This week I visited the College of Arms with my Past Masters Association. While the College is separate from the City of London Corporation, it remains of great importance to the City and the Livery. The College of Arms is the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth including Australia and New Zealand. As well as being responsible for the granting of new coats of arms, the College maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licenses, changes of name, and flags. The heralds, besides having ceremonial duties, advise on all matters relating to the peerage and baronetage, precedence, honours and ceremonial as well as national and community symbols including flags.
In the early medieval period the proclamation and organisation of jousting tournaments was the chief function of heralds. They marshalled and introduced the contestants and kept a tally of the score. From this derive both their modern roles of organising ceremonial events and of being expert in armoury. Coats of arms belong to specific individuals and families and there is no such thing as a coat of arms for a family name[i]
. New coats of arms have since the fifteenth century been granted both to individuals and corporate bodies by the senior heralds in Royal service, the Kings of Arms. As coats of arms were hereditary heralds soon added knowledge of genealogy to their skills.
At that time the majority of people were illiterate and so they identified places of business etc by signs such as a bunch of grapes hanging outside a tavern. Similarly they would not know the faces of famous people but they would learn and recognise their coats of arms. This was important in a highly hierarchical society.
Heralds would travel with their masters to war. They had distinctive apparel and would watch the battle from the sidelines. They were regarded as untouchable and could represent their masters in negotiations over a siege or the terms of surrender.
Although many of the ceremonial duties of heralds have disappeared they still carry out and organise under the Earl Marshal, certain ancient and splendid ceremonies. The Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, is one of the great officers of State[ii]
and the office is hereditary in his family. Heralds were part of the royal household in the thirteenth century. In 1484 they were granted a charter of incorporation by Richard III, and given a house in Upper Thames Street in which to keep their records. When Henry VII defeated Richard and took the crown in 1485 he also took the house and gave it to his mother. They received the charter under which they now operate from Queen Mary in 1555, together with the site of the present College of Arms. This building burnt down in the Great Fire in 1666. The present College building dates from the 1670s.
We were hosted for the evening by Peter O’Donoghue, the present York Herald. Peter is also the current Librarian so there was no-one better to show us examples of their amazing archive of documents. Peter began by showing us the hall, now known as the Earl Marshal’s Court. This had been used as a library until at least 1699. Soon after that it was furnished as the Court of Chivalry, as it remains today. It is a Civil Court of Law, a place to resolve disputes in heraldic matters but it has only been called into action once in the past 280 years. In 1954 the Corporation of the City of Manchester successfully brought an action against a Variety Theatre that was incorrectly using the City’s coat of arms in promotional material.
The throne where Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice sat in that case before sensibly adjourning to the Old Bailey also boasts the cushion on which Her Majesty the Queen was crowned. This is because by tradition the Earl Marshall derives much of his income from the soft furnishings at such ceremonial events.
The hall also features the flags of the thirteen officers of arms. First come the Kings of Arms, Garter, Clarenceux, and Norroy and Ulster. Garter King of Arms is the senior of the three English Kings of Arms, the office takes its name from the Order of the Garter founded by Edward III in 1338. Clarenceux’s province has always been the southern part of England defined as south of the River Trent. He is the senior of the two provincial kings. In 1943 the office of Ulster King of Arms was combined with that of Norroy. Thus Norroy and Ulster has jurisdiction over the six counties of Ulster as well as those of England north of the Trent. Next come the six Heralds, Lancaster, Somerset, Richmond, York, Chester and Windsor. These pertain to royal and noble households rather than geography, although there is some traditional split of geographic responsibilities. Last come the Four Pursuivants, Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon, Bluemantle and Portcullis.
Heralds in ordinary receive yearly salaries from the Crown. Peter told us that his annual salary before tax is £17.80. Salaries were set by James I at higher levels but severely reduced by William IV in the 1830s and have not been changed since. They therefore depend for their income on what they can make in professional fees for granting coats of arms or conducting genealogical research.
Also hanging in the Hall are portraits of some of the more distinguished officers. These include Sir John Vanbrugh (1664 – 1726) the famous architect and playwright. Vanbrugh designed Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle who thanked him by arranging the sinecure of Clarenceux King of Arms. The Earl was connected to the Dukes of Norfolk by marriage. Vanbrugh held the role for many years, though he is said to have known nothing of heraldry and genealogy and to have ridiculed both. He was succeeded as Garter by John Anstis (1669-1744). It was at Anstis’s instigation that the Order of the Bath was instituted in 1725, giving the sovereign more room with which to reward favoured courtiers as the Garter was limited to 24 at any one time. Anstis pretended that the Order of the Bath was a revival of an ancient custom when in fact it was a completely new invention. William Oldys (1696-1761), Norroy King of Arms, was a noted antiquary and bibliographer but wholly ignorant of heraldry and known for being ‘rarely sober in the afternoon, never after supper’ and ‘much addicted to low company.’ But these are rare examples of men who did not grace the offices well. Most have given exceptionally high standards in a profession that requires great attention to detail but also outstanding creativity as every single coat of arms must be unique in its design.
In addition to the official records created by the College, the archive also holds some seven thousand other manuscript volumes, and a similar number of unbound manuscripts, which have been deposited at the College or acquired by it over centuries. We saw examples of these. We saw ancient volumes, some from the 13th
centuries but well preserved on vellum and leather bound. We saw working papers derived from the heraldic and genealogical practices of past heralds. But we also saw the specific genealogical records of one of our members as well as the coats of arms of some of the Livery Companies of members present, both ancient and modern, including my own.
We saw the designs for the coat of arms of Henry VIII and the 24 members of the Order of the Garter at that time. These included Thomas Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Surrey whom Henry later had executed as he thought them a threat to the Crown. The heralds had crossed through these designs but left them for posterity to see.
It only costs a mere £6,400 for your own coat of arms, plus another £1500 if you want supporters. I would not mind betting that Peter will get some interest as I saw him handing out several business cards.