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Symbolism in Armory

William Forbes

I was in a very famous department store which at that time, as it may perhaps still do, rented floor space to other enterprises, and on this memorable day I saw a large man in full highland dress impressing a small crowd with his huge store of heraldic knowledge. Most appeared from their voices to be American, and from their tone I realised they stood in awe. Full highland dress has its admirers, as does colourful heraldry, and in combination they are irresistible.
A man at the front gave his name, which I didn’t catch, and asked for his coat of arms. A picture was produced with a flourish and the differences between this and the man’s arms (well, those attributed to him, anyway) were described. “What’s the meaning of the colours?” he asked. “Well,” he was told, “the black background, which we call the field, means a royal descent, and the gold means extreme bravery in battle.” “And this little ring?” “We call that an annulet, and it means that your ancestor was magnanimous in victory.”
I listened for a while, wondering when the impressive store of imagination would run out. Well, it didn’t. Some of the listeners bought pictures and wooden shields; many others made orders for which they paid immediately, and as they disappeared more took their place. It was a good day for the business. For the newcomers the pitch started again from the beginning. This man was an expert on heraldry, having studied it all his adult life, he had every important heraldry book in his library, and he had a database containing every legitimate coat of arms. Moreover, he could read any coat of arms and tell us exactly what it meant. We were impressed.
It is quite astonishing how widely this idea is sold, this idea that heraldry has a cabbalistic origin, and that only experts can read its esoteric language. A bend sinister has been used to signify a bastard descent (perhaps not always, but usually), but that afternoon the listeners learned that a bend (dexter) was borne as a mark of honour granted by the sovereign, which of course it had never been. A bend (not sinister) carries no meaning at all. Some of the simple charges we call ordinaries might have been adopted on some early arms for a specific reason, but that reason is not so common that it can be claimed to be a meaning universally recognised.
As we move away from simplicity we do meet a few geometrical charges that are associated with specific characteristics, such as the roundel bearing wavy silver and blue bars which is known as a fountain and may refer to a spring on the feudal lands of its bearer, but they are not common. Charges that are not ordinaries or sub-ordinaries may sometimes be claimed to have meanings because they are a pun on the bearer’s name, a lion for Lyon is an obvious example, but these are not universal meanings that can be applied to a specific charge wherever it appears. (There are some small charges that indicate relationships within a family [“differences for cadency”] and these do have a specific and supposedly universal meaning.)
The Chocolate Oliver,
aristocrat of biscuits,
absent from our lives
for five long years,
is back in production.
It is now available
from Waitrose, and
online directly from
Huntley & Palmers
Bend sinister:
often a meaning
no meaning
signifies a fifth son
may signify e.g. a spring
But all that was in what may be described as classical heraldry. In more recent centuries there has been an accelerating growth, not in the attribution of meanings to charges but rather charges to meanings. A trade union leader who had been a railwayman before elevation to the peerage might be granted arms featuring a steam locomotive, and an author knighted for his services to literature might bear an open book in his arms. The arms of the present Speaker of the House of Commons are an example. He, although a Scot, petitioned the College of Arms and in accordance with what may be becoming tradition there received arms with the many various charges telling much of the story of his life. (As his surname is Martin, one of the charges is the bird known as a martin; as he was a sheetmetal worker, another charge is a steel footrule.)
Here are two theoretical examples. [Not to be taken too seriously ~ Ed.]
Although they were not designed by heralds at the College of Arms, the two shields featured above illustrate this trend ~ on the left that of Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on the right that of John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister. The black field in the Chancellor’s arms symbolises the black hole into which he flung Britain’s much admired and envied pensions, the yellow billets the gold bars he sold at the bottom of the market (losing us £2.6 billion), the double saltire (according to his followers) his treatment by the Prime Minister, the saltire cross his nationality, the blue and white checks of the larger saltire his Exchequer office, the red colour of the smaller saltire the politics that have shaped his life, and the bezants the money that has established the payroll vote his followers believe will keep him in office.
The arms on the right, those of John Prescott, have been featured in these pages before. The yellow field symbolises the golden bed in which he lies, the red fess his political beliefs (described by him on the Today programme of the BBC as based on class warfare), the two jaguars the two cars that gave him his “Two Jags” by-name, the two cormorants or shags the “Two Shags” by-name given him by a tabloid newspaper, the cocktail sausages the physical attribute reported by another tabloid newspaper, and the “eleven plus” arrangement of the sausages the influential academic achievement of his life that fostered his declared love for class warfare.
So if you are asked today what a coat of arms means, you must first decide how old it is. If it is many centuries old it may possibly allude to a territory or, more frequently, it may have a charge that puns on the owner’s name, and it may refer to a marital alliance, an inheritance, or an office held by the bearer, but any one individual charge is more likely to have no universal meaning. In recent years, and especially in England, the use of charges to mean something, not necessarily always the same something, has become quite common. Many regret this.
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