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

A Brief History of By-elections

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David Cameron, formerly the right honourable member for Witney

This morning the proceedings in the chamber of the House of Commons began with the following exchange:

The Right Honourable John Bercow (Speaker of the House and member for Buckingham): Order, order, Dame Rosie Winterton.

The Right Honourable Dame Rosie Winterton (Opposition Chief Whip and member for Doncaster Central): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the borough constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased.

John Bercow: The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: The ayes have it, the ayes have it. Order, order, Mr Gavin Williamson.

The Right Honourable Gavin Williamson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and member for South Staffordshire): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York.

John Bercow: Thank you. The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it.

The above prose records “moving the writ” – the first component of a parliamentary by-election. The House of Commons is elected at large once every few years following the dissolution of its predecessor, with all six hundred and fifty constituencies being contested simultaneously. On occasion, however, an individual seat will be vacated during the course of a parliament, requiring the electoral process to be repeated in that constituency alone so that a new member can represent that constituency in the same legislature (rather than waiting for the whole new parliament to arrive). Sometimes there will be more than one vacancy overlapping, so multiple by-elections will be held simultaneously.

Since the general election of 2015 there have so far been five by-elections (not counting the two just initiated). The first was in Oldham West & Royton, following the death of Michael Meacher. Alongside “Super Thursday” in May there were two more – Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough (for Harry Harpham, who had died in January) and Ogmore (for Huw Irranca-Davies who had resigned to contest the same seat for the National Assembly). That same day saw London elect as its mayor The Right Honourable Sadiq Khan, who promptly vacated the constituency of Tooting. All of these elections were Labour holds.

The most recent pair, however, have a different story. On the day of the Tooting by-election (16th June) there was a shooting attack against Jo Cox MP. She died a few hours later. Campaigning for the EU referendum seven days later was briefly suspended and parliament recalled from its short recess to pay tributes. The timing was unfortunate not just because of its proximity to the referendum but also because of its proximity to the summer recess. By-elections take approximately four weeks between the moving of the writ and the polling day, but for a deceased member the writ is delayed until after the funeral. In Jo Cox’s case this meant there was no time left before the summer and so the election will wind up happening more than four months after the vacancy opened.

Witney is a different story. Its vacancy opened on 12 September when the aforementioned Mr Cameron received his aforementioned appointment. In a bizarre case of the patron becoming the client, he was given the job after writing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer whom he had so recently employed at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, alongside that of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern, is an office of profit under the crown. They are mere sinecures (the manor house collapsed in the 1600s and the hundreds were taken over by other officials still earlier) which have since the mid-eighteenth century been used for the sole purpose of allowing a member of the commons to step down.

In the old kingdom of England the role of parliamentarian was a rather taxing one – pay was only nominal and attendance at Westminster deprived many of life in their constituencies. Many were elected reluctantly or even against their will. It was in this situation that a resolution was passed in 1624 banning members from resigning their seats. Decades later, though, a loophole was created by the Act of Settlement. Being desirous of reducing the influence that royal patronage held over the legislature, parliament enacted an early form of separation of powers – any MP who was appointed to an office of profit under the crown (this term then included ministerial posts) would be disqualified from his seat, but a person was allowed to be elected to the house without vacating such a position which they held already. This began a very long tradition whereby a newly-appointed minister would begin his tenure by immediately fighting a by-election to renew their mandate. As time went on and ministers of the crown became more numerous such elections became a severe nuisance with each cabinet reshuffle demanding multiple writs and a general election which resulted in a change of government would then see the new set of ministers have to contest their constituencies for a second time in rapid succession.

Changes were enacted in 1867 for the shuffling of existing ministers to be exempted. In the First World War there were acts to temporarily suspend the procedure and finally in 1926 the concept was abolished altogether. Sinecures such as the Chiltern Hundreds were the exception, surviving purely as a means of allowing a member to quit in the course of a parliament. To “take the Chiltern Hundreds” is a long-standing euphemism for resignation.

FURTHER READING

Wikipedia:

Resignation from the British House of Commons

The Act of Settlement

Ministerial by-election

Recent By-Elections

Chiltern Hundreds

Manor of Northstead

Parliament:

By-elections

Timetables

 

Algae, the Green Death

A brown river, crossed by a log behind which the surface is wholly covered in algae.

Keyingham Drain is entirely green on some days.

The algal bloom is a problem in many lakes and rivers. In the wrong weather conditions, a body once teeming with life can quickly become an water graveyard if certain organisms cannot be controlled.

An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. There is no fixed benchmark for when an algal growth becomes a bloom – some say the concentration should be in the hundreds of cells per millilitre, some say it should be in the thousands. A bloom occurs when a body of shallow, slow-moving water has an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients, usually caused by fertiliser leakage or waste-water. This leads to green plants and algae growing at an increased rate at the expense of other organisms. In particular the algae can clump together to form a gelatinous blanket on the surface of the water, which blocks out the light of the sun. The then-permanent darkness means that the plants beneath the surface can no longer photosynthesise, with the inevitable result that they perish. Their corpses are devoured by decomposers. The sudden abundance of food allows these organisms to grow and multiply rapidly, and they consume the oxygen in the water which – in the absence of photosynthesising plants – cannot be replaced. Once the oxygen is exhausted the fish and aquatic insects within the water body die off and the internal ecosystem collapses. Beneath the garish top layer, the water is devoid of life.

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