Chapter Two: Fantasies ~ 1 ~


The Red Hand of the Holt Baronets

The King's Hat and the Queen's Shoes (on next page)

The Hastings Maunch (on next page)

The Conqueror's Scarf (on next page)


Among the more infuriating aspects of Victorian journalism, infuriating at least to those historians who put integrity above ingenuity and fact before fiction, was the respect popularly accorded by editors to the writings of Sir John Bernard Burke, and their frequent repetition of the fables he endorsed. Sometimes the comments of the critics came close to cheap sarcasm, a fair measure of their fury, but often their reactions are worth savouring. Here is one from Oswald Barron.

From a single number of an illustrated weekly we glean the interesting information that "the name of Lytton is indeed a proud one, going back to the Conquest" and that "Mr Towneley can trace his descent back to a remote past compared with which the Norman Conquest is but an event of yesterday." This latter statement appears to be based on the authority of Burke's Landed Gentry, according to which "the great and ancient family of Towneley" of which Mr Townley claims to be a cadet, "as deduced by ancient charters and other authenticated documentary evidence, derives from Spartlingus, first Dean of Whalley, living about the year 896, when Alfred reigned over England."

Can such a pedigree as this be surpassed? Surpassed! Why, the same organ reminds us that the Burrells are "of Gothic antiquity," and that "they claim kindred with one Borrel, a Goth, who figured at Barcelona in the first century."

Here surely we have reached the limits of genealogy. But no. On the opposite page, in a paragraph headed "A Pedigree of 4,000 Years" we learn that "not many people" (we can well believe it) "are aware" that the Chichesters, lords O'Neill, "can boast of perhaps" (observe that cautious word) "the oldest descent in the United Kingdom," as their pedigree is traced back "to Niul son of the King of Scythia (circa 1890 B.C.)." We must certainly agree that this is indeed rare.

After what became a long campaign the ad hoc group of historians who fought Sir Bernard Burke and his imitators did win, and from the nineteen-thirties on there was a continuous weeding of the myths so firmly rooted in the older directories of peerage and gentry. Unfortunately, the problems have returned at a different level, and with far greater commercial emphasis, in the heraldic and genealogical bucketshops that are springing up as franchised services wherever crowds habitually gather: at airports and railway stations, in department stores and large hotels, and recently on the Internet.

At a very famous London department store a visitor could discover that the arms of Povey, given as Sable on a bend engrailed between 6 cinquefoils Or an annulet of the field, (granted in 1614 to a Povey resident in London, but not thereby authorised for use by all who shared his name), signified by its black colour (sable) a royal connection, by its cinquefoils hope and joy, and by the annulet fidelity. The bend, it was said, was granted for his services as a distinguished leader. The explanation of the Povey crest (a griffin's head charged with an annulet) as being "the property of a valorous soldier whose magnanimity is such that he will face all dangers and even death itself rather than become a captive" simultaneously demonstrated unbridled fantasy and a previously unknown meaning for magnanimity.

There should really be no need to explain that this information is as worthless as it is shameless, but the queues of visitors, mostly tourists, waiting patiently to buy "their" coat of arms suggested that heraldry is as badly taught in modern schools as is Latin. The use of a sable heraldic shield has never indicated royalty, the cinquefoil is just a symbolic flower (perhaps based on the pimpernel), and the annulet was added to the earlier Povey arms confirmed in 1588 as a mark of cadency to indicate, in accordance with the English practice of that time, that the new arms were those of a fifth son.

The Baronage magazine intends to expose periodically the worst of these excesses, but in this anthology we shall start the task with a few from the past.

The Red Hand of the Holt Baronets

The severed hand appears many times in heraldry and tradition, most notably in Ulster and in the Western Isles of Scotland. The legend that accompanies each tale is usually of a boat race towards an island which is to become the property of the first chief to touch it, and of the chief in the losing boat cutting off his hand and throwing it onto the beach just as his rival is about to jump ashore. Here is another story, this time featuring the early years of the Holt baronetcy, which must have enlivened a few breakfasts as it was read aloud from the morning newspaper.

Two hundred years ago Sir Thomas Holt murdered his cook in a cellar, and for generations his descendants were compelled to represent a murderer's hand in their armorial coat. The red hand is said to be still seen clearly in a painted window in Aston Church, near Birmingham, but it disappeared from the coat of the Holts before the title became extinct. One by one the Holt baronets secured leave to take away a finger from the hand, and slowly, in this way, the mark of murder passed.

Oswald Barron commented:

Surely a legend with the very peach-bloom of misapprehension upon it. Five fingers to the hand if we reckon the thumb, five generations before the hand becomes fingerless. Add a generation to efface the maimed palm and wrist and six generations pass. At three generations to a century we have arrived at our own Edwardian days, and it must be but yesterday that a contemporary Holt has "secured leave" to wipe from his shield the last remembrance of the murdered cook.

It says little for our paragraphing journalists that this authorization, which must have seen the light in the Gazette or at least in the second column of the Times, has escaped their observation. To a genealogist the fact that the line of Holt baronets became extinct in 1782 would add a new difficulty, and that this family should be singled out for reprobation seems a harsh thing when it is considered that all baronets of Ulster and of the United Kingdom bear the bloody hand in their shields, the same stain of blood and gravy blotting, as we may imagine, a page in each family history.

The arms of the Holt baronets with the Red Hand on a canton

The bloody hand of the baronets is always the sinister hand, which is to say the left hand, but the Red Hand of Ulster which inspired it, and appears on the flag of Ulster, is the dexter or right hand (which, if there is any basis for the legend, suggests that the chief in the losing boat was left-handed). The change from right to left was accidental and is owed to a mistake made during the reign of James I of England.

Chapter II page 2 ~ Fantasies ~ 2 ~

Chapter III ~ Debrett's and Burke's

Mists of Antiquity: Introduction

The Baronage Contents page

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