There’s a certain image that’s always somewhere around in Morpeth, but much more so lately. It’s the town badge, and the reason, of course, is the brilliant achievement of Morpeth Town FC in winning the FA Vase.
The purpose of a badge is to say something about yourself. If, for instance, you see somebody wearing a shirt with vertical black and white stripes, you know they support Newcastle United. A heraldic shield or coat of arms is more specific. It not only says what you are, but who you are.
Heraldry arose when knights in the later Middle Ages began to wear helmets that covered the face so that there had to be some other means of identifying them. Edward the Confessor (1003-66) had no coat of arms, but was given one posthumously some 200 years later.
None of the helmets in the Bayeux Tapestry hid the face completely, but both sides are shown carrying shields with designs on. This no doubt helped to identify people in battle, but there is no evidence of them being incorporated in the arms of the later baronial families so they cannot properly be regarded as heraldic.
The town badge has three main elements — red and white horizontal stripes, a golden tower with three turrets, and stylised birds. It originated with the de Merleys, the first lords of Morpeth. Its earliest known appearance is not on their shields, however, but on their seals, and this is quite common in the history of heraldic designs, probably because the seals have survived when the shields haven’t.
The de Merleys may well have had a design on their shields, but, the Bayeux Tapestry apart, it isn’t until we begin to get tomb effigies of armed knights that we have any real idea of what their shields looked like. Before that, we simply don’t know.
The earliest seal, from about a hundred years after the Conquest, is that of Roger de Merley I, baron from c.1164 to 1188. The seal-cutter got several of the letters back to front, but the design is clear enough: four birds, all with short legs, sitting in a stylised tree.
The drawings come from Hodgson’s History of Morpeth, and he suggests that the birds are meant for merles (blackbirds) as a rebus or pictorial play on his name. (History of Morpeth).
The next one, belonging to Roger de Merley III, 1239-66, is from a hundred years later again. The birds now have no legs at all, but are ‘volant’, that is, in flight. The tree, which appears on the seals of both Roger I and Roger II, is now a shield. The idea was presumably gaining ground by then, that a baronial badge ought to take the form of a shield.
According to the official booklet on the Castle Morpeth civic regalia, c.1987, compiled by Mr Simon Hartley, who was then the Senior Administrative Assistant in the Chief Executive’s Department, Roger III’s first shield was three gold merles on a blue ground.
His paternal grandmother, however, was Alice de Stutteville. The Stuttevilles were a much grander family than the de Merleys so in 1265 he adopted their silver and red stripes. The heraldic description of this is “Barry Argent and Gules”. The blue shield was still there with its blackbirds, but now only as a margin to the Stutteville shield.
Modifying your shield to show who your ancestors were was normally done with quarterings. These were mostly the badges of male ancestors, but if your wife, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc, were heiresses in their own right to their fathers’ estates, you could include their arms as well.
As it turned out, Roger III was the last of his line. His estates were divided between his two daughters.
The elder, Mary, was married to William, Lord of Greystoke, who had already inherited the Greystoke estates from his brother in 1254. They were given the castle and manor of Morpeth, while her younger sister Isabell, and her husband Robert Sommerville, got Netherwitton, Shadfen and East Park.
None of the de Merleys’ successors in the barony, the Greystokes, Dacres and Howards, included either the de Merley or Stutteville arms in their shields.
Lord William Howard (1563-1640) was married to Lady Elizabeth Dacre, who brought him the wide estates in Shropshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland of the Greystokes, Dacres and de Merleys.
R.S. Ferguson, in The Heraldry of Naworth and Lanercost, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, 1880, describes a splendid coat of arms over the entrance to the great hall at Naworth, in which a Howard shield of 22 quarterings is impaled (put side by side) with another of eight quarterings.
But it had some omissions:
“I do not see why,” says Ferguson, “in the achievement over the hall door, Lord William found no place for the Multon quarterings of Engayne and Estreavers, the Greystoke ones of Bolbeck and de Merley, and the Mowbray ones of Braose.”
But since Lady Elizabeth's ancestors hadn’t seen fit to include the de Merley blackbirds in their coats of arms, it is not at all surprising that her husband didn’t either.
Notice that the heraldic carving above the main entrance to the Courthouse is not of the town badge, but of the seal.
The seal dates from the 14th century, some 200 years earlier than the badge, and shows a castle with two towers, rather than a single tower.