Having exhausted what I could glean from the available editions of Burke’s and Debrett’s, I am ever on the lookout for new material on heraldry. Last week the College of Arms published its latest newsletter (which now regrettably appears only to print in October and January), but as usual the actual exemplifications of new armorial bearings were few.
I was delighted yesterday to discover this lecture on the development of English heraldry, given by the Somerset Herald David White in 2014. It is far from the only heraldry-related lecture video I have encountered online. Unfortunately I commonly find that the piece rarely goes beyond the basics of armorial composition and a brief overview of medieval chivalry, thus not telling me much beyond what I knew already – indeed it’s probable that the people making them are reliant on the same online and/or public domain resources that I am. This was not one of those, for it went beyond the Middle Ages to cover modern heraldry and much in between.
White’s lecture studied the artistic phases of heraldry, from the very simple designs of the medieval period to the more crowded ones of the early Tudors – when the nouveau riche were acquiring arms to display where they could be studied up close instead of glimpsed in motion – followed by a deliberate return to simplicity in the later Tudor and Stuart eras. There was a section on the infamous “landscape” and “seascape” heraldry of the Georgian years, with particular emphasis on Horatio Nelson, whose absurdly augmented escutcheon is often considered the nadir of the art. The Victorian era is not discussed in as much detail, save for a vague assertion that they went back to earlier styles as a result of the blossoming Gothic revival. Along the way he gave examples of families assuming arms and then later trying to get similar ones granted, or appropriating those of namesakes who were not actually related. The relative popularity of certain charges was also shown, with an ordinary or arms from the mid-1500s showing that already by then there were dozens of pages of lions (indeed a double-page spread shows thirty-two separate shields just with white lions on a red backdrop). White said that in modern times “one’s heart sinks” if a new applicant for arms requests a lion be included due to the difficulty of inventing an original design. He also speculated that the utility of heraldry as a system of identification might have been undermined by the preponderance of so many near-identical blazons.
Near the end of the lecture he showed some examples of reasonably recent grants of arms. Of particular interest was that of the cricket-player Colin Cowdrey, who was ennobled by John Major in 1997. His shield has a paly of four defaced by a bend dexter, representing the tallying of points. His crest had a set of wickets nosed by the white horse of Kent. Just to quash any remaining uncertainty, he also had crickets as supporters. Major himself became entitled to supporters upon his appointment as a Knight of the Garter in 2005. He too wished to have crickets, but was required to distinguish them from Cowdrey’s and so had them stand upon despatch boxes. Heraldry, of course, has no sense of scale. White called it a “slightly depressing thing” that the portcullis symbol was increasingly used on the shields of retired politicians to represent their profession.
The lecture I found was part of a collection of public lectures archived online by Newcastle University. The range of topics is as wide as you would find at Gresham, so well worth checking out.