The City of London’s relationship with heraldry is probably as ancient as the practice of granting armorial bearings (coats of arms, crests and badges) in England. Many Freemen and Liverymen throughout history have born arms, and the tradition continues through to the present. By custom the City’s Sheriffs are usually armigerous, (ie have been granted arms), and by extension so is the Lord Mayor.
Heraldic convention (law) treats women less favourably in several ways, especially entitlement, display and inheritance. In 2023 the City’s elected Sheriffs made a decision to delay petitioning for personal arms until such time as the Kings of Arms reform heraldic convention to achieve equality of the sexes. This decision was made with the knowledge of the Court of Aldermen. At least one of the Companies without Livery has likewise chosen to delay petitioning for corporate arms until reform is achieved.
Various shields of Past Masters in Ironmongers’ Hall (© Paul D Jagger)
Grants of Arms
Arms are granted by the Crown through the warrant of the Earl Marshal to living persons which are inherited by their legitimate heirs, and to legal entities such as companies, universities, professional bodies, learned societies – any legal person that can own and dispose of property, sue and be sued. Arms have never been granted to surnames and the murky business of selling ‘family crests’ on the internet has all the legitimacy of selling left over bricks from the Berlin Wall.
The City’s coat of arms are omnipresent in the City, in stained glass, on street furniture and even on this website! They were first devised by Lord Mayor Sir William Walworth (Citizen & Fishmonger) in April 1381. An oft repeated myth is that the sword in the canton of the City’s arms is that which Sir William used to kill Wat Tyler, leader of the peasants’ revolt, an incident that took place in June of 1381 – three months after the first recorded use of the City’s arms. It’s likely Sir William dined out on that convenient story for some time! The sword represents the sword of the City’s patronal saint, St Paul.
The College of Arms
The home of English heraldry is the College of Arms which has been located in the Square Mile since 1555, the current building on Queen Victoria Street is a post Great Fire rebuild. The College enrols no students and awards no degrees but the 13 officers of arms who comprise the College are responsible for heraldry in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man) and the Commonwealth Realms with the exception of Canada which has its own heraldic authority. Scotland has enjoyed its own heraldic authority, the Court of Lord Lyon, since before the union of the Crowns.
The College of Arms (© Paul D Jagger)
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a long history of heralds joining the ranks of the Livery and serving on Common Council – up to this very day.
All of the City’s Livery Companies have their own coats of arms and these are displayed in Guildhall as well as many other places in the Square Mile. Those companies which are fortunate enough to have a hall will invariably display heraldry, perhaps the arms of Past Masters, or Liverymen who served in the office of Lord Mayor. Particular examples of this heraldic custom may be seen in Armourers’ Hall and Ironmongers’ Hall.
It’s easy to dismiss heraldry as arcane perhaps even moribund, but nothing could be further from the truth. Interest in heraldry is closely linked the study of genealogy which is among the most successful business models on the Internet. Demand for personal, inheritable, symbols of identity and kinship remains exceptionally strong.
The art and science of heraldry is a gateway to so many areas of study, in architecture, art, monuments, silverware, stained glass and so much more. Heraldry has been described as the shorthand of history and it is certainly that – in concise visual form.
Freemen and Liverymen who would like to discover more may wish to join the Heraldry Society, a registered charity which boasts three ex-officio masters among its Vice Presidents: Scriveners, Glaziers and Painter-Stainers. The Society runs free public lectures, has a quarterly magazine, an annual journal, several competitions, a corporate heraldry award (past winners include the Fan Makers and the Information Technologists) and a programme of examinations. Membership of the Society is open to anyone and no prior knowledge of heraldry is necessary.
There two excellent books on Livery Company heraldry, the first is affectionately known as ‘Bromley & Child’ but is long out of print. It covers the period 1439 – 1957.
The second was written by Past Master Richard Goddard (Waterman) and covers the period 1957 – 2018.
The Armorial Bearings of the Guild of London by John Bromley & Heather Child (1960) published by Frederick Warne & Co.
The Heraldry of the Livery Companies of the City of London since 1954 by Richard Goddard (2018), ISBN: 978-0-99346-803-2
Freemen and Liverymen who are interested in petitioning for armorial bearings may wish to attend one of the twice yearly Grant of Arms workshops held in the City (or online). Search eventBrite.co.uk for ‘Grant of Arms’.
Lastly, should readers have any need of the services of the heralds, the contact details for the College are as follows:
Officer in Waiting
College of Arms
130 Queen Victoria Street
tel: 020 7248 2762