the ancient assembly site of Þingvellir on June 17, 1944 the Republic of Iceland was established. Parliament then elected the first President of the Republic for a term of one year, after which the President would be elected in a national vote. At a meeting of the State Council at Þingvellir the same day, newly elected President Sveinn Björnsson issued the following presidential decree on the coat of arms of the Republic:
„Iceland's coat of arms is a silver cross in a sky-blue field, with a bright red cross inside the silver cross. The arms of the cross shall extend to the rim of the shield on all four sides. The width of the cross shall be 2/9 of the width of the shield, but the red cross half as wide, at 1/9 of the width of the shield. The upper sections shall be squares and the lower sections the same width as the upper sections, but one-third longer.
The shield bearers are the four guardian spirits of Iceland as described in Heimskringla: A bull on the right side of the shield; a giant, on the left; a bird on the right above the bull; and a dragon on the left, above the giant.
The shield rests on a plate of columnar basalt.“