The Arms of the Speakers

On the whole, my ideas for new Wikipedia pages have not gotten far. My template for life peers was rejected because the category was too large. My template for husbands of princesses was rejected because the topic was considered irrelevant. My plot to list all current members of the House of Commons by length of continuous service was aborted once I found that such an article already existed.

Recently, and without having received any direct notice, I discovered that one of my proposed articles had been accepted  – a list of the armorial bearings of all the Speakers of the House of Commons since 1707.

From the Acts of Union of England & Scotland (a useful jumping-on point for “British” parliamentary history, though the death of Elizabeth in 1603 could also work for the royal component), there have been thirty-three holders of the office. Each of them acquired a grant of arms during their term if they were not armigerous already. Depictions of their arms appear on small wooden escutcheons which are carved onto the interior walls of the speaker’s official residence in the Palace of Westminster.

To create a Wikipedia list of these grants seemed natural given the presence of similar armorial lists for heads of state and government in this and various other countries. Unfortunately my first submission of the list was swiftly rejected for the lack of reliable sources. Cracroft, it seems, is not considered worthy.

Scouring the subject on Google Books, I discovered a tome from 1851 which gave biographical accounts of a great many former speakers, each concluding with his blazon. It is a shame that modern publications do not consider such details so important. Speakers John Smith to Charles Shaw-Lefevre were covered thus, but their successors from the latter half of the nineteenth century were not so easily ticked off. I tried looking for biographies of later speakers, but frequently found that only limited previews were available.

Only rather a long time into my heraldic hobby did a thought occur to me which, in retrospect, should have been obvious from the beginning – that being in a university library I could find many of those same books in physical form. Sure enough a scout around the fourth floor uncovered several such books. More importantly, I also found a shelf holding several old copies of Burke’s and Debrett’s accounts of the Peerage & Baronetage.

A Herald’s Treasure Chest

These titles were not new to me, for I had heard and read them referenced many times in relation to matters of the British aristocracy. Previously I had understood these volumes to be address books and genealogical guides for upper class, which indeed they are. I had not, however, realised that they also functioned as an armorial database. This discovery allowed me to vastly expand my portfolio for all heraldic uploads, but in particular it gave me access to the arms of several speakers in the twentieth century.

As the names imply, Burke and Debrett detail the peers and baronets of the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. Some also document the knightage and companionage, but these entries do not include arms. This means that speakers who are neither peers nor baronets will not have their arms listed – a problem for several of the individuals being studied.

It is customary for a retiring speaker to leave the house altogether and ascend to the other place – the monarch having been petitioned by MPs to confer some mark of her royal favour upon him, and the prime minister having recommended that this be a peerage. George Thomas’s arms can therefore be located as those of the Viscount Tonypandy, as can William Morrison’s as Viscount Dunrossil. Some speakers, though, never moved from the green leather to the red. This can either be because they preferred to remain commoners (in the case of Whitley) or because they did not leave office alive (in the case of Fitzroy and Hylton-Foster). A difficulty also occurs for those speakers whose peerages were short-lived: The shelf had volumes from 1949, 1959, 1972-3, 1985 and 2000. The viscountcy Ruffside does not feature, having existed only from 1951 to 1958. The barony Selwyn-Lloyd (1976-78) was similarly absent. Of course, the deferment of elevation until one’s retirement means that no edition would include the contemporary speaker, only the emeriti. In a few cases I was helped by other Wikipedians who had access to editions which I did not, but that still left me with a smattering of omissions from the record.

As explained before, when no blazon can be found then one can only resort to replication by visual inspection. Speaker’s House is often used for public events, and pictures often make their way online. Of course, the photographers are typically not there to take closeups of the wall decorations, but in a handful of cases I was able to get a good look at the escutcheons which had previously eluded me. The shields are arranged sequentially, so that if at least one of them is already known then a viewer can count along the line to identify the others. It was an easy deduction that the Stuart-era royal arms defaced by a bendlet sinister would belong to Edward Fitzroy, agnate of the Dukes of Grafton. Selwyn-Lloyd’s could be spotted two spaces down from Weatherill’s, but the depth of field made it difficult to precisely identify the charges.

Michael Martin’s arms were a challenge to reproduce as they contain a great many non-standard charges and a motto in Gaelic, “Gorbals Mick” wishing to emphasise the proletarian lineage which set him apart from most other politicians. The display of large graphics online had become much easier by the time John Bercow matriculated his arms, so that their appearance was widely distributed by various news outlets. There is currently some uncertainty as to when, if ever, he will relinquish the chair, but it is likely that the achievements of his eventual successors will receive similar publicity.

The only remaining gaps in the list are for John Henry Whitley and Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, both of whose shields I have seen in the photographs, but too far away to capture the fine details. The latter case is especially infuriating because although Sir Harry perished as a mere knight, a barony was conferred upon his widow, Audrey – who also happened to be Ruffside’s daughter. I sought out her entry in Debrett’s expecting to see the arms of her father and husband impaled, but instead the books gave her no heraldic information at all.

As I am unlikely to be invited to the speaker’s residence in person any time soon – being not a politics student, after all – these last two items may well stay beyond my grasp indefinitely. Still, it’s nice to finally have an article I may call my own after all these years.

EXTERNAL LINKS

  • E. Churton – The Lives of the Speakers of the House of Commons by James Alexander Manning, 1851.
  • Burke’s Peerage – The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland & Wales by Sir Bernard Burke, 1864.
  • C-SPAN – Bernard Weatherill reflects on his career, 7th April 1992.
  • C-SPAN – Betty Boothroyd shows of her residence, 1st July 1995.
  • Whitehall 1212 -Torcuil Chrichton sheds some light on Michael Martin’s charges, 4th December 2008.
  • UK Parliament – John Bercow is interviewed with some escutcheons behind him, 7th September 2009.
  • The Daily Telegraph – Response to Bercow’s arms and portrait by Christopher Hope, 28th November 2011.
  • The Guardian – Report on Bercow’s arms, 28th November 2011.
  • The Workers’ Photos Archive – Photographs inside the speaker’s chamber, 19th June 2013.
  • I CAN – Photograph inside the speaker’s chamber showing the arms of Selwyn Lloyd, 26th November 2013.
  • UK Parliament – Bercow before row of escutcheons paying tribute to Jo Cox, 15th June 2017.
  • Hansard – Bercow pays tribute to his deceased predecessor, including a brief description of his arms, 1st May 2018.
  • Reddit – Members were not impressed by my first attempt at Boothroyd’s lozenge, 28th January 2019.

Wikipedian Heraldry in ITV’s Victoria

Last night “A Show of Unity”, the fifth episode of the third series of ITV’s Victoria, premiered in Britain. It featured two heraldic anomalies that I wanted to examine.

Some of this episode takes place at Classiebawn Castle on the Palmerston estate in County Sligo. A dining room scene features a blue cloth hanging from the back wall which bears an illustration of Palmerston’s arms. Shortly afterwards there is an establishing shot of the outside of the building showing a flag of similar composition (although smaller and portrait) supported by a sculpture of a dog (possibly a talbot sejant, as in Palmerston’s crest). In both cases the depiction of the arms looks suspiciously similar to this one by heraldic artist Rs-nourse, who has produced a great many armorial illustrations for Wikimedia Commons. His works are distinguishable from Sodacan’s in that they are generally more stylised, with greater texturing and shading. As per usual, there was no attribution in the credits.

The use of this particular image also creates an anachronism. This episode, featuring The Queen’s first visit to Ireland and the discovery of her seventh pregnancy, should be set in 1849. Nourse‘s graphic, however, has the shield surrounded by the blue circlet of the Order of the Garter – to which Lord Palmerston was appointed in 1856. Another strange anomaly is that the outdoor flag seems to be topped by a flat metal impression of a coronet. Only four pearls are seen, implying the rank of baron. Meanwhile the printed display already features a coronet with seven pearls, appropriate to Palmerston’s rank of viscount (though he did have the subsidiary title Baron Temple).*

These scenes are surrounded by two scenes back at Buckingham Palace. Even though the monarch is absent, the establishing shots of the palace both feature the Royal Standard flying over the Marble Arch. The flag is too far away and too crumpled for me to determine where they found the image.

*In reality a baronial coronet features six pearls around its rim and a vicomital coronet sixteen, but on a two-dimensional drawing it is not possible to show all of them simultaneously.

The Hidden Heritage of Holderness

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This time of year, after the end of winter examinations but before the beginning of a new trimester, is rather uneventful as far as undergraduates are concerned. I therefore have the opportunity to leave my student dwellings and go home for a week. Today my parents took me on a tour of some interesting locations in the sparsely-populated parishes of South East Holderness. I had seen many of these locations before when delivering leaflets for the Hubb, but this excursion was focusing more on the historical perspective.

Our first landmark was the Gunpowder Plot sculpture, erected in 2013 in Welwick. The sculpture depicts conspirators Guy Fawkes, Robert Caseby, Jack Wright and Kit Wright – the latter two being brothers from this village. The work was unveiled by Graham Stuart MP, whom the plaque incorrectly styles as a privy council member.

Taking up the bulk of our day was the Church of St Helen, in the parishes of Skeffling (civil) and Easington (ecclesiastical). Constructed in the early reign of King Edward IV, it held regular congregations until last summer when, after several years of dwindling audiences, the Church Commissioners decided to close it down. Inside everything looks much as one would expect: stone arches, wooden pews, and haunting streams of sunlight through the stained-glass windows (this building has no electricity, though it does have candles and what looked like gas lamps.). Though nothing was obviously missing, one could sense from the thin layer of dust on so many surfaces and the abrupt skipping of years in the guestbook that this was no longer the centre of any significant activity.

The church contained a few references to the aforementioned Wright brothers, but what most interested us, given our association with the Tower, were the many monuments to the Holme family, both verbal and heraldic. The bodies of John Holme, Esq (d. 1744) and his wife Dinah, née Burgh (d. 1729) are contained here, along with those of two sons (Henry & John, the latter being rector of Brands-Burton & Barmston) and a daughter (Margaret, Mrs Thomas Reaston). Above these large luxurious engravings are several depictions, in varying states of repair, of the Holme escutcheon – Barry of six Or and Azure, on a canton Argent a chaplet gules. The most prominent of these is topped by the Holme crest – Out of a mural coronet Gules a hound’s head erased Or – and impaled with the arms of Burgh – Argent on a saltire Sable five swans Proper.

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There were many more references among the many dusty documents to the Holmes of various generations, though the task of constructing a coherent timeline is confounded by the fact that, like so many families prior to the nineteenth century, they frequently recycled the same limited pool of names and were not much concerned with consistent spelling.

Having left the church, we went in search of the sound mirror at Kilnsea. Constructed around much of the north east coat during the First World War, these large concrete hemispheres would focus the engine noise from approaching aircraft, so that advance warning could be given of imminent bombing raids. The mirrors were ultimately rendered obsolete by the invention of faster aeroplanes and later RADAR.

We did not make it to the mirror, however, because the intermediate terrain was not navigable. Much of the surrounding land has been given over to a nature reserve managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. To approach our target we had to troop over a lot of damp, thorny ground and long grass. Then there was the problem of the artificial lake. I walked along the full length of the narrow strait depicted above, but it did not quite reach the bank at the other side, and I judged the water to be a little over what I could reasonably ford – both in width and in depth. None of us wanted to risk spending the next few hours trudging about with mud-soaked legs and squelching boot-soles, so we gave up and turned back.

Our final stop, for a rather belated lunch, was at Spurn Discovery Centre. Opened ten months ago, this rather controversial building is the headquarters of the Spurn National Nature Reserve. My family have visited Spurn many times during my life, and on each occasion found it to be a slightly different shape. Coastal erosion here is very fast, due to the soft nature of the boulder clay, and the entire landmass moves two metres westwards every year. Nearly two years ago a major storm wiped out part of the road to the head, creating a tidal island. Some months earlier the trust abandoned attempts to preserve shoreline, instead planning to “let nature take its course”. Tourists are driven across the peninsula using a “Unimog” bought from the Dutch Army, but even that struggles to get across when it rains or the tide rises.

The café had a wide selection of reference books and memorabilia, most of which related to the birds and other creatures which inhabited the surrounding sand. Ornithology – despite what my name and logo may imply – is not my area of interest or expertise, so I have little to comment on these. I was rather hoping that there would be some material relating to the human history of the region, for up until the nineteenth century there were dozens of small towns dotted along this section of the coast, all now submerged by the north sea. If nothing else, I could have hoped to find some interesting heraldry somewhere.

 

Hark the Herald

It was through editing Wikipedia that I came to develop an interest in heraldry. Since my scientific and technical education was not yet at the point where I felt competent to edit articles about elements, reaction mechanisms or mathematical proofs. I instead concentrated on my humanities interests. This saw me editing the articles of statesmen and the offices they held. Even here, however, I was primarily devoted to the technical details rather than to the grand sweep. My edits would concern what precedence a certain politician held, the honorific by which they should be addressed and, of course, what would be on their coat of arms.

A medieval system of shield markings for differentiating knights on the battlefield (or at a jousting tournament) may at first appear to have little relation to a discussion of parliamentary elections or ministerial appointment, but heraldry has long outlasted the system of warfare whence it originated, evolving to become a signature and status symbol for people of many professions.

In Britain there is a significant overlap between the armigerous classes and the political community, though of course this is true to varying extents in many other countries also. In earlier times it was the case that high office in parliament, government, military and church was largely reserved for members of royal and noble families who naturally would have possessed armorial bearings. In modern times the direction of passage has reversed somewhat as formerly unadorned statesmen over the course of their careers (and particularly at their retirements), acquire heraldic achievements to reward their political ones.

The upshot is that over the last couple of years I, having run the course of correcting the written details of the biographies of the great and powerful, turned to filling out the visual side of things as well. By a combination of desktop drawing tools, image manipulation and liberal use of the set transparent colour function, I have put together depictions of well over two hundred coats of arms belonging to everyone from the Duchess of Inverness to Heston Blumenthal.

Sometimes the details of a person’s achievement can be frustratingly hard for a penniless amateur to uncover. Sometimes, as in the case of Philip May, press will display an image of a coat of arms but will not include the formal blazon. This means that I can only copy from the photograph to the best of my abilities rather than construct it from scratch. Other times, such as with the late Lord Martin of Springburn, the newspapers will give an informal list of the elements in the arms but will provide neither blazon nor illustration, and therefore it is not possible for me to reproduce the arms at all.

In England, Wales, Northern Ireland and a few other Commonwealth realms, heraldic grants are made by the College of Arms. Their website regularly posts newsletters and articles detailing recent grants and matriculations. A reasonable smattering of these are illustrated and blazoned online, but the majority are simply listed with reference codes, requiring an inquisitive Wikipedian to expend great effort in making a personal inspection – and often pay a fee. In Scotland the same function is carried out by the Lord Lyon Court. Their website was, until late last year, laughably outdated. Even now it is not especially impressive. Similar issues are present there and, though blazons are occasionally published on Twitter, on the whole their output remains a mystery.

Sometimes, the recipients of these new grants are keen to publicise them, whether on their personal websites or on social networks. On other occasions their is no such disclosure. The college’s newsletters often list, without elaboration, peers of the realm and public officeholders who, upon investigation, do not have any significant online presence beyond perhaps their entries on the websites of the organizations which employ them, none of which are prone to including such symbols.

My work in this field was accelerated significantly this August when I came across Cracroft’s Peerage – a website which attempts to detail all of the peers, baronets and other prominent people in the British Isles, including their armorial possessions. The website is far from ideal; the overall design is rather old-fashioned, there are a great many missing or unfinished entries, and an inefficient system of navigation is made worse by the frequency of typing errors in hyperlinks, which make certain pages inaccessible without some ingenuity on the part of the end user. Even so, Cracroft’s has been a boon to my efforts, and I have uploaded over two hundred escutcheons in the last few months based on the information found there.

For a straightforward blazon, the whole process of illustrating, uploading and embedding the arms can be completed in as little as twenty minutes. On occasion, however, the process is slowed by the requirement for more complicated designs, especially if they contain non-standard elements. Roundels, chevrons, annulets, crosses and mullets can be easily created by the shape tools available in most office software. Lions, unicorns, crowns and roses are more complex, but are sufficiently ubiquitous that scavenging them from existing images is not too onerous. Other components, such as the golden fuschias in the arms of Lady Fookes or the crossed pencil and pen in those of Lord Stansgate, proved rather more challenging.

I am far from the first person to contribute to the topic of heraldry on Wikipedia. The Heraldry & Vexillology project has nearly two hundred participants. In my estimation, the most eminent of these is he who goes by the name of Sodacan. He has been active on the Commons for just over ten years and his publications number well into the thousands. If you have ever looked at a coat of arms on Wikipedia – especially if it relates to a member of a royal family or a major organ of state – it was probably made by him. His capabilities in this realm are many levels above mine, for he has constructed from scratch many hundreds of distinct heraldic elements and arranged them flawlessly in many convoluted ways. Testament to Sodacan’s mastery in this field is that his graphics have escaped from the Wikimedia world: UKTV documentaries William & Harry: Brothers In Arms and The Stuarts: A Bloody Reign both prominently featured his art in their title sequences. Were that no enough, the Windsors themselves got in on the act for the two royal weddings in 2018. Sodacan’s representations of the arms of Their Royal Highnesses Prince Henry of Wales and Princess Eugenie of York were used on the orders of service for their respective ceremonies. The Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood also prominently displays his picture of the Queen’s arms on their homepage. Disappointingly, none of these bother to credit him. Still, it’s nice to know that even the work of an anonymous hobbyist can make it into high places.

FURTHER READING