Tag Archives: Durham

Where did those three “merles” come from? Part Two

Last time, I posed a number of questions about the three black birds on the school crest, the so-called “merles”, and the coats of arms of a number of different families with the surname Meller, Mellers, Mellor and even Mellors:

Notts Crest COLOUR xxxxxxxxxxx

If you remember, I was far from convinced that there was any connection between Dame Agnes and any of these families, the closest of them a minimum of a week’s journey away in Manchester. I was equally doubtful about the existence of “merles” as a bird in English heraldry. Indeed, overall, in English, the word “merle” does not really seem to relate particularly strongly to birds at all.

Wikipedia, for example, states that “merle” is a first name used by both men and women, a surname of French origin, a rather beautiful pattern in dogs’ coats, another name for the wine grape Merlot, a German glider originally built in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics gliding competition, a Crusader fort near Tantura on the coast of Israel and finally mentions the fact that the MS Phocine, a ferry, was originally named MS Merle.

In the bird world, Wikipedia states that it is a name for the “Icterid varieties of which the male is predominantly black, especially the Common Blackbird, Turdus merula.” The first word is the Latin for thrush, and “merula” means Blackbird.
I need to say here that “Icterids” are exclusively American birds such as grackles, orioles, cowbirds, meadowlarks and bobolinks:

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Back to Wikipedia, which continues with the fact that “merula” gives the French their word “merle” and also gives the Scots their word “merl”. According to Wiktionary, it is also an “English 19th century bird name from merle, blackbird, possibly also a variant of Muriel”. That is in itself quite interesting as many common birds in Merrye Olde Englande had their own human names. Jack Daw. Mag Pie. Jenny Wren, Robin Redbreast. Sparrows were called Philip because of their chirping call. A modern equivalent would be the Soviet ruler, Joe Starling.
Very tenuous links between Dame Agnes and merles therefore, made all the more tenuous by another, etymological, dictionary,  which states that “merle” is a late fifteenth century word which nowadays “owes its survival in modern times to its use by Scottish poets.” And how many fifteenth century Scottish poets can you name? Or any living, modern ones come to that?
Scotland, of course, is even further away from Dame Agnes than Manchester. And just in case you see a possible link between Dame Agnes and the “late fifteenth century”, don’t forget that the alleged Mellers’ coat of arms wasn’t ever used by her, and first appeared only in 1808.

Sooooo, where did that coat of arms come from?

Well, just for a moment, let’s go back to that idea that Dame Agnes was a lifelong staunch Roman Catholic with a very real fear of Hell for wrongdoers, especially those who might have cheated their customers a bit, perhaps when they were flogging them very large and very expensive bells.

One evening, sitting comatose in front of our TV set, I happened to see this coat of arms on a documentary programme as the camera panned down the High Street of a famous city:

Canterbu
The city was, of course, Canterbury. But where did the City of Canterbury find those striking and exciting  black birds? Well, it’s not a huge surprise:

Becket-arms

The shield above is that of Thomas Becket also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London, and later Thomas à Becket. Born in December of probably 1118 or 1120, he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 but was then martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on December 20th 1170 by followers of Henry II, namely Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton.

Here is an account of the slaying, written by eyewitness Edward Grim. Edward must have been an extremely brave man. Completely unarmed, the young clerk stood up to four knights dressed in chain mail, all of them equipped with the heavy savage swords of the era. Edward was gravely wounded in the incident, as he tried in vain to protect Becket (Reader discretion is advised):

“The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown of his head. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral:

Murder_of_Thomas_BecketThe same clerk who had entered with the knights (not Edward Grim) placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.”

640px-English_-_Martyrdmasxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Soon after this famously gory death, Thomas was promoted to sainthood by Pope Alexander III. Canterbury Cathedral subsequently became the most important centre of pilgrimage in England, most famously for Geoffrey Chaucer.

The birds on Thomas à Becket’s shield have red feet and red beaks and they are nowadays called “choughs”, although apparently in medieval times, they were often referred to by pilgrims as “beckitts”.

chough_nb_tcm9-94034

I feel sure that there is some kind of clue here:

columbo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where did those three “merles” come from? Part One

Not many people would be able to answer this question.

What exactly is “Ermine a Lozenge Argent charged with three Blackbirds rising proper on a Chief Gules an open Book also proper garnished Or between two Ducal Coronets of the last.” ?

Well, it’s one of these, more or less. What’s a lozenge between friends?:

Notts Crest COLOUR xxxxxxxxxxx

The origin of the High School’s coat of arms has always been, to me, a major enigma. Apparently, there has always supposed to have been a connection between the arms of Dame Agnes’ family, namely “Mellers” and another family called Mellor, who lived in Mellor, a village between Stockport and Glossop.

(Where?)

(Well, let’s put it this way. in either town you can easily get a bus to Manchester. It’s a distance of some seven miles and twelve miles respectively)

Here is their coat of arms:

0mellor coat of

To me though there is quite a difference in spelling between Mellor and Mellers, although the Mellor coat of arms is obviously a reasonable fit with the school’s crest.

This theory, though, does rely almost totally on the supposition that Richard Mellers was related to this “Family in the North” whose coat of arms displayed three black birds. In actual fact, there is no reason to suppose any proven link whatsoever between the two families. After all, it’s a very long way between Nottingham and Stockport in late medieval times. More than ninety miles, in fact. The best part of a week on foot, not counting any unexpected meetings with Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.

Let’s look at a small number of other likely coats of arms. Let’s start with Mellers. It should be said that Dame Agnes herself always spelt her name as “Mellers” (but never as “Mellor”):

For “Mellers”, we find very few coats of arms, but there is this one:

meller_c

Let’s try “Meller”. We do find this one, and furthermore, the very same shield is listed elsewhere as “Mellers” :

meller_cThat’s not the answer, though,, because we also find this shield for Meller, as well:

meller-ireland

And this one:

meller_large irish

And this one:

Smeller red

Clearly, something, somewhere, is not quite right. It may even be very wrong. There are problems here, and the first major one may well be connected with the simple issue of the spelling of Dame Agnes’ surname. Despite her own insistence on Mellers, mentioned above, a quick look at “Google Images” will reveal that Mellers, Mellor, Meller and probably Mellors, appear to be disturbingly interchangeable.Coats of arms just seem to come and go. They are different every tine you look at Google. This is because, I suspect, they are connected less with accurate heraldry than the desire to sell tee-shirts, mugs, key rings, ties and even underpants with your family crest on them.

Those black birds on the High School shield have always been regarded as Blackbirds, an everyday bird species in England:

blackbird

The theory is that the heraldic word for a blackbird is “merle”, taken from the French, and this gives us a devilishly funny pun for the surname “Mellers”. Such side splitters are called “Canting Arms”. They are used to  establish a visual pun, as in the following examples:

canting
I am just not sure about this word “merle”. Just because a coat of arms contains a number of black birds (as opposed to green ones), that does not automatically mean that we are dealing with canting arms, even if the French word “merle” refers to our familiar back garden bird, the Blackbird, aka turdus merula, and the name “Mellers” sounds perhaps, possibly, maybe, slightly, conceivably, like it.

What is more disturbing, though, is the discovery that “merle” appears to mean absolutely nothing whatsoever in English Heraldry. On Amazon, the search for “Heraldry” reveals five books, all with the same title. It is “A Complete Guide to Heraldry” by A.C.Fox-Davis:

fox daviesThis rather old book is the standard work on English Heraldry and has been for quite a considerable time. It is a book of some 645 pages, but there is not a single “merle” on any one of them.  And more important still, if merles did actually exist in Heraldry, then why did the Heralds’ College, known also as the College of Arms, call these birds “blackbirds” when they made that formal grant-of-arms to the school as recently as 1949? Why didn’t they call them “merles” and thereby preserve the “Laugh, I nearly died” visual pun?
And don’t think that the College of Arms are just a bunch of fly-by-night door-to-door sellers of heraldic key rings and underwear. They were founded well before Dame Agnes Mellers, in fact as far back as 1484. To quote the definition on the Heraldry Society website:

“The College of Arms is the only official English authority for confirming the correctness of armorial ensigns — Arms, Crests, Supporters and Badges — claimed by descent from an armigerous ancestor, or for granting new ones to those who qualify for them.”

In other words, if they say it’s a blackbird it’s a blackbird. You can’t just decide to call it a “merle” because you feel like it, or because it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s just not allowed. Here is another blackbird, just to refresh your memory:

Blackbird-01

In 1920 at least, nobody called it a “merle”. In June of that year, the new school magazine, “The Highvite” contained a “Sports Chorus”, including appropriately vigorous music. The words were…

“Score our High School / ye Highvites now score for victory.
Our High School / For Highvites, never, never, never shall be beaten
By any Worksop / Newark & c. team
At the Sign of the Blackbirds three.”

No “merles” there then. It is equally interesting to note that in “The Nottinghamian” of December 1921, the school’s emblem is again referred to as containing blackbirds, rather than merles. This overturning of tradition, however, does not mean that the use of three black birds does not connect us directly with Dame Agnes. Let’s look at it from a different angle, just for a moment.

Many people have believed over the years that it was only when the school changed its site from Stoney Street to Arboretum Street in 1867 that the three black birds were first adapted. But this was definitely not the case since photographs from the mid-nineteenth century show quite clearly that a badge with three birds was displayed on the wall of the Free School building. In this case, though, their wings were folded rather than the modern version, flapping and ready for immediate and dynamic intellectual and sporting take-off:

stoney st enlarged

Indeed, it is thought that the three black birds were in evidence as an unofficial badge for the school from at least June 16th 1808 onwards. On this date, an unknown but apparently very bored clerk has decorated the title page of the funky new volume of the Schoolwardens’ Annual Balance Sheets with the traditional three black birds, so it has clearly been known as a symbol connected with the school for a very long time.

Interestingly enough, another slightly more modern place where the birds’ wings can be seen as folded dates from 1936, when some new stained glass sections were put into the windows at the back of the recently built Assembly Hall:

assembly hall

And nowadays, of course, this folded wings version forms the badge of the Old Nottinghamians’ Society. Presumably, that is why they appear in this guise on a car badge being sold off on ebay:

car badge

Next time, I will attempt to answer the question of where did those black birds come from? In the meantime here’s a clue. Not all black birds are Blackbirds:

chough_nb_tcm9-94034

 

 

 

 

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