Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Heraldry

This is the third in a series of four ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

As noted in my first blogpost of this series, ‘Rowling and Scotland,’ Rowling has put up a badge of the Murray clan – a traditional heraldic figure of a mermaid, carrying a mirror and a brooch, encircled with a cartouche inscribed with the Murray motto: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’) – and many thanks and a hat tip to Oxford graduate student Pratibha Rai who was the first to identify it for HogwartsProfessor.

This badge is a more subtle – and private – version of the photos of her husband which Rowling put up on her original personalised homepage. But it also points to her status as ‘Mrs Murray’ in a far more interesting guise. For heraldry – a pictorial guide to history – is something that has long interested Rowling and it has left a number of tantalizing traces in the Wizarding World: from the Hogwarts’s coat of arms inscribed on the title-page of each Harry Potter novel, to the family trees of the Blacks in Phoenix and the Lestranges in Crimes of Grindelwald to the tiny, but crucial, detail of Marvolo Gaunt’s erroneous belief that the Deathly Hallows symbol is his ancestral coat of arms.

Cursed Child even displays a heraldic memory of Deathly Hallows when Voldemort’s threat at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts that ‘the emblem, shield and colours of my noble ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, will suffice for everyone’ becomes reality. In the Cursed Child the total power of the Death Eaters is expressed heraldically at the close of Part One as ‘giant banners with snake symbols upon the descend over the stage.’

Heraldry tells stories – such as the charming histories of St Mungo (a Scottish saint familiar to all Harry Potter readers) which are depicted on Glasgow’s coat of arms. This coat of arms carries the charges of a bird, a tree, a bell and a fish with a ring its mouth (which are likewise the supporters of the shield). The fish with a ring in its mouth points to Mungo’s most appealing miracle which, in true fairy tale style, allows a penitent queen a second chance:

A Queen had a secret lover, a soldier, whom she had presented with a ring which given to her by her husband Redderech. However, a servant informed the king of the affair. Although Redderech did not want to believe the tale, the sight of ring on the young soldier’s hand convinced him. He then laid a plot to denounce his wife publicly. He invited the soldier to go hunting with him and then, when the young man fell asleep, he slipped up the ring off his finger and threw it into the river Clyde. He then went back and demanded that his wife show him the ring. She, of course, could not get it back from her lover because it was now lost…. In prison, she sent a messenger to Mungo asking for forgiveness and aid. Mungo tells the messenger straightaway to go fishing in the Clyde and to bring back the first fish he catches. This is a salmon, which, on being cut open, is seen to contain the ring. This is then taken to the queen who presents it to the King. 

St Mungo’s actions here in healing a relationship that seemed past repair, makes him a satisfying choice for the patron saint of healing in the Wizarding World.

The Murray brooch on Rowling’s homepage underlines her interests in both Scottishness and heraldry – and, indeed, Scottish heraldry itself makes a subtle appearance in the Wizarding World. Rowling has noted that in her fictional honours system, the Order of Merlin, first class, has a green ribbon. She has therefore given the highest honour in the Wizarding world the colour of the Order of the Thistle – the Scottish equivalent to the Order of the Garter – sometimes known as the ‘Green Garter’ or the ‘Green ribbon’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter].

Today and tomorrow, I shall be looking at some of the ways in which Rowling makes use of heraldry’s ability to tell stories through symbols. Rowling wrote on the Black Family tree she drew in 2006 that ‘there are stories between the lines.’ Some of these stories can be read from the Black coat of arms and motto that she revealed for the first time in this drawing.

Symbolism in Heraldry

When heraldry began it was primarily a martial phenomenon – enabling people to identify each other when dressed in full battle armour. By the late sixteenth century, the martial function of heraldry had decreased in importance and the ornate and highly prestigious language of armorial bearings gained a wider, and more metaphorical, function. Popular sixteenth-century heraldic works – Shakespeare’s favourite seems to have been Gerard Legh’s Accedens of Armory (1562) – encouraged a new approach to heraldry by creating a complex system in which colours and charges were suffused with symbolic meaning.(1)

Legh gives a moral significance to every combination of colour and metal in a coat of arms. He writes, for example, that the joining of sable with gold on a shield means that the bearer will be ‘constant in eyerye thynge’ (which works rather well with the yellow and black colours of the conspicuously loyal House Hufflepuff). Professional heralds have never liked this kind of symbolic reading but a desire to read meaning into heraldic language is clear from an early period. Henry VI’s grant of arms to King’s College, Cambridge, for example described the arms thus:

in a black field three silver roses, having in mind that our newly founded college enduring for ages to come, whose perpetuity we wish to be signified by the stability of the black colour, may bring forth the brightest flowers redolent in every kind of sciences.

Heraldry carried a mystique in the early modern period which gave it additional power as a literary language: it combined descriptive clarity with an implication of hidden, arcane mysteries. While medieval armory had prioritised clarity, the heraldic textbooks of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period cultivated an air of mystery – to the extent that one twentieth-century heraldic writer complained that ‘heraldic language has not always been mystifying… It was owing to the decadence of heraldry during the Tudor period that the Elizabethan heralds, most of whom cared little and understood less about the subject, began to mask their ignorance with a needless elaboration of heraldic nomenclature’. (I love that ‘decadence’ – it is the preferred word when heraldic specialists start abusing each other).

While heraldic purists may deplore symbolic readings of heraldry, or the talk of arcane heraldic secrets – Legh, for example, hints at heraldry’s ‘misteries’ and, to heighten the effect, states that he has taken an oath not to reveal them – heraldry as a symbolic and secret language would have an obvious appeal for Rowling. John Ferne’s Blazon of Gentrie (1586) highlights this aspect of heraldic language and writes that heraldic symbols are ‘secret emblems’ – ‘the hieroglyphics of Nobility’ – which are comparable to the Egyptian practice of using ‘holy, and sacred sculptures, or ingravings, to signify the hidden or secret conceit of their mind.’

This tension between the visible and the mysterious invests heraldry with a peculiar power. As a visual language of power and display it has an immediate ‘readability’ – most British people would recognize the coat of arms of their football team, their monarch, their city or, indeed, their Hogwarts House – but they might not be able to ‘read’ it (why, for example, are the lion and unicorn fighting for the crown on the British monarch’s coat of arms?). Heraldic symbols are immediately recognizable but remain an enigmatic and specialized dialect that retains the prestige of mystery.

Hogwarts’s Coat of Arms

Harry saw a purple wax seal bearing a coat of arms; a lion, an eagle, a badger and snake surrounding a large letter ‘H’. (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 3).

The image of Hogwarts’s arms complete with motto are so very well known to every Potterhead, that it may come as a surprise that they do not – in literary critical terms at least – appear within the ‘text’ of Harry Potter itself. They are printed only on the title page of each book as a ‘paratext:’ something that appears in the book but not the text-proper (the title or the name of the author, for example, are also paratexts).

What we have within the ‘text’ is, at first, only the description above (and it nice to note that Harry’s first introduction to Hogwarts is through seeing its shield). It is satisfying, likewise, to note that the only full description of the coat of arms – adding the colour of each house’s field and charge to the initial description of their heraldic animal – should come in the ‘pivotal’ book of the series – Goblet of Fire:

Enormous silk banners hung from the walls, each of them representing a Hogwarts House: red with a gold lion for Gryffindor, blue with a bronze eagle for Ravenclaw, yellow with a black badger for Hufflepuff, and green with a silver serpent for Slytherin. Behind the teachers’ table, the largest banner of all bore the Hogwarts coat of arms: lion, eagle, badger, and snake united around a large letter H. (Chap 15)

Rowling has chosen heraldically evocative animals for her houses (2) one heraldic website, for example, notes that eagles (as befits Ravenclaw) are chosen in heraldry to mark ‘speed in comprehension, and discrimination in matters of ambiguity.’ Badgers do not work quite so well but nonetheless have some accurately Hufflepuff characteristics: ‘the badger is an animal noted for his fierceness and courage in fighting to defend his home. The image of the badger is a symbol of bravery, perseverance and protection. It is not a common symbol in heraldry; however, it is a typically English one.’

And it is telling that the bear, the symbol Rowling first chose for Hufflepuff, has a very similar description (which possibly explains one reason they were linked in her mind). The heraldic bear, like the badger, ‘is the emblem of ferocity in the protection of kindred… strength and bravery.’ I think Rowling was primarily using other, older, serpent imagery when she chose the snake as Slytherin’s symbol [see Sandra Miesel’s ‘Is There Hope for Slytherin House? or Can the Serpent Change Its Skin?’ in Harry Potter for Nerds as well as my ‘Literary Allusion in Fantastic Beasts’ post on the Maledictus and this review of the History of Magic exhibition at the British Library]. The heraldic serpent, however, does have meanings that resonate for Slytherin’s cunning and oppositional stance within Hogwarts – being an emblem of ‘wisdom and defiance.’ 

It is the Gryffindor lion, however, is the animal which is most obviously steeped in heraldic symbolism. The lion is the king of beasts and is perhaps the oldest charge associated with English royalty: the perfect emblem for the hero’s House. The first heraldic shield of English royalty is generally considered to be Richard I’s rampant gold lion – and he was the first king to bear the royal arms of England (‘gules, three lions passant guardant or’).

Gryffindor’s rampant gold lion on red recalls the arms of Britain’s monarch, and is even closer to the original arms of Richard I. And the heraldic term for gold – ‘or’ – lies behind the name of golden griffin embedded in the House name: Gryffin d’or.

Faerie Queene

Rowling’s interest in the symbolic aspect of heraldry puts her in a long line of writers who, despite the belief of professional heralds that this is not how heraldry works, who have loved the symbolic power of heraldic language. Pre-eminent among these writers is probably Edmund Spenser whose Faerie Queene (1590/1596) is, temptingly for a Potter Pundit, a seven book epic of fairy-tale style adventures structured around personal growth and set in a magical world (though, I’ll admit that ‘seven book’ is cheating a little). See Spencerian scholar Elizabeth Baird-Hardy’s ‘Narnia, Hogwarts, and Fantastic Beasts‘ for more on this.

Spenser’s is a world of dazzling poetry and moral complexity – and he uses the visual language of heraldry to give clues to his readers. The knight Braggadochio’s shield, for example, ‘bore the Sunne brode blazed in a golden field’ (5.3.14). This shield breaks a number of heraldic conventions – for a ‘sun’ without a tincture has a default colour of gold. So Braggadochio’s arms not only disobey a primary rule of heraldry that a metal must not be put on a metal, but by putting the same metal against itself it marks a particularly extreme flouting of this rule. Braggadochio’s arms – a gold sun on a gold field – declare him to be the sham knight that he is.

‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’

While I have Scottish blood on my mother’s side, I also have English, French and Flemish ancestry. However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste. 

Caring too much about blood lines, of course, is something that Harry Potter suggests we should guard against.

Mrs Black, for example, is obsessed with her pure-blood heritage and has filled Grimmauld Place with her arms and motto as well as keeping Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy in pride of place. In Grimmauld Place the arms and motto of the Black family adorn the china and are embossed on its silver goblets (as well as a large golden ring). But in an eloquent silence the reader is never actually told what the arms or motto are.

David Martin has written persuasively on HogwartsProfessor about how books function as a sign of moral worth in Harry Potter. Nature’s Nobility appears to be the only book owned by Mrs Black – and that is not a good sign. In fact, I think it is Rowling’s intentional connection with another terrible parent – Sir Walter Elliot in her beloved Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Sir Walter is someone who only ever voluntarily reads one book – The Baronetage – and Austen, keeping a narrative distance from Sir Walter’s snobbery, tells us that the Elliot entry in the Baronetage concludes ‘with the arms and motto’ (Chap 1) but does not elucidate what they are. These arms and motto turn up again a number of times later in the novel – when Mr Elliot declares that ‘if baronetcies were saleable, anybody should have his for fifty pounds, arms and motto, name and livery included’ (Chap 21) and when his coat of arms are hidden by the great-coat hanging over the panel of his carriage (Chap 12). Austen preserves a distance in her narrative voice from the ‘Elliot pride’ (Chap 10) by this conscious failure to blazon their arms. And Rowling’s choice within Harry Potter, to preserve her silence as to the Black arms and motto, matches that of Persuasion.

Rowling did, however, decide to add them to her 2006 hand-drawn family tree of ‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.’ 

Rowling writes that this family tree contains clues – ‘there are stories between the lines’ – and one of these lies in its engagement with ‘canting’ heraldry. This is a tradition, particularly beloved of sixteenth-century aristocrats, in which arms punned on the family name – I love Sir Francis Bacon’s heraldic badge of a pig, for example, and there is likewise some lovely canting spear-shaking on the crest of Shakespeare’s coat of arms. In the tradition of ‘canting’ heraldry the Black arms have a sable (black) field and its supporters are dogs (pointing to the family name Sirius).

More subtly, the arms bear the charge of two stars. The fact there are two stars on the escutcheon is a hint (to something not yet known in 2006) that Sirius may not be the only Black who has the potential to shine. Alongside Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), his brother Regulus Arcturus (named after less well-known, but nonetheless bright, stars) may yet shine free of his Black origins. It is a clever little hint to readers who do not yet know who R.A.B. is to look out for the other Black brother named after a star…..

The title Rowling gave her 2006 Black family tree (‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’) recalls the title of Chapter 10 in Half-Blood Prince (2005). ‘The House of Gaunt’ chapter is likewise about pure-blood pride. Marvolo Gaunt proudly displays Slytherin’s ‘S’ badge, engraved on a gold locket – but he also displays a more equivocal coat of arms:

For a moment, Harry thought Gaunt was making an obscene hand gesture, but then realized that he was showing Ogden the ugly, black-stoned ring he was wearing on his middle finger, waving it before Ogden’s eyes. “See this? See this? Know what it is? Know where it came from? Centuries it’s been in our family, that’s how far back we go, and pure-blood all the way! Know how much I’ve been offered for this, with the Peverell coat of arms engraved on the stone?” (Half-Blood Prince, Chap 10)

Gaunt inaccurately believes the Deathly Hallows symbol to be his family crest – but this is one of the most tantalizing heraldic traces in the Wizarding World. Marvolo is wrong, of course, and the Deathly Hallows symbol is not a heraldic symbol – anyone can wear it. But it does appear on the Peverell Tomb, just as family coat of arms do (tombs are, in fact, one of the richest hunting grounds for those interested in heraldry). And Gaunt is right in thinking that he is related to the Peverells: his ownership of the stone is a sign that Voldemort is a descendent of Cadmus Peverell, just as Harry’s ownership of the cloak is a sign that he is a descendent of Ignotus Peverell.

So, while Marvolo is wrong to believe that the Deathly Hallows symbol is the ‘Peverell coat of arms’ it does turn out, after all, to function very much like a coat of arms – tracing and displaying familial relationships.

Read the Next Post, ‘Rowling Family Mottos’ Here!

  1. All the early modern heraldic references here can be found in my: ‘Heraldic Language and Identity in Shakespeare’s Plays,’ in Nigel Ramsay, ed. Heralds and Heraldry in Shakespeare’s England (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2014), pp.236-65.
  2. See Sandra Miesel’s ‘Is There Hope for Slytherin House? or Can the Serpent Change Its Skin?’ in Harry Potter for Nerds for the reference text on both this subject and heraldry and Spencerian scholar Elizabeth Baird-Hardy’s ‘Narnia, Hogwarts, and Fantastic Beasts‘ for much more on the animal symbolism.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    This is grand – thanks! With your previous post in mind, I suddenly wonder if there is an enriching resonance of Badger in The Wind in the Willows in the background of Hufflepuff’s symbolic beast?

    Johan Huizinga has some striking remarks about heraldry in the work first translated as The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924) and more recently as The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1996), and even more in another fascinating, substantial essay which I am not sure has been translated into English – about Burgundy (as a sort of proto-Netherlands). I am suddenly very curious about Mrs. Murray’s Flemish and French ancestors…

    Happily, we will not have to wait long to see whether your next post touches on the Wizarding social-history implications of sharing the development of heraldry with Muggles… if not, perhaps you could be persuaded to take them up in the future?

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