Stories Behind the Shields

By John Tepper Marlin
The coat of arms of Trinity College, Oxford, attended by this week's “Guestwords” contributor. Heraldic Art by Lee Lumbley

Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, 100 years ago. The poem most often read out today in remembrance of the war’s dead is “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon, an Oxford alumnus. The only person in World War I to receive two Victoria Crosses, Noel Chavasse, a fearless medic, was also an Oxford alumnus.

Binyon and Chavasse were educated at the same place, Trinity College, Oxford. It is also the credential claimed by Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, whose story is dramatized at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor this month. 

Is there something special about a place that can be captured through its symbols and stories? That is the question I set about trying to answer with my new book, “Oxford College Arms.”

Many who read this will be familiar with the Oxford University coat of arms, as it appears on or inside the 6,000 books a year that Oxford University Press produces and on many souvenir items. The shield shows an open book displaying the words Dominus Illuminatio Mea, “The Lord Is My Light,” from Psalm 27. The book shows learning, and the biblical message implies piety. The book is surrounded by three crowns that connote loyalty to the monarch and patronage in return.

I’ve been absorbed by heraldry since I was sent off to a Benedictine boarding school in Yorkshire at the age of 10. We ate our meals in the Great Hall of Gilling Castle, which had giant stained-glass windows featuring the coats of arms of the Fairfax family. I will never forget the antique script and vivid shields. The castle’s owner’s cousin, Gen. Thomas Fairfax, created the New Model Army for Oliver Cromwell and hunted down Charles I in Oxford. After a trial by Parliament, King Charles was beheaded for refusing to acknowledge that Parliament had any rights. Living amid this history, I was hooked by the lore.

Later, from 1962 to 1964, I attended Trinity College, Oxford, and enjoyed trying to interpret the coats of arms that appeared on every building, including the ones I lived in. Trinity’s arms are those of Sir Thomas Pope, who became wealthy while dissolving monastic colleges for Henry VIII, and then under Mary Tudor re-establishing one to ensure that he would leave behind someone to pray for him. Trinity’s three birds with the big ears are griffins, which have the head and wings of an eagle (king of the air) on the body of a lion (king of the land).

While the Oxford arms are the most recognized by tourists, Oxford alumni usually have stronger loyalty to one of the 44 colleges and halls where they lived and ate. Each college has its own shield.

One of my favorite birds featured on college arms is the martlet. A flock of four or five of them appears around a cross on the shield of University College, one of Oxford’s three oldest colleges. This coat of arms was attributed posthumously to St. Edward the Confessor, the last king of England before the hapless Harold, whose brief reign precipitated the Norman Conquest. The cross at the center of the shield shows that St. Edward was saintly, while the martlets show that he was learned.

Why is the martlet, a small martin, a symbol of the intellectual life? It is always shown legless and footless, and the point is that a bird with no feet can’t perch; it is like an aircraft without landing gear and has to stay aloft. Tennessee Williams, in his 1957 play “Orpheus Descending,” references such a bird. The bird symbolizes thinkers who can never rest because the answers of those who came before are constantly being challenged. The midterm election we just went through is an example of our having to confront anew the same questions faced by our forebears.

Coats of arms are the brands of yore. Oxford’s communities need an identity, and a shield provides it. A deep dive into colleges’ coats of arms is a better guide to visiting Oxford than a GPS. For an American, each college shield is a window into the people who founded and now constitute each community. The stories equip us better to face today’s challenges and provide pure joy in better understanding the strong Norman English chivalric thread in America’s history.

Colleges today are more modern than when I was “up” at Oxford in 1962-64. The plumbing has improved, for starters. However, colleges can return to some of their historical themes when least expected. After World War II, new Oxford colleges were needed to provide the residential and common dining experience to burgeoning numbers of students in graduate and professional specialties. At first, it was assumed that new university-created colleges, like Kellogg and St. Cross, would not need a coat of arms. But students and dons missed the heraldry when they competed in intercollegiate programs. The university itself discovered that it needed arms to identify each college in its calendar. 

So the new colleges created their own arms, and I wrote about their diverse choices for Oxford Today (then the Oxford alumni magazine, now called Quad) in its first issue in 2015.

For the book, I have tried to wring truth out of the many college shields. Are these arms relics of feudalism, sexism, superstition, racism? Assuredly. Do they also tell the story of how the colleges gradually escaped these suffocating prisons? Yes. 

For example, imagine what a great leap into the future was made by Bishop Oldham of Exeter and his colleague Bishop Foxe of Winchester when they founded Corpus Christi College. From the beginning, as a great departure from existing practice, they decided to open the place up in 1517 to non-monastic scholars. Part of its shield shows yet another bird, the pelican, with drops of blood dripping from its beak. The medieval world thought that pelicans poked their beaks down to pierce their breasts and feed their young with blood. It was called a “vulning” (wounding) pelican “in its piety” — i.e., sacrificing its blood for its chicks.

This, of course, is a metaphor for Jesus. Today, we know that a pelican puts its beak down on its chest not to wound itself but to push up food from the pouch below its beak. We can also interpret the message of the pelican in a more secular sense as one of a caring parent.

These old shields have life in them, like the ancient buildings many of them are affixed to. They have a lot to tell us, if we stop, look, and listen.

John Tepper Marlin, a 40-year resident of Springs, will talk about his new book and sign copies at BookHampton in East Hampton on Friday, Nov. 16, at 4 p.m. He blogs about Oxford and heraldry at­