The exact origin of the coat of arms in unknown. The university, then an Anglican institution known as King’s College, was proclaimed by royal charter in 1827, seven years before the area of York was incorporated as the city of Toronto. In 1849, the government of Upper Canada voted to secularize and rename King’s College as the University of Toronto.
In 1857, the university senate approved a recommendation to accept the arms of U of T. University archives vaguely describe the arms as similar to the current design, but held by two supporters: Minerva and Victoria.
An 1887 article by university President Daniel Wilson details a crown, two open books that “need no interpretation,” a beaver, topped with “an umbrageous Maple.”
In 1917 the university’s board of governors noticed varying insignia across campus. They petitioned the royal College of Arms in London, England — Canada lacked its own heraldic authority until 1988 — to create a proper coat of arms for both the university and University College.
Both arms, now housed in box A73-0015 in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, were completed on August 17, 1917 at the cost of £89 pounds, six shillings — roughly $6,500 according to retail price index.
Both documents are two-page letters: the hand-painted crest, preceded by a stamped, pressed letter presenting the arms in ornate cursive script. The arms for U of T — crested with an oak instead of the original maple — are described as such:
“Azure two open Books and in base a Beaver all proper, upon a Chief Agent the Royal and Imperial Crown also proper, and for the crest on a wreath of the colours an Oak tree proper stemmed and fructed Or.”
With special thanks to Louis Charpentier and Harold Averill.
Breaking down the coat of arms
A 1crest tops a coat of arms, and is usually a symbolic animal. The tree, originally a maple but changed to an oak, reflects the university’s motto. The chestnuts are painted with gold ink.
The tree mounts a 2torse, which is not a rope but a twisted roll of fabric that knights wore under their helmets for protection.
The arms contain an upper field, in this case a 3crown that reflects the university’s original namesake: King’s College. Below is the 4shield, consisting of two open books and the Canadian symbol beaver.
U of T’s 5motto, “velut arbor ævo,” roughly translates from Latin as “may it grow as a tree through the ages,” an adaptation of Horace’s Odes (I.12, lines 45–46) “crescit occulto velut arbor aevo fama Marcelli” (Marcellus’ fame, its up-growth hid / springs like a tree).
University archives include a string of correspondence from an academic researching university coats of arms in the 1970s. Upon learning that U of T didn’t start with a formal coat of arms, the incredulous researcher expressed his horror:
“I just could not believe that [university President] Bishop Strachan would establish an institution without having a suitable insignia and particularly as it had been established by royal charter and named after the sovereign.
A 2000 commentary in The Bulletin by university graphic designer Caz Zyvatkauskas humorously details the “emasculation of the U of T beaver.” She notes that as the coat of arms was continually redesigned, the beaver was increasingly depicted as less aggressive, with retracted teeth, a slouched posture and soft paws.
“It seems we have forsaken the vibrant beaver of old for something that more closely resembles a figure from a can of children’s pasta,” Zyvatkauskas wrote, saying it reflected a fear “that the university has become more of a public relations exercise than an institution dedicated to the sole purpose of higher learning.”
The official colour of the coat of arms is called azure. According to the College of Arms’ website, “as long as the blue is not too light […] it is up to the artist to decide which particular shades they think are appropriate.” Royal blue is not often used to describe heraldry, as there are many variations.