What has the City got to do with Coats of Arms and other aspects of heraldry? Well it turns out that the City of London, its Livery Companies, the Sheriffs and the Court of Aldermen are all connected in some way with heraldry.
Her Majesty’s College of Arms (a.k.a. The Heralds’ College) is part of the Royal Household and located on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London. This is the home of the 13 ancient officers of state that go by fancy titles such as Garter Principal King of Arms, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms and York Herald of Arms in Ordinary. It is from this building that all matters related to heraldry and the law of arms (as in Coats of Arms) are administered in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, The Isle of Man, The Channel Islands, British Overseas Territories (Falklands, St Helena, etc) and the Commonwealth realms such as New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica (other than Canada). Scotland has its own heraldic authority existing since before the union of the Crowns: The Court of Lord Lyon, and Canada was granted its own heraldic authority by the Crown in the 1980s.
Prior to 1439 only people were granted Coats of Arms. The first ‘body corporate’ to achieve a grant of arms was the Worshipful Company of Drapers (right). This set the pattern for every University, Learned Society, County Council, and the other Livery Companies. All Livery Companies now have a Coat of Arms, and as with personal arms they are all officially granted by HM College of Arms, in fact many of the oldest grants of arms are to the City of London’s ancient Livery Companies. Every Coat of Arms has to be unique since it is the intellectual property of the owner whether they be an individual or a body corporate.
The relationship between the City and heraldry doesn’t stop with the Livery Companies. Every Lord Mayor and Sheriff of the City of London is required to obtain a Coat of Arms if they are not already armigerous (i.e., they or their direct male ancestor) has been granted arms in the past.
Contrary to widely held assumption, you don’t have to be a Lord (Peer of the Realm) or a Knight in order to obtain a Coat of Arms - although those ranks are qualified for arms. The granting of a Coat of Arms is to an individual, not to a family surname as many websites that offer to sell you an image of ‘your family crest’ imply. These websites might as well be selling bits of wood claimed to come from Noah’s ark! Inheritance of Coats of Arms is through the direct male line to sons, grandsons and so on with marks of cadence for each son, grandson, etc. Daughter’s do not inherit arms, but they may use their father’s by courtesy until they marry.
Many officers of HM College of Arms are members of Livery Companies, and in the past the Painter-Stainers’ Company fought for the exclusive right to paint the Coats of Arms designed and granted by the Heralds.
Livery Companies make extensive use of their Coat of Arms on insignia, plate, stationery and the robes of their senior officers. Many Livery Halls are richly decorated with the Coats of Arms of previous Masters, perhaps none more so that the Armourers’ Hall which is a visual feast of arms and armour.
Other halls with extensive displays of heraldry are the Stationers’ Hall, and the Ironmongers’ Hall. Both within and without the City there are many public houses that have adopted the name and arms of Livery Companies, and several schools founded, governed and sponsored by Livery Companies use their arms by agreement.
Probably the oldest civic arms used in the United Kingdom are those of the City of London (right) which date from at least the mid 14th Century. The arms of the City of London have evolved over time, and were originally supported by lions rather than dragons. A common misconception is that the sword shown on the City’s shield is that of Sir William Walworth used to kill the leader of the peasants revolt (Wat Tyler) in 1381, however the arms predate that event and the sword is believed to be that of St Paul, the patron saint of the City of London.
The Great Twelve Livery Companies of the City of London all have very ancient arms, and as if often the case in heraldry, the symbols or ‘charges’ on the arms give some indication of the trade, craft or profession represented by the company. The Goldsmiths’ Company arms feature a lions head, being the hall mark of the London Assay office which is administered by the Goldsmiths. The Clothworkers arms feature two tenterhooks - used to keep drying cloth tightly stretched under tension, hence the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’. The Grocers’ Company originally dealt in spices from the orient and their arms show cloves.
Even the most modern Livery Companies have grants of arms, although the age of the Livery Company is no indicator of the age of its associated trade, craft or profession as evidenced by the grant of arms to the newly formed Worshipful Company of Educators in 2014. Their arms feature an allusion to the way that much education is delivered today (i.e., by Computer) since the wise owl supporting the arms of the Company holds a mouse by its tail.
A further exploration of the City and Livery Company use of heraldry may be found in this paper written by the author of this website in January 2015.