Rhode Island Colonial Charter: 1663-2013

350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom

Royal Symbols

charlesKing Charles II

King Charles II became king in 1660, restoring the monarchy following the English Civil War. His image on the Charter may have been used to convey political messages about his power. He is shown in a more “casual” manner; he isn’t wearing a crown or formal robes. In addition, he is posed again the sea to suggest his association with colonial interests

royal armsRoyal Arms

Charles II revived its use after the Restoration. The center is the Royal Seal, used by the King on official documents; much of its symbolism refers to the union of Scotland, Ireland, and England. The seal is supported by a lion and unicorn: their use was adopted into the arms after the unification of England (lion) and Scotland (unicorn). The helmet above the seal represents the King’s sovereignty. The crown on the top of the seal with pearl-decorated ribbing is that of the King (Princes, barons, dukes, and earls also used crowns).


Lions were popular with rulers and used on many royal seals throughout Europe. Lions were considered the “King of Beasts” and served as a metaphor for the role of the King. They were characterized as ferocious animals, but also protective of their citizens and territory. Their tails were believe to have special power, magical even, making them invisible and erasing their footprints by moving their their tail. The length of the tail also indicated the degree of these magical power, so longer was better!


They were mainly used as a decorative element on the charter. Natural history was an interest of Charles II and many of his contemporaries. The same year as Rhode Island’s Charter, Charles II was a co-founder of “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.” Their use as a decorative element may also indicate the side-benefit of establishing settlements in British North America, since many natural history specimens were sent back from the New World.


Also used as a decorative element, their use may indicate the cultural background of the artist who designed their work on the charter. Britain did not have a large number of trained artists in the 17th century. The majority of engravers in London during this time were Flemish or French and the flowers and bugs look like those in Flemish still lifes during this time period.

Crowned thistle, harp, and fleur-de-lis

thistle harp fleur-de-lisThe thistle is considered to be a symbol of Scotland. Scottish thistles are known for having prickly leaves and pink or purple flowers. The depiction of a thistle with a crown demonstrates English domain over Scotland.

Up until the 19th century, the harp was commonly considered a symbol of Ireland. Like the crowned thistle, the crowned harp shows English domain over Ireland.

The fleur-de-lis is a popular French symbol. In 1340, English King Edward III claimed the French throne, and the symbolism continued to be used by

English royalty.

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