The Escutcheon

Volume 11

Number 1 – Michaelmas Term, 2005

Heraldry of Public Schools

Damian Riddle

“Corporate Identity” has been made very important in the modern world, and this is noticed as much in the field of education as it is in business.

Many schools use heraldry: on their websites; as part of the colour in their prospectuses; to make cufflinks, ties, blazer badges, umbrellas and in all manner of other ways. Those of you familiar with the mail-order company “Presents for Men” will have seen heraldic cushions decorated with the coats of arms of schools…

Some school heraldry (although not very much of it!) is both original and ancient. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the coat of arms granted to Eton College. This grant was made in 1449, nine years after the foundation of the College by Henry VI, making the Eton arms the oldest school arms in existence. It is easy to see the relationship, heraldically, between Eton and its sister Henrican foundation: King’s College, Cambridge. Both take, in chief, heraldic charges from the Royal Arms of the period: the fleur de lys and the lion passant guardant. In the main field, where Eton (Figure 1) has lilies (to indicate the dedication of the College to the Blessed Virgin Mary), King’s (Figure 2) has the white roses of York (although there is some evidence that between the foundation of the College in 1441 and the grant of 1449 these charges were two lilies and a mitre).

Similar links between the heraldry of schools and Oxbridge colleges abound. In some cases, it is because of similar joint foundations: Magdalen College School, Oxford, has the same coat of arms as its eponymous collegiate cofoundation. Winchester (Figure 3) and New College, Oxford share the coat of arms of their founder: Bishop Wykeham of Winchester. Portsmouth Grammar School, founded in 1732 by Dr William Smith (a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford) borrows Cardinal Wolsey’s famous choughs from Christ Church’s arms to make charges on its coat of arms (granted 1957). Clifton College (founded 1862) used the arms (Figure 4) of the Diocese of Bristol, quartered with a trefoil (an allusion to the Clifton family) until 1894. Using the trefoil (symbol of the Holy Trinity) as a guide, its new arms are based heavily on those of Trinity College, Cambridge in terms of the tinctures and positions of the charges.

Many schools use the coat of arms of their founder, undifferenced. This is somewhat questionable: no set of arms can be used by two individuals or organisations. However, many schools will simply say that they are using the arms of their founder in a commemorative way, rather than usurping them. This must be true of the reams of schools who use the Royal Arms as their school coats of arms. Admittedly, many of these schools do use the arms of the Tudor monarchs (both Henry VIII and his son Edward VI being prolific founders of schools, mostly based on the monasteries they had closed, and usually using the money looted from them): such schools include Sherborne and pretty much all the King’s schools, with the exceptions of some of those which were Tudor refoundations. Such schools include the very ancient King’s, Canterbury (founded 597; and having azure, on a cross argent the letters i and x sable); the less ancient King’s, Bruton (founded 1519, refounded 1550; and having the arms of the original founder, Fitzjames, azure, a dolphin naiant embowed argent with the addition of an ancient crown or to show the Royal refoundation) and the great monastic school of Westminster (fl. 1179, refounded 1540 and again in 1579).

Westminster’s heraldry is rather complicated. Until the Reformation, the Benedictine monks at Westminster (who ran the school) used the arms Per fess dancettee or and azure, a crozier and mitre in chief both gules (Figure 8). After Henry VIII had dissolved the monastery, the See of Westminster was created (although it was short-lived, having only one bishop: Thomas Thirleby). He kept the per fess design, but substituted a chief containing the crossed keys of St Peter and azure a Cross Flory between five martlets or often associated with early royalty – particularly Edward the Confessor, whose shrine is in the Abbey. Under Queen Mary, the original coat of arms reappears and things get murky. Perhaps sensibly, when Elizabeth I refounded the Abbey and the School as the Collegiate Foundation of St Peter, she gave them new arms: the cross flory and martlets of the Confessor became the main field, and the chief changed to the Royal Arms flanked by two Tudor roses (Figure 5). The situation came full circle when, in 1922, Ampleforth College (which had been founded in 1602 at Dieulouard in France by monks who fled from Westminster to avoid death under Elizabeth) successfully petitioned the College of Arms to grant them arms (Figure 7) which showed their descent from the original Westminster Abbey. This same “cocking a snook” between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches can also be seen in the arms of the Anglican See of Canterbury and the Catholic See of Westminster. They are identical: except Canterbury has a field azure and Westminster gules.

Felsted School is one school which uses the undifferenced arms (Figure 6) of its founder, Lord Riche; but does have a right to do so. Riche had been the Chancellor to King Edward VI but, in a Vicar of Bray moment, had started the school as a chantry under the rule of Queen Mary, only to have to endow it as a school in 1564 when Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne and abolished chantries. The Riche arms date from 1441 and were granted to Richard Riche, a mercer and Sheriff of London. By an odd quirk of fate, the Riche line died out in 1673 and so, early in the twentieth century, the school petitioned the College of Arms to have the arms of Riche transferred to it. The Home Secretary was asked to adjudicate and agreed that the male line had died out. The claim was thus granted and Felsted is one of the few schools legitimately to use its founder’s arms undifferenced.

Harrow School was founded at much the same time as Felsted – in 1572 – by John Lyon. Lyon bore the arms azure, a lion rampant argent. These arms were used by Harrow until 1929 (and are still used by the other school of the Foundation, John Lyon School) when Harrow applied for a new grant (Figure 9) based on the arms of Lyon. This has become a common practice – schools apply for grants which refer in some way to their founder, or founders. This new grant added – both as a crest and as a charge – a pair of silver arrows (probably a canting reference to the school’s name, but also as a reference to the amount of archery which took place there) tied in a bow and enfiled with a laurel wreath. Harrow also has two school mottoes: Stet fortuna domus ("May the fortune of the house endure") and Donorum Dei dispensatio fidelis (Of God’s gifts the faithful dispensation). Many other schools now bear arms based on those of their founder. St Paul’s is one of the few schools to have a page on its web site devoted to the heraldry of its school For many years, the school used the coat of arms of its founder, John Colet, the Dean of St Paul’s (Sable on a chevron Argent between three Hinds trippant Argent three Annulets Sable), occasionally impaled with the arms of the Diocese of London. Colet, as a celibate priest, had no issue and his brothers and sisters had all predeceased him so, as with the case of Felsted, the St Paul’s would have had a claim to the coat of arms. However, in 2002, they decided to apply for a new grant (Figure 10) based on Colet’s, but with a bordure or, adorned with three sets of crossed swords from the Diocese of London’s arms.

Figure 1 – Eton Figure 2 – Kings College, Cambridge Figure 3 – Winchester Figure 4 – Clifton Figure 5 – Westminster Figure 6 – Felsted Figure 7 – Ampleforth Figure 8 – Westminster (Pre Reformation) Figure 9 – Harrow Figure 10 – St Paul’s Figure 11 – Abingdon

Schools often choose to commemorate several benefactors or founders in one coat of arms. Abingdon School (Figure 11) provides a good example of this. The school was originally part of the (now ruined) Benedictine Abbey in Abingdon but was refounded after the dissolution of the monastery in 1563 by a local merchant called John Roysse. For many years, the school used the coat of arms of the Roysse family: Gules, a griffin segreant Argent charged on the shoulder with a rose Gules barbed and seeded proper. Changes to the school in the late 1990s saw it take possession of a local prep school (JOSCAS), which used a unicorn (informally) as its badge. The Headmaster at the time was a keen amateur herald and so entered into discussion with the College of Arms to have a new coat of arms designed.

Just as in the case of St Paul’s (above), the initial idea was to add a border. A suggestion was made to add to the border the two charges found on the coat of arms of Abingdon Abbey: the martlet and the cross patonce. To show the link with JOSCAS, the crest included the unicorn as well as Roysse’s griffin (so that the simple badges of JOSCAS and Abingdon are the unicorn and the griffin respectively). A lovely final touch was the wreath. It looks as though the griffin and the unicorn emerge from a crown. In fact, it is a circlet of teasels – a beautiful canting reference to Thomas Tesdale, a benefactor of the school and founder of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Another good example of many family arms being incorporated appears in the arms of Stowe School (which can be seen on their web site: The families (all interconnected and related to the Duke of Buckingham & Chandos clan) are Bruce, Chandos, Grenville and Temple. These four names were also chosen as the names of the first four Houses at Stowe and bring us to one of the most famous examples of school heraldry, which adopts the same pattern. Admittedly, the four Houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin) are fictious, but Hogwarts picks up on an admirable traditional of Public School Heraldry.

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