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