Saturday, January 22, 2011

Symbols: The Portcullis

I recently used the above image in connection with a story about the British Parliament.  That image is the offical symbol for that parliament.

Some interesting trivia about the image:

• The image and thereby the emblem is of a portcullis, from the French "porte coulissante" or gliding door. Those who recall Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner as Robin Hood, or Kirk Douglas as Einar in The Vikings, or a myriad other movies of English castles being attacked, will recognise that a portcullis is the metal gate that is raised upwards by metal chains. In such movies the rope or chain holding up the portcullis is usually cut by the hero, trapping the villains and enabling the hero to make his getaway.

Castles often had two portcullises, so that attackers could be caught between the two and have burning wood or fire heated sand dropped onto them. Contrary to Hollywood tradition, hot oil was not used, it was too rare and valuable.

• The portcullis was the heraldic badge of the House of Beaufort. The first Tudor king, Henry VII (1457-1509), was of Beaufort descent and adapted both the portcullis and the Tudor Rose as the Tudor badge:

The use of the portcullis in heraldry became quite common from the Tudor period.
• The Palace of Westminster was the official residence of Henry VII and Henry VIII until 1530. The predecessor of Parliament, the Curia Regis (Royal Council), met in Westminster Hall, following the King when he moved to other palaces. The Model Parliament (named so in that it became the model for later parliaments), the first official Parliament of England, met in the Palace in 1295 and almost all subsequent Parliaments have met there. In 1530, Henry VII acquired York Palace from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, renamed it the Palace of Whitehall and made that his principal residence. Westminster Palace remained the meeting place of the two Houses of Parliament – the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

• In 1834 the Palace of Westminster was burned down, the fire having been started by overheated chimney flues. The portcullis as a symbol of parliament and of the Palace of Westminster was incorporated into the design for the rebuilding. Sir Charles Barry, the designer of the rebuild, incorporated the design thousands of times, including carved in stone and wood, stamped on leatherwork, on books in the Commons Library, on curtains and wallpaper, on the backs of chairs and on cutlery. It was even cast into the metal of the Great Bell of Big Ben. As a result, the portcullis became the unofficial symbol of parliament

• In 1996 Queen Elizabeth formally granted the use of the symbol to both Houses of Parliament.

• The use of the portcullis as a symbol for parliament also spread to other Commonwealth countries.

The badge for Canada’s defunct Department of Customs and Excise features a prominent portcullis:

Cap badge of Canada’s Department of Customs and Excise

The use as above is appropriate in that Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise used the emblem of the portcullis for centuries, the gates representing the nation’s seaports, the seats at which Customs was located. It is thought that that use may even predate the use thereof by the House of Beaufort.

The now-defunct flag of HM Customs and Excise.

Canberra’s coat of arms features a double portcullis, a symbolic connection between the British and Australian Parliaments:

And for those readers thinking that all this is boring and how is it relevant, think back to Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.  One day you may be on a similar quest and be given the clue of a portcullis.  You will then be able to say "A portcullis!  It's an ancint symbol dating back to the Tudors to represent Parliament.  That's where we need to go next." 

You won't need to say that you read it in Bytes.


  1. I spent most of today trying to figure out what the "barred window grill-like thing with chains on the side" is, located there at the stunning main gate to St. Johns Cathedral.

    so: thank you for this helpful info! I will now, never forget.

  2. Thanks for this very nice explanation-lovely.