An odd way to promote oneself

In early July, two by-elections are to take place in the upper house, following the retirement of the Lord Brabazon of Tara in April and the death of the Lord Swinfen in June. Both were among the Conservative section of the excepted hereditary peers, which means there is no partisan competition for their replacements.

Despite the smallness of the electorate, the statements made by the twelve peers to offer their candidacy have been released on Parliament’s website. Most are essentially short CVs, with nothing particularly jumping out save Lord Wrottesley’s self-description as “closet tree hugger, as reflected in my business interests”, apparently forgetting that the whole point of being a closet anything is precisely not to announce it in public.

The exception is the Earl of Dudley, who instead of giving any information about himself simply linked to his YouTube channel, technodemic. Its content comprises nothing but music videos, some featuring (I would guess) the earl himself and others made up of television clips. There is a lengthy description on the about page, but confidence is not inspired by the lack of an avatar, nor the names of some of the channels to which he subscribes.

Somehow, I don’t think he’ll win.

To whom these Presents shall come

The shield of George Darley, poet and novelist, granted in 1804.

Among the most frustrating experiences for internet heraldists is the difficulty of actually finding citations for grants of arms. Burke’s and Debrett’s have long recorded the arms of the peerage and baronetage, but knights and gentlemen (or those whose higher dignities came and went between publications) are left out, and in any case the editions of either that can be read for free online tend to be decades if not centuries old, so that recent grants remain elusive.

The Canadian Heraldic Authority, of course, has its public register, but its British counterparts are in no position to form anything similar. The rolls of arms at the Lyon Court and the College of Arms may be inspected in person for a fee. There has been talk of the latter digitising its records, but even then their access will likely still be restricted, for the corporation would otherwise ruin its financial model.

Ireland, though, has provided an unexpected boon. Some days ago Stephen Plowman of Heraldry Online blogged that the National Library of Ireland had uploaded microfilm scans of all that country’s grants and confirmations of arms from 1630 to 2009. The volumes are labelled by single capital letters, which is a little misleading as the contents are not arranged alphabetically but chronologically. The handwriting and blackletter print are sometimes challenging to read through a computer monitor, but most of the text is legible.

Some of the stories revealed are quite fascinating – there are several cases of people seeking posthumous grants for their ancestors, as well as seeking “name and arms” clauses to inherit the arms of their in-laws. This sometimes leads to the Ulster King of Arms writing out complicated stories of marriages, ancestries and deaths.

As in other places, there is the dilemma of whether the herald should “grant” arms anew or merely “confirm” arms that were assumed long ago. My favourite reference so far (in Volume C) is to a shield long being displayed on a decorative plate in the petitioner’s house!

Although not all of the names mentioned in the books have turned out to be that famous, there have been a fair few additions to my Wikipedia collection. Even individuals who were not themselves notable may be the ancestors of those who were, and those fill in the heraldic gaps indirectly.

York and Swinfen

Late last night Professor Norton blogged about the decease of his noble friend Roger Swinfen Eady, 3rd Baron Swinfen. The photograph he used in his post was a screenshot of him in the upper chamber on 1st February 2018, taken from parliamentlive.tv, and displayed on his Wikipedia page. I know because I put it there.

Swinfen was not photographed for an official parliamentary portrait, nor in any other setting that resulted in an image released with a Wiki-compatible licence, so I had to resort to a Fair Use screenshot, as with so many other deceased parliamentarians, in order to illustrate his page. Thankfully the fact that both houses (and indeed the devolved legislatures) have recently gotten into the habit of publishing high-quality portraits under CC-BY-3.0 or similar means that such a trick will likely be needed less often in the future.

Of course, I also illustrated his coat of arms a year ago, and being the copyright owner for that graphic I released it under the same.

Last month Norton blogged on a different topic – the repeated floating by the government of plans to move the House of Lords to York. Not, to be clear, moving Parliament as a whole along with the royal households, the senior courts and the departmental headquarters of the executive, but just moving the upper house while leaving everything else in London. On Thursday he secured a lengthy debate in the chamber on that topic. The peers who spoke were unanimous in their savaging of their proposal. Many of the issues I commented on Norton’s post regarding the practical absurdities of a separation and the apparent powerlessness of ministers in the upper house to influence their Commons colleagues were repeated by members in their speeches. My favourite contribution was by the Lord Addington: Michael Gove’s comment was the sort that usually comes up halfway through the third round in a pub, that should be forgotten by the end of the fourth, and certainly not remembered the next morning.

Streets, Railways and Brownfields

Video

Today’s virtual outing took an unusual turn, featuring the London Natural History Society. The title proved a little misleading as the lecture was less about the streets and railways themselves than the plants growing on them.

At about 50:45, I asked Dr Spencer which species were most advantaged or disadvantaged by the presence of a railway line. He said the most advantaged were wind-dispersed plants, such as the “classic story” of Oxford ragwort which was confined to the walls of that town from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century when the railway arrived to blow its seeds around the country.

Power and pageantry: The coronation of King Richard III and Queen Anne

Another date with the National Archives, this time featuring Dr Sean Cunningham,the head of Medieval Records.

I was faintly amused when he brought up a still from The White Queen (2013) featuring Aneurin Barnard and Faye Marsay, if only so he could point out the inaccuracies. Then again, this coronation does not have many other televisual depictions to my knowledge.

Heraldic Headache

Five and a half months since the announcement of their appointments, the installation of the Duchess of Cornwall, the Baroness Amos and Sir Tony Blair in the Order of the Garter finally took place today. Suspended for two years due to the pandemic, the ceremony was revived with the knights, ladies, heralds and soldiers marching through the grounds of Windsor Castle in all their finery.

Getting photographs of this event has proven annoyingly difficult. The Royal Household itself has not made a proper film of it, nor have the major news networks covered it in much detail, so I have had to piece it together from commercial photographers (whose shots I would not risk directly embedding here), crowd-members short films and attendees’ Tweets. The end result is less than satsifactory.

Most importantly, I have yet to see any photographs from inside the chapel since the new members were installed, so remain none the wiser as to the appearance of their armorial banners – my main reason for waiting so expectantly all this time! Sir David Amess and Sir Lindsay Hoyle remain similarly elusive.

While we’re here, it’s worth mentioning yet another podcast I have discovered: the Commonwealth Poetry Podcast by Gyles & Aphra Brandreth, whose first episode features the Duchess of Cornwall and Dame Joanna Lumley as its guest stars.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Accessions and Assumptions

Today was another virtual double-helping. The first was a Teams presentation from The National Archives in which Dr Tracy Borman, Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, plugged her new book Crown & Sceptre: a new history of the British Monarchy.

Borman gave a synopsis of her publication, which essentially amounted to a summary of English and then British royal history since 1066. That part I will not type out again. She called Elizabeth I a brilliant propagandist and “the greatest monarch of all time”. She thought less of Victoria, who spent so much time in retirement after Albert’s death that the institution of the crown was nearly disbanded. She also called Edward VIII’s abdication a lucky escape, noting the callous attitude he had both to the institution and his family members. She spotted a theme that the best monarchs were those never originally supposed to reign – including the present one. Another important point was that after the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, Britain’s monarchs were reduced to ceremonial figureheads, focusing their efforts on charity and patronage instead of direct political power. This earned them mockery from other still-absolute monarchs at the time, but seems in the long term to have greatly contributed to outlasting them.

In the Q&A, I asked how much the present day royal family was influenced by the Scottish half of their pre-C17 ancestry, since her book was focused on the English side. Borman said that the constitutional model which Britain still has today (and has exported around the world) largely resulted from the absolutist attitudes of the House of Stuart clashing with the English parliamentary system, without which its seminal conflicts would likely never have happened.

While I enjoyed the presentation I am not sure that I will end up buying the book. While Borman claimed to be “inspired” by the Platinum Jubilee giving the opportunity to look back over the last millennium, I suspect it was more a matter of judging the point in the media cycle when such a book would get most sales. I am reminded of J. P. Nettl’s preface to his 1967 book The Soviet Achievement, beginning with “Anyone should have serious doubts before adding to the mountain of literature on the Soviet Union. The fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution provides an occasion, perhaps, but no automatic excuse.”, a sentiment that could apply equally well here.

The second event was a Zoom lecture by the Heraldry Society. Marcus Meer‘s talk “And No Recently Assumed Arms…” was about the display of, and attitudes around, heraldry in medieval German cities, and something of a sequel to his “Lest They Pass to the Peasants” lecture to the Scottish society in March.

Urban centres in the Middle Ages were festooned with heraldic marks of the municipalities themselves as well as the guilds, corporations and individuals resident within. They would be set in stained glass, carved into stone walls or moulded on cutlery. The use of such images was a shared focal point for citizens’ attention, helping to maintain communal stability. They were also used to demarcate sections of the urban space, and to claim control of said sections on behalf of their owners. Delegated authority was rendered visible as government officials wore the state or city’s badge, and armorial marks would be painted on items produced in the city as a sign of quality control. Heraldry was also a mark of power struggles – guilds would fight for precedence in civic processions and conquerors of a town would displace existing shields with their own.

Meer spoke of a departure in scholarship from analysis of heraldry as a fixed symbol of meaning, towards a study of medieval perspectives.

The Gossembrot Armorial of 1469 was an attempt by the author to shore up his family’s status against the threat from social climbers. It collected the arms of all the families into whom Gossembrots had married, but it omitted arms which had come into use too recently in favour of those long-established. Others would embellish their own heritage beyond plausibility, such as Ulman Stramer who, in his Book of my Lineage and Adventure (1360-1400), claimed that his ancestor Gerhart of Reichenbach was granted arms by King Conrad, even though Conrad reigned in an age before it became customary to have arms formally granted by a sovereign. In the fifteenth century there was a social distinction between arms officially sanctioned and arms privately assumed. Urban grantees, much like their contemporaries in England, sought to consolidate their status. Also similar to England, “confirmations” of supposedly-old arms were preferred to grants of clearly-new ones, for armigers wanted proof that they and their agnates had always belonged to the gentry instead of recently joining it. Sometimes grants were sought from foreign rulers, such as Henry VIII of England to Lorenz Stauber of Nuremberg in 1521.

There were accounts of legal disputes over heraldic ownership, such as unrelated armigers bearing the same shield, and the city authorities deciding that they must be long-lost family. A case study was the Church of St Anne in Augsburg, where Ulrich, Georg and Jakob Fugger had endowed a family chapel. When the male-line of the dynasty died out the female-line descendants were allowed to inherit the chapel but not the Fugger arms.

I asked Dr Meer what was the lowest social rank at which one could get away with assuming arms. He replied that there were no hard rules, and that at Nuremberg there is evidence of armigerous peasants, albeit probably the wealthier peasants. Emperors were known to complain of non-nobles assuming arms, but there wishes were not enforced.

10th June is International Heraldry Day (though as little recognised as all the other National Whatever Days) and the society was proud to unveil its new logo, courtesy of Quentin Peacock. Also today it was announced that Her Majesty had appointed two new members of the Order of the Thistle – former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini and former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Sir George Reid. Their arms, if yet they have them, will at some point be displayed at the High Kirk. Meanwhile, with just three days to go until the Garter service, I am still none the wiser as to the arms of Amos and Blair.

Thanks for the Memoiries

Politician’s autobiographies are a strange beast. Everyone who’s anyone (and some who maybe aren’t) eventually publishes a weighty tome detailing their time in (or out of) power with a view to putting a favourable account of themselves in the public’s minds, as well as perhaps generating income and attention lost since holding office. A few of these, such as Alastair Campbell or Alan Clark, become famous in their own right but I suspect the majority sink into obscurity as fast as their authors do.

When I discovered it four days ago, the Wikipedia article on British political memoirs was a left much to be desired. The list was long and disorganised. After many hours of code crunching, I had rearranged it into three big tables, searchable by name and publication date. I also added details of the authors’ notability as well as the publisher. The list is, of course, incomplete, given that there are new memoirs coming out every year as well as older ones overlooked (indeed I discovered a few along the way), but with as much as is already there I can spot a few trends. Harper and Collins (together or apart) got the top picks of the right wing while Penguin and Random House (ditto) got the left’s. I don’t know if that says anything about those companies’ corporate politics or if it’s just a herd mentality among their clients. Biteback, a company dedicated to political publications, is happy to print for any party.

I am sometimes struck by how early some of these books were published: Jess Phillips, who became MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, released her first book Everywoman in 2017 and already seems to be on at least her third. Gerald Kaufman published How to be a Minister in 1980, when his own ministerial experience amounted to just five years as a junior minister. Maureen Colquhoun wrote A Woman In The House having been voted out of the Commons after just five years. Even those who have served a long time still stand to miss out on what happens after – Ken Clarke’s Kind of Blue, debuting in 2016, mentioned how he was glad that Kaufman cut ahead of him when taking the oath in 1970, for he had no desire to be Father of the House. I presume he didn’t expect Sir Gerald to die so soon, to say nothing of the chaos of 2019.

The titles of such books are also interesting. Both Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester 2001-10) and Matthew Parris (West Derbyshire 1979-86) described themselves as “outsider”. Almost forty of the books listed actually had “memoir” as part of the name. Some attempted puns on their own names, such as Coming Up Trumps or Teddy Boy Blue. Of particular significance is the number of books actually named after people other than the subject: Three Conservative autobiographers defined themselves in relation to Thatcher, while only one Labour book similarly refers to Blair.

Although a large proportion of the writers end up being members of the House of Lords at some point, relatively few devote more to it than a brief note in the epilogue. Those who were MPs tend to regard their time on the green benches as their real career, with ennoblement marking its end. Often the book is already out by the time the scarlet robes are put on. Clement Attlee stands out here – he apparently wrote and released As It Happened in 1954 while he was still leading his party!

FURTHER READING