Heraldry is the hereditary use of charges or devices centred on a shield.
It has origins in the Norman period, perhaps with precursors in the lance flags of the Normans and the earlier Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. There is evidence of heraldic devices in the Bayeux Tapestry, however, some think that these devices may not have been hereditary (ie not heraldic).
The first recorded use of heraldry proper was by king Henry 1 in 1127 who gave his son-in-law Geoffrey a blue shield emblazoned with golden lions. This is present on Geoffrey’s tomb at Le Mans cathedral and was carried on by the family (1). The idea either spread rapidly from there, or emerged from precursors throughout Europe to become of prime importance to the ruling classes during the middle ages.
The system developed to include a decorated Helmet (the crest) and Supporters either side of the shield. The usual explanation of these is the Tournament of the high middle ages, where a knight’s shield and crested helmet were held for him by squires or supporters. The original heralds were those employed to identify the shield devices.
Lowndes Coat of Arms through time.
The first granting:
Arms: Argent fretty azure, on a canton Gules a lion’s head erased Or
Translation: Silver background with azure (blue) interlaced fretwork overlaid upon it. On a red square in a top corner, a lions head jaggedly cut off, rendered in gold.
The original Arms were granted in 1180 according to the Overton commentary. If this is true (I have no empirical evidence) then Lowndes must have been among the earliest recipients of a coat of arms. The simplicity of the arms denotes their early nature. Many arms c.12-1400 were derived from the pattern of metal bars and scales used to strengthen the knight’s shield.
There was no crest in this original grant. It could have been due to the very early granting, when crests were not in use, after which either the family declined in power such that no Lowndes knights were at tournament during the high middle ages, or a crest (probably the lion’s head) was used but not officailly recorded.
Nearly 450 years later, in 1612, a Crest was added during a Heraldic visitation to Overton: “We grant John Lowndes of Overton for his crest, a Lion’s Head erased Or, gorged with a Chaplet Vert”
Translation: a lion’s head cut raggedly at the neck, in gold, around the neck a circlet of green leaves.
This is confused by the Vale Royal of England, 1656 by Daniel King. Martin Goldstraw has illustrated the Arms (below). However, King asserted that the frets were Or (gold). Martin also digitised the original document – a fascinating glimpse into history.
The second granting another 100 years later (c1710):
Note: is this rare? A second granting to a family with a very well established pedigree? Also the Overton commentary does not mention this second granting. However, the second granting fully explains the changes to the arms above.
“Arms: Argent fretty azure the interlacings each charged with a begant, On a canton gules a leopards* head erased at the neck” (2)
Translation: Silver (or white) background with blue interlaced fretwork overlaid upon it, the interlacings marked with a golden disk (derived from the coinage of Byzantium). On a red square in a top corner, a lions head jaggedly cut off at the base of the neck.”
- * (note added by Mike 2000. In the rules of heraldry, the lion was supposed to be ‘ramping’ on its hind legs. Circa 1200, the term ‘leopard’ was used to describe the lion when pictured on 4 feet (a used by the kings of England), with the head turned full face. The use was continued until the early 1400s, when the mistake was pointed out. Thus the Lowndes arms (granted in 1180) may have originally included this error. This is odd, as the beast does not face forward. I’m unsure as to why the earlier description uses ‘Lion’ – could have been a correction by William Lowndes (Overton commentary) or his source?)
“The coat of arms illustrated (Arms 3) was granted to a William Lowndes originally of Chester but then domiciled in Oxford. He was appointed, during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) as Secretary to the Treasury – reflected by the Begants on the sheild representing a golden coin of Byzantium (Constantinople). He was later known as “Ways and Means” Lowndes. He is also attributed the well known saying: “Take care of the pence, for the pounds will take care of themselves”.
From Sue Gordon: There is a funeral shield in St Mary’s Church Chesham which bears the Lowndes coat of arms (very similar to the one on Thomas Lowndes bookplate) and the motto ‘Ways and Means’. William Lowndes had four wives and 23 children.
The embellished arms were not used by all Lowndeses: John Price (WWW) has found a bookplate, added to several books but digitised from The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, 1777:
John says: “The bookplate of Thomas Lowndes is probably contemporary with the binding, which is almost certainly Scottish and from the period of the printing. The bookplate is offsetting from the front paste-down end-paper onto the recto of the front free end-paper, so it seems unlikely that it is the bookplate of Thomas Lowndes (1692 – 1748), the founder of the professorship of astronomy at Cambridge, or the bibliographer (1798 – 1843)”
Quite confusingly, a third William Lowndes, in the USA (South Carolina branch), 100 years later was he chairman of the “Ways and Means” committee adopted this as the family motto. (2)
- Note: The motto on Arms 3 is NOT Ways and Means. This is an earlier motto (‘power virtue is’?).
The Arms of the Chesham branch of Lowndes in the c.19th is visible in St Mary’s church, Chesham.
VARIATIONS (‘impalements’ of 2 or more arms.)
The heraldic history is interesting because it shows that the addition of the crest, begants and motto(s) were all post-medieaval. The decoration added at this point was not part of the heraldic definition. This has repercussions for members of the Lowndes family. Whereas Arms 1 is a representation of the Coat of Arms granted in the 12th century, and therefore likely to be applicable to most branches of the family, Arms 3 is specific to the descendants of William Lowndes (18th century). Therefore, if you currently use Arms 3, you’d better check your genealogy to make sure that your claim is valid!
For the pedants amongst you I’ve deliberately avoided Lownd, Lownds, Lounds, Lownes.
1. Heraldry, design, meanings and symbols, Gwynne-Jones. 1998
2. From The Standard, Chester, Cheshire. 24th September 1992