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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Arms of the College of William & Mary

The Arms of the College of William & Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia 

One can hardly discuss academic heraldry in the Commonwealth of Virginia without mentioning the arms of the state's oldest institution of higher learning, the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.  Granted by the College of Arms in London on May 14, 1694, the arms are blazoned:  "Vert, a colledge or edifice mason'd argent; in chief a sun rising or the hemisphere proper, as in the margent hereof is more plainly depicted."  (Donald M. Sweig, "Vert a Colledge...:A Study of the Coat-of-Arms and Seals of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 84, No. 2, April 1976, page 143).  Jack E. Morpurgo gives the blazon as, "Vert, a colledge or edifice mason'd argent in chief a sun rising or" (Their Majesties' Royall Colledge,Washington, DC: Hennage Creative Printers, 1976, 36). 

I am somewhat conflicted about these arms.  I'm reminded of L.G. Pine's statement regarding good heraldry and the legitimacy of arms--just because they're legally granted does not mean that they're good arms.  With the opening of a new colony, new resources, new everything, I suppose the heralds were not inclined to change convention with regards to new charges. Is it a coincidence that the "colledge" looks a bit like Oxford?  The brilliance of the sun seems overshadowed by a depressed star.  In some way, I suppose the heralds saw the new world with the cracked lens of the old; heraldry was not going to take off in a new direction and create any new trends.  Not then, at least.

It is worth noting that the college changed their seal, dropping these arms, in favor of a republican-looking temple which has been recorded on an honorary degree granted March 6, 1790 (Sweig, 146).  Moreover, the seal of Virginia also changed in 1776.  Sweig recounts this poignant quotation from Lyon G. Tyler (1894):

"The Revolution was, in Virginia, a revolution not only in government, but in church, education, and sentiment generally.  Monarchy in every guise became odious.  The Roman Republic presented at that time the highest exemplars of virtues and heroism known to history...Heraldry, the history of pedigrees, fell into utter disrespect" (Sweig, 146).

Eventually, however, the arms granted by the Herald's College would resurface as the official arms used for the seal of the college.

Another grant of arms from London came a few months prior to the college's, those of Francis Nicholson (1655-1728) who would later serve as Governor of the Province of Virginia among other offices.  Nicholson was also a founder of the college.  His arms are blazoned: "Azure, on a cross argent between four suns or, a cathedral church gules" (Morpurgo, 36).  Below is a sketch of Nicholson's arms as found in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register1885, Vol XXXIX, page 73.

The Arms of Francis Nicholson (1655-1728)
Granted March 9, 1694

This should help give a sense of heraldry at the close of the Seventeenth Century.  All in all, I love history, especially Virginia history.  I am proud that this old Virginia institution is and has been such a force in the Commonwealth.  Whether or not I like their arms, of course, is irrelevant.