The eagle, Benjamin Franklin, and Eagle Court

Great SealThis day in London history: on 26 January 1784 Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter, expressing dissatisfaction at the choice of the bald eagle as the symbol for the United States. The Great Seal of the US, showing the eagle with arrows, an olive branch, and the motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (one from many), had been adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782.

“For my own part,” Franklin grumbled, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.” The eagle looked a bit more like a turkey, Franklin thought, which was no bad thing. “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

St John
John the Evangelist outside St. John’s Seminary, Boston Photo copyright John Stephen Dwyer

The eagle has been used as a symbol by many people over the ages. The Romans used it as an emblem on their military standards, other countries have adopted the eagle as a national symbol, and it is also an heraldic symbol. And of course, with Apollo 11‘s famous visit to the Moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong’s phrase “the Eagle has landed” has gone down in history and is used to indicate a mission accomplished.

There is an Eagle Court in Clerkenwell in London: the eagle also formed part of the decoration on church lecterns because it was the symbol of St John. The Bailiff of Eagle is an important office in the Order of St John and the bailiff’s house once stood just outside the Priory of Clerkenwell on the site now commemorated by Eagle Court. Some sources say it should properly be ‘Egle’, but that does not seem likely in view of the significance of the eagle itself.

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