2 June 2021

To Arms, to Arms

It is well known that this University has always regarded itself as immune from the jurisdiction of the Kings of Arms; both University and Colleges have ever devised and adopted into use their own Arms; often simply using the achievement of a Founder. My wife's College uses the Arms of the father of its founding principal, Dr Eleanor Plumer; he, as a distinguished Field Marshal and First World War general, had been granted a Coat of Arms including a sword surrounded by a laurel wreath ... a striking heraldic adornment for a Women's College!

When, in 1548, the University Press was finally firmly established (after two rather infirm earlier establishments going back to 1478) with Joseph Barnes as Architypographus, the first thing he did was to have a splendid block made of the University Arms. These were then, as they are now, three ducal coronets upon a field azure and, between them, an open book. But, whereas the words on the book now read Dominus Illuminatio Mea, from Barnes' time until at least 1658, the 'motto' was Sapientiae et Felicitatis. The suggestion, I gather, has been made that this is derived from the Summa contra Gentiles. Any ideas?

If I had anything to do with the (technically illegal) assumption of Arms by Catholic entities in England, I would behave rather differently from whoever currently does cook up such designs (it is my confident guess that the College of Arms has had nothing to do with these sad productions). The Ordinariate, for example, uses something reminiscent of the Arms of the Priory of Walsingham impaling Newman, which would normally imply either that the Prior of Walsingham had married a Miss Newman, or that a member of the Newman family held the office of Prior. The Anglican College of Guardians of the Shrine did distinctly better in 1945; I suspect Fr Fynes Clinton (who paid the fees) may have had a lot to do with the design. The  Kings of Arms granted Arms consisting of the Priory of Walsingham (Argent, upon a cross sable, five lilies of the first slipped and seeded proper) differenced with a canton (azure, charged with the Holy House or). A correspondingly elegant composition for the Ordinariate might have been the Priory of Walsingham differenced with a canton of Newman.

I think I rather like the use of cantons to do differencing. I can think of an example that goes back as far as the Roll associated with the Siege of Caerlaverock in 1300. It means that neither of the two coats concerned is deprived of its integrity. Allen Hall, for example, would look well if (given its origins) it were Oxford Ancient (i.e. with the words Sapientiae et Felicitatis!) differenced with a canton of Allen ... that is, his very jolly little conies!

Gumming a couple of coats together by means of impalement, which in heraldry most commonly implies the sort of temporary association that goes with a marriage (or the metaphorical marriage where an office-holder impales his arms of office with his own arms), seems unsophisticated if not down-right plain misleading!

Moreover, whoever dreams up these rather weak compositions puts a standardised mitre on top of his shields. This seems to fit rather ill with the rules about hats and tassels which have the authority both of the Holy See and of the College of Heralds.

Or have I misunderstood something?


william arthurs said...

I've always thought that once you get away from the slightly-crude, quaint vigour of the true mediaeval style of arms (recognisable from a distance), you always run the risk of what in England would be regarded as poor taste. I went to a talk in 2003, given by Archbishop Couve de Murville, on the life and work of the then recently-deceased Bruno Heim. It was entertaining but didn't dispel my feeling that Heim's work had identified for me a host of aspects of design, and rules (whether observed or not), which distinguished continental from English heraldry.

Banshee said...

Once upon a time, I took a lot of interest in arms, so I enjoyed this discussion and looked around a little.

It turns out that the earliest known arms of the university were basically, between three crowns, an open book with seven clasps of gold -- which means it was the Book with Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation, already open! I mean, yes, we've been living in the endtimes ever since Christ ascended to Heaven, but wow!

However, seven gold clasps must have been a pain to draw, so the early physical examples apparently have five or two clasps.

Also, Mary represented as Mother of Wisdom sometimes is shown holding an open book, so there's that.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

I believe the Ordinariate arms were devised by Fr Marcus Stock when he was at Eccleston Square.

Your comments entirely justified. Absurdly, it is not even the Walsingham arms, as the cross is blue and the charges wrong (Argent, upon a cross Azure five fleurs-de-lys of the first). Walsingham is Argent, upon a cross Sable, five lilies of the first.

Presumably black was deemed too "somber", or some such sentiment, and the fleurs-de-lys one assumes contrive to make it more obviously "Marian" in the eyes of those who don't understand heraldic lilies (as in the arms of Eton College). Both silly.

There are heraldically literate people in the Catholic Church, they are just rarely asked.

Banshee said...

There's a saying: "Oboedentia est mater sapientiae et felicitatis." This would sound sinister as a university motto.

However, I would suppose that Mary would literally be the mother of Wisdom, and thus of blessedness, happiness, and a happy ending.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

One might have added that the (Catholic) Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham now once again uses the mediaeval arms, in obvious succession.

Thomas said...


A quick search on Corpus Thomisticum reveals that 'sapientiae et felicitatis' appears in Book I of the Contra Gentiles, cap. 42: 'hac autem veritate repelluntur gentiles deorum multitudinem confitentes. Quamvis plures eorum unum Deum summum esse dicerent, a quo omnes alios quos deos nominabant causatos esse asserebant, omnibus substantiis sempiternis divinitatis nomen adscribentes, et praecipue ratione sapientiae et felicitatis et rerum gubernationis. Quae quidem consuetudo loquendi etiam in sacra Scriptura invenitur, dum sancti Angeli, aut etiam homines vel iudices, dii nominantur; sicut illud Psalmi: non est similis tibi in diis, domine; et alibi, ego dixi, dii estis; et multa huiusmodi per varia Scripturae loca inveniuntur.'

Stephen v.B. said...

I agree that the use of impalement indicates a lack of imagination here. However: the mitre is perfectly regular. The instruction Ut sive sollicite of 1969 expressly banned the use of the heraldic mitre (and pastoral staff) by individual cardinals and bishops, but left its presence in corporate arms - dioceses, abbeys, and now the Ordinariate - untouched.

(The rules about hats and such have been communicated to the Earl Marshal and are applied whenever an individual Catholic cleric is granted arms in the United Kingdom. But, as you note, the assumption of arms by Catholic dioceses and similar entities is technically illegal and therefore not governed by the College of Arms.)

On the one hand, this has provided some needed clarity - since now, in Catholic heraldry, the mitre indicates the diocese as such, and the galero indicates the bishop in person - but on the other hand, there remains some room for (ecumenical?) confusion in relation to the Church of England. Anglican bishops bear mitred arms, if I am not mistaken.

Stephen Barber said...

I think sapientiae et feliciatis is not from the Summa contra G but from the ST 1a2ae