Monday, May 21, 2018

HERALDRY | Martlets

Under Worcester, that should be Crookes.
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. One reason is that it is a brisure, mark of cadency on a coat of arms indicating that it is being carried by a fourth son of the owner of the arms.

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.

Worcester College, represented by the other Oxford 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 Cookes [someone at the Oxford-Cambridge Club said it should be Crookes, but it seems he was being funny],   a Worcestershire baronet, whose bequest of £10,000 back in 1698, when a pound sterling 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.]

All of the martlets in the Oxford coats of arms look the same, i.e., like swallows without feet. But Pembroke College, Cambridge has martlets that look different. They are streamlined. 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. 

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.

Link to the first use of this post:

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