Heraldry in the City of London

The first depiction of the arms of London on the second mayoralty seal, commisioned in April 1381. Image from Jewitt, Llewellyn, and John Hope, The Corporation Plate and Insignia of Office of the Cities and Towns of England and Wales, 6 vols. (London, 1895), ii, 244.

The first depiction of the arms of London on the second mayoralty seal, commisioned in April 1381. Image from Jewitt, Llewellyn, and John Hope, The Corporation Plate and Insignia of Office of the Cities and Towns of England and Wales, 6 vols. (London, 1895), ii, 244.

The City of London has a long and illustrious relationship with heraldry, not least because it is home to the College of Arms, the heraldic authority for grants of arms in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth Realms with the exception of Canada. However the connection between the City and heraldry is evident in many other ways. This article explores some of the ways in which heraldry continues to be used by the various institutions and officers associated with the City.

The City of London

The arms of the City of London are based upon the cross of St George, the first honourable ordinary in heraldry. As such they are a very simple, yet striking and ancient use of heraldry. A story about the City’s arms is recorded in the hall of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers:

Brave Walworth, knight, lord mayor, that slew
Rebellious Tyler in his alarmes;
The King, therefore, did give him in lieu;
The dagger to the city armes.

As the ancient rhyme points out, the City of London’s coat of arms incorporate a sword supposedly granted by Richard II. The inclusion of the sword is attributed to the actions of Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, who is believed to have killed Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants Revolt, with his baselard sword in June of 1381.

However, record show that the very same Sir William Walworth had updated the City’s arms earlier that year, supposedly because the previous design was too complex and unbefitting the City’s dignity. The sword in the City’s arms is now believed to be the Sword of St Paul, a Roman era short sword with which he met his fate.

It is perhaps not too great a leap of imagination for Sir William to have retrospectively attributed the inclusion of the sword in the canton of the City of London’s arms to his subsequent intervention on behalf of King Richard at a time of great national turmoil.

Curiously the arms of the City of London have never officially been granted, and were only registered with the College of Arms as recently as 1956.

The Livery Companies

The City of London Livery Companies are, with the Church and the Crown, the oldest institutions of the realm. The oldest among them were formed as religious fraternities and later took on an occupational bias to become craft guilds. The companies grew in number, importance and influence such that they became an integral aspect of the City of London’s civic, social and economic life.

In 1439 a singular and pivotal event occurred in the history of English heraldry, an event that continues to have an impact on grants of arms made by the College of Arms in right up to the current day.

In April of that year Clarenceux King of Arms granted armorial bearings to The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Mary the Virgin of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London, otherwise known as The Drapers’ Company (the word mistery means occupation). The grant to the Drapers’ Company is the oldest recorded grant of arms to a body corporate in England.

By achieving a grant of arms The Drapers’ Company set the pattern for all the Livery Companies of the City of London, ancient and modern, and for other institutions in the United Kingdom that have subsequently received a grant of arms. Prior to this grant all recorded grants had been made to an individuals rather than to institutions.

The grant to the Drapers’ Company was updated in the time of Elizabeth I to remove any suspicion of loyalty to the Church of Rome in the text of the letter patent, but the blazon was otherwise unaffected and the arms are now essentially as they were in 1439 with minor design changes.

Given the rivalry that has long existed among the City of London’s diverse Livery Companies, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that other companies quickly followed suit and petitioned for their own grant of arms. Many of the ancient companies either achieve grants, or used arms by assumption that were later confirmed. One example is that of the Mercers’ Company, who despite being first in order of precedence among the Livery Companies did not get around to obtaining a formal patent until 1911!

New City of London Livery Companies continue to be formed, and the most recent grant of arms was to the Worshipful Company of Educators in 2014.

A common misconception is that the arms of the Livery Companies were employed as a sort of fancy shop signage, perhaps as a nobler version of the Barber’s pole or the Pawn Broker’s three gold spheres?

Understanding the role of the Livery Companies in early medieval London can dispel this myth. The companies were responsible for regulation of their trade, craft or profession, and comprised Freemen of the City of London who had the individual right to conduct their occupation within the City. The Livery Companies were responsible for standards, regulation, inspection, enforcement, and provided for the spiritual and social welfare of their members.

The Livery Companies were therefore not in of themselves trading bodies, but rather trade associations representing the interest of their membership.

The Aldermen, Sheriffs and Lord Mayor

The City of London’s system of government is now unique, although it was once the model for towns and cities across England and Wales. The senior members of the Livery Companies, known as Liverymen (imports both genders) still elect the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs of the City. By ancient custom these officers of government are required to have armorial bearings, and those seeking election to the office of Sheriff must have their own coat of arms prior to taking office. Since it is a pre-requisite of election to the office of Lord Mayor that the candidate be an Alderman who has previously served as Sheriff, the Lord Mayor will by extension already have his or her own arms.

A curious aspect of the office of Sheriff in the City of London is that of their badge and chain of office. The Sheriff commissions a unique identifying badge (or jewel) based upon his or her arms, and usually incorporating those of other organisations with which they are associated (e.g., their Livery Company). This badge is worn at ceremonial occasions in the City (of which there are many) during the Sheriff’s year in office. However, it is not the badge, but rather the chain that it hangs from which is the symbol of the shrieval office.

A Sheriff who goes on to become Lord Mayor will subsequently augment his or her badge with the mace and sword of the City of London, although during their year as Lord Mayor he or she will wear the chain and jewel of office of the mayoralty rather than their personal badge.

Anomalies and Quirks of Heraldry in the City of London

Considering the long history of the City of London and its Livery Companies it is hardly surprising to find numerous quirks and anomalies in the use of heraldry within the City.

One such example is that of the Worshipful Company of Turners, who used arms identical to those of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge until a grant of 1634. The Catherine Wheel still features in the arms of the Turners’ Company, albeit employing other charges and a different base tincture to that of St Catherine’s College.

The arms of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers are one of few grants that include letters of the alphabet in the shield (G/P and V). This refers to the ‘Gunmakers Proof’ and their inspection role (continued to this very day) to ‘View’ barrels for correctness of bore and straightness.

The Armourers and Brasiers’ Company were united from two separate guilds until they formed a union in 1708. Until recently they had no official grant of arms, and usually their arms are presented on two separate escutcheons side by side (as for married nobility of equal rank).

Beyond the City of London there are numerous guilds in towns and cities across England that use the arms of the City of London Livery Companies either with permission or by ancient assumption. Examples include: The Butchers’ Company of Newcastle and The Merchant Taylors’ Company of York who used the arms of their London brethren until the 1960s.

More recently one Livery Company that shall remain nameless has enquired as to which of two slightly different designs of its arms that have been in use for centuries is correct. The response from the learned heralds at the College of Arms creates the opportunity for yet more heraldry in the City of London: “Neither!”

About the Author

Paul D Jagger is a Freeman of the City of London, Court Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, a member of the Cambridge University Heraldic & Genealogical Society and The Heraldry Society. He is the author of the definitive concise guide to the City of London’s many customs and ceremonies: The City of London Freeman’s Guide.


On Twitter as @CityandLivery

Cite this blog post
pauljagger (2015, January 22). Heraldry in the City of London. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/phw1

4 Responses

  1. Marc Berger says:

    Hello Paul

    Did you get my last comments? From what I remember I might of been a bit muddled. I would be interested in your opinion on whether the shield and sword arms existed before the 17th April 1381 and who they were supposed to be held by, my email is marc.berger@btinternet.com

    Regards Marc

  2. Marc Berger says:

    Hello I would be interested in the actual sources for:

    “However, record show that the very same Sir William Walworth had updated the City’s arms earlier that year, supposedly because the previous design was too complex and unbefitting the City’s dignity. The sword in the City’s arms is now believed to be the Sword of St Paul, a Roman era short sword with which he met his fate.”

    The image of the seal atop the shield shows St Paul holding a much bigger broadsword. St Paul was thought to have had his head chopped off. Maybe not an easy thing to do with a short sword. The weapon on the shield has a distinct S shaped crossguard and looks more like a Baselard. Wouldn’t the commoners have seen it that way if Tyler had been run through (thrice) or stabbed in the neck.

    An early record of the tradition repeated in the fishmongers hall, which is also where the actual baselard used to be kept apparently, is in the 1577 Holisted chronicle which says that it was the King that instructed the dagger to be put on the shield (possibly because the Arms collage did not exist and the Clarenceux King of Arms did not have the kings rights over cities like London?) . This tradition seems to have been supported for a long time by poems, plays and the actual Baselard by a fully armed Guild such as the Fishmongers going back to 1577 that it seems a bit odd that its not true. I have come across another uncited secondary source to 17 April 1381 which mentions decision to break the old seal.


    wouldn’t these seals have been used on documents at the time?

    • Paul Jagger says:

      I recommend contacting both the Museum of London and the London Metropolitan Archives. The little song/poem about ‘Wat Tyler in his alarmes’ … ‘the King did give the sword’…. ‘in lieu the City Arms’ is just a song, but Sir William Walworth had already designed (or commissioned) the new arms beforehand.

      Whether he used a Baselard sword (which to be correct has a T shaped handle) is a matter of conjecture. Baselards were the low-class vagabond’s weapon of choice (see Royal Armouries in Leeds). Whether St Paul was killed by beheading… also open to debate. If he was, likely it was with a Roman gladius.

      The depiction of the sword in the City’s arms is not intended to be either an accurate image of a Baselard or Gladius.

      There is much myth, mystery and misconception swirling around this topic… never let light in on magic 😉

  3. Marcus Meer says:

    Thank you very much for this blog post! I think particularly the Wat Tyler ‘myth’ is fascinating. It seems to have existed for quite a while. Stow mentions it as something that has grown to be a common opinion, which is why it seems the ‘myth’ must have been around for about two centuries at least. Even though, of course, Stow too was already clever enough to realise that it was not ‘true’ because the arms are mentioned in the Letter Books concerning the second mayoralty seal, which was in April 1381, before Wat Tyler killed Walworth.

    Yet I would not immediately attribute this to malicious intent or ignorance. I think it seems to underline the importance of arms had for the citizens of London. It made sense to them, especially in the later centuries, that the arms must have an extraordinary history, which is why the ‘heroic’ deed of their mayor was conflated with the design of the arms. It was more exciting than St Paul’s sword, and it fit even better with their very own history.

    The city of London, i.e. the mayor, saved the day and proved to be loyal to the crown and received a royal favour. Who would not like to have such a history? And I guess even more so for the fishmongers’ company this interpretation of the arms was a way of distinguishing themselves (via the deed of their member Walworth) in the city’s history, as we can see by the inscription next to the statue of Walworth in their hall.

    Are their any more clues for this ‘myth’, I wonder? It would be great to trace back how it developed and when it became ‘knowledge’. Shortly after the Peasants’ Revolt, as you suggest, or much later, and why? Maybe it was not even a mere interpretation of history, but intentionally made up to underline London’s allegiance to king and country when someone would doubt that?

    I think your post shows just how open to interpretation arms were, and how eagerly they were used by townspeople to fashion themselves within the city and its history.

    And I think think you can still see the importance of heraldry in London today, as you have stressed. From a continental perspective it is always fascinating to see how alive and important heraldry still is in the United Kingdom.

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