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Stars and shields: the heraldry of the emergency services

Among our collection here at NESM are many hundreds of examples of emergency services uniforms. They come from different time periods and from all over the world: there are Victorian police officers’ capes, Edwardian firefighters’ helmets, German ambulance uniforms, American police jackets, and much more. The majority of these items are not on display but are kept in our uniform store where we keep them safe from moths and all the other critters who like to make their homes in important fabrics.

Despite the variety of uniforms on show, however, there is something that links most of them, and that is the symbols they display on their badges, buttons, and patches. Most of us can instantly recognise the star-shaped badges that surmount police helmets in the UK, or the shoulder patch stars sewn to American sheriffs’ shirts, easily identifying them with the world of law enforcement.

The reason so many uniforms from different times and locations seem similar is because the symbols - or logos - of the emergency services are largely based on the medieval art of heraldry, a truly international visual language.

As a bit of a ‘heraldry nerd’ (yes, we do exist) I thought it might be interesting to take a delve into the origins of some of these symbols, and try to work out exactly how they came to be used in the first place.

Seeing stars

Let’s begin with what must be the most recognisable emblem of all: the star which adorns the helmets and caps of nearly every police force and fire brigade in the UK. Its official name is the Brunswick Star. It has eight points (one of which is usually covered by the royal crown) and is composed of clusters of narrow lines, like rays, which set it apart from many other heraldic stars.

The Brunswick Star was first used by certain fire brigades and police forces in the late 1800s, though exact dates are sketchy. An early example is the eight-pointed star of the National Fire Brigades Association (1887) while some police forces had begun to use them almost as soon as the modern police helmet appeared in the 1860s (the iconic 'custodian helmet' having replaced the 'stovepipe' top hats that bobbies had previously worn). In the 1930s the Brunswick Star was made standard for UK police forces and became known as the 'Home Office Pattern'.

All well and good, but why exactly was the Brunswick Star used? What is it and what does it mean?

There are several theories; different experts give different answers, but all of them reach back to the origins of heraldry in Europe to explain the star’s significance to police and fire services. The Brunswick Star was a military symbol before it was attached to the emergency services (which only developed in their modern professional form in the early 1800s). When police and fire brigades were set up, it was usual for ex-military officers to be involved in their organisation and in selecting appropriate uniforms and insignia. Not surprising then that the Brunswick Star would make an appearance.

The eight-pointed star is thought to derive from the cross of St. John (also known as the Maltese Cross) which has a distinctive eight-pointed design. This ancient symbol was adopted as an emblem by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (the 'Knights Hospitaller'); a medieval military and religious order known for its efforts to establish hospitals and for its charity towards the sick, as well as fighting during the Crusades.

The twelfth century - and the early Crusades - marked the beginning of the art of heraldry as we know it. It was due to the face-concealing helmets worn in battle at this time that knights felt the need to cover their shields in unique patterns so they could be identified on the field. These patterns quickly developed into the first 'logos', used by nobles on their surcoats (hence 'coat of arms') and on their seals. England’s most famous Crusader, Richard the Lionheart, began using ‘three lions’ at this time. Another King Richard, the third, then set up the College of Arms in 1484, the body which still oversees English heraldry.

Knights Hospitaller wearing the eight-pointed St. John cross, an 'ancestor' of the Brunswick Star

How and when the heraldic cross of St. John developed into the Brunswick Star is not entirely clear. Interestingly, the Duchy of Brunswick in Germany had a military order, the badge of which had the eight-pointed St. John cross displayed on top of a Brunswick Star. The family of Brunswick were Kings of Hanover, and became British monarchs as the House of Hanover in 1714.

However the Brunswick Star came into existence, its association with the Knights Hospitaller gave it associations with heroism and courage, but also with protection of those who were suffering. This is likely the reason that fire and police officers thought it appropriate, for they too were motivated to protect and help, and also show fierce courage to the extent of giving their lives in the aid of others. The star’s eight points are sometimes said to represent the chivalric virtues of gallantry, perseverance, loyalty, sympathy, tact, dexterity, explicitness and observation.

The famous stars used in the United States by sheriff’s departments are often five-pointed (sometimes more) and seem to derive from the stars of the US flag rather than the Brunswick motif. As such, they represent more broadly the symbolism of stars as 'lights of truth'. In the UK, the modern Brunswick Star motifs of police and fire services are often distinguished by shields or crests placed in the centre of the stars, each representing a local force or brigade.

Shielding the public

The use of heraldic shields is particularly apt for the emergency services, being as how they help to 'shield' the public from any number of calamities. But the adoption of shield designs by those other than knights or nobles started long before the emergency services came along. From heraldry’s earliest days, corporations, cities, guilds, universities and many other institutions were granted coats of arms by monarchs eager to show their patronage. The art of heraldry became ever more intricate during the Middle Ages, with a full 'achievement of arms' including not only shields, but mottos, supporters, crests (technically a badge above a shield) and coronets.

The heraldic image of the royal crown appears on many emergency service badges in the UK, from ambulance and police, to coastguard services. The shields that stand within the Brunswick Stars of local police and fire services usually derive from whichever city, town, county or borough they serve. Each therefore has its own particular significance. For example: South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue’s shield includes the white rose of Yorkshire, associated with the region’s heraldry since the Wars of the Roses. Derbyshire Police, meanwhile, have a shield which displays the deer heads of the Cavendish family of Chatsworth, the county’s most prominent noble dynasty, as well as a ram recalling the giant Derby Ram of local legend.

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue (left); Derbyshire Police (right)

Studying emergency service badges can therefore teach us a lot about the place they come from, helping to keep alive the herald’s art, as well as local history more generally. Before lockdown, I was involved in cataloguing the hundreds (maybe thousands) of police uniform patches from the United States in NESM’s collection. American national heraldry is, of course, dominated by the image of the bald eagle. The eagle appears in place of a royal crown on national law enforcement badges like that of the FBI. But the local police badges I was researching were far more varied in design, and some you might be able to guess the location of just from the pictures; take the Orange County Sheriff’s badge with its fitting citrus fruits.

There can’t be many better items for a ‘heraldry nerd’ to catalogue than police badges. Not that I will admit that to our Curator, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m just slogging on with a very 'tedious' task indeed.

Above: St. John Ambulance has long used St. John's cross. The NHS Ambulance Service uses a snake-entwined 'rod of Asclepius', associated with the Greek god of medicine. Below: two international police shields. The American bald eagle adorns the FBI badge. The German eagle derives from the medieval German empire known as the 'Holy Roman Empire'. Its rulers saw themselves as heirs to ancient Rome, with the eagle being based on the Roman imperial eagle.

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