The Isle of Man and the Triskelion

Peter Symes

The banknotes issued by of the Isle of Man Government are immediately recognizable by the common format that they apply to the design of their notes. While they have introduced variations and innovation throughout their various issues, the notes are distinguished by the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the emblem of the Isle of Man. Of course, their identity is made more obvious by the text on the notes, but it is the consistency of format that is a particular feature of these notes.

            Three portraits of Queen Elizabeth have been used on the notes issued by the Government of the Isle of Man. The first notes, issued in 1961, carry a portrait adapted from a painting by Pietro Annogoni. Commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers in 1954, the portrait was completed in 1956. With the exception of the 50-pound note issued in 1983, all other notes carry a portrait of Her Majesty that is adapted from a photograph taken by Anthony Buckley in 1960. The 50-pound note carries a portrait of Queen Elizabeth that is engraved from a photograph taken by Peter Grugeon in 1977.

            However, Her Majesty appears on the banknotes of many nations and the portraits used on the banknotes of the Isle of Man do not exclusively appear on these issues. What make the notes of the Isle of Man particularly recognizable is the emblem of the Isle of Man. Within a rim containing the Latin inscription Quocunque Jeceris Stabit is a triskelion. The Latin inscription translates as ‘Wherever you throw, it will stand’ and it refers specifically to the triskelion. The triskelion is a three-legged symbol that has been associated with the Isle of Man since the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The triskelion is alternatively known in English as the ‘triskeles’, as the ‘triquêtre’ in French, and the ‘tre cassyn’ in Manx.

            The history of the triskelion is almost as old as civilization, but its appearance as the symbol of the Isle of Man is something that has raised debate over many years. Many Manx people believe that the symbol was brought to the Isle of Man by the Vikings, when they invaded the islands. According to some accounts of Norse mythology, the triskelion symbolized the movement of the sun through the sky. The Norse connection is supported by the triskelion appearing on the Isle of Man’s Ancient Sword of State. This sword is believed to have belonged to Olaf Godredson, who became King of the Sudreys (Southern Hebrides and Man) in 1226. However, the pedigree of the sword may be challenged. It has been argued that the triskelion was not associated with the Isle of Man until the Norsemen were expelled from the Isle by the Scots. Norse symbols used in the Isle of Man have been recorded as either a Norse ship in full sail, which appeared on their flag and on a number of seals, or a lion rampant, which is recorded on at least one Norse seal.

            An alternative theory is that the triskelion was introduced to the Isle by Alexander III of Scotland after he gained control of the Isle in 1266. The theory commences with the long-term relationship between the Norman kings of Sicily and the Norman kings of England. Frederick II of Sicily (1197–1250) married Isabella, the daughter of Henry III of England. Frederick and Isabella had a child who died in his youth and his regent was later excommunicated by the Pope. Subsequently, in 1255 the crown of Sicily was offered to Henry III for his son, Edmund, by Pope Innocent IV.

            However, there was a catch to the offer. It was expected that the English would raise an army and march into Italy and the Pope advanced a sum of money to assist in raising the army. For roughly four years the campaign to invade Italy was prepared, but ultimately it all came to nothing and the campaign was shelved. Although the project was ultimately abandoned, for a significant period the project dominated the proceedings at the English Court. During this time, for a period of three months from August 1256, King Alexander III of Scotland and his wife Margaret, the youngest daughter of Henry III, were at court. It is suggested that, at this time, the regalia of Sicily would have come to the attention of Alexander III.

            The triskelion has been the symbol of Sicily from antiquity, apparently because the island itself is a three-cornered land mass. It was one of the first symbols to appear on the coins of ancient Syracuse and it was found on coins and decorations in the Mediterranean for many centuries. When Henry was preparing for the invasion of Italy by his Sicilian forces, there is no doubt that the triskelion would have been prominent in the insignia prepared for his forces.

            In 1266 Alexander III took over the Isle of Man after the defeat and death of Haco, the Norwegian king. Some years after Alexander took possession, the triskelion appears as the symbol of the Isle and it is suggested that the Alexander introduced the symbol as a type of family insignia, as his wife’s sister had been Queen of Sicily and her brother had become King of the island. What would be better than to use the symbol of Sicily for their new dominion!

            The triskelion of the Isle of Man is different to all other examples of this symbol, including the Sicilian example. While the triskelion of the Isle of Man is armoured, the symbol is usually constructed with three naked legs joined at the thigh. In some examples from Sicily, and other areas of antiquity, there is a face where the thighs join. This face is variously described as Medusa, Enna or Persephone. On some representations from Siciliy the wings of Athena appear to either side of the face. The transformation of the symbol to be coated in armour is distinctly Manx, although the reason for the change is unknown.

            The triskelion, in its various forms can be found in many places throughout the world. There are records of the symbol in ancient Sanskrit writings and amongst the Hopi Indians of North America. At this distance in history it is difficult to know whether the triskelion was introduced to the Isle of Man from Sicily or whether it was adopted simply because it is such a universal symbol that may well have evolved separately in several civilizations. Whatever its origins and however it arrived on the Isle, it is today the symbol by which the banknotes and coins of the Isle of Man can be recognized.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes