“It takes more than a few props to turn Double-O-Seven into a Herald,” snarled Count Balthazar de Beauchamps in the film of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond had attempted to impersonate a herald played by a tweedy, mild-mannered George Baker but Bond muddled his facts about the location of ancestral tombs and was quickly rumbled. But if James Bond doesn’t cut the mustard as a Herald, what doesit take?
Certainly a more natural rapprochement with tweediness than Bond could muster; and a more intimate and accurate knowledge of arcane information than he was able to master. Nevertheless the idea that the respectable institution of the College of Arms might be the front for espionage is a seductive one for no other reason than trying to imagine why else it should still be in existence. Outside the theatre and cinema the only other time we see Heralds is at the State opening of Parliament and other royal ceremonials. They wear heavily embroidered tabards of the Royal Arms and lend the occasion the dignity and colour of historical association.The system and formulas of heraldry date back to the 12th century and yet this erudite and obscure institution founded in 1484 is not only thriving but also still emanates vestiges of glamour.
Here in Norfolk we have our very own Herald – a man with a passion for designing Armorial Bearings who is completely at ease with the both the erudite and the tweedy. The office of York Herald is current performed by Henry Paston-Bedingfeld of Oxburgh Hall which lies in the west of the county. The moated and embattled domicile of generations of Bedingfelds is an ideal home for a herald and the perfect place to interview him about his work. The house harks back to the days when heraldry was a living and practical method of identification and the family history of the Bedingfelds is rich in association with turbulent periods of English history. These days it is run by the National Trust and the Bedingfeld private apartments are reached through an anonymous door.
Henry Bedingfeld was bewitched at an early age, not surprisingly at Oxburgh Hall itself. His youthful interest could not but be stimulated by a setting where griffins straddle the battlements and the arms of his ancestors are carved into the masonry. As a child he wondered innocently about the red chicken above the library fireplace; his father retorted, “That’s not a chicken that’s an eagle and it’s your coat of arms.” Young Henry had begun his lifelong engagement with the subject. But how do you become a herald? Where are heralds bred and groomed? Is there a Hogwarts for heralds?
Not so. Each herald comes, like a homing pigeon, by his own individual route. Bedingfeld’s own interest in heraldry developed during his teenage years but remained a hobby while he trained and practiced as a chartered surveyor. The hobby began to take a more dominant role in his life when, while living at Litcham, he attended heraldic art classes and in 1975 founded the Norfolk Heraldry Society. It was the beginning of his more formal relationship to heraldry and before long he joined the Council of the Heraldry Society.
When in 1983 a vacancy occurred for a pursuivant, Rouge Croix, Bedingfeld applied to Garter King of Arms who duly recommended him to the Earl Marshal. Bedingfeld gradually said farewell to chartered surveying and established himself in the College of Heralds, a dignified seventeenth century building set back from Queen Victoria Street in the City of London. Even the parking spaces are charmingly designated with the anachronistic-sounding titles; it would be a brave person who trespassed in a space marked “Garter” or “Clarenceaux” – what possible excuse could you offer? (No Aston Martins visible on the day I visited.)
There are a maximum of thirteen members of the College of Arms and they are divided into three categories, Kings, Heralds and Pursuivants. The Duke of Norfolk, the premier lord is hereditary Earl Marshal and as such responsible for all state ceremonies; he still retains feudal powers over lords temporal and ecclesiastical and is not afraid of exercising them in course of his duties. It is said that at a rehearsal for the Coronation in 1953 a Bishop failed in the courtesy of attending. By order of the then Earl Marshal he was duly “frog-marched” from a distant part of the country and given a thorough dressing down before his assembled brethren.
Titles, like other antique institutions, have become removed from their original attachment. The Duke of Norfolk no longer lives in Norfolk and York Herald is no longer associated with the Duke of York or with Yorkshire, but it is simply one of the surviving titles of Heralds along with Somerset, Richmond, Chester, Windsor and Lancaster.
“It’s an odd sort of business”, Bedingfeld explained, “rather like being a barrister in chambers in that all the heralds have their own clients and essentially act as agents for the petitioners applying for a grant of arms from the Crown.” The heralds work a rota system for new creations and are on duty for a week at a time. They are all punctilious in respecting the allocation of clients since their livelihood depends on a fair distribution and on loyalty to existing clients. The basic cost of a grant of arms is about £4,000.
Surprisingly heraldry is alive and well. Aristocracy may be in decline but the accoutrements of ancient lineage, and indeed of recent elevation, are still highly prized. Anyone who receives an honour from the Queen can apply for a coat of arms and there is no shortage of applicants. The news that Sir Paul McCartney had been granted a coat of arms made several columns in last December’s newspapers. Sir Paul had chosen a design based on the guitar, CD’s and the Liver bird holding a guitar for his crest.
Despite the dignity of their profession the heralds enjoy the challenges of modern heraldry and in true Shakespearean tradition they like nothing more than a pun. Sir Harry Secombe’s coat of arms contained references to his hometown of Swansea including a swan on the crest and a mermaid combing her hair. When it came to a motto – usually a commanding phrase of encouragement – there could be no other choice but “GO ON”. Sir Elton John wanted arms, which reflected his interests and was duly offered a shield bearing a piano keyboard and four discs with holes in coloured gold and red – the colours of Watford Football Club.
Bedingfeld explained that clients are keen on traditional geographical associations – “Welsh people want dragons or bits of dragons, and also leeks and daffodils. Yorkshire men want white roses and Lancastrians want red roses.” Professional symbols are also very important these days – industrialists, for example want elements of engineering in their arms. But Bedingfeld discouraged a surgeon who wanted red knives on his arms – “It might not suit your son.” – was his abrupt but tactful comment. His son was an accountant.
In addition to individuals, institutions, companies and universities all like to have their own coat of arms. The other great expertise of the heralds is genealogy. Since DNA is supposed to have proved that most of us have seven common ancestors it seems odd that so many people are so busy tracing their family trees. The urge to know about one’s immediate predecessors may now have more to do with concepts of identity than pinpointing a bloodline. And if you find that you are connected with some of our more illustrious or historic families you may well want to apply to the College of Arms for confirmation.
Bedingfeld may take his enthusiasm quietly, as befits his office, but when it comes to public misconceptions he is animated and adamant. He abhors the sale of souvenir style coats of arms for every name in the phone book, “Coats of arms belong to a particular family, not to a name in general.” Neither can heraldry be modernized to suit our new sexual equalities, “All heraldry descends in the male line. This is because it was developed as a system of identification when women were non-combatant. Women don’t use crests because they don’t wear helmets or carry a shield, but display their Arms on a lozenge (a diamond shape). An heiress, that is a woman with no brothers, can transmit her Arms to her children as a quartering."
As a patriarchal system heraldry has its drawbacks and I remarked to Bedingfeld about the high statistic of children who do not carry their legal father’s DNA. He returned to his more philosophical style, “Well it has always been known that it was wise man that knew his own father.”
With all our new developments in fertilization and surrogacy, it will soon be a wise man that knows his own mother as well.
Fortunately the romance of heraldry seems to transcend all this and provide Mr Bedingfeld with an occupation which has survived rather longer than Mr Bond’s.
Norfolk Heraldry Society: firstname.lastname@example.org