The Origins of Portsmouth's Coat of Arms

The matter of the origin of Portsmouth's Coat of Arms has been the subject of debate since the 19C. In an attempt to clarify the issue James Hutt M.A., F.L.A. (Portsmouth City Librarian and Curator) wrote the following letter to the Evening News of 29th April 1932. It was subsequently added to and amended by the author.

The subject [of the Star and Crescent] is one to which I gave much attention some years ago when working on the Portsmouth Charters. The Star and Crescent (which undoubtedly the emblems on the Portsmouth Arms are), were carried as devices on many seals, Coins and other such objects, in the West as well as in the East, before, during and after Richard I's time. In fact, this device is so very common in the 12th and 13th centuries, that its origin and cases of adoption cannot be unravelled.
The theory, as to the adoption by Portsmouth of William de Longchamp's arms for its seal was first propounded by Messrs. Lilley and Everitt in their history of Portsmouth Parish Church. But it is more than probable that William de Longchamp, a close servant and attendant of the king, who was also Chancellor, derived his arms from those of his king ; and that the Portsmouth men derived theirs in the same manner, as Richard was evidently fond of the borough. I say this because of the whole of his reign of 9¾ years, Richard spent about seven months only in England, and yet found time to spend a fortnight in Portsmouth and its neighbourhood. True, he was waiting for good weather to cross to Europe, but the fact remains that before attempting to cross, he went hunting at Stansted, and afterwards returned to Portsmouth, when he might have gone to Winchester or Portchester, or Bishops Waltham, at which last place he had been staying before coming on to Portsmouth.
When Richard landed at Sandwich in March, 1194, he had only just been set free from his year's captivity in Germany, and had other things to do than grant arms or charters. It was after he had settled his affairs and had been re-crowned at Winchester, that he thought of granting charters, while waiting in Portsmouth to cross to Normandy.
A few days after Richard granted charters to Norwich and Portsmouth (April and May, 1194), he set sail to France for his last crusade, as, he intended, though he was fated not to see Palestine again ; (see Dictionary of National Biography, under Richard I) and he never came back to England. Thus we see he was leaving, not returning to England, and therefore, the statement that he gave the device of a crescent and star to Portsmouth on his return from a Crusade proves to be legend only.
The whole argument is much too long to print here, but the following is a summary of what I found out.
All the experts at the Record Office, the British Museum, the Bodleian, and also Dr. Hamilton Thompson, Professor of Mediaeval History in the University of Leeds, agree that on such an instrument as our first charter the Great Seal of the King would be used.
A seven-pointed star was on the second Great Seal of Stephen, thus proving its use at an earlier date than Richard I's. The first seal of Richard I bore crescent and star on each side of the representation of the king. Stephen's star was a seven-pointed one. Those on Richard I's first seal were apparently a six-pointed star and an eight-pointed star, though-possibly this latter one may have been only seven-pointed; this is a matter for debate.
The British Museum catalogue says " on either side of king's head, a crescent enclosing an estoile of seven points wavy."
On Richard's second seal (1198) was what is described as a sun of sixteen rays ; it might have been meant to portray a many-rayed star. Taken with the finish of the emblems on the first seal, this shows that the makers were rather indifferent to the way in which the particular emblem was represented, just as in Portsmouth in more recent times the same thing has occurred, for one can see five, six and eight-pointed stars on the Portsmouth device all over the City.
During his stay at Portsmouth in 1194, besides granting Portsmouth its first charter, Richard also granted to Norwich a charter, dated April 23rd, under the hand of the same Chancellor, William de Longchamp. The originals of this, in two copies, are still in the possession of the City of Norwich, and both bear the first Great Seal of Richard I. To my mind this is a most conclusive argument, as a charter granted under exactly similar conditions within a fortnight would be issued in precisely similar a form. It can be proved that charters granted to English Boroughs by Richard still in existence dating from March, 1189, when he was in Rouen, till April, 1198, when he was in Tours, still bear his first Great Seal.
Boroughs receiving charters from Richard I paid a considerable fee to the King which he used in his Crusades. It is unlikely that he would allow the possibility of another seal than his own being placed on our charter, as there would be a likelihood in that case of his not getting the fee. Further, we have the record in Matthew Paris and other historians (who note the fact with horror) that on two occasions, 1189 or 1194 (?) and 1198, Richard gave orders for a new seal to be made, and ordered charters (whether to clergy or laity) already granted by him under his old seal to be brought for re-sealing with his new seal; which being done, he took a fee; otherwise the grants under the old seal had no validity. A new seal was made in May, 1198. [See D.N.B.]
In the criticism that appeared in the Evening News after the publication of the gist of this article as a letter in April, 1932, a deal was made as to my saying that the claim for Richard's grant of a crescent and star to Portsmouth is a legend. When I see the original, or a contemporary document, making or recording such a grant of arms to this or any other city (or the original charter, to Portsmouth bearing William de Longchamp's seal, or any charter of this character not bearing the Great Seal, but instead an ecclesiastical or diocesan Seal), I shall be ready to accept the facts proved by such instruments.
Those desirous of looking up this matter further, or who would wish to read an explanation of the device upon Richard I's first seal, will find details in the following books:— Richard I in Dictionary of National Biography; Birch: "Seals" 1907, pages 35 and 36; Wyon: "Great Seals of England," 1887; all obtainable in the Central Reference Library.
From the Evening News of February 13th 1929.
"Congratulations to the City of Portsmouth on obtaining a motto, and to the City Council for choosing it. The Council yesterday decided to register with the College of Heralds the motto: 'Heavens Light Our Guide'".
"Heavens Light Our Guide" is the motto of the Order of the Star of India. This Order was founded by Queen Victoria in 1861, and the insignia included a star, which in this instance has five points, and is surrounded by the four words of the motto. It was very fitting that the star, with its gilded rays, should form a prominent and frequent ornament on the troopships which formerly conveyed the British Troops to and from India and regularly called at Portsmouth. There at once is a link with the Navy and with Portsmouth. The words of the motto are appropriate to the time-honoured Star and Crescent badge of Portsmouth which for over 700 years has served as arms and seal for the borough and now the city.


Bart O'Brien has pointed out that this article makes no reference to the Star and Crescent being a typical symbol from the Islamic world. The first paragraph does suggest that the device was well known in the East in the 12th and 13th centuries but does not go on to define "the East", nor does it mention Islam in particular. As this issue has been raised it is worth pointing out that the connection between the Portsmouth emblem and the traditional Islamic device has been discussed elsewhere, a typical summary of the matter being available on the Welcome to Portsmouth website, though no references are given there.
Bart goes on to say "The star and crescent is a very common Muslim symbol - nearly always with the crescent vertical, but sometimes horizontal. [But] it was a Byzantine symbol, albeit with the crescent vertical, even before Islam existed.
"In 1190 King Richard I of England went on crusade. In 1191, he conquered Cyprus, which was then ruled by a rebel Byzantine prince. The arms of this defeated ruler were a star and crescent, with crescent horizontal. In all probability this Byzantine coat of arms is the origin of the star and crescent of the city of Portsmouth.
"To see how exactly that happened distinguish first two things. Like any king of the time Richard had both a coat of arms to be used on shields and in similar heraldic contexts, and a great seal that served to authenticate his assent to official documents. Arms and seal were established at the beginning of the reign, and the two had entirely different designs.
"In 1194 Richard returned to England. He only stayed three months. In that time, among other things, he redesigned both his coat of arms and his seal, assembled a fleet and army at Portsmouth, made Portsmouth into a town by granting a charter, authenticated with the new seal, and embarked for France - as it turned out, never to return.
"Richard's second seal included the star and crescent symbol, albeit only as a relatively minor element of the design. It sometimes happened that a medieval prince added the symbols of a defeated enemy or a conquered territory as elements to his own arms or seal. The star and crescent that now appeared in Richard's second seal came from the arms of the Byzantine prince of Cyprus. The new town of Portsmouth needed both a seal and a coat of arms. It took the star and crescent from the King's seal that was affixed to the new charter, and used them, not just for its own seal, but also as its coat of arms.
"There is one more point of interest. Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. In several languages of the Mediterranean and the Levant it was therefore known as 'the heart of the lion'. Regulus was also regarded in several cultures as being the king of stars. If the star in the arms of Byzantine Cyprus was meant to be Regulus, then it would be very appropriate for King Richard, already known as the Lion Heart, to acquire the symbol. This may have been so but there is no evidence for it."


Sabih Özlem, who is a Turkish Archeaologist, has pointed out that the Crescent and Star was not originally a Byzantine emblem, rather it was a device used by the Seljuk Turks and that the history of the iconic image goes back to shamanistic practices many centuries earlier than the crusades. For a decidedly erudite summary of this usage see the website of Polat Kaya, M. Sc. E. E.

Sabih later proposed an alternative derivation for the star and crescent having noticed that it appeared on coins issued during the reign of the Roman Emporer Hadrian (see right) and suggests that Richard would have known about it and adopted the device as a way of stating that 'I am the new Roman Emperor'. There is no evidence to support this theory.