Last time, we had left Sir John More, the pious and God fearing father of England’s second Catholic martyr, making his choice about what coat of arms to have, now that he had come up in the world, and become first a lawyer and then a judge. He was offered a completely free choice of design. He had no doubt been told of the possibility of having a visual pun on his shield. There is an heraldic bird called a moorcock, which is based on the male black grouse, a bird of the moors, and is characterized in heraldry by its two projecting tail feathers. Eventually, Sir John made his decision:
A quite amazing result. Clearly, a direct hommage to Thomas à Becket, better known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury. There is no way that pious Sir John would have been ignorant of the Becket arms. He may even have been on a pilgrimage there himself. Here is the coat of arms of the first Saint Thomas:
Clearly, Dame Agnes too had felt the same attraction to those three black birds. For some still unknown reason, three black birds were beginning to have very strong connections with Catholic piety and Catholic saints.
Hanging Thomas à Becket’s choughs over the mantelpiece would not have been a problem in the early days of the sixteenth century when England was Roman Catholic, and owed its ultimate allegiance to the Pope in Rome. With the coming of the Reformation, however, things suddenly became very different. The Head of the now Protestant Church was now the King himself.
Henry VIII would not have wanted any reminders whatsoever about a prominent member of the now hated Catholic Church, who was murdered at the behest of a king called Henry, but who, eventually, was destined to triumph over him. Only three and a half years after the dirty deed, on July 12th 1174, the other Henry, Henry II, had had to carry out a public penance at Becket’s tomb and at the nearby church of St. Dunstan’s. The two churches became the most popular sites for pilgrims in the whole of England. King Henry VIII would have wanted absolutely nothing like this in his own reign.
And, clearly, he must have been scared stiff of exactly the same thing happening. And with good reason after the amazing coincidence of Sir Thomas More, a second prominent and pious Catholic done to death by a wilful monster of a king called Henry. The last thing Henry VIII would have wanted would have been the beginning of a new martyr cult among the overwhelmingly Catholic population of England:
Dame Agnes’ favourite coat of arms would now have become much more of a problem, not for Dame Agnes herself, because she had died well before 1527, the year when Henry first asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Instead, it would have been the fledgling school which might have faced problems. After all, those three black birds are a bit of a giveaway. Nobody was ever going to be mistaken about whose coat of arms they really were.
Over the years, I think that the red legs and red beaks of Becket’s three choughs would probably have been allowed slowly and gradually to be forgotten, most likely once Dame Agnes herself had passed away, in probably April or possibly May, of 1514. In an area where choughs have probably never nested, namely the East Midlands, local people may not have considered their bright red legs and beak to be particularly important. Furthermore, in many cases, the birds would have been seen in a grayscale context where bright colours were totally absent, such as a carving in stone on a wall, or a drawing in pen and ink on a manuscript.
Certainly, in Heraldry, it has never been particularly difficult for birds’ legs to disappear. In actual fact, there has always been a black bird which has no feet or lower legs. It is called a “martlet” and is, more or less, the heraldic version of the barn swallow. And here is a barn swallow:
It is never represented with feet, the legs terminating in the feathers which cover the upper parts of the leg. Furthermore, many heraldry books also state that the “martlet” has no obvious beak, a useful detail if you are trying to tone down a large long bright red one.
Interestingly, some experts in Heraldry see a family tree which fits in quite neatly with my argument. In French heraldry, therefore, a blackbird may be a “merle” because that is the ordinary French word, even nowadays, for a blackbird. When the bird on the shield loses various bits of its body, it is called by a diminutive form, namely “merlette” and this then becomes the “martlet” of English heraldry. The martlet in fact became commoner and commoner as it was used to indicate the arms of the fourth son of any particular nobleman.
Here is just one “martlet”:
And here is a small flock of them:
In French Heraldry the “merlette” has become an even stranger bird. Although closely connected to the English martlet, it is always depicted with a swan-neck but without a beak, wings, feet or forked tail. It looks, in fact, worryingly like a duck in a car crash:
For me, this may be where the confusion between “Mellers” and “merles” has
arisen. The choughs of Thomas à Becket have, over hundreds of years on a wall a long way from Canterbury, gradually lost their bright beaks and legs and people have thought that they must be “martlets”.
As a word, of course, “martlet” is not a million miles from “merlette”, and “merlette” is not a million miles from “merle”. “Merle” is not a million miles from Mellers. It is this pure and total coincidence which has led people, always looking for logical explanations, to invent the story about the “merles” representing Mrs Mellers, creating an explanation that is historically and heraldically impossible. There have never been any “merles” in English Heraldry, either in this century or in the sixteenth.
Months and months after I wrote these words, I found an online auction where a High School “Silver and Enamel Badge”, dating from 1935 was for sale. Interestingly enough, the three so-called “merles” on the badge have all been depicted with forked tails. In other words, they are not blackbirds, but black birds. And these black birds are clearly, because of their tails, martlets. This motorists’ badge must hark back to a mid-way period in the heraldic evolution from Becket’s chough to the erroneous, “merle”:
A very similar badge is in evidence in the Wills Cigarette card series of 1906, which depicts the coats of arms of England’s top public schools. I have always had visions of eleven and twelve year olds all smoking forty cigarettes a day just to get the complete set of cards. Anyway, here is the High School card, with the requisite “three Blackbirds rising proper”. Again, they have a forked tail:
Finally, here is a photograph of the old Stoney Street school, possibly the only one still extant:
Look at the coat of arms (four o’clock from the word “stationer”). It doesn’t look very much like the present day badge. It is perhaps closer to being the missing link between Thomas à Becket’s choughs, martlets, merlettes and merles:
The beauty about my ramblings is that they do explain away, quite effectively, a completely unrelated incident which has puzzled an admittedly tiny and fairly sad group of people over the last few decades.
In the school archives, there remains an account of how a long forgotten Old Nottinghamian discovered what appeared to him to be Dame Agnes Mellers’ coat of arms, carved on the roof of the cloisters at Durham Cathedral.
This was the only coat of arms in the whole cathedral which the local experts in the north east had failed to identify. The only link of any kind which could be established between Durham Cathedral and Nottingham was the fact that Richard Barnes, Bishop-Suffragen of Nottingham in 1537, eventually became the Bishop of Durham. No connection whatsoever was discovered though, between Richard Barnes and Dame Agnes Mellers.
My supposition is that whoever carved the mystery coat of arms in the late twelfth century when the cloisters at Durham Cathedral were being constructed, was displaying his own allegiance to St Thomas à Becket. Certainly, from a historical viewpoint, the timing is just about right. Thomas à Becket was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on December 20th 1170. Precisely the time when the cloisters were being built, namely the latter part of the twelfth century. Perhaps the coat of arms was carved as an act of ecclesiastical defiance against King Henry II, rather like the people who chalked letter “V”s on walls in Nazi-occupied Europe. I couldn’t find a picture of that, so here is the next best thing:
And as a conclusion, let me add that, during their investigations on behalf of Durham Cathedral, the Heralds’ College could not find any indication whatsoever that either Richard or Agnes Mellers had ever used those particular arms with the three birds, the ones which the Old Boy had immediately recognised as those on his blazer pocket all those years ago.. The ones he had himself seen, carved on that stone fireplace, by someone, another lifetime before that: