Arms of Chester

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Arms and supporters of the City of Chester, granted in 1580.

The coat of arms of the city of Chester were, according to a patent re-printed in Hanshall, regranted in 1580 by William Flower of the College of Heralds. However the arms of the City are believed to be the oldest civic arms in the county. The original grant of arms can be translated as follows:

  • "To all and singular as well Kings of Arms as Nobles and others to whom these presents shall come to sight or ear I william Flower Esq alias Norroy Principal Herald and King of Arms of the north parts of England sendeth greeting in our Lord everlasting Forasmuch as the venerable Worshipful Men the Mayor and Citizens of the city of Chester also as their predecessors by many and distinguished privileges from the Kings of England and the Earls Palatine of Chester &c. By virtue of which Incorporation the said city in like manner as other cities of the kingdom of England is rendered much more distinguished and respectable by its ancient use and display of the Coats of Arms. But forasmuch as the said city had relinquished its ancient arms so that their very memory had become nearly obliterated and in their place took up and has used new arms for these many past years &c. In consideration whereof I the said Norroy King of Arms &c having executed the duty pertaining to my office touching the amendment of former delinquency have by these presents fully and in their pristine state restored to the aforesaid city the Armorial Coat or Ancient Insignia marked with gules and azure the first side which may be likewise justly called the regal side exhibiting three demy lions Passant regardant or accurately depicted and the second side presenting a whole wheat sheaf and a half of another or. And moreover &c to do pleasure to a city and society so distinguished and of such great deservings from our Prince and country have allowed for the greater and ampler ornament of the said city for the crest upon the helm the symbol of royalty and justice a sword sheathed erect girt with a belt thorough gilt situated above the torce distinguished with gold red and azure below moreover with mantlings or appendants part red part azure doubled argent. And moreover for the support of the shield I have designed on the right side a lion or ducally collared argent and on the left side a wolf argent alike ducally collared argent For the fuller information of which and more to the life I have ordered the above to be illuminated delineated and depicted in the margin of these presents with the respective metals and colors ác To use bear enjoy and shew forth as token of honour at any time and place at liberty and pleasure any impediments contradiction and prohibition to the contrary notwithstanding. In witness whereof &c I the Norroy King of Arms have signed these presents with my hand and by the appendant of my seal of office have confirmed this my diploma. Given at Chester the 3d day of September in the year of our Saviour MD LXXX and in the 22d year of the reign of Her Most Serene Highness Queen Elizabeth GG"
Corporation seal showing which appears to be the Eastgate.

This text is taken from Hanshall and appears to be based on the confirrmation of grant given in 1613 by the herald Richard St George. Notably, the text gives no explanation of the motto. The text does mention that while the arms had been in use earlier they had fallen into disuse. There is some evidence to suggest that prior to the "restoration" of the arms what was used showed a depiction of the city walls, as has been found on various surviving corporation/municipal seals. However, the Braun and Hogenberg map of 1581 shows the "Arms of the City" as being the three wheatsheafs and sword shield used later by the county. The three gold wheatsheaves on blue are associated with the ancient Earldom of Chester. These arms were borne by Rululph de Blondeville and to these has been added a sword - a fitting emblem of the Palatinate which the Earl "held as freely by his sword as the King of England held by his crown".

The Arms

The shield shows the Royal Arms of England (a red shield with three gold lions - first adopted in a fixed form circa 1200) "dimidiated" with a shield representing the Earldom of Chester (three gold garbs on blue) and is said to have been in use in 1329 (granted by Edward III), and regranted by Richard II, who erected Chester into a Principality. The Earldom had reverted to the Crown in 1237 on the death of John Canmore (aged 30). However, the reversion was not as simple as most histories describe. William de Forz (Latinised as de Fortibus, sometimes spelt Deforce), 4th Earl of Albemarle, (died 1260) claimed that, as a Palatinate, it could not be divided, and his wife should get it as the oldest coheir. William got the title, but the court decided that the lands should be divided. However, he and his wife (Christina (d. 1246), daughter and co-heiress of Alan, Lord of Galloway) quitclaimed the earldom to Henry III in 1241 in exchange for modest lands elsewhere. So by 1329 (during the reign of Edward III) it is entirely possible that the arms could have been in use, although Edward, the Black Prince, was only created as the second "Royal" Earl of Chester in 1333. The crest and supporters in the arms were also granted by Flower on September 3, 1580. The sword in the crest is often described as being there because it is part of the Lord Mayor's regalia, but more properly reflects the semi-independent status of the Chester Palatinate and occurs on the Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester, published in 1581. The supporters are the gold lion of England and the silver wolf of Hugh of Avranches, generally listed as the 1st Earl of Chester.

City arms ("Arma Civitas") shewn on the Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester, as published in 1581.
Arms of Ranulf de Blondeville (1181-1232) on the Suspension Bridge.

While the Earl of Chester with "three garbs" was Ranulf de Blondeville (1181-1232), John the Scot did seem to get an oblique reference as the shield is surmounted by a barred helm facing "head-on" outwards ("set affronté"), in the Scottish heraldic fashion. This feature was certainly unique in traditional English civic heraldry, but the helm has now been rotated slightly into a more conventional orientation. The original helm is a "frog-mouth helm" (or Stechhelm meaning "jousting helmet" in German) a type of great helm, appearing from around 1400 and lasting into the first quarter of the 16th century. The helmet was primarily used by mounted knights for tournaments (jousting) rather than on the battlefield. The frog-mouth analogy was drawn from the way the "ocularium" (the slit through which the wearer of the helm could see) resembles the open mouth of a frog. The oak branches above the help on the present arms were added as rural districts became part of the City: these included Hoole in 1954.

The Motto

The motto on the arms "ANTIQUI COLANT ANTIQUUM DIERUM" (often translated as: "Let the ancients worship the Ancient of Days") was apparently only added by Flower, in 1580. While the translation into English is not really debatable (although COLANT could mean "cultivate"), the precise meaning of the motto is not entirely clear. The motto is found in many places around the city including on the City Arms in Frodsham Street, on 27 Northgate Street, on the Suspension Bridge and on the former park-keeper's lodge in Grosvenor Park. It might be thought that this motto/imprecation had some "masonic" origin - especially as William Blake would later use Masonic symbolism in his "Ancient of Days" illustration - but Freemasonry only appears to have arrived in Chester during the lifetime of Randle Holme (after 1600).

William Flower was born at York about 1498, and was probably the elder son of John Flower, tailor and corn merchant, of the parish of All Saints' Church, Pavement, York. Flower became "Guisnes pursuivant extraordinary" on the removal of Fulke ap Howell at Westminster, 10 June 1536. On 1 April 1543, while serving as "Calais pursuivant extraordinary", he was sent to visit the merchants and marines who had been captured by the French and confined at Rouen. He was appointed "Rouge Croix Pursuivant" in 1544 and "Chester Herald of Arms" (which had little to do with Chester) in 1546. He and Gilbert Dethick, "Garter Principal King of Arms" accompanied William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton, in his 1551 mission to Paris, to invest Henry II of France with the Order of the Garter. He received ten shillings per day for his "dyett" (food and lodging) on that mission. In 1555, Thomas Hawley, "Clarenceux King of Arms", issued a patent in London authorising Flower to act as his marshal and deputy. Flower delivered a message in Edinburgh from the Duke of Norfolk on 16 February 1560 to Mary of Guise and her Scottish and French councillors. Flower was promoted to "Norroy King of Arms". effectively in charge of heraldic matters north of the Trent, on 8 February 1562. A commission of visitation was issued to Flower on 10 July 1564, and he embarked on a series of visitations throughout the northern counties over the next eleven years. On 9 March 1580 he obtained a patent from Elizabeth joining his son-in-law, Robert Glover, Somerset Herald, with himself for the office of Norroy; the patent states that Flower was then eighty-two years of age.

No study of Flower appears to provide any insight into any philosophical or religious reason for his wording of the city motto. He was clearly a consumate survivor as regards the various religious transitions between Protestant and Catholic that he lived through.

Possible meanings of the motto

Painter and poet William Blake used the iconography of the "Ancient of Days" in his "Europe a Prophecy", a 1794 prophetic book (i.e. much later than the first use in the Chester arms). It represents a creative principle in the universe that establishes mathematical order and permanence that allows life to keep from becoming nothingness.

The reference to the "Ancient of Days" is one to the Book of Daniel, where the "Ancient of Days" is mentioned in several places:

  • יג חָזֵה הֲוֵית, בְּחֶזְוֵי לֵילְיָא, וַאֲרוּ עִם-עֲנָנֵי שְׁמַיָּא, כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ אָתֵה הֲוָא; וְעַד-עַתִּיק יוֹמַיָּא מְטָה, וּקְדָמוֹהִי הַקְרְבוּהִי ("I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the Ancient of days, and he was brought near before Him.")

In the original Aramaic the words are rendered atik yomin (עַתִּיק יֹומִין; - almost "antigue man"), whereas in the in the later Greek Septuagint (second century BCE) it is written as palaios hemeron (παλαιὸς ἡμερῶν).

The above passage is taken from a somewhat apolcalypic vision of Daniel in which four "beasts", possibly representing "pagan" nations, oppress the people of Israel until judged by God. Daniel 7:13-14 describes how the "Ancient of Days" gives dominion over the earth to "one like a man" (כבר אנש [kibar 'anash]). Daniel is filled with monsters, angels, and numerology, drawn from a wide range of sources, both biblical and non-biblical, that would have had meaning in the context of 2nd-century Jewish culture, and which Christian interpreters much later viewed as predicting events in the New Testament. The book was particularly influential during the Protestant Reformation, especially in the later 16th Century when the "beasts from the sea" could be interpreted as including the sea-power of Spain, and possibly the Nederlands.

Reformation Chester

The Henrician reformation had been received in Chester with acquiescence tempered by conservatism and expediency. Prominent townsmen who bought or rented ecclesiastical property included William Sneyd, Hugh Aldersey, and William Goodman, all former mayors, and the Dutton family. The more extreme official line taken under Edward VI was also accepted. At the cathedral Dean William Cliffe (1547-58) quickly ordered the destruction of traditional fittings, while some of the vestments may have been handed over for use in the Mystery Plays. The poorer parish churches, including St Peter's, had little to lose, but the effects on the richest parishes were severe. St Johns, formerly a well endowed college, became a rather poor parish church, while Holy Trinity, where many leading citizens worshipped, and St. Mary's lost many ornaments, sacred vessels, and vestments. There is little indication of enthusiasm for new doctrines in Chester, which contained no notable protestant laymen, and whose overseas trade was not with ports where protestantism was entrenched. John Bradford, a renowned protestant proselytizer, preached in the city during the 1550s, and John Bird, as bishop of Chester 1541-54, took a strongly protestant line, but in general the clergy probably remained conservative and compliant. The Marian reaction in the city was thus limited: the married incumbent of St. Mary's and Bishop Bird were deprived. The latter's two successors, George Coates (1554-5) and Cuthbert Scott (1556-9), reorganized the church courts to revitalize Catholic worship throughout the diocese. Parishioners rebuilt altars, set up "roods" and images of the Virgin anew, and replaced vestments and vessels. The only indication of lay resistance to the "new" catholicism came in 1555, when one of the sheriffs, John Cowper, led an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a heretic, George Marsh, from being burnt at the stake in Spital Boughton. There was apparently little overt opposition to the Elizabethan settlement, but the interregnum between the deprivation of Bishop Scott in June 1559 and the appointment of Bishop William Downham in May 1561 left the diocesan machinery in the hands of the existing Catholic officials. The heavy cost of making church buildings suitable for protestant worship hampered the maintenance of cathedral and parish churches alike, notably at St Johns, which became partly ruinous. The churchyard of St Oswald's (to the south of the Cathedral) was desecrated by use as a rubbish dump.

Initial efforts to enforce conformity were less than urgent under the lax regime of Bishop Downham, but in 1564 he presented a report, not wholly accurate, which cast doubt on the religious loyalties of several aldermen, including the mayor (Richard Poole) and three of his predecessors (John Smith, William Aldersey, and Randle Bamvill). There were also a few suspect absentees from church services, notably Fulk Aldersey and his wife, but open "recusancy" was clearly negligible. During the later 1560s heavier pressure was brought to bear on conservatives, and by 1580 a score of "recusants" had been dealt with - typically by fines. About the same time convicted Cheshire recusants and priests were moved from Chester Castle to Manchester, partly because Chester was thought more sympathetic to Catholics. During the 1560s and 1570s there were attempts to promote "good behaviour" in church and, perhaps more notably, some agitation against the Chester Mystery Plays.

Arms and supporters of the City of Chester from Hanshall. This seems to show the royal lion and the wolf of the Earls of Chester having a bit of an argument. The text is the 1613 confirmation by the herald Richard St George, by which time the motto has become established. Notably, the text does not explain the origin of the motto.

It is with this religious turmoil that the choice of the motto may lie. Some authors have suggested that the Mystery Plays included Catholic elements which would eventually lead to their demise around 1585. These elements included a rather ambiguous treatment of Roman characters in the plays, which may also have arisen out of Chester's Roman roots, but was seen at the time as "Popery". Indeed, the Privy Council in 1575 described Chester as "the very sink of Popery".

Among the wealthier citizens, many had profited from the selling-off of Church property during the dissolution and to some extent their grip on the city was strong. Chester was governed under its charter of 1506 by an Assembly comprising the mayor, two sheriffs, 24 aldermen (the Twenty-Four), and 40 common councilmen (the Forty), unofficially augmented in the earlier 16th century by the sheriff-peers (former sheriffs not yet promoted to the rank of alderman). The annual election of aldermen and councillors had already been undermined before 1550, elections being held only when vacancies occurred. The right of freemen to vote even on those occasions was gradually eroded, despite a lawsuit in 1573, though the Assembly managed to prevent mayors from simply nominating new councilmen.

The canonical Book of Daniel has, as well as tales of a corrupt court (where the writing was quite literaly "on the wall"), much apocalyptic imagery involving the sea, and the related apocalyptic-style pseudepigraphic text deals with a similar subject, describing one particular vision of Daniel regarding the appearance and activities of the Antichrist prior to the Day of Judgement before the "Ancient of Days". Could it be that William Flower chose the motto with this in mind?

Other possible interpretations

There are some less interesting reasons for the choice of motto. The table below lists the possible translations of the words used and notes the tenses:

  • ANTIQUI: ([let] those who are) ... old, aged, ancient, time-honoured, bygone, simple, venerable, classical, traditional, sages;
  • COLANT: third-person plural present active subjunctive (presently) ... till, cultivate (literal), inhabit, protect, nurture, honour, worship (figurative);
  • ANTIQUUM: nominative neuter singular (he who/that which is) ... old, aged, ancient, time-honoured, bygone, simple, venerable, classical, traditional;
  • DIERUM: genitive plural (of many) ... days;

That Chester was an "ancient" city was well known from the Polychronicon of the Chester monk Ranulph Higden, a standard history text at the time - it was translated into English by John of Trevisa in 1387 and printed by Caxton in 1482. Higden's description of Chester (which would presumably be well known to William Flower) reads:

  • "The cyte of legyons that is Chestre in the marches of Englonde towarde Wales betwegne two armes of the see that bee named Dee and Mersey Thys cyte in tyme of Britons was hede and chyefe cyte of all Venedocia that is North Wales This cyte in brytyshe speche bete Carthleon Chestre in Englyshe and Cyte of Legyons also For there laye a wyn ter the legyons that Julius Cezar sent for to wyne Monde And after Claudius Cezar sent legyons out of the cyte for to wynn the islands that be called Orcades Thys cyte hath plente of lyveland of corn of fleshe and specyally of samon Thys cyte receyveth grate marchandyse and sendeth out also Northubres destroyed this cyte sometyne but Elfreda lady of Mercia bylded it agayn and made it mouch more In thys cyte ben ways under erth with vowtes and stone worke wonderfully iwrought three chamberd werkes grete stones igrave with old mennes names there in Thys is that cyte that Ethelfreda king of Northumberlonde destroyed and sloughe there fast by nygh two thousonde monkes of the myn ster of Bangor Thys is the cyte that Kyng Edgar cam to some tyme with seven kyngs that were subject to hym"
  • There be waies heere under the ground vaulted marvelously with stone worke, chambers having arched roofes over had, huge stones engraven with the names of ancient men. Heere also are sometimes digged up peeces of money coined by Julius Caesar and other famous persons, and stamped with their inscriptions

Thus while the latin version of the bible (which would presumably be well known to William Flower) does contain the phrase antiquum dierum ("Aspiciebam ergo in visione noctis, et ecce cum nubibus caeli quasi filius hominis veniebat, et usque ad antiquum dierum pervenit: et in conspectu eius obtulerunt eum") this need not have been translated as "The Ancient of Days", but could also be read in English as "one who is very old". It is even possible that Flower is refering to himself, in a form of pun (he was 82 at the time), and at least one writer has suggested that the motto did not originally appear as such:

  • "It is not certain whether the motto used by Chester was intended as such. The words "Antiqui colant Antiquum Dierum" seem to have been added to Flower's confirmation and grant almost as a pious injunction to the grantees, and indeed in the representation of the arms upon the official notepaper, following the style of the 1580 patent, the motto is not to be found stretched across the compartment between the supporters, but is engraved separately below the whole achievement."

Summary

The origins of most of the symbolism in the arms of Chester is fairly clear, but the motto is open to a range of interpretations. Given the dating, "Masonic" origins can be discarded. Stretching the meaning possibly too far in one direction it contains a reference to the apocalyptic events in the Book of Daniel. Taking things to an extreme in the other it is simply a pun by a very elderly herald and was not actually intended as the motto. In between are various explanations which reference the Roman roots of Chester. William Flower, who appears to have first written the motto down, gives no explanation although by the time the grant of arms was confirmed by Richard St George in 1613 the motto was established as such.

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