I am very fortunate to call Windsor my home – twenty one miles from central London, the historic town in Royal Berkshire is famed by its castle and its royal residents throughout the centuries, of which the current Royal House adopted its namesake during a First World War rebrand – unsurprisingly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha didn't quite have the right ring to it. The town is pseudo-country; formed around the private and public crown estate of Windsor Great Park, one can instantly be lost in an ocean of forest or fields when exploring off the tourist ant-trail, only to discover there is much more history beyond the castle walls. Down the Long Walk - arguably the most impressive approach to a residence in the Land - and beyond the Copper Horse, lays a community of duty and heritage. While accessible only by foot or by bicycle to the public, The Great Park is my home turf and my runs around this five thousand acre estate over the years have still not taken me to its every corner. A few weekends ago I stepped back in time – the twelfth century to be precise – to visit the exhibition A Pageant of Heraldry organised by The College of Arms and Cumberland Lodge.
Cumberland Lodge is a residence within The Great Park dating from the middle of the seventeenth century. Since its formation as a charitable foundation in 1947, it provides an informal centre for academic exchange – it’s panelled rooms proved one of the most interesting exhibiting pop-up spaces I had been to for a while.
During my time with the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle a few years ago, I could not resist growing a fascination with heraldry. Besides the fact that there is symbolism carved onto every chair, table, pane of glass and slab of stone around the castle apartments, as an artist the visual language that these symbols created were truly mystifying and formed one of the first concepts of a brand through visual recognition in history. Whether it is the sea of shields across the ceiling of St George’s Hall or the sacred decoration that is at the heart of the foundations of St George’s Chapel, it is easy to be enchanted by the genealogical history of characters past and present.
Heraldry derives from the word Herald and was first mentioned in Western Europe about the time of the First Crusade (c. 1100). Acting as messengers, diplomats and army staff officers, Heralds were attached to household rulers and magnates around the country where they used their expertise in identifying army commanders by their coat armour - markings painted on their banners and shields – since helmets denied facial recognition during war. This was a valued skill and precise identification in battle was paramount. Their experience led to taking responsibility of ceremonial duties at court and they were acknowledged as members of the Royal Household under Henry V in 1415 as ‘King of Arms’.
Their device of indexes, rules and terminology around the insignia of arms form the basis of heraldic law and language that continues to provide a service today by the office of the Earl Marshal – itself a hereditary position through the Dukes of Norfolk since 1672 - who represent the Sovereign in the authorisation of all arms and grants.
The exhibition illustrates the importance of heraldry as a mark of identification and charts the importance of heraldic seals as a means of authenticating documents in the late Middle Ages to the interest of institutions and public bodies from the beginning of the eighteenth century of which interest maintains in contemporary society and continues to be presented with an ornate Grant of Arms document approved with a Great Seal.
Tabard of King of Arms, bearing the Royal Arms on velvet
Tabard of Pursuivant of Arms, bearing the Royal Arms on silk
Highlights from the exhibit include tabards of King of Arms and Pursuivants of Arms beautifully embroidered on velvet and silk respectively, as well as The late Queen Mother’s personal banner which is uniquely on display.
While it is assumed that coats of arms are only reserved for royalty and nobility, with the emergence of a celebrity class towards the end of the last century within Britain’s inherent class system, a slice of noble decoration can in fact be purchased by anyone, at a price. With the trend ignited by rock royalty such as Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney, celebrity culture in Britain aspired for heraldic heritage – this was notably documented in the press when David Beckham and then-to-be wife, Victoria Adams commissioned a coat of arms inspired by the British Premier League Football trophy in 1999. Reports came out that the couple wished for the swan - that is incorporated in the design - to face a specific direction and that it had been suggested the swan should face the opposite direction since the great heraldic lexicon dictated the original direction would have implied the male bearer’s sexual preference to men. Most recently however, the coat of arms of a certain Kate Middleton received global attention on the announcement of her engagement to Prince William. Royal protocol requires both parties of the royal couple to provide arms – the Middleton family commissioned a coat of arms with the help of Garter Principal King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock, resulting in a personal design that symbolised the family’s association with West Berkshire and their interest in outdoor pursuits, while representing all five members of the Middleton family through colour and composition.
Printed onto the official souvenir programme on the day of the Royal Wedding earlier this year (Something Old Something New, April 2011) it is undoubtedly the most recognisable coat of arms in 2011, if not this century. However once Kate Middleton officially married into the Royal family to assume her title of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, her coat of arms instantly ‘combined’ with that of Prince William. Where protocol necessitates this new design will be used to represent the Duchess and also gives the opportunity to watering holes around the country to fashion themselves after the newly appointed royal – the first pub in the country to be named after the Duchess was in fact registered in Windsor where the coat of arms can be seen above the entrance.
The importance of heritage in contemporary society is no more evident than in the new advertising campaign that was launched by British Airways in late September. While companies invest millions into rebranding their product with a new direction, the airline looked to their past and reintroduced a brand element from their 'Landor' livery that was used between 1984-1997. Perhaps a clever marketing strategy on the eve of the British Monarch’s Golden Jubilee as well as the hosting nation of the Olympic Games next year, the airline has chosen to reintroduce a newly stylised version of their coat of arms and motto, To Fly. To Serve - granted to them by the College of Arms in 1975 - on their aircraft, uniforms and all other aspects of brand BA. Profiting from the ‘made in Britain’ trend that is proving to be a currency worth investing in across all market sectors, the expression of genuine heritage is an element of branding money cannot buy. The majestic nature of a coat of arms supersedes any fancy, modernist design, embodying a sense of seniority, quality and even timelessness that will no doubt charm customers aboard the nation’s flag carrier.
A series of crests - including a chrysanthemum of the Emperor of Japan (centre)While contemporary events of public interest shine the media spotlight onto the heritage of the College of Arms today, it is the annual event of the Most Noble Order of the Garter within the walls of Windsor Castle at St George’s Chapel - heraldry’s spiritual home since the Order’s foundation in 1348 by Edward III – that emphasises the historical importance and splendour of a service that is so intrinsic in this country’s very own brand identity that will last for another eight hundred years.
A Pageant of Heraldry may still be viewed at Cumberland Lodge on Wednesday 26th November – click here for visitor information. For further details on heraldic history and lineage, enquiries may be made to the Officer in Waiting at the Collage of Arms, which is open on weekdays throughout the year. Access to St George’s Hall and St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is open daily – the wardens are well versed in the castle’s history and are more than happy to help with any questions – ticket information can be obtained at The Royal Collection.
The College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
Queen Victoria Street
The Great Park
The Great Park