Armoria academica
Academic arms in South Africa

When is a school badge a coat of arms?

by Mike Oettle

Plumstead High / arms of office / Brandenburg
arms of Heriot's School

YOU see school badges everywhere – children going to school in blazers have them on their pockets, youngsters on the sportsfield have them on their shirt fronts, togbags have them silkscreened on the side.

Hang on, you say, now you’re calling our school badge a coat of arms? What’s that?
pupils of Heriot's School

Well, most South African schools have badges. They come in all sorts of shapes, but two kinds predominate: a shield shape (or something like a shield) with various devices on it, and maybe a motto, or often just a group of initial letters standing on their own, or perhaps inside a wreath of some kind.
arms of Eton College

The initial letter kind is always only a badge. It doesn’t pretend to be a coat of arms (unless somebody’s drawn a shield outline around the letters), and it has no connection with the heraldic tradition. Shown here at right is the initialese badge of the Diocesan School for Girls, Grahamstown.
initial-letter badge of the Diocesan School for Girls, Grahamstown

But when the badge is in a shield shape, or has a shield in it, there’s some idea of a coat of arms in the picture, even if it isn’t always a clear one.
an Etonian cricketer greets his opponent

Okay, so what’s a coat of arms? The mediæval English called it that because the knight wore it not only on his shield but also on his surcoat – to read more about this, click here.

However, only the owner of the coat of arms could wear it without alteration on his surcoat. His eldest son wore it with a label (a horizontal stripe at the top of the shield with three hanging points), and his younger sons had to add brisures or difference marks. (To see how this system works, click here.)

The knight was an officer, and took men-at-arms from his estate to war with him, who wore clothing which identified them as his troops. They could not wear their lord’s arms, so their clothing was often a surcoat in the lord’s livery (often, but not necessarily, the main colours of his shield). Often an emblem was added. This emblem, regardless of its appearance, was called a badge (in Dutch, een leus). Often an important lord would have two or even several badges.

But if the knight did not have a special badge, he might simply place a small shield of his arms on the chests of his men-at-arms. This also was called a badge (or leus).

Not all heraldic arms include a crest. But most personal arms do include a crest, and the crest can also be used on its own as a badge. It is perhaps the most widely used form of badge after the shield of arms, since it need not be granted separately from the coat of arms.
crest of Drummond bonnet badge (crest) of Duncan, Earl of Camperdown bonnet badge (crest) of Drummond

The crest is popular as a badge, especially among the Scots, who have for centuries used the crest of their clan chief (or perhaps their own crest) as a bonnet badge.

One South African school – Queen’s College – uses the crest of the town where it is located (Queenstown) as its school arms. The town crest of a demi-kudu issuant from a crown (actually a ducal coronet) appears on a black shield with a border argent (silver or white).
crest of the Duke of Wellington, used by Wynberg Girls’ High crest of Woodridge College and Prep School

And at least three South African schools – Woodridge College, outside Port Elizabeth; Wynberg Girls’ High School and Plumstead High School, in Cape Town; and – do not have a coat of arms, but use a crest as a school badge. Pietermaritzburg College currently falls into this category, too, but is in the process of registering a coat of arms incorporating the crest. And although Michaelhouse, at Balgowan, Natal, has arms, it previously did not have arms but used a crest as a badge. Currently it uses a badge in the form of a shield of arms which is not in fact its coat of arms.

The crest used by Wynberg Girls’ High is that of the Duke of Wellington, while Plumstead High uses the crest of the City of Cape Town, despite the fact that Plumstead formed part of the Wynberg Municipality until 1927.
arms of Queen’s College crest of Michaelhouse

It became tradition at English and Scottish schools – where the school had a coat of arms – that the small shield of arms was used as a badge. This tradition was also passed on to schools in English-speaking countries around the world, as well as in a few other countries. Even in the United States, where school uniforms (to my mind, totally wrongly) are regarded as a sign of oppression, there are schools in the English model (often called “prep schools”) that often retain the tradition of a heraldic badge.
crest of Pietermaritzburg College crest-badge of Plumstead High

Then there is the surcoat . . . for centuries virtually nobody has worn it, but the idea of a coat of arms as clothing could well be revived. Any school principal is entitled to wear the school coat of arms – not just as a blazer badge, as more and more heads seem to be doing nowadays, but also as a garment in its own right.

The arms could be knitted as a jersey, or even made up in cloth like a mediæval surcoat. A woman could wear it as a skirt.

Where two or more schools – usually a high school and a primary school – bear the same arms, the two principals (or all of them) would each be entitled to wear those arms.

Deputies could perhaps wear the arms as a large shield fore and aft on a jersey, and other teachers could wear a smaller shield.
arms of Oriel College arms of Edward Hawkins

A principal can also combine his or her personal coat of arms with that of the school. It is a long established tradition that the holder of an office which has its own coat of arms may combine it with his personal arms.
arms of Edward Hawkins as provost of Oriel College

In Britain the usual method is that of impalement – the shield is divided vertically, the dexter side with the arms of the office, the sinister side the arms of the office-bearer.
Edward Hawkins, provost of Oriel College

This is comparable with the practice of combining the arms of a man and his wife: the arms of a marriage will usually display the man’s arms on the dexter side, the wife’s on the sinister. For a discussion of marital arms, see here.

The politically incorrect drawing (left) by Don Pottinger shows an old-fashioned headmaster with his cane. Nowadays, corporal punishment is outlawed, which has led to all sorts of disciplinary problems, but in the early 1950s, when this drawing was first published, this cartoon-like illustration was seen as hilarious. Nobody saw it as a serious indication of abuse. (Note the shield of the college arms, worn as a badge on the boy’s chest.)

On the European Continent other methods are used to combine arms.
arms of Afonso de Portugal, Grand Master of the Order of St John (1203-1206) arms of Jean de Villiers, Grand Master of the Order of St John (1284/5-1293/4) Margravate of Brandenburg Arch-Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Empire

Often quartering is the method employed: the Grand Master of the Order of St John (also known as the Order of Malta) bears the silver cross on red of the Grand Master in the first and third quarters, and his own family arms in the second and third quarters. At left are the arms of Grand Masters Afonso de Portugal (a member of the Portuguese royal house, hence the Portuguese royal arms in his second and third quarters) and Jean de Villiers (his family arms: three blue chevronels on gold).
Margrave of Brandenburg, Arch-Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Empire

Sometimes the arms of a particular office will appear as an inescutcheon on the arms of the family or of the lordship(s) it holds. Above right is the blue shield with the gold staff of office of the Arch-Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Empire, and the silver shield with a red eagle (with golden Kleestengel, or decoration on the eagle’s wings) of the Margravate of Brandenburg. At right the arms of the Arch-Chamberlain appear as an inescutcheon on the Margrave’s shield. (These arms appear as an inescutcheon in the arms of Prussia as seen on this page.)

And in some instances the symbol of an office will take the form of a cross which is inserted between the various quarterings the holder of that office is entitled to. It is unlikely that this pattern would be used by any South African educational institution, but for an example of this usage (with an additional inescutcheon) by the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order, click here.

In English-medium South African schools, any principal who has a coat of arms he or she is entitled to, may certainly combine that family coat with the arms of the school. In dual and parallel-medium schools and Afrikaans-medium schools it might be felt that other methods are preferable to those usual in Britain, but it would perhaps be advisable for the school governing body to lay down a policy in this regard.

Where the medium of instruction is neither English nor Afrikaans, but perhaps one of the other nine official languages, there are no hard and fast rules, but the British pattern is perhaps the most appropriate.

More important, though, than rules regarding the personal display of the school coat of arms, is the question of its legal status.

Many schools have arms, or badges that in some way resemble coats of arms, which are unregistered. It cannot be emphasised too much that unregistered devices have no legal protection whatever.

See this article for a discussion of the legal status of coats of arms.

The unregistered status of a school badge can, however, be remedied through an application to the National Herald.


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  • Acknowledgement: Arms of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John from postage stamps issued by the Order (Sovrane Militare Ordine di Malta); colours adjusted using MS Picture It! Crest badge of Duncan from The Clans and Tartans of Scotland by Robert Bain (Collins). Arms of Eton College from Heraldry of the World by Carl Alexander von Volborth (Blandford). Crest badges of Pietermaritzburg College and Michaelhouse from cigarette cards issued in the 1930s by the United Tobacco Companies (South). Crest of the Duke of Wellington from a photograph of the banner finial in the chapel of the Order of the Garter at Windsor (the crest, currently that of the 7th Duke of Wellington, is identical with that of the 1st Duke, whose visit to Wynberg is recalled in its use). Badge of Plumstead High from a souvenir ash-tray. All other illustrations from Simple Heraldry by Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger (Thomas Nelson and Sons).

  • Scan of Duncan crest badge by courtesy of the Evening Post. Most other scans by Howard Lancaster.

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    Comments, queries: Mike Oettle