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.