Sunday, 17 December 2017

The College of Arms

130 Queen Victoria St,
 London EC4V 4BT

Thursday December 14 2017

Today’s visit was something of an aperitif before our main meal which was to be ‘Red Star Over Russia’ an excellent special exhibition at Tate Modern across the road and river. However as we do not usually review transient shows you will have to go for yourselves.

It was freezing outside so having admired the impressive courtyard and raised entrance – a grand single staircase which splits into two taking the visitor to the double doors (thus keeping out the worst of the weather) and into the one room open to the public.

Of our party I am the least qualified to talk about Heraldry – the alternative name for the College of Arms  is the College of Heralds – having never taught or learnt it.  To reduce it to its simplest when men (let’s face it women didn’t) wore top to toe armour facial recognition was impossible so designs (?logos) on the shield or breast plate and atop the helmets were the only way of telling one set of combatants from another. The herald was the household’s general factotum one of whose responsibilities was to recognise other insignia, make sure the home team was well presented and to arrange any suitable encounters including tournaments. As it were a role combing tour manager with football manager. Because the right to bear Arms was hereditary (as was pretty much everything in those days) the heralds also kept dynastic records making them additionally archivists and genealogists. One of the things that Richard III is not remembered for is that he organised the various heralds and their records from the different households together and offered them a house in the City of London. Some seventy years later they were offered a house on this site. Today’s  handsome building was a post-Great Fire rebuild and has continued in regular use withstanding both some war time damage and post-war road widening of the unlovely Queen Victoria Street. The splendidly appropriate gates were donated by American Associates, and we noticed low-key signs reserving courtyard parking spaces for ‘Garter’ and the other Kings of Arms.  

Evening tours which penetrate further into the building are available for groups but the  general public is allowed into the Earl Marshal’s Court, the large front room which is wood panelled and thus reminiscent of Ham House, being very much from the same era. (I suppose the post Great Fire architects thought that by replacing wooden exteriors with brick the buildings would be safer but then put a lot of wooden ‘cladding’ inside?). Portraits of previous Earl Marshals (the chief Herald) hang round the panelling, but there are displays as well.

There are beautifully calligraphied charters which are the written proof of your right to wear arms, or at least put them on your letter head (twitter handle?) and some light-hearted examples from more recent ennoblements.  Sir Edmund Hillary's insignia are shown – a blue Kiwi (because it was b****y cold as the curator said) with an ice-axe, two upright or in Heraldry speak  possibly ‘rampant’ penguins – this image you can unpick at your will. If you think I have made some bad jokes you need to see the shield for Sir Harry Secombe with a mermaid styling her hair near some emblematic waves (SEA COMB) and a motto reading “GO ON” where you are encouraged to lose the space….

The College of Arms is well supported in the United States – surprisingly in what is technically the world’s largest democracy the right to bear coats of arms is still recognised provided the college can validate the ancestry via its impressive archives and listings. An example of a US shield is that of Douglas Fairbanks Snr., though his was awarded in his own right. Any new honours are recorded by the College and they will help design an appropriate and correct coat of arms for such folk.

The other function of the combined Heralds (a hoot of heralds ?) is to arrange and officiate at various state occasions including coronations, State funerals and  the State Opening of Parliament.  

A windowsill display is dedicated to the script and photographs from the filming of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ in which James Bond was briefed in this very building so he could convincingly impersonate a herald at a meeting with the suddenly heraldry-struck Blofeld…

There is a comprehensive bookshop of postcards and additional reading materials – for anyone interested In Heraldry and the very long history of this exclusive group of men and their work over the years would enjoy peeping into the warm interior of this fine building. 

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