The Phoenix Masters Take Up Arms

Posted on Posted in Event Write-ups, News

On Thursday 16th March a small but perfectly formed group of Phoenix Masters and Firebirds visited the College of Arms. The College of Arms is the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth, and as well as being responsible for the granting of new coats of arms, it maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licenses, changes of name, and flags. The heralds, besides having ceremonial duties, advise on all matters relating to the peerage and Baronetage, precedence, honours and ceremonial as well as national and community symbols including flags.  They are housed in a fine building on Queen Victoria Street which dates from the 1670s.

We were hosted for the evening by Peter O’Donoghue, the present York Herald. Peter is also the current Librarian so there was no-one better to show us examples of their amazing archive of documents.  Peter began by showing us the hall, now known as the Earl Marshal’s Court. This had been used as a library until at least 1699. Soon after that, it was furnished as the Court of Chivalry, as it remains today. It is a Court of Law, a place to resolve disputes in heraldic matters but it has only been called into action once in the past 280 years{!}.  That was in 1954 when the Corporation of the City of Manchester successfully brought an action against a Variety Theatre that was incorrectly using their coat of arms in promotional material.

The throne on which the Lord Chief Justice sat in that case (before sensibly adjourning to the Old Bailey) also boasts the cushion on which Her Majesty the Queen was crowned in 1953. This is because by tradition the Earl Marshall is allowed to keep (and in times past derived much of his income from selling) the soft furnishings at such ceremonial events.

The hall also features the flags of the thirteen officers of arms. First come the Kings of Arms, Garter, Clarenceux, and Norroy and Ulster. Next the six Heralds, Lancaster, Somerset, Richmond, York, Chester and Windsor. These pertain to royal and noble households rather than geography, although there is some traditional split of geographic responsibilities. Last come the Four Pursuivants, Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon, Bluemantle and Portcullis. Heralds in ordinary receive yearly salaries from the Crown. Peter told us that his annual salary before tax is £17.80. Salaries were set by James I at higher levels but severely reduced by William IV in the 1830s and have not been changed since. They, therefore, depend on their income on what they can make in professional fees for granting coats of arms or conducting genealogical research.

We then saw examples of the archives. We saw ancient records, some from as long ago as the 13th and 14th centuries but well preserved on vellum and leather bound in large volumes. These are still used today for research and are amazingly well preserved.  We saw working papers derived from the heraldic and genealogical practices of past heralds, including family trees of established families of the aristocracy and gentry from the 16th and 17th centuries. We also saw grants and entries relating to the coats of arms of some of the Livery Companies, both ancient and modern, and even some specific genealogical and heraldic records of one or two of the Phoenix Masters present as well.

And in our customary tradition, we finished the evening with a surprisingly good buffet washed down with some excellent wine. It only costs a mere £6,400 for your own coat of arms, plus another £1500 if you want supporters. I would not mind betting that Peter will get some interest as I saw him handing out several business cards.

David Pearson

Past Master Marketor