Tag Archives: Thomas à Becket

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

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:

arm oooooooooooooooooooooo0000000oooo

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:

Becket-arms

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:

thomas more

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.

hery

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:

550px-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”:

MartletSable

And here is a small flock of them:

522px-Argent_chevron_azure_three_martlets_sable_crescents_Or_svg

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:

merlette3
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.

badge

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”:

martlet badge

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:

three merles.jpg aaaaaa

Finally, here is a photograph of the old Stoney Street school, possibly the only one still extant:

stoney st

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:

stoney st enlarged

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.

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:

Churchill_V_sign_HU_55521

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:

badge cccccccc c

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

Last time, we looked at this shield which is that of Thomas Becket also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London, and later Thomas à Becket.

Becket-arms

Born in 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.

Surely this coat of arms is the easy and direct link with the “merles” of Dame Agnes Mellers?

badge

If you were scared stiff that your husband was on his way to Hell, then what better saint to recruit to your aid than the Numero Uno of English saints, the Head Honcho of martyrdom in England?  As one expert TV commentator recently said, in that original programme (to which, by now, I was giving my fullest attention):

“The most important English saint, by a wide margin.”

I think that Dame Agnes, like so many ordinary football supporters nowadays, did not have her own coat of arms or badge, but instead she was very attached to those of her hero. Not Nottingham Forest or Notts County for her, of course, but Thomas à Becket.

Perhaps Dame Agnes used to display Thomas à Becket’s coat of arms because, as a very pious  and religious person, a vowess of the future indeed, she had  already been on a pilgrimage to see the saint’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral:

camterbury cathedrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Dame Agnes may have done this on her husband’s behalf or she may have done it because it was what thousands and thousands of English Christians had always done over the centuries. Perhaps in the three hundred and fifty years since Becket’s death, a tacky tourist trade had built up, and Dame Agnes was able to buy her very own copy of the great saint’s shield, which she had then hung up over her mantelpiece for all her friends to see. We will never know, but for me, the visual coincidence between the two coats of arms is quite stunning. Black birds, of course, are not particularly common on heraldic shields. Eagles, yes, but not a great deal beyond that. Everybody preferred lions.

Game set and match for my theory is the coat of arms of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the Lord Chancellor of Henry VIII but more significantly perhaps, the second most important English saint, venerated by all English Catholics as Saint Thomas More. When King Henry wanted to divorce the barren Queen Catherine of Aragon in the hope of fathering a male heir with Anne Boleyn as his new, younger, sexier, more fertile and six fingered Queen, Sir Thomas More “steadfastly refused to take the oath of supremacy of the Crown in the relationship between the kingdom and the church in England.”

More would not retreat from his belief in the supremacy of the Pope over the King. He was beheaded on July 6th 1535. Before he died, More proclaimed to the watching crowd, that he was:

“the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”:

execution

As a young man Thomas had thought seriously more than once of giving up his legal career to become a monk. And now he was a martyr, and well on his way to becoming a saint.

It would be amazing, of course, if his father had had no influence on his growing son. How could the young Saint Thomas have been so pious and so spiritual had his father not influenced him at any point? Clearly, Sir John must have been a very staunch Catholic to have produced a son like Thomas. Here is the only known depiction of Sir John:

220px-Sir_John_More_xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

That pious father of the saint, Sir John More, was born around 1451 and died in 1530. He was a lawyer and eventually became a judge. As he rose in society, he was offered the chance of a coat of arms of his own. He may have been told of the possibility of having a shield with a striking visual pun. There is an heraldic bird called a moorcock, which is based on the male black grouse, a bird of the high moors, and is characterized in heraldry by its two projecting tail feathers:

moorcock-261x300

An ordinary cockerel has a curved over tail, and in heraldry is really much less desirable, quite often being referred to as a “dunghill cockerel”:

cock-265x300

Sir John was left to make his choice. You’ll find out what it was next time.

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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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