One of the questions that is often asked by visitors both to the Library and generally in the Cathedral is what is the origin of the most common of the heraldic coats of arms that they see around the Cathedral? It can also be seen on some of the text blocks of Worcester’s medieval manuscripts and on some of the post-medieval books belonging to the Cathedral.
The shield is technically described as Argent, ten torteaux. Argent means silver or, in the case of heraldry, white. A torteau was a red roundel. This can be seen on this copy of the psalms with a commentary by Gilbert of Poitiers which was made about 1200 in Worcester. The torteaux are arranged from the top 4, 3, 2 1. These are the arms of the See of Worcester.
This manuscript is believed to have left the Cathedral monastic collection even before the Dissolution. It was only restored to Worcester, after having several different owners, when Bishop William Thomas somehow acquired it, and gave it to the Cathedral in 1675. It is thought that this was when the coat of arms was added. This badge was also used by the Cathedral at the time. No doubt it was done to prevent the manuscript going on any further adventures.
The Cathedral at some point developed a variation on the badge of the Diocese. In this, the top left-hand torteau is hidden behind a canton or small rectangle. Within the canton is a representation of Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary sometimes holds a sceptre in her other hand. Over the centuries, the background colour of the canton is sometimes red and sometimes blue for the Dean and Chapter.
The design has sometimes also been copied incorrectly. In this eighteenth century library bookplate, for instance, you can see that the fourth torteau is not hidden underneath the picture of Mary and Jesus.
Every Bishop of Worcester can also if he wishes show the Diocesan coat of arms on the viewer’s left-hand side (in heraldry the dexter side) half of his coat of arms beside that of his own family. The exception to this seems to be Bishop Bullingham’s tomb, where the Diocesan coat of arms is on the right hand side in this photo (in heraldry the sinister side, i.e. the left of the shield bearer).
Bishop Gervase Babington kindly donated many of his books to the Cathedral Library, and on the text block of the book pictured below you can see his arms. These are very similar to the Cathedral design. The wording underneath in the photograph is the name of the author and title of the work.
So where does this idea of the ten torteaux come from in the Worcester Diocesan design? Dr. Vernon Butcher, in a piece of research kept in the Library, wrote that this was the family coat of arms of one of the branches of the Giffard family. Bishop Godfrey Giffard became Bishop of Worcester in 1268 and held the post until 1302. Bishop Giffard was the brother of Walter who was already Archbishop of York. Godfrey was also made the Lord Chancellor of England. This was one of the most important posts in the medieval English government. Perhaps partly because of his status in government, the King permitted Bishop Godfrey to fortify his residences of Hartlebury, and Worcester, together with another site in Gloucestershire. He is buried near the High Altar, and his monument has been incorporated into the design of Prince Arthur’s Chantry.
Worcester Cathedral Muniments Add Ms. 339 Vernon Butcher, Three Worcester Shields, 1981 and revised 1994.
Sydney Grazebrook, The Heraldry of Worcestershire, London 1873
Worcester Cathedral Muniments Add Ms. 235 H. S. Grazebrook, The Heraldry of Worcestershire comprising the Armorial Bearings of the nobility and gentry of the county of Worcester collected from various authentic sources (unfinished)
F. E. Hutchinson, A Record of the Monuments Monumental Inscriptions and Burials in the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin Worcester, Oxford 1944
William Thomas, A Survey of the Cathedral-Church of Worcester with an account of the Bishops thereof from the Foundation of the See to the year 1600, London, 1738
- M. Thomson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library, D. S. Brewer 2001.