Town leads the way in getting a coat of arms

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The Morpeth town badge is based on the heraldic shield of Roger de Merley III, 1239-66.

His shield was originally three gold merles (blackbirds) on a blue ground. His paternal grandmother, however, Alice de Stutteville, came from a much grander family than the de Merleys so in 1265 he adopted their shield of silver and red stripes, with the blue shield and blackbirds as a margin round the edge.

As it turned out, Roger III was the last male of the de Merley line and none of his successors incorporated the de Merley arms into their own.

In 1552, during the long reign of William Lord Dacre as lord of the barony of Morpeth, the town of Morpeth got its own coat of arms.

This Lord Dacre was baron from 1525 until his death in 1564. He was a fierce border lord and a faithful servant of every monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, regardless of their religious policies.

Morpeth Castle was an important border stronghold, and Morpeth itself a thriving market and manufacturing town. His policy, and probably his father's before him, was to build up the status of what was by far most important town in all their wide estates.

The idea of the burgesses, worthy tanners and weavers going to the trouble of getting a coat of arms, which would have cost them dear and made them no richer, seems very unlikely.

Morpeth got parliamentary representation from Queen Mary I in 1553. But the award of a civic coat of arms the year before, in the reign of her brother Edward VI, looks very much like a step on the way.

Ours was only the second English borough to have a coat of arms, Gloucester alone being earlier.

The idea of the burgesses, worthy tanners and weavers going to the trouble of getting a coat of arms, which would have cost them dear and made them no richer, seems very unlikely. Much more likely is that the initiative came from the ambitious Lord Dacre, and that he bore the expense.

Norroy King of Arms, who designed and authorised the new badge, based it on Roger III’s shield. He kept the Stutteville stripes, but changed the merles (if that’s what they were) into martlets, and added a golden tower with three turrets to represent the castle.

Hodgson (History of Morpeth) quotes Norroy's words, that: “having knowledge of credyble p’sons of theyr fyrst foundac’on, could not w’out grett injury of their first founder, the noble and valyant knyght sir Roger de Merlay, assigne unto them any other armes than a p’cel of his armes.”

He therefore: “granted, ratified, and confirmed unto the bayliffe and burgesses of the town of Morpeth and to their successours for ev’more — the olde and auncient armes of the sayde sir Roger Marlaye thereon a castell gold for the augmentation.”

This badge raises a number of issues.

First, the badge was just that, without crest or supporters. Nor does Hodgson mention any motto. I cannot find when “Inter sylvas et flumina habitans”, “dwelling amongst woods and rivers”, was introduced. That will have to wait until I can examine some of the old charters more closely.

Secondly, there was no assumption that the bailiffs and burgesses would ride to battle. Quite otherwise. The arms were awarded “for a further Declarac’on of theyre worshipfull bahavyour and goode decertes so well begone and longe contynewed”.

The knight in armour had, in any case, been driven from the field of battle. It was 150 years since Warkworth Castle had been reduced by cannon. By Edward VI’s time portable guns had made complete body armour redundant and knightly contests were confined to jousts — a stylised form of single combat — and ‘triumphs’, both of which were breathtakingly expensive.

But the point to take here is that the heraldic shield was no longer a piece of battle equipment, but a branch of the visual arts applied to the cause of self-advertisement.

Thirdly, Hodgson says elsewhere that the badge appears in the charter by which Edward VI established his grammar school in Morpeth. If so, it jumped the gun. The charter is dated March 12, 1552, but the badge was not authorised until May 20.

After that little use was made of it until the late 19th century. It does not, for instance, appear on the mace of 1604. It’s as if the burgesses set no store by it, which was perhaps the case. What they used was the seal, which had a castle on, but no birds or stripes.

Morpeth Borough Council was formed in 1836, but it possessed no public buildings, and the councillors at that time were reformers, with little taste for ceremonial.

The Town Hall, though rebuilt in 1870, did not belong to the town, but to the Barony of Morpeth. And while there are plaques on Telford Bridge (1831), Chantry Bridge (1869) and the Elliott Bridge (1925), the badge doesn't appear on any of them.

The grand exception is Morpeth Grammar School when it was rebuilt at Cottingwood in 1858. The foundation stone, still preserved at King Edward VI School, is surmounted by the badge, albeit not quite in form since it has no stripes and there are too few martlets.

Later, the Mayor’s chain of office (1890) carried the badge, and you can see it on the plaque above the former rates office in Bridge Street, now Virgin Money, dated 1903.

It was the 20th century that marked the badge’s heyday. It appears on the park gates (1928), on the prospectus for Morpeth Grammar School (1920s), on the cover of the Official Guide and Souvenir (1935), and above the side door of the building now occupied by Holland and Barratt (1939).