In Boutell’s Heraldry, supporters in heraldry are defined as “figures that stand on either side of the shield, as if upholding and guarding it”. These figures can either be human or beast and can be real or mythological or completely original and imagined. Sometimes even inanimate objects are used as supporters.
Though in the majority of cases there are only two supporters, one on either side of the shield (as Boutell mentioned), this is not a rule set in stone. There are many examples of heraldic achievements that use anything from a single supporter all the way to four.
In the case of single supporters, the most common is the use of an eagle displayed (in other words, with it’s breast towards the viewer and the wings open). An example of arms with such a supporter as seen above.
The arms of Spain, used between 1977 and 1981 shown above, use three supporters: the eagle displayed and the Pillars of Hercules. In ancient Greek mythology, the promontories that flank the Strait of Gibraltar were named after the mythological demigod.
Then again, we have an example of arms with four supporters in the achievement of Iceland above.
But, what is the history of the supporters in heraldry?
It is said that originally, heraldic artists drew figures around the shield to fill out the empty space when creating seals for their masters. This was done without any real heraldic meaning or rules. They were just “filler”.
Over the years, the use of supporters, as with the rest of heraldry, started becoming organized and rules were established. These rules were not only observed in the United Kingdom but also in the rest of Europe. In those regions where heraldry is not regulated, the traditional “laws” of heraldry are observed, especially when it comes to the use of supporters.
So, what are those rules governing the use of supporters?
In the UK, only the following are permitted:
- Peers of the Realm
- Knights of the Garter
- Knights of the Thistle
- Knights of St. Patrick
- Knights Grand Cross and Knights Grand Commanders of any of the established orders of the kingdom
- Bailiffs and Dames Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem
- County, city, district and town councils Certain corporations
- Those specifically granted them through a Royal License
In the UK there is the further restriction on the inheritance of supporters. Only hereditary Peers can transmit their supporters along with their arms to their heirs. All others may only use them during their lifetime and cannot transmit them.
Similar rules exist on the continent as well. The general rule of thumb is that supporters are used by those of the upper nobility, government entities, most companies and those individuals specifically granted supporters to.
All these rules are great for those countries with established rules or with a government regulated authority or in monarchies. Things are much simpler there for the armiger looking to adopt arms: you don’t use supporters unless expressly permitted to do so.
However, what is an armiger in a free republic without regulated heraldry to do?
In a republic like the United States, the citizen is the sovereign. There is no other individual in the realm above the citizen. Does this mean that he or she may use supporters?
The answer is “yes but, it’s not recommended”. The reasoning behind this answer is simple: in an unregulated environment, one can do whatever he or she pleases but needs to take into account the perception created.
This perception is why I gave the answer “not recommended”. Since supporters are, for better or worse, so closely associated with the highest levels of nobility, the implication is that if one freely assumes supporters, they are pretending to be what they are not. They are posturing as being above everyone else.
The typical response would be “so what?”. And indeed, “so what?”, no laws are being broken and nothing is technically wrong. Only some traditionalists may get flustered. Why should anybody care? Why shouldn’t a free citizen of a presidential republic not assume supporters?
My personal belief is that if you want to have supporters and there isn’t a law stopping you, go for it. But, I look to the example of such enlightened and gifted leaders from our history that bore arms proudly but never adopted supporters even though they most definitely deserved any augmentation and accolade.
I am referring to General George Washington, the founder of the United States and first President. He was a firm supporter and lover of heraldry but, interestingly, he did not support the establishment of an heraldic authority in the new country*. He did not want to have supporters for his arms as they would imply nobility, something the Founding Fathers fought hard to rid themselves of, and being above all other Americans.
If a man such as George Washington did not adopt supporters for his arms, then why should I?
*I had previously written that George Washington would have indeed supported such an idea. I was wrong and this post was edited to reflect the truth.