May
31
2013

The Prince of Wales’s feathers

If you are reading this in Britain or Northern Ireland, you might be carrying the heraldic badge of the heir apparent to the throne of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms in your pocket, wallet or handbag; it is depicted on the back of the old two pence coin. But why is a trio of white feathers used to represent the Prince of Wales?

The badge consists of three white feathers emerging through a golden coronet with the motto ‘Ich dien’ written on a blue ribbon entwined around the shafts of the feathers. As well as being engraved on the back of the pre-2008 series of 2p coins the feathers design is used in connections with the many charities, institutions and military units with which the Prince is involved.

Prince of Wales's feathers Badge By Coat of Arms of Charles, Prince of Wales.svg: Sodacan          This vector image was created with Inkscape.     derivative work: Sodacan (Coat of Arms of Charles, Prince of Wales.svg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps most associated with Welsh rugby, being worn on the jerseys of the Welsh rugby union team and in the official logo of the Welsh Rugby Union. But why has a symbol of three white feathers come to be associated with the Prince of Wales?

To start with, there is nothing particularly Welsh about the design. The last Welsh Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his brother Dafydd bore arms featuring four lions passant, two gold lions on a red background and two red lions against a gold background. This design is incorporated into the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales and is now used as part of the Welsh Assembly’s badge.

So where did the ‘English’ line of Princes of Wales pick up the feathers? One of the most widely recorded stories has a Prince of Wales literally picking up the feathers. The first to use the device was certainly Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son and heir apparent of Edward III of England. The Black Prince was one of the leading knights of his day, fighting for his father in the Hundred Years’ War.

At the Battle of Crécy his English force met the cream of French aristocracy and a host of France’s European allies. Amongst these was John I of Bohemia, famous for being both blind and brave. As the battle turned against France and her allies, John demanded to be led in to battle by his guiding knights. He was, of course, cut down and slain and the Black Prince plucked the ostrich feathers from the dead king’s helmet and adopted his motto of ‘Ich dien’ to emphasise his heroic victory.

The Plume of Feathers Sign_-_geograph.org.uk_-_328231 by Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the best legends to explain the origins of a heraldic device. It is also almost certainly a myth. There is no evidence of King John having ever worn ostrich feathers and plenty of contradictory evidence demonstrating that King John’s crest and motto were completely different.

What is much more likely is that the Black Prince assumed the device as a nod to his aristocratic mother. Philippa of Hainault was descended from the Counts of Hainault, whose heir apparent bore the courtesy title the ‘Count of Ostrevent’. It only takes a small sidestep and a heraldic pun to turn Ostrevent into Ostrich, and thus create a new device. Alternatively, it could have been picked up from the Counts of Luxembourg, also related to the Hainaults, who had a badge featuring an ostrich.

There are various stories accounting for the German language motto. Ich dien is a contraction of ich diene, or I serve. Some legends say it was the motto of King John of Bohemia, others that on winning the battle a German servant of the Black Prince dropped to his knees and proclaimed the words. Another has the Black Prince picking his way through the battlefield and spotting the shield of a dead German mercenary. A more credible reason is that it indicated his loyalty to his father, the King.

Battle of Crecy from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles

Some other sources point out its linguistic similarity to the Welsh phrase ‘Eich dyn’, or ‘your man’. As noted on Infoplease: “According to a Welsh tradition, Edward I promised to provide Wales with a prince “who could speak no word of English,” and when his son Edward of Carnarvon was born he presented him to the assembly, saying in Welsh ‘Eich dyn’ or ‘behold the man’”.

Another interesting point is that it is arguably more appropriate to refer to it as the badge of the Duke of Cornwall, or Heir Apparent, as it will apply before any prince has been invested officially as Prince of Wales.

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