Per Ardua Ad Astra

by Jack Dixon (January 2012)

The motto of the Royal Air Force is famous. It is Per Ardua Ad Astra (roughly: “through struggle to the stars”).

This motto was adopted to symbolize both the goal, and the striving to achieve the goal, of the Royal Air Force from the day of its creation on April 1st 1918. It had previously been the motto of the Royal Flying Corps from shortly after it came into existence in 1912.

The earliest, and semi-official, explanation that we have of the way in which the motto came to be chosen in the first place is to be found in The Customs and Traditions of the Royal Air Force. It was written by Squadron Leader P.G. Hering (published by Gale and Polden of Aldershot in 1961). This is what he wrote (in chapter II, p. 12): “(The motto) was used by Sir Henry Rider Haggard in his novel The People of the Mist.”1 We refer to this book and we find in the second paragraph of the first chapter the author wrote:

To his right were two stately gates of iron fantastically wrought, supported by stone pillars on whose summits stood griffins of black marble embracing coats of arms, and banners inscribed with the device Per ardua ad astra.

The author of Customs and Traditions explains thus:

That passage came to the mind of Colonel J.S. Yule, O.B.E., as he strode across Laffan's Plain, Farnborough, one evening in May, 1912. With him was Wing Commander J.N. Fletcher, A.F.C. Both were then subalterns in the Royal Engineers seconded for duty with the Royal Flying Corps. Together they were discussing the proposal of their Commanding Officer, Major Frederick Sykes, that the R.F.C.. should have a motto, and both agreed PER ARDUA AD ASTRA seemed appropriate. Yule had read The People of the Mist in the Officers' Mess at Aldershot, and in later years, when attempts were being made to trace the origin of the motto, he attributed it to his reading of Rider Haggard's book. The passage had lingered in his memory.

King George V approved PER ARDUA AD ASTRA as the official motto for the Royal Flying Corps on 15th March, 1913, and it was promulgated in Army Order No. 3 in the following April – a motto without a meaning.

Strangely, however, the author goes on to suggest this as its origin: “Nor has any authority been able to state its origin with any certainty.” On the other hand, he continues in the very next sentence to assert: “It was used for many hundreds of years as the motto of the Irish family of Mulvany.”

In this article we attempt to get to the truth of the matter, as to both its origin, and its meaning, which has been debated for as long a time.


It seemed to us that the obvious point of departure was to establish whether the motto was in fact that of the Mulvany family.

The Mulvanys are an Irish family native of Co. Meath. Several of them live today in Kilmessan. I have been in contact with Mary-Rose (Mulvany) Carty, who put me in touch with Katy Lumsden, Chief Herald Painter of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. This is what Ms Lumsden wrote in reply to my inquiry:

I’ve had a look at the two resources which give the best indication of material contained in our Registers and other parts of our manuscript collections (for interest they are ‘Sources’, the electronic version of Richard Hayes’ Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation and V W McAnlis’ Consolidated index to the records of the Genealogical Office, Dublin, both of which are available via the National Library’s website). Amongst these is one reference only to anything heraldic under the name Mulvany/Mulveny, is in a book of heraldic sketches. Burke’s General Armory lists nothing for the name, and other resources, such as Kennedy’s Book of Arms and even MacLysaght’s Irish Families give no indication of Mulvany heraldry. Some Gaelic families simply did not take up heraldry; certainly our records are giving no indication of them having done so, or at least of them having had them officially granted or confirmed.

The one reference, in McAnlis’ Consolidated index, is to folio 50 of GO MS 125, Heraldic Sketches... it shows only a crest (just that part which sits on top of the helmet in a full ‘achievement’ of arms) with the name Mulvany written underneath it. It does, however, have what would seem to be a motto above it, which reads: Res e merito (translates as something like “This through merit”, I think). [Or Our Blessings are Earned.] Clearly this is completely different from...Per ardua ad astra the motto of the RAF. I’ve seen those references to the Mulvany connection to the RAF motto on the web, and am most intrigued!

It is a mystery where Squadron Leader Hering could have got the idea that Haggard ‘borrowed’ the motto from the Mulvany family. In the event there was an Irish connection I next wrote to The Rider Haggard Society I received this reply from Shirley Addy, their publicity officer, in an e-mail communication of May 22, 2011:

There is a good family tree from Rider’s parents downwards in Victoria Nanthorpe’s Children of the Empire, which is an account of his siblings. The only family tree older in Lilas Rider Haggard’s Too Late For Tears which has Louisa Margitson’s forebears as far as Dr Robert Hamilton (b. 1721). I cannot find anything before William Meyholm on the Haggard side though it’s believed the Haggards descended from a Danish family.

Subsequent inquiries I pursued, both direct and indirect, in the hope of tracking him down, has proved fruitless. I had earlier written to the Air Ministry and received this information from Sebastian Cox, head of the Air Historical Branch (RAF) in a letter of 8 March 2007: “(Hering) was born in May 1915. He left the RAF in January 1952 and there has been no recent contact between him and the Service.” Even though he would be 96 years of age today if still alive, I sent out three further inquiries, more recently: to BT, to Military People Search, and a letter to a London daily, all to no avail.

My next search was an attempt to track down any surviving members of the Hering family. A search of the current UK telephone directory inquiries revealed five listings under the name of Hering in London and the southern counties. The second call, to a Richard Hering, turned out to be the Royal Air Force author’s son. In the course of a long conversation, Mr Hering confided to me that his father had died on August 18, 1986; and further that “he had no connection with the Irish —the family came originally from Northern Germany;” and that “he had no interest in genealogy.”2

Having exhausted the Irish connection as a source of the motto, I went back to the novel, and its description of the entrance to the estate in question. It seemed reasonable that, the imposing gateway depicted by Haggard being so graphic, it really existed and was drawn from life. 

I concentrated my search on the only four buildings which, in our estimation, are even remotely likely have been the models for Haggard’s gateway. The first two are the author’s birthplace and his own home, the former in Norfolk, the latter in Suffolk.

He was born at Bradenham Hall, near Thetford. The current owner, Chris H. Althusen, wrote thus in reply to my inquiry: “I am afraid that we don’t have any such gates. If they had existed, it would have been likely that they would have been melted down in the war.” He does not mention pillars, so I presume there was no such entrance there as Haggard described.

His own home was Ditchingham House, near the village of Bungay. Photographs of the house and grounds suggest that it could not been approached by an impressive driveway.

The other two potential candidates are a hall in the estate owned by the family having the same name as the protagonist of the novel in question,3 and his old school.

The hero of Haggard’s novel is one Leonard Outram. Outram is the name of a famous general, Sir James Outram, who made his name in India from 1819 to 1860. (It is not too fanciful to suppose that Haggard learnt of him from his friend Rudyard Kipling, though the latter was born five years after Outram’s death.) Outram was born at Butterley Hall, near Ripley. Today the hall is the headquarters of the Derbyshire Constabulary. In reply to my inquiry the Chief Constable was kind enough to inform me in a letter of June 6, 2011, that (a) “the Estate does not currently have any entrance gates installed, ... and I am not aware of any structure like this being in place since the Constabulary purchased the site in 1969"; and (b) “I can also confirm that the Butterley Hall building does not have the stained glass window which you inquired about.”4

We arrive at yet another impasse. If we have so far got nowhere, at least we have succeeded in eliminating what appeared at the outset to be some plausible avenues of inquiry. And any competent sleuth will confirm, in the name of justice, that all suspicious avenues demand investigation if only to eliminate possible ‘suspects’.

Let us now, however, revert to this field of my inquiry for a moment. Shirley Addy, whom I have already quoted above, wrote as follows: “I am not aware (that) Haggard was using an actual building when he described the place in The People of the Mist. ...(T)here are lots of halls in Suffolk and Norfolk so it’d be quite easy for him to dream up any building in his novels.”

This remark reminds us, if we need reminding, that we are dealing with a work of fiction, a product of the imagination.5 Haggard’s novels are tales of adventure, of improbable adventure at that. If the events he narrates are fictitious, invented, it is equally probable that the places and people that play roles in them, whether major or minor, are also creations of the author’s inventiveness.

But I was not ready to give up. There was still the school; and boys’ imaginations are often fired by sights and sounds experienced when young.

Haggard went to Ipswich Grammar School for the three years 1870-1873. Photographs show it to be a very impressive building of red brick. Its web site tells us that the “first hard evidence of the school’s existence, an unpaid bill, dates from 1399". As to a driveway and entrance gate, the reply I received to my inquiry states:

The Henley Road school building of 1851 which you saw on the school's website is far too near the road for a gateway and drive. The entrance under the tower is a simplified copy of Wolsey's College watergate.

As to the school’s coat of arms and motto, my same source wrote:

In June 1879, ... the arms of Ipswich were replaced at the mast-head of the [school] Magazine by the Royal arms of Henry VIII which the school has used as an achievement ever since. When the king used dragon and greyhound supporters, the former was to dexter (viewer’s left), but they were reversed in error over Wolsey’s Gate and remain so on the school’s arms.

 The arms (not crest of course) are of Henry VIII with the supporters reversed inadvertently over the watergate of Wolsey's great college school in Ipswich and used by the school as arms ever since.6

This evidence makes it clear, first, that the school did not have an imposing entrance and gate such as Haggard described in his novel; and second, that the arms contain, not a griffon, but a dragon. The school motto, furthermore, is Schola Regia Gippesvicensis {King’s School of Ipswich).

We may note that the greyhound and the dragon symbolize respectively fidelity and wisdom. They are also depicted as sporting prominently the state known as fascino erecto. This feature is decidedly henrician, though hardly appropriate for a boy’s school.7

Having reached this fourth dead-end, we reverted once again to the original text for other possible clues. So we read again:

To his right were two stately gates of iron fantastically wrought, supported by stone pillars on whose summits stood griffins of black marble8 embracing coats of arms, and banners inscribed with the device Per ardua ad astra. Beyond those gates ran a broad carriage drive, lined on either side by a double row of such oaks as England alone can produce under the most favourable circumstances of soil, aided by the nurturing hand of man and three or four centuries of time.

Despite his well-known use of real people’s names, the characters that bear them are still fictitious. And if the gates of iron, which are “fantastically wrought”, and the “griffins of black marble” are not products of the imagination, little else is.9

I finally decided that I had to read the whole novel in search of further clues, if any. In fact, I found that the motto in question, or allusions to it, occur no fewer than four times: three times in the first two chapters, when it is accepted as the spur and inspiration to a daunting challenge and quest; and finally at the end of the tale when it is interpreted as its fulfillment and reward. In fact, Per ardua ad astra is the evident and overt theme of the novel.

Our sole conclusion, and our sole possible conclusion, was that Haggard had composed the motto himself.

That being the case, only one question remains: Was the author a Latin scholar?

His father sent Henry, the eighth of ten children, to Ipswich Grammar School, instead of to a public school, like his older brothers, for two reasons: he was feeling the pinch financially; and he regarded his son, “as a daydreamer, as stupid and all-but-useless” and “only fit to be a grocer.”10    

But it so happened that Ipswich School had a head master and a Latin teacher who were among the best classical scholars in the country. And we have two authorities to tell us that Henry was a passable scholar.

The first is his daughter Lilas Rider Haggard, who wrote in her biography of her father, The Cloak That I Left”, that after three years at Ipswich Grammar School he “(emerged) with a good grounding in the classics.”

The second is the author himself, who narrates this incident in his autobiography, The Days of My Life:

Once by some accident I wrote a really fine set of Latin verses. He [Mr. Sanderson, his Latin teacher] had me up and asked me where I had cribbed them. I told him that I had not cribbed them at all. He answered that I was a liar, for he was sure that there was no one in the school who could write such verses. ... I proved to him that this was not the case and there the matter ended.11


The meaning of Per ardua ad astra is perfectly clear, although one would harbour doubts if the opinions of some commentators were heeded. For example, we read in the book by Hering already quoted: “The Air Ministry .... appealed to the College of Arms, but that high authority could only confirm: “No authoritative translation is possible.” And the Royal Air Force web site, also already referred to, merely reiterates this opinion in writing: “The authoritative translation of the motto is just as unsure as the source. Since there can be a number of different meanings to ‘Ardua’ and ‘Astra’, scholars have declared it untranslatable.”

These statements are questionable.12 The Latin adjective arduus means ‘steep’, as in Ceterum adeo ardua et aspera et confragosa via (Liv.  44, III, 3: ‘so steep, rough and rugged was the way’).13 This adjective gives rise to the neuter noun arduum (plural ardua) meaning ‘a steep place’. However, since all abstract nouns derive from concrete terms, it was not long before it came to mean (a place or objective) ‘that is difficult to reach or attain, difficult, laborious, arduous’.

In similar vein, whereas astrum means ‘a star’, so astra means ‘heaven’ and, by extension, ‘the immortality of the glory connected with it’, as in sic itur ad astra (Verg. Aeneid 9, 641. Dryden’s ‘This is the way to heaven’ is far too tame.)

We return to Haggard, and find there, on the same pages where he repeats the motto, his interpretation of it: “through struggle to the stars.” The brothers of the novel were confident in eventually attaining their star “though they guessed little what struggle lay between them and the Star they hoped to gain.” And when the surviving brother does reach his promised land we are told: “He had endured the toils and dangers and the crown of stars was his.”14

It is therefore clear not only that Haggard himself had composed the motto to serve as the theme of the novel, but that what is also most probable, namely, that Per ardua ad astra, far from inviting translation, is itself the author’s Latin rendition of  “Through struggle to the stars.”

We have no hesitation in applauding the adoption of this motto by the Royal Flying Corps, and subsequently by the Royal Air Force, in the light of their subsequent heroic and romantic achievements—notably in that victorious engagement called the Battle of Britain—and the valour of the airmen and airwomen whose struggles aimed for the stars, and by whose dedication and skills its work is still a work in progress.

We can only conclude by noting that the Royal Flying Corps, and subsequently the Royal Air Force, did not see fit either to request the author’s permission to adopt his motto, or to acknowledge its authorship. And regrettably we do not have the author’s opinion of this unacknowledged requisition of his work. But then: Regis verbum lex.

1   This novel has recently been re-issued by The History Press (Nonsuch Classics, 2008) edited and with an Introduction by John Blatchly, Hon. Archivist of Ipswich School.        

2    Mr Hering has been good enough to approve these statements about his father.

3   It was the custom of the novelist to adopt names of people and places he knew for his novels. The best known is Allan Quartermain, a farmer well known to Haggard.

4    A stained glass window bearing the same motto featured in the Outram Hall of the novel, hence the inquiry. 

5   The same is true, of course, in the case of Shakespeare, and in none of his plays so much as in his histories—which for that reason must not be read as history. For example, we are invited by the Chorus of the first act of Henry the Fifth to imagine scenes which cannot be shown on a bare stage. Thus:”can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” And: “Suppose within the girdle of these walls/Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies”. He appeals thus to the spectators: “And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,/On your imaginary forces work.”

6   For these items of information I am indebted to Dr John Blatchly, Hon. Archivist and former Head Master of Ipswich School, in a private communication of June 14, 2011. This person is the same as the John Blatchly mentioned in note 1 above. The school is called Ipswich School today.

 7   It is of passing literary interest to recall that a greyhound was the third of the three animals encountered by Dante in the first canto of his Inferno. The note in my edition explains thus: nel senso allegorico vuole indicare l’uomo virtuoso che ristabilisca la giustizia sulla terra riformando il mondo corrotto. (Translation: This denotes allegorically the virtuous man who reforms a world corrupt by restoring justice on earth.)

8   The specific mention of black marble intrigued me. I learnt that black marble was mined at Ashford-in-the-Water. This village is in Derbyshire, and not far from Ripley, the site of the Outram residence. I discovered further that General Outram’s tomb was in Westminster Abbey. Did it have a marble slab? I received the following information from Mrs. Christine Reynolds, Assistant Keeper of Muniments, in a communication of 17 June 2011: “His gravestone is of white marble with grey veining.” Too bad!

9   The presence of these griffins, which might seem gratuitous, is worth a note. In Greek and Roman times the griffin was the symbol of protector and defender, especially of valuable and precious things. Haggard has undoubtedly read Vergil’s Eclogues, notably Ecl. VIII, w here we read:


                                    Mopso Nysa datur: quid non speremus amantes?
Iungentur iam grypes equis, aeuoque sequenti
cum canibus timidi ueniet ad pocula dammae.

                                    Where love is love

all things are possible. Horses will mate

With griffins soon, and in our grandsons’ time

Wild deer come fearlessly with hounds to drink.

Eclogae VIII, 31-34 tr. T.F. Royds

Love is the other dominant theme of Haggard’s novel, which alone makes possible the realization of the quest.

10    I am indebted again to Dr Blatchly for sending me the relevant pages from issue no. 59, June 2011, of the school Magazine, which contains an article about Rider Haggard’s East Anglian roots.

11    He goes on to add this peripeteia: “I learned a few years ago [written in 1926] on the occasion of my returning to Ipswich School in order to take a leading part in the Speech-day functions, that the real finale was more dramatic. A gentleman who had been my classmate in those far-off days informed me that when Mr. Sanderson discovered that he had accused me falsely, he summoned the whole school and offered me a public apology. From inquiries that I made there seems to be no doubt that this really happened.

12   In what follows my indebtedness to Lewis and Short is close to total.

13   I discern a distant echo of this description in one verse of a hymn written by one Harry King Stewart, uncle of the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, who quotes it in My Grandfather’s House:  Still marching onward with martial tread,/Though steep the hillside and though hard the way,/On to that pasture where our Shepherd led,/Where living waters and bright fountains play. -

It is of  interest to note that the motto of the Count of Hoensbroek, of The Netherlands, is Per aspera ad astra (1684), which he appropriated from the City of Gouda (1616) when he married a lady of that city. --It is also the theme of Mahler’s 7th Symphony.

 14   The striving for a distant and difficult goal is, of course, a universal theme in literature and history. The goal may be on various planes: material, intellectual, moral, and spiritual. We have the examples of Odysseus and Don Quixote. The theme on all four planes is exemplified by Dante. We read at the end of the 2nd Canto of the Inferno: "the rough and difficult way" that the poet has to travel before attaining his goal, which is described in the final lines of the Paradiso: Yet, as the wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,/My will and my desire were turned by love,/The love that moves the sun and other stars. (Tr. DL Sayers.)

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