Heraldry in Upstart Crow

Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, covering the life of William Shakespeare (David Mitchell), contains some interesting heraldic treasures. A subplot of the series involves the playwright’s attempt to elevate himself to the gentry with the acquisition of a grant of arms. Robert Greene (Mark Heap), Master of the Revels, seeks to deny him this, viewing the Shakespeares as of insufficiently high birth.

Success comes in the third season, Elizabeth I allegedly having been so impressed by Shakespeare’s latest play that she decreed “Only the son of a gentleman could have writ such wit!” and thus elevated the bard’s father accordingly.

There are other armorial treats, though also causes for confusion: At the theatre where Shakespeare and his troupe are seen rehearsing, there is a large cloth of the royal arms at the time – quarterly France & England – hanging in the background. There appear to be multiple versions of this prop used. On some occasions the arms are depicted in the correct tinctures, on others the field colours are swapped so that the fleur de lis are on gules and the lions on azure. There are other curiosities in that same set, for on either side are other shields which also get swapped out at various points. On the right, in seasons 1 and 2, is a shield resembling that of the Dauphin of France, though again with the background tinctures changed, while those appearing on the left are not those I can identify.

The Queen herself (Emma Thompson) appears at Hampton Court Palace in the 2017 special A Christmas Crow. Behind her is a large, colourful relief of the modern-day royal arms, showing quarterings for Scotland and Ireland but not for France, and featuring a unicorn argent as the sinister supporter. These elements would not be brought together until the union of the crowns, which of course occurred at Elizabeth’s death. The specific iteration shown in this episode, with the motto scroll floating in the air, would belong to the reigns of Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI.

NOTABLE CLIPS

FURTHER READING

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