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Spanish Indies




Royal Arms

The King of Spain

The King of Castile

The Arms of the Indies

The Royal Achievement

The Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies

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Las Indias


Spanish America was not composed of colonies and the crown of Castile did not call its kingdoms overseas colonies but Kingdoms of the Indies, comparable with the European kingdoms of France and England. The territories obtained until 1518 were juridically considered to be the property of the Catholic kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and were administered as royal estates. The first vice-king of a West Indian Kingdom was Christopher Columbus who was dismissed in 1503.

In 1519 the socalled West Indies were incorporated as an inalienable part of the Kingdom of Castile.

The government of the Indies was exercised by means of general and local colleges, the general colleges being established in Spain, the local institutions in the several territories of the Indies.



Royal Arms


The arms of the Kings of Spain


The arms of the Spanish kings in the Indies were the arms of the Catholic Kings of Castile and Leon at first. Later it were the arms of Charles I (V) and his successors of the House of Habsburg and Bourbon.

Those of the Catholic Kings were composed of a quarterly of the arms of Castile-Leon and of Aragon-Sicilia-Trinacria. Those of the Habsburg emperor and later kings of the arms of Spain and the Netherlands.

The arms of the Bourbons augmented these arms with the arms of Bourbon and, later, with the arms of Medici and Lorraine.

Both the Habsburg and Bourbon Kings surrounded their arms with the collar and fleece of the Order of the Fleece of which they were the Sovereign Heads.

These royal arms were used by all spanish royal colleges in the Americas.

A preserved example of such use are the arms of the Real Audiencia of Santafé de Bogotá.


Arms of the Real Audiencia de Santafé, 1580-1700

Embroidery on cloth. Museo Nacional de Colombia, inv. Nr. 97


The Arms of the Kings of Castile


At a lower level, the Habsburg and Bourbon kings of Castile and Leon, of which the Indies were a part, bore a quarterly of Castile and Leon, for the Bourbon kings augmented with the arms of Bourbon and for both surrounded by the Order of the Fleece and royally crowned.

These were the royal arms which were most of the time displayed  in the Indies until the end of the Spanish Monarchy in America.


Arms of the King of Castile

On the frontispiece of the works of Antonio de Herrera 1601 & 1730  [1]


Royal Seal on a stampd paper of 1806-1807


The Arms of the Indies


In te beginning of the 16th century many of the former Royal and seigneurial arms became the arms of the territories over which these kings and princes had once ruled. In this way the arms of the King of Castile became the arms of the Kingdom of Castile, the arms of the Duke of Brabant those of the Duchy of Brabant and so on. In this context arms were also designed for the newly acquired territories on the American continent. At first, in the time of Columbus, these were the arms for the Islas & Tierra Firma which consisted of a picture of a coast and some islands in a sea.

Somewhat later, in 1517, three other coats of arms appear for the then known Indian and Overseas possessions. These were the arms of Gibraltar and the Canaries, for the Indian Island and the Western Sea and for the Islands (of the Caribbean). For a short time also the arms of Tlemcen and Bugia where reckoned to them and for these also coats of arms were designed. 


The arms of the recently discovered territories by Albrecht Dürer, 1517.


The first arms are later (in the 17th century) called the arms of Islas y Tierra Firma and they are then: Per fess, in chief a leopard Or and in base an elephant Argent. [2]


When the american posessions had become an integral part of Castile and Leon, a new emblem for the Indies occured besides the arms of Castile and Leon. This consisted of the pillars of Hercules, and the motto PLVS VLTRA (There is More) on ribbons around them.


Pillars and Burgundian Army Emblem, after 1519. [3]


Such pillars probably came from a Burgundian or a much older repertory of emblems, representing “The End of the (known) World”. [4] They occur for example in the margin of a portrait of Charles the Bold (†1477) with a Burgundian Cross and a flint (the emblem of the Burgundian Army) in between. The motto IE LAY EMPRINS [bien en aviegne] (“I took it upon, may come the best of it”, the motto of Charles the Bold) is on a ribbon around them.

The Pillars of Hercules and the motto PLUS OULTRE were combined for the first time in 1518 on Jetons des finance of Charles of Habsburg as a Duke of Burgundy (alias Lord of the Netherlands) and a King of Spain. On these jetons the Pillars of Hercules, the motto, the flint of the Order of the Fleece and the Burgundian cross are arranged in different ways, the pillars and the motto combined being used in the spanish context.


Jetons des finance, 1518. [5]


Almost at the same time such pillars were painted at the occasion of the 19th Chapter of the Order of the Fleece of 1519 in the cathedral of  Barcelona. This time the pillars are surrounded by a sea and have a flint with the motto PLVS VLTRA between them.


Pillars of Hercules with flint and motto

In Barcelona Cathedral, 1519


Soon this emblem became the emblem of the possessions overseas and served as an augmentation of the heraldic emblems of the King and Emperor Charles V, the arms representing his European posessions and the pillars representing his American properties.


8 Reales coin struck in Mexico, 1535

The crowned arms of Castile on the obverse and the Pilllars of Hercules on the reverse. Legend: KAROLVS ET IOHANNA D / HISPANIE ET INDIARVM REGES


The Pillars of Hercules became also the charge of a coat of arms for the Indies. It was displayed at the funeral of Charles I (V) in 1558.


16th century Arms and Crest of the Indies [6]


The arms of the Indies were:


Arms: Per pale, Or, Azure and Sable, the pillars of Hercules Gules both surrounded by a ribbon with the motto PLVS VLTRA, the dexter imperially crowned and the sinister royally crowned, rising from a sea in base proper.

Crest: On a wreath a bunch of Ostrich feathers of the colors.


The crest represents a Lordship in the same way Charles and his successors were “Lords of the Netherlands”. The title “King of the Indies” (Rex Indiarum) was used for the first time by King Philip II in 1581. [7]


These arms, probably only designed for the occasion of the funeral, disappeared in the reign of Philip II as he was always represented by his royal arms. Instead, the pillars of Hercules became one of the emblems of the Council of the Indies, founded 1517.


The Pillars of Hercules were displayed in the offices of the Ayuntamiento in Seville, the city where the Casa de Contratacion was established.


Æ See Illustration in the head of this essay


Pillars of Hercules in the Lonja of Sevilla

(= Archivo General de Las Indias)


They were also on coins struck in the Americas.

In other cases they served as important decorations of the emblems of the king and the lower colleges in the Americas

Arms of the Indies, 1558. [8]



Piece of 8 Reales, struck in Potosi (Peru) 1652 and later

Arms of Castile, Pillars of Hercules


At the Bourbon Reform of Philip V (1700-46), the colonial matters were concentrated in a single, special ministry; the ministry of the Navy and the Indies (1714). He created first a Honduras Company (1714), a Caracas Company (1728) and — the only one destined to thrive — a Havana Company (1740). The native bureaucracy of the Americas (criollos) was replaced by (supposedly more qualified) Spanish officials appointed directly by the Crown, and the territories were better divided for administrative purposes. The extremely large Viceroyalty of Peru was split in three, adding the Viceroyalty of New Granada and the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.

In this context a new emblem for the Indies was introduced. This consisted of a picture of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres between the Pillars of Hercules. This emblem was used on coins struck in Mexico from 1732 until the end of the Spanish presence in America


Photo Heritage Auctions

8 Reales obverse

Arms of Castile

8 reales reverse

Emblem of the Indies


In the time of Bourbon rule the emblem of the Indies consisted of a picture of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres between the Pillars of Hercules.

About 1772 the arms of Castile and the emblem of the Spanish Indies were united by king Charles III (1759-‘88)  into the achievement of the Spanish Empire by replacing the two hemispheres by the arms of Castile.



Arms of the Spanish Empire, the two hemispheres on the Pillars of Hercules

In the stairwell of the General Archives in Sevilla, after 1794.


This achievement (or augmented arms) was used until 1868.


In the Americas itself some vice-kingdoms and cities had their own coat of arms which was granted by means of a Royal Decree.


The Achievement


The achievement of the Government of the Indies consisted of the royal arms of Castile and Leon, at first, in the time of Charles I, supported by a two-headed eagle and later between or supported by the Pillars of Hercules. Such an achievement was used in all parts of Castile and Leon.


Achievement of King and Emperor Charlers V. Toledo, 1550


Royal achievement for the Indies. 17th entury

as on the Sumarios de la Recopilacion General de las Leyes, Ordenanças, Provisiones, Cedulas, Instrucciones, y Cartas Acordades q por los Reyes Catolicos de Castilla se han promulgado, expedido y despachado para las Indias Occidentalis, Islas, y Tierra-Firme del Mar Oceano: desde el año dse mil y quatrocientos y noventa y dos, que se descubrieron hasta el presente de milseiscientos y veinte y ocho. En Mexico, 1677

Seal with the royal achievement for the Indies, 1687.


By the Bourbon kings the arms of the achievement were replaced by their own royal arms.


Royal achievement for the Indies.

As on the frontispiece of the Observaciones astronomicas y Phisicas hechas de Orden de S. Mag en Los Reynos de Peru. Madrid, 1748.


By King Charles III the royal arms of the achievement were replaced by his own royal arms adopted 1760.

Royal Achievement for the Indies / Alegoria de la America Española

On the frontispiece of the Real Ordenanza para el Establecimiento e instrucción de Intendentes de Exército y Provincia en el Reino de Nuevo España. Madrid, 1786


The Real y Supremo Consejo de Indias


The Consejo de Indias (“Council of the Indies”), in full the Real y Supremo Consejo de Indias (“Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies”) was the most important administrative body of the Spanish Empire, both in the Americas and in the Philippines, combining legislative, executive and judicial functions. The Crown of Castile incorporated the new territories into its domains when Queen Isabella withdrew the authority granted Columbus and the first conquistadors and established direct royal control.

The Consejo Real y Supremo de Indias functioned formally from 1 August 1524. The king was informed weekly of decisions reached by the Council, which came to exercise supreme authority over the Indies at the local level and over the Casa de Contratación founded in 1503 at Seville as a customs storehouse for the Indies. Civil suits of sufficient importance could be appealed from an audiencia in the New World to the Consejo, functioning as a court of last resort.

A separate secretariat, the Secretaria de Indias was established by Charles III (1759-’88). (door Ferdinand IV op 26 augustus 1754).


The achievement of the Supreme Council of the Indies consisted of the arms of the King of Spain, crowned and surrounded by the collar of the Order of the Fleece, between the Pillars of Hercules and with a sailing ship below. Because the council is Royal, the royal arms are incorporated in the emblem.

Several versions of this emblem are known.

The first version shows the royal arms of Castile & Leon between the Pillars of Hercules and a ship, probably a carrack,  below


Achievement of the Council of the Indies

As on the frontispiece of the Regimiento de Navegacion, 1601

Stamped Paper, 1st half 17th century

Showing the seal of the Council for the Indies


A second and later version shows the royal arms of King Philip II after his succession in Portugal (1580).

Achievement of the Council for the Indies

As on the frontispiece of the Autos Acuerdos i Decretos de Gobierno del Real y Supremo Consejo de la Indias. Madrid, 1658


A third version from the second half of the 17th century shows the arms of King Charles II, the arms of Portugal omitted and the arms of Jeruzalem added in the second quarter.

Emblem of the Real y Supremo Consejo de Indias.

As on the frontispiece of the Recopilacion de leyes de los Reynos de Las Indias. Madrid, 1681


In the time of the rule of Philip V (1700-’46), the royal arms of the achievement of the Council were replaced by his arms.


Achievement of the Royal Council for the Indies

As on the frontispiece of the Recopilacion de Leyes de los Reynos de las Indias. Madrid, 1774


By his successors Charles III (1759-’88), Charles IV (1788-1808) and Ferdinand VII (1808[…]1833) the royal arms were replaced by the arms of Ferdinand VI as adopted in July 1760.

Achievement of the Supreme Council for the Indies on a Royal Decree, 1786

As on the frontispiece of the Real Cédula de su Magestad á consulta de su Suprema Consejo de Indias &c.

 Madrid, 1786.


The Real y Supremo Consejo de Indias was not definitively abolished until 1834.


With the Bourbon reforms enacted from 1714, a Minister of the Indies and a Secretaría de Guerra, Marina e Indias was created which superseded the administrative functions of the Consejo de Indias.

Larger achievement of the Navy

As on the Ordenanzas Generales de la Armada Naval, Madrid, 1793


As the emblem represents a spanish institution and not a person, the arms are not surrounded by the Collar of the Order of the Fleece.




After the loss of the South- and Central American properties the Spanish Empire only consisted of Spain itself, Cuba, the Philippines and some African colonies (Spanish Guinea and Western Sahara). Nevertheless for this Empire the Pillars of Hercules remained a part of its heraldic emblem.


Achievement of the Provisional Government of 1868


The successor states of the Spanish Indies are:







Costa Rica

Cuba (was directly depending of Spain)

Dominican Republic


El Salvador









Philippines (was depending of Nueva España)




And in the United States of America:





New México





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© Hubert de Vries 2013-04-04



[1]  1. Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales de Antonio de Herrera. Madrid 1601. 2. Historia General de los hechos de los castellanos en las Islas i Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano obita por Antonio de Herrera. Madrid 1730

[2] Vicente Cascante, Ignacio: Heraldica General y Fuentes de las Armas de España. Salvat. Eds. S.A.. Barcelona, 1956. P. 534

[3] Statute Book of the Order of the Fleece. Fol. 70 v°. Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Handschriften u. Inkunabelensammlung. Cod. 2606.

[4] Vicente Cascante, Ignacio: op. Cit.. Pp. 470-486: Las Columnas de Hercules.

[5] Picture from: Rosenthal, Earl E.: The Invention of the Columnar Device of Emperor Charles V at the Court of Burgundy in Flanders in 1516. In: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 1973. 36: pp.198-230.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mateu Y Llopis, Felipe: El Titulo «Rex Indiarum» del «Hispaniarum Rex» en las monedas y enlas medallas. El titulo «Rex Indiarum» del «Hispaniarum Rex ... - Dialnet dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/articulo/58132.pdf.

[8] From: Chifletius, Johan: La magnifiqve et svmptvevse pompe fvnebre avs obseqves et fvnerailles dv tresgrand, et tres victorievs emperevr charles cinqvie’me, celebrées en la ville de brvxelles le xxiv. iovr dv mois de decembre m.d.lviii. par philippe roy catholique d’espaigne son fils. Chistophle Plantin m.d.l.ix. (http://culture.besancon.fr./ark:/48565/a0112900901274hUCxd/1/1)

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