In this entry in the series on controversial arms we will explore the user of the skull and crossbones in heraldry.
This combination has for centuries been associated with death and has adorned cemeteries around the world. It has also become closely tied to piracy as variations of the theme were used on their flags by American and European pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. These skeletal images were collectively called the Jolly Roger.
The flag above, arguably the quintessential pirate flag, was actually that of Edward England, a pirate operating in the Indian ocean during the 18th century.
In the German speaking countries, the skull and crossbones is known as Totenkopf. The word literally means “dead man’s head”. The difference from the Jolly Roger is that the bones are placed directly behind the skull. Its use began in the 18th century by the Hussars of the Prussian army under King Frederick II the Great.
The German tradition of the symbol was besmirched by the Nazi regime of Germany and used by the Schutzstaffel units, better known as the SS.
Interestingly, this dubious history has not precluded its use by honorable groups, such as the Queen’s Royal Lancers and the recon battalions of the USMC. The arms above is the insignia of the Kuperjanov Battalion of the Estonian Army infantry, one of the elite of that country’s armed forces.
This association with death has also made the skull and crossbones as the international symbol for danger of death, especially for poison. The symbol above is the one used to denote a toxic substance.
So far, we’ve looked at the history of the skull and crossbones but, this is a post on heraldry. Let’s look at some coats of arms with this symbol.
The shield above is that of the French commune of Mallemort, located in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in the south of the country. The blazon of these arms would be: Sable, at the fesspoint a death’s head above two bones in saltire Argent in chief a vase couche Or, all within a bordure Argent charged with the word MALLEMORT Sable.
This shield is that of La Coruña in Spain. The blazon for these arms would be: Azure, upon rocks proper charged with a skull crowned Or over two bones in saltire Argent, a lighthouse Argent masoned Sable its lantern room Gules all between to dexter and sinister three coquiles and in base one coquile Or.
Another shield with the cross and skullbones, this time of Riumors, Girona in Spain. The blazon here would be: Argent in chief two skull each above two bones in saltire Sable and in base two bars wavy Azure.
The following images are from the site http://herbypomorskie.lo2.slupsk.pl/ displaying an armorial of Polish arms.
The arms above of von Parsow would be blazoned: Azure two thighbones in saltire Argent between at each end of the bones 4 estoiles of 6 Or.
The arms above of von Oesterling would be blazoned: Quarterly, first and fourth Sable two thighbones in saltire Argent, second and third Or a human skull Argent. What is interesting in these arms is that the crest follows the same theme of two thighbones in saltire.
Above, we have these Polish arms of Białogłowski blazoned: Gules three human skulls Argent 1 and 2.
Finally, Mr. Ton de Witte supplied me with the arms above of the Dutch family of Kerkovius. The name means “cemetery” and therefore the arms allude to that. A very impressive and, dare I say, morbid shield but nonetheless well designed. I would blazon the arms as: Sable three Totenkopfs 1 and 2 above a fence fleury enarched Argent.