Heraldry, Pomp and Power: The Use of Parliamentary Symbols on Coats of Arms, c.1527-2006

Ahead of next Tuesday’s hybrid Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Duncan Sutherland. On 15 November, between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Duncan will discuss the longstanding connection between Parliament and heraldry from the 16th century to the modern day.

The seminar takes place on 15 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. It is fully ‘hybrid’, which means you can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

Nobody visiting the Palace of Westminster can fail to notice the lavish adornment of its corridors, ceilings and exteriors with coats of arms and heraldic devices. This attests to the long association between heraldry and political power. Both Parliament and heraldry first developed in the Middle Ages, although originally heraldry was an indicator of military service.

Coats of arms are personal property, granted by the Crown through either the College of Arms in London (pictured) or the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh. The Heralds of the College of Arms, particularly Garter King of Arms, also play a role in certain parliamentary ceremonial.

Photograph of the College of Arms. The buildings create three sides of a square surrounding a courtyard. At the front there is a black metal fence with golden decorations, in the middle is a large black gate also decorated with gold. On top of the gate is the arms for this college.
College of Arms, London © D. Sutherland

Arms can be inherited through the male line, although it is a common misconception that ‘family crests’ can be used by anyone with a particular surname, and there are laws governing the use and misuse of arms. The earliest coats of arms, such as those of the Magna Carta barons, bore simple, basic designs which did not necessarily have any particular significance. However, eventually coats of arms came to assume more meaning and became more elaborate. They can represent one’s family name, hometown, schooling, ancestors, hobbies or achievements.

As men in Parliament increasingly had to apply for arms, rather than inheriting them, the designs came to include symbols representing Parliament. Some rare early examples date from the 16th and 17th centuries, although it became much more common in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The most widely-used parliamentary symbol in personal heraldry is the portcullis, which had different heraldic meanings over the centuries but became especially identified with Parliament after the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. Shown here are the arms of John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon (1751-1838), showing portcullises, which appear on a House of Lords window.

Stainless glass of a coat of arms. In the centre, three Lion's Heads erased Gules, in chief an Anchor erect Sable, on a Chief wavy Azure, a Portcullis with chains. On top of this portcullis is a crown. The Coat of Arms is carried by two lions with the portcullis symbol on their neck. The motto reads: sine lab decus.
Coat of arms of John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon © Baz Manning

Another common legislative symbol in heraldry is the mace. Starting in the 19th century Speakers in particular have included maces on their arms, either granted while in office or after they retire and become peers. Pictured below are the arms of Speaker Charles Shaw-Lefevre (1794-1888), with maces on the supporters he was granted as Viscount Eversley.

Speakers’ arms are displayed in Speaker’s House and the need to maintain such commemorations created expectations that certain office-holders who lacked arms should apply for them. In some cases this prompted questions of who should pay, if arms were deemed an unavoidable part of holding certain offices similar to wigs, uniforms and robes. In 1915, for example, a new grant of personal arms from the College cost £76 while today they cost £7100.

Viscount Eversley's coat of arms on a brass plaque. The coat of arms is surrounded by two lions and topped with a crown. Around the coat are the words: Juncta In Uno Tria. The motto reads: Sans Changer
Coat of arms of Speaker Charles Shaw-Lefevre, 1st Viscount Eversley © D. Sutherland

As well as commemorative panels and windows in public buildings, politicians’ arms, like heraldry in general, were previously used in a wide range of ways. Personal arms could feature in election campaigning, on gifts from constituents or colleagues and on all manner of official documents.

During the 20th century the changing social backgrounds of parliamentarians meant that fewer MPs came to Parliament having inherited arms. According to one source, 89 per cent of MPs had arms in 1867 but this had fallen to 20 percent by 1931. The cost was one factor in this decline, yet there was also increasingly a sense that heraldry was somewhat anachronistic. This view was more prevalent on the left, although some Labour politicians did adopt arms often reflecting trade union, co-operative or labouring backgrounds.

Nonetheless, the 20th century saw a great expansion in the range of symbols used to represent Parliament in heraldry. The Black Rod, the Despatch Box, scrolls of parchment, red and green for the Lords and Commons chambers and even uniforms have all been included on arms granted to parliamentarians or officials. In several Commonwealth countries and dependent territories, Speakers have adopted arms depicting the mace of their legislative assemblies, adding to the richness of the heraldic record.

My forthcoming presentation to the Parliament, Politics and People seminar will discuss the use and decline of heraldry in public life before showcasing a selection of over 20 coats of arms, spanning 500 years, which commemorate parliamentary service and celebrate parliamentary traditions.

The seminar takes place on 15 November 2022, between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. It is fully ‘hybrid’, which means you can attend either in-person in London at the IHR, or online via Zoom. Details of how to join the discussion are available here

Further reading

Heraldry Society, ‘Frequently Asked Questions about Heraldry‘ (2022)

D. Sutherland, ‘Arms and the Woman: The Heraldry of Women Parliamentarians’, The Coat of Arms, iii. (2020)

D. Sutherland, ‘Commonwealth Parliamentary Maces and their Symbolic Use on Coats of Arms‘, The Parliamentarian, ciii. (2022)

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