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The stories behind London's coat-of-arms

The City of London’s coat-of-arms is visible all over the Square Mile (as well as in parts of the rest of London that come under the Corporation of London’s jurisdiction, such as Hampstead Heath), but where does it come from, and what do all those bits and pieces on it mean?

We’ll start with the shield. A shield is central to all coats-of-arms, and it’s usually the part that also gets used as a flag. The City’s one consists of a Cross of St George with a red sword in the top-left quarter.

It dates back to 1381 and combines the symbols of the patron saints of England and London. At the time, St George had only been England’s patron saint for a few decades, so this design may have been a conscious effort to include imagery relating to him. The sword symbolises St Paul, the apostle and author of several books in the New Testament who according to tradition was executed in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero (as a Roman citizen, he was entitled to death by beheading, which was much quicker than crucifixion; the Romans did their beheadings with a sword rather than an axe). By 1381 he’d been the patron saint of London for several centuries, having appeared in person – sometimes holding a sword – on previous City banners or seals.

St Paul’s association with London dates back to St Augustine’s conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the early seventh century. While Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (he’d landed in Kent, where the local king happened to be receptive to the idea of converting to Christianity) one of his followers, Mellitus, was sent to London where he built a church dedicated to St Paul – the patron saint of missionaries – on Ludgate Hill; Augustine made him the first Bishop of London. The present-day St Paul’s Cathedral stands on this site which was traditionally said to have been the site of a Roman temple although this has been disputed – by Sir Christopher Wren, among others.

It has sometimes been said that the sword actually refers to the weapon used by Lord Mayor William Walworth to kill Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt; this bloody deed was carried out during negotiations between the peasants and the boy-king Richard II at Smithfield in June 1381. Although the cross-and-sword combination is from that year, records show that it actually predated the Peasants’ Revolt by a couple of months.

As far as the rest of the coat-of-arms are concerned, the crest (the bit above the helmet) is a dragon’s wing with a red cross, and the supporters of the shield are both dragons with red crosses on their wings (statues of them can be seen marking the City boundary in various places).

They probably refer to the legend of St George killing the dragon – although, since they’re white dragons, they could also refer to another heraldic beast, the wyvern, which is said to have adorned King Harold’s banner at the battle of Hastings. The motto, Domine Dirige Nos, is Latin and translates as “Lord, direct us”.

Oddly, the City’s coat-of-arms wasn’t officially approved until 1957 so there had previously been some confusion over the correct form. Various other devices occasionally appeared on it over the years, including a fur hat, a mace, a cap of liberty on a pole (possibly referring to the radical politician John Wilkes, who was Lord Mayor in the 1770s) and the initials SPQL (which stood for Senatus Populusque Londonii – literally, Senate and People of London – in imitation of the SPQR of Ancient Rome).

As far as the rest of London is concerned, each London Borough has its own coat-of-arms; some of these combine elements from the arms of the various local authorities that existed prior to 1965 when today’s boroughs were created along with Greater London. Prior to that, the County of London, which had been created in 1889 to provide to provide a municipal government for the ever-expanding metropolis, had a two-part shield which consisted of blue and white wavy lines (representing the Thames and London’s status as a port) positioned under a lion superimposed upon a Cross of St George (representing England).

Greater London as a whole doesn’t actually have its own coat-of-arms, the nearest thing being the old Greater London Council (GLC) shield. This consists of elements from the arms of the counties of Middlesex and London; a Saxon crown on a red background from the former, above the blue and white wavy lines from the latter. Curiously, this shield has not been taken up by the GLC’s successor, the Greater London Authority (GLA) – were it to do so, this would solve the occasional question of why Greater London doesn’t have its own flag at a stroke.

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