Wednesday, April 18, 2018


L to R: Your blogger (Trinity, Oxon.) and Cheryl-Lisa Hearne-
McGuiness, Hon. Sec. of the Oxford University Society's London
Branch. Photo by branding expert Paul C. Walton (BNC, Oxon.).
Oxford, U.K., Wednesday, April 18, 2018 – Yesterday, and the day before, Alice and I stayed at the fine Oxford and Cambridge Club in London.

On Monday I spoke there to 70 members of the Oxford University Society, London Branch, about the 38 coats of arms of the Oxford colleges and the six coats of the Permanent Private Halls.

On Tuesday I was speaker at a "Discussion Supper" of the Oxford and Cambridge Club and I added in most of the 31 Cambridge colleges.

My objective was to make the college coats of arms more accessible to students, alumni, tourists and anyone else curious about Oxford and Cambridge.

Dropping the usual baggage of lists of tinctures, furs, metals, ordinaries, subordinaries and so forth, I also skipped past explanation of the history of coats of arms, how they were brought over by the Normans with William the Conqueror and became widespread through the growth of tournaments among the knights in the 12th century, etc.

Instead, I dove right in to the Oxford (and Cambridge) coats of arms by selecting two or more college shields at a time that have a device in common, such as a form of cross or a species of bird (big or small), and focusing on the meaning of the device and of significant differences.

I used each set of shields as a prompt to tell stories about how the devices relate to the history of the colleges, and inevitably the history of England. Along the way I slipped in a few comments about relevant heraldic conventions.

To illustrate my approach, consider a little footless bird on the arms of three colleges and one permanent private hall – three of them at Oxford and one at Cambridge.

The bird is the MARTLET, which is important in heraldry because it is a brisure, a mark of cadency on a coat of arms indicating that it is being carried by a fourth son of the owner of the arms. The discussion below is amplified, and a few references added, from my remarks yesterday.

The perfect venue was the Oxford and Cambridge 
Club room named after Queen Victoria's grand-
daughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-
Holstein, Germany's northernmost state.
University College's shield shows four (on its website) or often five golden martlets around a cross on a blue (azure) field. The St Benet's shield includes an almost identical coat of arms on its top right (the sinister side in chief). The difference between the two crosses (Univ's is a cross patonce, while St Benet's is a cross fleury) is not significant, as both crosses have been used interchangeably in the posthumously attributed arms of Edward the Confessor. Edward was of course the last of the great Anglo-Saxon kings, whose death in 1066 precipitated a nine-month succession battle that culminated in the death of Harold Godwinson and victory of William, Duke of Normandy at Hastings. With the accession of William I, Norman nobles arrived with their knights and heraldry. Univ has claimed the arms attributed to Edward the Confessor, although the founding in 1249 was by William of Durham, long after Edward the Confessor. As the Univ website explains, "a legend grew up in the 1380s that we were actually founded even earlier, by King Alfred in 872, and, understandably enough, this became widely accepted as the truth." (The Univ martlets are a possible origin of the four martlets in the St Peter's College coat of arms.)

St Benet’s Hall seems to have more claim to the arms of Edward the Confessor than Univ because the Hall is a foundation of Ampleforth College [full disclosure: I was a pupil there in 1952-55], which was created by the same English Benedictines who occupied Westminster Abbey at its inception. When Edward the Confessor built the original Benedictine Abbey and Church, he decided that English monarchs should be crowned there [all but two subsequent monarchs have been]. The other half of the top of the shield (the chief) shows the imputed coat of arms of St Peter, to whom Westminster Abbey is dedicated; the bottom of the shield is from the original Abbey. Henry III built the Gothic Abbey Church in honor of Edward, who by then had been canonized.

Pembroke College, Cambridge is the owner of the third shield. The five red (gules) martlets look dissimilar from the martlets in the previous two shields, but they are meant to be the same bird, in that they have no feet. Pembroke was founded by Aylmer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, a man of importance in the reigns of Edwards I and II. The left side (dexter to the bearer) of the shield is half of his arms, which are split (impaled or dimidiated) with his wife Mary de St Pol, who came from Brittany.

Worcester College, represented by the fourth shield, has two chevrons and six martlets, which are blazoned as black (sable) or sometimes red (gules). The coat of arms is that of Sir Thomas Crookes [should be Crookes below the shield, as someone pointed out at the meeting at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, but I can't easily edit that any more], a Worcestershire baronet, whose bequest of £10,000 back in 1698, when a pound string was really worth something, founded the college. The Worcester College shield is almost always shown, as here, with black (sablemartlets, but the blazon often calls for red (gules) as in the Pembroke arms. [Sir Thomas also founded Bromsgrove School, which uses the arms with red (gules) martlets, corresponding to its blazon.] 

MEANING: So what does the martlet signify? All sources I have consulted agree that the lack of feet means that they can't land, so they are always aloft. This suggests that the martlets are always searching and is a good symbol for the search for knowledge. A lovely idea – although when you think about it, it makes the intellectual life sound tiring. (Tiring, but surely not as discouraging as the fates of Sisyphus or Tantalus.)

Another interpretation is that the martlet is a symbol of the self-made man, someone without foundation. But to impute such arms to a King like Edward the Confessor would hardly be appropriate with that interpretation, unless one was imputing modesty.

Shortened Link to This Post:

Links to Further Reading: Use of Star-Like Devices in the Oxford Colleges . Creation of Arms in the Newer Colleges at Oxford (Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2015)

Set of 46 Newly Design Coats of Arms: Oxford City and Oxford University coats of arms, 38 colleges, and six Permanent Private Halls. Below is a low-resolution version of an original set of shields drawn for me by heraldic artist Lee Lumbley. I plan to be at the 2018 BookExpo America at the Javits Center in New York City, May 31-June 2 and will be looking for appointments to talk with publishers at this event. My email address is teppermarlin at aol dot com.


  1. Thanks to Paul Walton for sending along the photo that leads this post . I have had many requests for the Power Point slides I used in the talks, and my only condition is that they not be forwarded to anyone else. I will send the slides as soon as this undertaking is emailed to me. I appreciate the opportunity to try out my ideas on the highly sophisticated audiences that show up at the Oxford and Cambridge Club.

  2. Privileged to get a sneak peek of the presentation at the Harvard Writers Group.....and enjoyed it very much. So much to learn, so little time!

    1. Thank you, glad to know Harvard can appreciate the Oxford arms. I was at Quincy House, which deployed the venerable Josiah Quincy arms – "Gules seven mascles conjoined three three and one or." See you at the next meeting of the Harvard Writers Group, soon.