Jersey houses and heraldry

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This article by Joan Stevens, one of the acknowledged 20th century experts on Jersey houses, was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966

Our ancestors in Jersey were very fond of setting up carved heraldic emblems on their houses, and you may have seen wondered at their meaning and importance.

Heraldry is a most exact science, with its own phraseology, and anyone who understands it should be able to draw a coat of arms from a description given, with its special terms, all of which have precise heraldic meanings.

In origin heraldry was a pictorial method of identifying yourself to your followers and your companions in battle. The design to which you had acquired a right would be bold and colourful, and appear on shield, banner and coat, hence the term coat of arms.

Hereditary coats of arms

The crest was, a badge, also indicating your name or family, worn on your helmet. These emblems, many very ancient, and a few of them nearly a thousand years old, were gradually adopted into families, and passed from father to son, and so became hereditary. With the passing years heraldry lost its object as a mark of identification in battle and became a family badge, much coveted, with inevitable abuses by those aspiring to distinction, and in some cases by corrupt officials who granted them.

The designs were bold and clear, and were often animals or birds, these being readily recognised by people who had not learnt to read. The colours likewise were brave, being or (gold or yellow), argent (silver or white) gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), and vert (green). On a blazon or shield, a metal, or argent, was always juxtaposed to a true colour.

The most common use for heraldry in the Channel Islands, where families were using their distinctive badges long before the College of Heralds was instituted in Henry VIII's reign (designed to control and legalise the use of arms throughout the Kingdom), were either official seals on documents, or carvings in granite on home or tomb.

In neither case could colour play a part, and this on occasion makes it more difficult to identify arms, as one can have no idea of the colours intended.

What are termed cadency marks, or marks of difference, are to show degrees of seniority. There were signs to show if a man was the eldest son during his father's lifetime (an iverted crenellation) a second son (a crescent), or a third son (a star) and so on, embracing a possible nine sons. Junior branches of a family also sometimes used cadency marks.

The language used to describe arms is, in most cases, French words pronounced a l’anglaise arising from the Norman period with a French speaking aristocracy in England.

By far the commonest arms found in Jersey are the four fusils (diamond shapes) of the de Carterets, and this is natural in view of the pre-eminence of this family, and the high insular positions members half held through the centuries.

We also often find the eagles of the Lemprieres, the cockle shells of the Dumaresqs and the three trefoils of the Payns, and many others.

Some are quite amusing and are termed ‘punning arms’, such as the three bells for La Cloche, a bow and arrow for Larbalestier (the archer) and a bush, or buisson for Bisson.

Dejected tadpoles

The Messervy family has a shield with three cherries, which without their colour in stonework, look like three dejected tadpoles, which is rather unfair to this very ancient island family.

The de Bagots had three rather unhappy fish swimming away to the left. The Cabots had three chabots hauriant, the fish, known as a miller’s thumb, reaching upwards with heads outstretched. These Cabot arms may be seen on a stone dated 1619 at La Chasse, Maufant.

The Hamptonne arms of three stars appear on a stone dated 1637 at Hamptonne Farm, St Lawrence, and also on porch pillars on the old house inside the courtyard there.

The Poingdestre arms appear on a plaque by the splendid entrance gates to La Maison de Mont au Pretre, for many generations a Poingdestre house.

At La Malatiere, Grouville, there is a stone dated 1636 with the Payn arms. For some reason unknown these arms were much coveted at this period, and were sometimes used by men whose claim to them was somewhat remote, and heraldically incorrect, and often only through the female line.

Jersey was not alone in the practice of this sort of inaccuracy. An example is a Dumaresq-de Carteret stone at Les Augres (the Zoo) dated 1741, and showing Payn arms, recalling the grandmother of the Elie Dumaresq on the stone.

The Journeaux family had a prawn nagant (swimming) and this is shown on a stone at The Elms, St. Mary, dated 1734, but also on a tombstone of 1651 in St John's churchyard, that of Jean Le Feubvre, whose mother was Collette Journeaux.

The arms of Dean Mabon were later adopted by other Deans and gradually became accepted and recognised as the Decanal arms; an interesting example of this occurs on a stone, now in the south wall of St Martin's Rectory, where a 17th century Dean, Philippe Le Couteur, has had them carved with his initials.

They appear again at Mont a l'Abbe Manor on a most interesting carved wood plaque dated 1678, with Dean Clement Le Couteur represented by these adopted arms, a shield with diagonal stripes, instead of the real Le Couteur arms of three owls.

Roadside arch

Dumaresq arms are shown on the well-known roadside arch at Vinchelez de Bas, and this stone (the lower portion, for the upper part is much later, and is dated) may be as old as 1500, when that family became Seigneurs of the fief and manor house. In this case the shield showing the Dumaresq shells is held aloft by what are termed ‘supporters’, two zoologically indeterminate animals, both looking westwards.

A somewhat similar stone, with de Carteret arms, is now built into an outhouse at La Caroline, St Ouen. Look for it in the winter as otherwise the sycamore in front will hide it from view. In this case the supporters are much weathered, and it cannot be said what kind of animals are depicted. It is likely that this stone also dates from about 1500, and shows the arms of Pierre de Carteret, a son of St Ouen’s Manor.

At the two castles the carved arms of royalty, and of various Governors, will be found, and a stone with the arms of one Governor, Lord Jermyn, is now at the back of 17 Le Geyt Street, but used to adorn the Royal Court.

Many island families have these ancient distinguishing badges, even if they never had them carved in stone on their houses. Although their original purpose passed so long ago, they are an honourable link with our past.  

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