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Valira Torrent:   Contents | Subject index

Perforation image from Serif Art Gallery. © Serif Inc, 1996

Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 5, pp1-6 (Mar 1977).

Copyright notice

The Andorran Coat of Arms

By W. D. Bent

No collector of Andorran stamps can fail to have noticed the differences that appear on the coat of arms design each time this theme is used for an issue by the Spanish or French postal authorities. Towards the end of l975 I decided that I would seek to find out all I could to establish why there should be any differences; which in fact was the correct design; and a little of the background of the meanings of the symbols on the shield and the inscription beneath. I must confess that now over a year later, I know quite a bit more but, in some respects, am much more confused.

For the benefit of the layman I set out my notes and opinions but regret that it will in no way satisfy the purist in heraldic studies and, in my considered opinion, some questions may never be answered, but continued research may yet turn up some new evidence and produce answers which many seek.

Heraldry is described in some dictionaries as the "art or office of a herald" which does not tell one much, but I like to think of it as "a system of identification by means of hereditary symbols or devices set on a shield and officially recognised by one or other specific heraldic Authority".

From almost the start of history some form of identification was used for one reason or another. One tribe of natives recognised their colleagues by the design of a feathered head-dress or war paint. African natives decorated their shields in a certain way which followed a particular pattern within the same tribe or group. Although identity may not have been the main reason in those times it did serve that purpose. In the early 12th century at the time of the crusades, knights and noblemen being called to battle had developed an all enveloping armour and protective battledress, and some means of identity was necessary which their followers could understand. Because of the helmet and head and face protection, the facial identifying features were not visible and, with one hand holding horse reins and the other holding a sword or axe, a banner was not practical. The shield (carried over the horse rein arm) was the obvious place to put an identification symbol. The same design could be repeated on the surcoat, the loose cloth garment worn over the suit of armour.

Since, in those days, the majority of the population were illiterate a die could be made and used as a seal on documents and orders and, whereas a signature could not be read by most people, the coat of arms seal could be recognised as being from the "Lord of the Manor" or otherwise.

Gradually individual families followed a continuity of design forming a permanent hereditary system which developed over many years into the style and art of heraldry as we know it today. From about the year 1400 sovereigns of most European countries took upon themselves to grant arms to individuals (nearly always members of the nobility). However bearings were independently assumed, and indeed some are still so assumed today, each being made up to the persons own standard and own "set of rules" and not necessarily those now laid down as the official rules of heraldry. It is believed by some authorities that there may be over one hundred thousand different Coats of Arms in regular use, and each country has developed its own set of rules.

In England, the College of Arms controls heraldic administration. Great Britain differs from most countries in that there are heraldic officers to perform specific tasks and enforce and control heraldic regulations.

As far as Andorra is concerned we should look to heraldic history in both France and Spain and the governing rules on present day heraldry in those countries.

In France, Coats of Arms are protected by law and it is illegal to use the Arms of others, however anyone is free to assume arms providing they are not already in use. There is no equivalent in France to the English college of Arms, but there was a College of Heralds established in 1407, and later in 1616 a Judge General for French Arms was established to deal with disputes and to ensure that all new Coats of Arms were "designed in conformity with the rules of good heraldry". With the French Revolution in 1789 all traditional heraldry was abolished and prohibited by law. Later in 1804 Napoleon introduced his own Imperial Heraldry and later, after Napoleon's passing, heraldry gradually revived and is now of great interest in France, particularly civic heraldry.

Spanish heraldry follows a very different set of rules to those of most other countries. There is a very much wider range of colours permitted, different rules to follow on the re-organisation of the Arms on the marriage of two families and sometimes a motto is included on the shield which is very much regarded elsewhere as being poor heraldic practice. Heraldry in Spain is now of increasing interest and in 1951 an office within the Ministry of Justice was established to register and supervise the heraldry of Spain. All Coats of Arms are protected by law and only registered Arms (with the "CRONISTA DE ARMAS" or heraldic Registrars, of which there are five) may be publicly displayed.

One must also consider separately the development of Ecclesiastical Heraldry for Andorra's Coat of Arms. Until the twelfth century most bishops and princes of the church used seals, but the increasing popularity of heraldry began to be introduced into church use. The most used insignia was the bishop's mitre, the cross staff and the crosier. The catholic church also introduced the prelates hat to indicate the rank of the holder of the Arms. The use of the hat with cords and tassels can be traced back to the 14th century. Originally there were two kinds. A red hat denoting a cardinal, and a black hat denoting a papal protonotary. Gradually more were added and eventually in l833 the present rules on the subject were established and still apply to this day. On the Arms, cardinals have red hats with 15 tassels on each side. Patriarchs have green hats and 15 tassels each side: Archbishops have green hats and 10 tassels each side and bishops have green hats with 6 tassels each side. There are also rules on the crosier when displayed on arms. Bishops and Abbotts crosiers are shown in gold but priors etc. are in silver and usually in a simpler shape. The crosier of an abbott or prior also includes a piece of silk (or SUDARIUM, a type of small napkin) intended to soak up moisture in the hand, but on a bishops crosier no sudarium is shown because his vestments would usually include ceremonial gloves.

So much for the general background of Heraldry, now for the Andorran Coat of Arms in particular.

From the manuscript of 1852 "APUNTES SOBRE LOS VALLES NEUTRALES DE ANDORRA" by Bonifacio Ulrich and reproduced in the book "INSTITUCIONES POLITICAS Y SOCIALES DE ANDORRA" by Jose Maria Vidal y Guitart in Madrid 1949, it is stated that the "Coat of Arms of the Valleys" is composed of 4 quarterings divided by a cross.

"In the upper right is seen a gold episcopal mitre and staff on a pearl colour shield, to signify that the episcopal dignity of Urgel is the principal and most ancient Seigneur of the Valleys of Andorra. In the second quartering, at the lower right are the four Catalan bars, or the Arms of Catalonia, to denote that the Valleys are truly and properly a part of Catalonia, right from remote antiquity. These bars are red on a gold field. In the upper left quartering are the three red bars of Foix on a gold field to demonstrate the dominion and lordship which the Counts of Foix have had over the Valleys since ancient times, and finally in the lower left quartering are seen the two red Cows of Béarn, collared in blue with a small bell hanging from the neck onto the chest and with red horns, all on a gold field, to signify that by the union of this house with that of Foix, its princes are Seigneurs of the Valley.

"Above these arms is a prince's crown and they are placed above the door to the House of the Valleys or Court House, above one reads 'DOMUS CONSILII, SEDES JUSTICIAE', and below, 'VIRTUS UNITA FORTIOR'".

The arms set in the stonework over the door of the House of the Valleys supposedly date from 1780 although Dr. Piesold, a very well informed writer, states the correct date was 1761. Beneath the Coat of Arms is following verse:-


Translated this means:-

You here behold a neutral valleys arms
Whose quartering nobler nations have rejoiced to bear
Each singly has some alien people blessed, Andorra
Your golden age shall from their union spring.

Although the individual coats of Arms date back a considerable time, the four sections collected together to form the Andorran Coat of Arms cannot seem to be traced back any earlier than the House of the Valley's engraving.

There is often reference to the 4 bars on the arms as being arms of Rousillon (French Catalonia) but the arms are identical to the arms of Spanish Catalonia and I think Andorrans see themselves as more Catalonian than Rousillonian. Geographically, they are situate in valley's on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and the Spanish Catalonian connection is certainly the most likely.

The mitre and crosier on the arms is self-explanatory as one Co-prince of Andorra is the Bishop of Urgel.

The two cows of Béarn appear on the arms because one of the Counts of Foix, Roger Bernard III, married Margaret de Montcada, daughter of the Viscount of Béarn, in the 13th century and their son Gaston inherited titles to both houses.

The house of Foix is featured on the arms by a roundabout route. Certain histories would have us believe that in 843, Charles the Bald, son and successor of Ludovico Pio, gave the Valleys of Andorra to a faithful servant, Sigfred (or Sunifred). His descendent, Sunifred II, circa 94O donated the valleys to the Bishopric of Urgel. The Bishop, having no armed forces or sufficient money, put the valleys under the powerful protection of the House of Caboët. The Caboëts in turn united with the House of Castellbö and a heiress of this family, Ermessinda, married the Count of Foix in 1203. Thus passed the protection of the Valleys to the House of Foix, with the spiritual leadership remaining with the Bishopric of Urgel. Misunderstandings and fights developed, each more serious than the last, and eventually King Pedro III of Aragon and Catalonia intervened, and the agreement of 1278 by the Bishop of Urgel, Pere d'Urgell, and the Count of Foix, Roger Bernard III, was signed on the 8th September, 1278.

The origins of the 3 bars of Foix are said, by legend, to be from the Counts of Foix originating from the Counts of Barcelona some generations earlier, and the 4 bars of Catalonia (in which is situated Barcelona) being reduced to 3 to show the relation to a younger line (Heraldic term being a "BRISURE"). A second legend infers that the 3 bars represent the 3 rivers at the confluence of which stands the castle of Foix and a third legend supposes the 3 bars represent the trident of Neptune, the emblem of the original founders of Foix.

The four bars of Catalonia are believed to represent the red earth of Catalonia in deep furrows (or even valleys) although legend would have us believe that an ancestor of the Count of Barcelona, a certain Geoffrey the Hairy, badly wounded in battle, appeared before the Emperor Charles the Bald and requested his own arms in recognition of his valour. The Emperor is said to have dipped his four fingers in the blood from a wound and traced four vertical stripes on the gold coloured shield carried by the wounded petitioner. The Catalonian bars appear as the Valleys originally would have been part of Catalonia and for the role played by King Pedro III who acted as mediator and referee to the 1278 agreement.

The correct coat of arms in my opinion is the one on view above the House of the Valleys main door and as already described. The main bone of contention among the more precise students of heraldic design is the position of the cows. In heraldry the side on the spectators left (or the right hand of the wearer) is the DEXTER side. The opposite side of the shield (the spectator's right hand side or the wearers left hand side) is the SINISTER side. The usual practice is for animals, birds, dragons etc. to face the dexter side irrespective of exactly whereabouts they are positioned within the shield. This is not an infallible rule, however, and sometimes animals do face the sinister side, a position known in heraldry as "counter or contournee". It would seem that the original arms of Béarn had two cows facing the dexter side but the earliest known Andorran arms depicted these same Béarn cows facing the sinister side. Now was this by accident or by design? In my opinion the rules applying at that time were not so strict and the mason would be told to incorporate two cows and the fellow did just that, using his own judgement as to the direction of the cows. As he was most likely Spanish, he may never have even seen the Béarn Arms so as to make a true copy. Another theory is that he was Spanish and whilst making a good job of the mitre and crosier and with the 3 and 4 bars being straight forward, he did not understand the instructions as to the cows, this being in French or translated for him incorrectly. He may, of course, have been a left handed stone mason who always did his animals facing that way. Yet again, it may have been deliberate that although it signified the House of Beéarn connection, Béarn cows could face one way, but to show a difference Andorran Béarn cows could face the opposite way - although this seems very unlikely. Another theory is that the mason started chipping away on the cows (having completed the framework and some of the other items first) and, being tired, chipped too much away and, rather than spoil the whole thing, made what was to be the head into the rump instead and reversed the animals, thus saving a great deal of work. No doubt the reason is not very complicated or technical and was something really very simple. My own pet "simple" theory was that the mason may have been working on the arms and had asked which way the cows should face, only to be told "facing right". However, this could mean either way seeing that arms can be described in terms of "left" or "right" from the view of the wearer or from the view of the spectator. Therefore being told to face the animals to the right (from the wearers point of view) would have them facing incorrectly if interpreted as to face the right (from the spectators point of view).

There can be many theories but I think that as the House of the Valleys version of the Coat Of Arms is the earliest traceable copy and, considering its important position on the country's government building, I feel that this should be the accepted Coat of Arms for Andorra.

Official Andorran documents, Tourist Guides, even car number plates now have the House of the Valleys version except for the cows facing the dexter side. I understand that no firm decision has ever been made by the Andorra authorities as to the actual arms adopted as "official" but it seems general policy to adopt the House of the Valleys version with the usual rules of heraldry persuading them to turn the cow's round.

(There is no stamp issued to commemorate the agreement of 1278 but to avoid any confusion on dates the 1f. issue in the Andorran History pair of April 25th l964 mentions the year 1288. This was in fact a second and consolidating agreement between the Bishop of Urgel and the Count of Foix to iron out a few differences and problems arising under the earlier agreement, and also to oblige the Count of Foix to demolish the Castle of Sant Vincens d'Enclar (near Santa Coloma) and a promise that neither side would construct castles or defence works in Andorra without reciprocal agreements.)

The precise colours of the Coat of Arms cause much difference of opinion. There seems to be no agreed "Official" colours laid down. From various documents over the years variations occur and again it would seem colours were originally much a matter of personal choice. Over the years rules became established but each country developed separately so that today, as earlier stated, there is a wider choice of permitted colours in Spain than elsewhere. This is a matter for the purist to decide and as this article is intended to deal with the subject from a philatelic point of view, the question of colour is of secondary importance since no attempt has so far been made to produce a stamp showing the arms in anything like correct colours. Personally speaking, the mitre and crosier should be in gold, but most documents and illustrations show these on a white or pearl background which heraldically indicate silver and the general rule is that a "metal" should not be on another "metal". Both the four Catalan bars and the three bars of Foix should correctly be red on a gold background. The two cows of Béarn should be red including the horns with silver collars and bells (indicating metal), although some records indicate blue collars and bells all on a gold background. Some records suggest gold collars and bells but this means the background would have to be coloured to show the contrast.

The Secretary of the General Council of Andorra prepared a book "LES VALLS D'ANDORRA" in l946 where a green background for the cows is mentioned, but the General Council prepared "ANDORRA - EL MEU PAIS" (Andorra - My Country) in 1963 when the background was stated as gold and this would certainly seem correct heraldically, although red cows on green grass may seem to many people to look correct.


Before listing the issues showing arms I would mention just one stamp which, in my opinion, is all wrong. It occurs in the Spanish P.O. issue l963/64. The 2.50pta. not only looks out of place in this particular set, illustration-wise, but the design itself is full of artist's licence. The mitre and crosier appear side by side which would seem to be "unofficial". The crown would appear to be unnecessary. The cross under the hat is a double-traversed cross appropriate to an archbishop. This has been so since the l5th century, the top traverse representing the legend placed by Pontius Pilate over Christ's cross and this became the distinguishing difference for archbishops from bishops who use the single cross. The cord and tassels are also incorrect as ten tassels on each side represent an archbishop. A bishop should have only six tassels each side only, but in fact none of these embellishments should be used on this Coat of Arms since the ecclesiastical connection is to the 1st quarter of the shield only and the mitre and crosier is sufficient.

Basically there are 3 main variations in designs so far illustrated on Spanish and French issues.

Type 1. With the upper dexter quarter showing the mitre and crosier.
Lower dexter quarter the four bars (or "PALES") of Catalonia.
Upper sinister the three bars (or "PALES") of Foix.
Lower sinister the two cows of Béarn facing sinister.

Type 2. As for type 1. but with the two cows facing dexter.

Type 3. With the upper dexter quarter showing the mitre only.
Lower dexter quarter showing the crosier only.
The upper sinister the three bars of Foix.
And the lower sinister the two cows of Béarn facing dexter.

I will not elaborate on the variations in the shape of the shield, or the fancywork around the arms, or the shape and style of both the mitre and crosier which vary between separate issues.

The plaque over the door on the House of the Valleys is in Type 1.

1.35p express

The first Arms appearance from the Spanish offices occurred on the 30cts and 1.35pta. values in the 1948/53 set (issued on the 16th February, l948.) complete with inscription and verse and in type 1.

The l949 25cts. express stamp followed again in type 1. but without the verse but including the inscription. If one looks closely at this particular issue I'm sure many will agree with me that the cows have become pigs except for their tails!!

Then follows the 1963/64 2.50pta. stamp with the over abundance of ecclesiastical embellishments which I have already mentioned, but the arms are in type 2 with no inscription.

The "unofficial" issues made good use of the Arms. The 1st being the Placido Ramon de Torres essays in two different styles but both type 2.

The Douchet essays are in type 3 as are the fiscal stamps issued by the General Council of Andorra.

The 1932 semi-official airs use a fair sized version of type 3 on the first four values, none on the middle four values, and a very tiny version of type 3 on the remaining four values hidden away in a diamond shaped frame in the fancy work border along the top of the stamp.


The first French issue of Arms was the 14 value set of 1936/42 all in type 3 and note here that the cows are shown with their tails over their backs in an heraldic lion-like pose. (Heraldically a "COW STATANT" if there is such a thing).

1944/51 1961/71

The next issue was the 8 values of l944/51 in type 3 but with a different style mitre and the cows have their tails flyswatting across the body.

Then followed the first 8 values of the 1961-71 set, all in type 1, and closely following the House of the Valleys design and complete with inscription.

The triptych issued to commemorate General de Gaulle's visit in 1972 is very interesting. It shows the General wearing a medallion of the Coat of Arms close up on the 50c value, and in small scale on the 90c value, and where they are together with the central gutter, the strip shows the arms in greater detail, but is not a copy of the actual medallion. All these are in type 3.

The last illustration of the Arms to date appears on the 1974 CoPrince Cahors issue with a type 2 design. The cow bells are more noticeable on this issue and the framework of the shield is similar to the House of the Valleys design but, although there is a space for the inscription beneath, this space is left blank.

For the interested collector I would mention 3 French Arms stamps:- S.G.1123 Provincial Coat of Arms set 1951 showing the Arms of Béarn; S.G. 1270 Provincial Coat of Arms set 1955 showing the Arms of Foix; and in the same set S.G.l272 showing the Arms of Rousillon.

Official covers show a lack of consistency with regard to the Arms. A cover from the Episcopal Battlia bears a rubber stamp with the arms type 2 but the crest printed on the envelope is type 1. The Episcopal Viguiers rubber stamp is type 3 but his envelope is printed with type 2. The Sindicatura d'Andorra has a rubber stamp type 3 but the envelope is printed on the flap with a type 1.

Spanish P.O. first day covers now seem to be cancelled with type 2 regularly. The Arms do not occur on French first day covers very often but when they do they appear also to be type 2. However, on earlier cancellations type 1 can be seen.

Most official stationery being issued by the Sindicat d'Iniciativa de les Valls d'Andorra in Andorra la Vella, and from their Delegation in Great Britain, now displays the Arms in type 2 and a very nice little illustrated tourist guide now available shows a good picture of the House of the Valleys captioned simply "Casa de la Vall" and, as we know, over the door is the original Arms in type 1 (not visible in the picture) yet from the central top floor window is affixed a large coloured display coat of arms clearly in type 2.

Although it may not be actually official it would seem that type 2 is now the generally accepted Arms.

Clearly the ardent student of Heraldry has much to still investigate although I believe many questions will never be answered but I hope I have produced something of interest from a philatelic point of view and food for further thought and discussion for the specialist.

I must finally give my heartfelt thanks for a great deal of assistance from the ever helpful Derek Tanner and Alec Jacques without whose help this would never have been written. Plus a great number of books and works of reference, plus informed opinion from several educational authorities in Leicester.

For further study "Bouteil's Heraldry" published by F. Warne and Co Ltd or Milbournes "Heraldry" (published in l950) are excellent general works whilst a smaller pocket book "The Observers Book of Heraldry" by Charles MacKinnon (again published by F. Warne and Co. Ltd.) is a fine, modestly priced general guide. Unfortunately a book with a write up on "Andorran Heraldry" is just not in existence. Had one been so this whole article would have been unnecessary.

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Andorran Philatelic Study Circle / Hon. Librarian: E. J. Jewell / apsc@free.fr /
Updated 16 Mar 1998