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The Goats get a Coat of Arms?! Eh?

So in keeping with the current theme of Curioser and Curioser…I ended up going back to London AGAIN in June (I’ve been more times this year than in the past five years together!) to visit the College of Arms.

This is a magical and mysterious place that does just what it says on the tin – they make coats of arms. And every so often – as when for example, a girl gets an MBE – a girl is also offered the chance to get a coat of arms. One’s OWN coat of arms. Is that weird, or what?

Adding to the surreal nature of things, you have to factor in that this particular girl is firmly middle class and hails originally from Texas – very American, very middle class. No blue blood here, I can assure you! But, if offered the chance to have my own coat of arms, I’d be darned if I was going to pass it up.

So off I trotted, daughter number three in tow (Sophia), to visit the College of Arms on Queen Victoria Street.

I had been communicating via email with a gentleman there who rejoiced in the name of Phillip Bone, and the job title of Rouge Dragon Pursuivant. Phia and I knocked nervously on the large and very antique doors of the College of Arms (after a harried hour sitting in traffic, should have taken the tube…) and were greeted by Mr. Bone himself, thusly…

Younger than I expected, and SO lovely, Phillip showed us through the college, past the historical grants of arms hanging on the walls, gorgeously bedecked and handwritten:

and on into the library, where it was clear that we were meant to contain our enthusiasm:

which I managed to do, JUST BARELY. I was loving life!

Phillip explained that every coat of arms must be completely unique, as they were originally designed for knights in jousts to identify themselves. And you wouldn’t want that sort of thing going awry. So if you want a GOAT in your coat of arms, for example – as I most certainly did – Phillip had to look up every coats of arms that have ever been issued containing a goat, just to make sure that we weren’t accidentally copying one that has gone before.

He accomplished this by hauling out one of the huge, reverently-tended volumes that lurk behind the closed cupboards of the library, which have a small pen-and-ink drawing of every single coat of arms, going back to — basically forever. William the Conquerer days. And they’re all here, available to be checked. The books look like this:

So then we got to work, my new friend the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant and myself, drawing and sketching and trying to figure out what would be an appropriate coat of arms for a middle-class girl from Texas.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? What would you have for your coat of arms? If you had to pick a handful of symbols that summarised your life? No pressure though….

Anyhow, I wanted mine to be in two halves, because it feels like my life has been in two halves – the American half, and the Welsh half. For the American half, I wanted a white horse rampant (means standing up) holding a quill pen – that’s to represent my cowboy grandfather, and the book I wrote about him:

and facing the horse, I wanted a goat with a daffodil, to represent – you know. The current goat bit. (Need to ask The Goats a question? We’re here! We don’t go anywhere! Hardly ever, anyhow…we’re available on live chat 8 am to 8 pm weekdays, love to chat…)

We industriously sketched away, Phillip giving wise counsel about keeping it simple (the Celtic tree of life would just make everything too busy, he said) and helping me work out the design elements in a way that made sense.

Finally we settled on something that Phillip thought would work. And as a treat for our hard work we got to go upstairs to see Phillip’s office.

Phillips’ full title is Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary. This means that he is a “junior officer of arms.” He had only been in his role, he told us, since November of last year, after spending a year as a research assistant. He got the job after spotting an advert on the website ( this disappointed me, I was sure an owl must have dropped the letter down his chimney).

The Rouge Dragon Pursuivant is awarded the princely sum of £13.95 per year for his labours. This amount was set in the time of William IV (1830-1837, I looked it up) when it was actually reduced from a previously higher amount.

Never mind, it’s evident that money is not the driving force for Phillip Bone, who read classics in university and is clearly enchanted by every aspect of his job. As a junior officer of arms in the College, he is one of four lower ranking heralds. There are six heralds in the middle rank and three heralds in the upper ranks, who are known as “King of Arms.” Their duties, besides doing genealogical research and designing coats of arms, include walking in front of the King on ceremonial occasions, and attending functions like the state opening of Parliament, looking like playing cards:

The gorgeous tabards they wear are handed down from herald to herald, made of precious fabrics and threads, and costs tens of thousands of pounds in insurance alone.

Yes, they wear tights (hard to find in his size, Phillip confides) and the shoes are meant to have a gold buckle (although his wife just painted his with gold paint.) They’re not particularly comfortable or ergonomic shoes, and long parades can mean blisters.

No, they’re not jealous of the Scottish heralds who get to wear trousers instead. (I had to ask.) Yes, he loves his job and no, can’t see ever leaving. In perhaps ten years or so he might ascend to the middle rank of officers of arms, and someday might even become a King of Arms. No one ever leaves, he says. They just get older within their office, graduate up the ranks and then…ascend. A more senior position means a bigger office and a raise up to £17 per year.

Phillip shows us the spot on his office floor where, during WWII, a live bomb came in the open window. A very brave porter grabbed in and threw it out the window again. The burned spot is still on the floor, covered with some plexiglass:

The building itself was rebuilt “after the Great Fire of London” (1666) when the heralds took over a neighbouring sugar factory to expand their storage facilities as needed. All those carefully tended books over the centuries take up a lot of space! They’ve been there ever since. And hopefully will, forevermore.

Finally, aware that we had probably overstayed our welcome, (and that Phillip was far too polite ever to suggest this) we reluctantly took our leave, blinking in the afternoon sunshine.

And when I looked back over my shoulder, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole building had vanished….

Adventures, eh?



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