The Salamander in a Ring of Fire

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The Salamander in a Ring of Fire (as in the DOUGLAS Crest)

Collated by Jan Shaw, and first published in The Clan Douglas Association of Australia website

Some of the queries concerning the salamander have been discussed by members' correspondence, thank you for contributing. No doubt many members have looked at what Google has to say about the 500 species of this amphibian "newt‟, so I shall continue with the related Douglas crest information and history.

One member, Jock Douglas remembers reading that the mythology of the salamander in flames originally came from Arab soldiers who, when sitting around their campfire at night, saw this creature emerge unscathed from the flames and so devised the motto “Be on Guard”, which may or may not relate to Sahih Bukhari (810-870) stating that Muhammad had said that salamanders are „mischief-doers‟ and should be killed.

Jock also sent the following researched information, “this legendary creature embodies fantastic qualities that ancient and medieval commentators ascribed to, many of which are rooted in verifiable traits of the natural creature but are often exaggerated”.

In one of the earliest surviving descriptions of a salamander, Pliny the Elder (AQD 23-79) noted that the creature is “an animal like lizard in shape which never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather becomes clear”. Pliny also made the distinction between salamanders and lizards and that it was a popular belief that they had the ability to extinguish fire with the frigidity of their bodies — a quality also reported by Aristotle.

Of all the traits relating to salamanders, the ones relating to fire have stood out most prominently. This connection most likely originates from salamanders living inside rotting logs and when the logs were placed on the fire, the salamanders ran out so the belief was either that they were created from or could withstand fire.

French armorial bearings depicting the salamander

Noting also that the salamander became the traditional emblem for the smith (who of course worked fire and flames in their forges when shaping steel and iron).

The "French connection‟ was the original trigger for my queries (Newsletter #88). We have yet another depiction of Francois 1 (1515-1547) using it as his personal emblem, with the motto “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad’.

However when I wrote to the Lord Lyon asking ‟how and when did the salamander in a ring of fire became the crest for the Earls of Douglas line? and was there a connection with Francois 1 of France(1)?‟ He very promptly replied to say that the Court of the Lord Lyon's "Keeper of Records‟ Mrs Elizabeth Roads had researched the following and that the connection with Francois 1 of France could be ruled out, it seems that the salamander crest was used by "Black" Douglas Earls as well as the "Red‟. Certainly, the last of the Black Douglas line, James Earl of Douglas and Avondale, Knight of the Garter, who died in 1488, had a salamander crest as can be seen from his Garter Stall Plate.‟

Now in the 18th stall, on the north side of the chapel. A large quadrangular plate of gilded copper, bearing within a cable border the shield of arms, with silver helm garnished gold and covered with a blue mantling sown with gold flowering branches and lined with ermine with red tassels, surmounted by the crest, on a cap of estate azure a gold salamander breathing fire. In base is a narrow panel with the inscription:
“Mon . f’ le cot tamps . Dowglas”

This title being incorrect there has been fixed over it, a strip of gilt copper with the proper title:
“mon . tamis . le . count . de . Dowglas”

The shield bears these arms, quarterly: 1, silver a heart gules and a chief azure with three mullets silver on the chief (for Douglas); 2, azure fretty gold (for the Lordship of Lauderdale); 3, azure three mullets silver within a double tressure gold (for Moray of Bothwell); 4, silver six piles sable (for Brechin); with an escutcheon of pretence azure a crowned lion silver (for Galloway).
Date of the plate c1461.

Sir James Douglas was the son of James, earl of Douglas and earl of Avondale (who died in 1443-4) and Beatrice, daughter of Henry Sinclair, earl of Orkney. He succeeded his elder brother William, who was murdered by King James II of Scotland in February 1451-2. “He at first endeavoured to revenge his brother‟s murder, but was reconciled Aug. 1452. Having, however, joined the Duke of York (then in rebellion against Henry VI), he accused the King openly of the murder and defied him, with some 40,000 men in 1454. By the desertion of Lord Hamilton and others these all dispersed, the Earl fled into Annandale” … his lands forfeited. He escaped into England, where, on the accession of Edward IV, he was received with great favour, receiving a pension and being cr, K.G. about 1461. He joined the Duke of Albany in an invasion of Scotland, was defeated and taken prisoner near Lochmaben and sentenced to become a monk at Lindores Abbey where he died four years later. He married 1st his deceased brother‟s widow “the fair maid of Galloway”, was divorced soon after 1455, and married 2nd Anne Holland, daughter of Duke of Exeter, widow of Sir John Neville.

It is thought that Sir James Douglas may have created his Garter Stall Plate in an illusion to his survival from the flames of King James‟ wrath. Interestingly this artist's depiction of a salamander showed a creature looking like a short-legged dog. This animal creature was also used in the illustration of his crest for William Douglas, 10th Earl of Angus 1552-1611 (which echoes the Lord Lyon's statement that the salamander was used as an emblem by both "Black‟ & "Red‟ Douglas noblemen).

Francois I of France's salamander was, as far as I can ascertain, the first salamander to look like a newt than a short-legged dog, perhaps the artists of the day were given only vague descriptions. Even today there are variations — does the salamander on our crest have a tail up in the air or down?

One of the most recent artist's depictions surely must be the one approved (above right) by the [current] Lord Lyon for the position of Angus Herald Extraordinary — this position [is] held by Robin Blair a former Lord Lyon of 2001-2007.

This article forms part of our heraldry section.
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    1.  Early 16thC King Francis the first was known as the Salamander King


    Sources for this article include:
    •  Clan Douglas Association of Australia newsletter no: 89

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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024