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Section: PAPERS

The Russian Ways of the Heraldic Lions and Eagles of the Medieval Europe

Author: Michael Medvedev / Publication date: 2006-08-16

The Russian Ways of the Heraldic Lions and Eagles of the Medieval EuropeThe first armigers identified themselves with families, feudal positions, possessions and their personal heraldic emblems were compelled to signify the impersonal. This is a primordial and essential feature of heraldry; and while the medieval Europe changed and its political structures became more complicated, a sovereign’s coats-of-arms continued to indicate both an authority and a land, a subject and an object of power. We can recall how Franñois de Foveis deduced the destiny of France from the arms of its King, and how Dante understood the Emperor’s eagle as a common mark, corresponding to the general nature of the Emperor’s power. And when the regal eagles, lions, or fleurs-de-lis break their medieval nature and act in the capacity of mere patriotic or national symbols, as it often happened during the post-medieval epoch, we can ask ourselves, if this is a result of an unheraldic nature of usage, of an impersonalisation of power, or of something else?

The Russian examples of 17th and 18th centuries as well as their common emblematic logic, seem to be of some interest.

In the arms which I would like to present the emblems of dominion were reinterpreted to denote the origin (real or mythical) of families both of high and of relatively modest extraction. I omit the arms which immigrated into Russia together with their owners. All the arms in discussion were assumed in Russia by the families of foreign origin which were teared away from their original heraldic traditions (if they existed) in the course of long russification.

Together with all the Europe Russians of the time considered heraldry, first and foremost, as a great treasury of ready forms. And, of course, among the numerous eagles and lions of Russian family heraldry we find armorial beasts of great European princes, curiously but recognisably reflected. They tell as about the non-Russian roots of the Russian heraldic tradition; they mark the certain ways of heraldic import; and, finally, they illustrate the genealogical self-identification of the Russian nobility.

Sometimes the glorious eagles and lions were used to show a regal descent. So Prinñes Khovansky and Kurakin, descendants of Grand Duke Gedimin of Lithuania, marshalled their family emblems with the eagle argent of Poland, thus evoking the common origin with Jagellonians. The presented form of achievments was confirmed by the Emperor in 1798 according to the documents submitted by Khovanskys and Kurakins(1). Explaining the eagle’s presence in their arms, Prince V. Khovansky stressed in his petition: “Some of our family were sovereigns in the Kingdom of Poland”(2). And indeed, it was still normal for the Russian common notions of the time to extend one’s status over all one’s relatives, and to apply the honours of a person or a family’s branch to all family.

The Polish eagle is uncrowned which could seem to be made for difference; but more probably the crown was just forgotten. The submitted documents, as well as the official blason, mention the eagle just as the arms of Poland. Also in several earlier versions of these arms the eagle usually wears its crown.

Plate I.

Another princely family of the same origin (Troubetskoy) also quartered the Polish eagle; but the noble bird became irrecognisable; it lost its crown and was placed on a field azure(3).

Much more correct projection of the Polish eagle can be found in the arms of Palitsyns, the scions of Ivan Mikulaevich (John, son of Nicolas) who immigrated into Russia from Lithuania in 1373 and was said to be a relative of King Ladislas Jagello of Poland . The Palitsyn family not only bore the Lithuanian horseman, whose sword was replaced by the canting mace (palitsa), but added to it a demi-eagle argent beaked and crowned or in the upper half of the shield. It is worth mentioning that the most prominent of Palitsyns, friar Abraham, was an important anti-Polish politician at the times of the ”Demetriades”.

After the Polish eagle, let me mention the Russian lion borne by Princes Babichev. It is a lion sable, statant on a “platform” of the same, all posed bendwise in the field or and quartered with four other emblems. We must use some imagination to recognise here the lion on a slope from the old arms of Western Russia (now we would say, of Western Ukraine). The Russian lion as such was golden, rampant, and posed in a field azure; there was a differenced version, with a lion on a rocky slope, which was applied to the province (wojewodztwo) of Russia (within the Polish state), and to the region of Lwow. Both of the lion’s versions existed already in 14 century; they were represented in the Armorial of the Golden Fleece and thus are well-known(5). Documents of the Imperial Heraldry Office makes clear that Babichevs used this emblem to evoke the foundation of Lwow(6). This capital of Western Ukraine was founded, according to the legend, by the direct ancestor of Babichevs, Prince Lev (Leon) of the Royal House of Galizia. The assumption of the provincial arms of Lwow by the Babichev family was absolutely correct as such; but the composition and colours were notably distorted(7).

The famous eagle with dextrochere of Western Prussia also has a prominent position in the Russian armory. The eagle with a knight’s arm was invented in the middle of 15th century as a territorial one(8), but soon it was assumed by a Polish noble family Soltyk which traced its lineage to the ancient Prussian chiefs. The magnificent and surrealistic armorial tombstone of the family’s outstanding member, Kajetan cardinal Soltyk, can be seen in the cathedral on Wawel. There were two main versions of the arms “Soltyk”, of which one preserved the original forms and another was contorted, being probably based on a wrong blazon(9).

Plate II.

In Russia there were several families which had or claimed the same extraction; namely, Saltykov(10) (nobles, Counts and Serene Princes), Cheglokov (or Choglokov)(11), Kozlov(12) and Kuzmin-Korovayev(13). The arms of Saltykov and Cheglokov are especially similar to the Prussian prototype. But it is rather difficult to recognise the original composition in the arms of Kozlov; and Kuzmin-Korovayevs divided the eagle and the hand placing them into different fields (a characteristic technique of Russian heraldry), meanwhile the third field is occupied by the canting fine bread (karavay). The supporters - two unicorns - stress the Prussian theme. It is evident that the arms of Westpreussen with its German eagle, was used by all these families as attributed arms of their ancestors, the pre-German Prussian Princes.

Similarly the arms of Gdansk (Danzig) with its lion supporters were reflected in the achievements of another noble “clan” of princely Prussian origin, being treated as attributed arms of the ancestor(14). The bearings of noble family Neplyuyev is probably the best example; the second supporter (an eagle sable) unequivocally evokes the arms of Prussia(15).

In all these achievements the famous armorial bearings should indicate the genealogical relations, the common blood. Nevertheless, the princely eagles and lions often plays the role of geographical symbols, serving as declarations of ancestor’s country of origin.

The most known beasts of this kind are the black one-headed eagles borne by several families of German extraction - Kutuzov (Golenischev-Kutuzov, nobles, Counts and a Serene Prince)(16) , Protopopov(17), Shcherbinin(18). Each of these eagles holds a sword or a sabre; as it was supposed in 1850’s by A. Lakier, this sword came from the Prussian arms which could be based on the confusion of Prussia and Germany in the genealogical legends(19). This classic explanation is debatable. I believe that more probably Kutuzov and Protopopov families supposed to assume the German eagle as such, but the particular forms, particular iconography were taken from Polish sources and arms which were better known in Russia. So these families used the Soltyk arms with eagle holding a sword in its claws. Incidentally, such assumption of Polish armorial forms was typical for Russian nobles of non-Polish (French(20), Swedish, Italian, German, eastern etc.) provenance.

Plate III.

The more curious arms belong to the offspring of the vir nobilis Radsha who came in 12th century into Russia from the South-Slav lands. The family legends mention also Germany and Transsylvania as countries from which, or through which Radsha came directly into Russia.

A dozen of noble families, being branches of Radsha’s posterity, marshalled by different ways several arms and emblems(21); among them an eagle was predominant. Normally it was an eagle azure, which I believe to be taken from the arms of the Duchy of Krain. Nevertheless some families of Radsha’s race bore an eagle sable which corresponds to the German accents of the genealogical legend. The achievements of Counts Musin-Pushkin(22) and nobles Myatlev(23) could serve as bright examples. The arms of other “Radsha clansmen” are represented here only by shields.

The identification of the Radsha’s eagle as a territorial emblem is not an arbitrary assumption; it can be deduced from the context. The arm with a sabre is clearly defined in the family tradition as a blason of a Slavic country(24), and can be easily interpreted as canting arms of the Kingdom of Rama. In some quartered arms of Radsha’s posterity we also find a star and a crescent. The family of Poluekhtov bore “azure, a star and a crescent or” which resembles the Polish arms “Leliwa”, but Kologrivov placed the same charges in a field gules which is specific for the arms of Illiria and fully correspond to the genealogical legend(25).

For the arms of Radsha’s offspring is also typical a crown or a prince’s bonnet placed in one of the quarterings. The family tradition explained it as a symbol of Radsha’s merits on Russian Grand-Ducal service. It is a myth; and I suppose that there was another original meaning of this symbol. Similar bonnets as charges, sometimes on a chief or in a quartering ermine, were used as a mark of high provenance by several families (Princes Abashidze, Princes Yusupov, Princes Shikhmatov, nobles Satin, Ushakov, Davydov etc.) not connected with Radsha. Such a charge could duplicate the princely top of achievement or, on the contrary, to compensate for the absence of it. It was absolutely natural for this symbol to be placed together with the territorial arms in a non-princely blazons of Radsha’s descendants(26).

By the same way the family of Kheraskov assumed the arms of Valakhia from which they came. The changes are minimal: the field is party per fess and the usual mount (or branch) under the eagle's claws is turned into a dragon(27).

The Kheraskov’s ancestors, as well as Radsha, were considered as extremely noble and prominent in their native lands, but not monarchs or ruling princes. So the territorial emblems in the discussed arms were not attributed to the ancestors but just used as regional symbols illustrating the genealogical legend.

There is another nice example, the arms of Kozhin, the scions of George Fahrensbach who was said to immigrate into Russia from Sweden in 15th century(28). The family legend and the arms of Kozhin are reflected one in another; three elements of the quartered Kozhin’s arms correspond to three periods of the Kozhin’s history (German roots and the ancient castle of Fahrensbach; immigration from Sweden; military merits on the Russian service). One can be temptated to give the same explanation to the lions in arms of Shepelev and Novosiltsov, also of Swedish origin(29). But in this cases there is a lack of additional convincing information.

Plate IV.

In the beginning of 18th century the perception of lion’s theme in Russian culture was indeed marked by a specific anomaly. Lion signified Sweden. In hundreds of cartoonish and solemn compositions of the times of the Northern War (1700-1721) the king of beasts symbolised the Swedish enemy. It is important, that this absolute concretization of sense existed outside of armory as such, in baroque allegories. The armorial lions in Russia of the time usually preserved their indefinitely positive meaning; and even in the arms of those who descended from Swedes lions could be “just lions”(30).

We examined the two ways of assumption of territorial arms by Russian noble families: as marks of genealogical relationship with monarchs and merely as regional symbols which evoke the native country or province of ancestors. In both cases the genealogical motivation is evident. Now let us come to the third way: an assumption of a territorial emblem without clear genealogical reason.

So noble families of Lyapunov and Ilyin borne, with minor changes, the already discussed arms “Soltyk” (in its “second”, distorted version)(31). Nevertheless these families did not claim the common origin with Saltykov but traced their lineage to Rurik, the founder of the Russian state, through the Princes of Northern Galich. We can suppose that these arms reflected the politicized myth about Prussian origin of Rurik which was fabricated in the 16th century(32). But this seems to be rather dubious. The family tradition of Rurikides always stressed the provenance from Rurik’s great-grandson St. Vladimir, the first Christian Grand Duke of Russia. Russia begins with Rurik but Holy Russia begins with Vladimir who overshadowed Rurik in the posterity’s perception. The common origin was marked in blazons of different Rurikides by the arms of Kiev where St. Vladimir ruled and not of Novgorod where was center of Rurik’s state(33). And it is even less likely that Laypunovs would evoke the dynastical history before Rurik.

The bearings of the family of Chevkin(34), which reproduce those of Dukes of Pomerania, can serve as a more clear example of motiveless assumption of arms. I hope that Pomeranian griffin is both leonine and aquiline enough to be suitable for our colloquium. Almost the same arms were borne by four other families, including nobles and Princes Lopukhin(35). All of them were scions of Rededya, Prince of Kasogs (a Cherkessian people which lived by the Black Sea) who was killed in 1022. One hardly can find here any connection with Pomerania(36). Most probably Chevkins, Lopukhins and others assumed the territorial arms not as a sign of a certain territory but as an indication of their blue blood. The Pomeranian griffin as such could be chosen by an occasion. It is natural to suppose the same in the case of Lyapunovs and Ilyins.

Thus we can see that in the early Russian heraldry the arms of a certain land could be assumed to evoke common origin with prince of this land; or to evoke common origin with prince of the other territory; or just to evoke the native land of ancestors.

What is the reason of this odd practice? It is easy to cite the muddle in the early Russian heraldry, but it is a circumstance, not a reason.

Here I would like to stress that the Russian family heraldry began first of all with territorial emblems. In the end of the 17th century the social and juridical changes in the Muscovian state caused the wide “heraldisation” of nobility. Many nobles imitated Polish “clan” arms; some of immigrant families recalled their old arms. But the leaders of this heraldisation were descendants of the local princes. Their arms were generally based on the protoheraldic signs of Russian provinces which already existed in the emblematic practice of Tsarist court. In the beginning of 18th century these signs became definitively armorial; and as local arms of dominion they were assumed by several branches of Rurikides and by several other high-born families(37).

This assumption of signs, surrounded by glance of Tsarist magnificence, was imitated much by gentry. Some families could just use the arms of their Western relatives but nevertheless oriented their heraldic usage toward the emblems of Russian principalities. Let us recall the arms of nobles Kozlov, the descendants of Prussian princes. These arms resemble the Prussian eagle, but much more they resemble the eagle of Ukrainian Duchy of Chernigov. One of the most early armorial seals used by the Saltykov family (1684) also evidently follows the Chernigovian composition(38). There is no heraldic motivation; Saltykov just used a prestigious iconography.

A number of Russian nobles assumed blazons with Imperial double-headed eagles or elements of the provincial arms - as mere patriotic signs or illustrations of the family’s res gestae(39). From the point of view of the general heraldic tradition such compositions are possible as honourable augmentations; otherwise it is an usurpation. In despite of the efforts of the heraldic officers, the culture of augmentation was less developed in early Russian armory, leaving the place for a wide and orderless use of territorial symbols. The non-Russian arms of dominion also appeared to be unprotected(40); and that is why we enjoy the presence of several magnificent medieval heraldic beasts within a Russian context.


1. Obshchiy Gerbovnik... (The General Armorial of Noble Families of the Russian Empire), vol. I, no. 1, 3.
2. “Gerboved”, St. Petersburg 1914, no. 9, p. 121.
3. Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. II, no. 1. The traditional ”Polish” explanation of the Troubetskoy’s eagle is obvious: the eagle precedes the Lithuanian horseman; some sources show a crowned version of eagle. Also chronologically the assumption and development of arms borne by Troubetskoy, Khovansky and Kurakin were close.
4. Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. V, no. 26.
5. See for example: J. Lojko, Sredniowieczne herby polskie, Poznan 1985, p. 63, 104, 105, plate 3 etc.
6. The petition of Prince N. Babichev published in “Gerboved”, 1914, p. 154-156. The “platform” is not blazoned in the petition and the lion is said to be “extended in a golden escutcheon” - that is to say in a quartering’s field or. In the Heraldry Office this term was misinterpreted and the pedestal was wrongly blasoned as a shield, thus verbally supporting the iconographical mess: Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. V, no. 5. The earlier seal represented in the Knyazev’s work shows a slope instead of platform: Gerbovnik Anisima Titovicha Knyazeva..., St. Petersburg 1912, p. 4.
7. Basically the colours of the “Russian lion” were not absolutely stable, especially when applied to the princely families of Kurbsky, Zhyzhemsky etc.; therefore the tinctures sable and or could be taken by Babichevs from hypotetical old sources.
8. W. Biwer, Westpreussens Landessiegel und Landeswappen, “Westpieussen-Jahrbuch”, no. 36, 1986; S.K. Kuczynski, Polskie herby ziemskie. Geneza, tresci, funkcje, Warszawa 1993, p. 26-28.
9. K. Niesiecki, Herbarz Polski, vol. VIII, Leipzig 1841, p. 458-459.
10. Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. VII, no. 28 (the untitled line); vol. IX, no. 2 (Princes); vol. II, no. 15 (Counts); there were also the arms of legitimated bastards Saltykov granted in 1803: RGIA (Russian State Historical Archive), St. Petersburg, f. 1411, op. 1, part 3, d. 78. Unfortunately the curious minor differences of these arms cannot be discussed here.
11. Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. I, no. 40.
12. Ibidem, vol. VIII, no. 12
13. Ibidem, vol. IV, no. 57.
14. S.N. Troynitsky, Gerby potomstva Glandy Kambily, “Gerboved”, 1913, no. 1, p. 7-17.
15. Obshchiy Gerbovnik, vol. VI, no. 9.
16. Ibidem, vol. II, no. 31; vol. V, no. 17 (untitled branches); vol. XI (not published; see RGIA, idem, d. 101), no 7. See also the arms of Golenishchev-Kutuzov-Tolstoy. There was also the princely achievement with impressive augmentations borne by Prince Golenishchev-Kutuzov-Smolensky without Imperial approval.
17. Ibidem, vol. VII, no. 22.
18. Ibidem, vol. II, no. 152.
19. A.B. Lakier, Russkaya geraldika, Moskva 1990, p. 301 et infra.
20. The case of Divov family, which assumed in the late 17th century the Poli

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